‘I took two more steps, and I jumped in after him’
By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 6, 2016
June 14, 2014 Anchorage, Alaska
Staff Sgt. Joshua Schneiderman had done his good deed for the day on June 14, 2014.
On the way to the Copper River in south-central Alaska for a day of salmon fishing with his wife and friends, the 42-year-old soldier had stopped to winch out a truck stuck in a small river.
But several hours later he risked his life rescuing a fellow fisherman headed for almost certain death down a rushing river.
A big day, by most any reckoning — unless, of course, you’re a diehard fisherman.
“Well, we didn’t catch any fish, so it wasn’t that big of a day,” Schneiderman said wryly.
Whatever dangers lie in the vast and wild state of Alaska, Schneiderman waited many years for the chance to live there.
“I moved to Alaska on orders June 2011, and I’d been trying try to get up here for 16 years,” he said, “And I’m not going to leave.” He’s set to retire in early 2017.
“It’s mountainous, cold weather, snowy,” he said. “It’s the outdoors. It’s the great outdoors.”
He’s a self-described avid hunter, fisherman and outdoorsman, and he readily ticks off a list of Alaskan game he hunts for sport and food: moose, caribou, elk, salmon, halibut, rockfish, crab, shrimp.
Born and raised in Sacramento, Calif., Schneiderman joined the Navy the year he graduated from high school in 1991. He worked with jet fuel, but after spending much of the following three years at sea, he decided that Navy life wasn’t for him.
But he couldn’t get the military out of his blood and joined the Army in 1994.
He’s now stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage and lives about 20 minutes away with his wife and two stepchildren.
Each year toward the end of May, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fisherman flock to the 300-mile-long Copper River for the king and sockeye salmon returning from the Pacific Ocean to spawn upstream. Many consider Copper River salmon to be the best in the world, particularly the first fish to make it upstream.
“It’s just one of things — kind of a bucket-list thing,” Schneiderman said of dip netting for the salmon. “You’ve just got to go into the Copper River.”
Dip netting can be done from the riverbanks, from a boat or, as in Schneiderman’s case, by wading into the water and waiting for them to swim by.
On that June day two years ago, about 100 dip netters had arrived at a roughly 1,000-yard portion of the river with open, sandy banks that sloped gently into the water. Downstream from that section, the water became inaccessible from the banks.
Wearing waders — chest-high waterproof overalls held up by suspenders — dip netters enter upstream, then slowly walk with the flow while carrying nets on long handles. If they’re lucky enough to net a fish, they drag it to shore.
With such a large number of people there that day, Schneiderman said, each dip netter would wait on shore until the previous one had waded sufficiently far down the fast-moving river.
“You let that person go, then you follow a minute later,” he said, “like an assembly line.”
Dip netters occasionally slip and drown.
“You’re literally up to your chest with water,” Schneiderman said. “It’s moving very, very fast. If you slip and lose your footing, you’re going under.”
He said he always wears a life jacket while dip netting “because I’m not going to lose my life over some fish.”
Schneiderman had made three or four passes down the river when, while standing on the bank, he saw a man about 100 feet away in the water struggling to control a wild king salmon he’d gotten in his net.
“King salmon can be anywhere from 40 to 60 pounds and 3 or 4 feet long,” he said. “They’re just solid muscle.”
He could see that the thrashing salmon was slowly drawing the fisherman out into deeper water.
Schneiderman said he began yelling to the man that he should let go of his net. He saw that the man was near the point where water would start overflowing his waders, which will leave even the strongest swimmer powerless to fight the current.
The smartest thing to do in that case is to quickly unsnap the suspenders and let the current take the waders off your body, Schneiderman said. “But people panic,” he said.
When the man finally lost his footing and began bobbing down the river, Schneiderman raced to his nearby truck, grabbed a life vest and darted back to the bank, tossing the vest 20 feet to the man.
“I took two more steps, and I jumped in after him,” he said. “I literally ran out of beach.” The man was about to be carried into the “point of no return” of the river, where only a boat could reach him and survival wasn’t likely, he said.
Schneiderman was quickly up to his chest in river, water now seeping into his own waders and pulling him into the stronger current. He maneuvered toward the struggling man and anchored himself on a jutting rock with his left hand. With his right, he reached for the man’s fingertips.
He clasped his hand and pulled him to shore.
Schneiderman said it didn’t occur to him in those moments that they both could have drowned. Looking back now — after recounting the event to numerous reporters in the months since the rescue — he confessed that it was “kind of dumb.”
There is, of course, one man who will never share such a thought about Schneiderman’s act, for which on Jan. 8, 2016, he was awarded the Soldier’s Medal for heroism not involving conflict with an enemy.
Schneiderman, however, never even got his name. “Never met the man before in my life; haven’t seen him since, either,” he said. “I know nothing about the guy.”
As Schneiderman’s wife, a nurse, was checking the rescued man’s vital signs on the riverbank, the staff sergeant walked back to his truck.
“About 20 minutes afterward, he actually came back and hugged me, for like 10 minutes,” he said. “It was a little uncomfortable.”