Dangerous winds and deep, cold water turn Strawberry Reservoir into a kind of watery graveyard

Local News

WASATCH COUNTY (ABC4 News) – Strawberry Reservoir has seen more than its share of tragedy over the years and compounding the heartbreak for the victims’ friends and family is the mystery because in it’s deep, cold waters what goes down doesn’t come up.

Reporters and cameras along the shores usually mean another accident has claimed lives. Last July a passerby noticed a boat drifting with no one on board, setting off a desperate search.

Three days later, crews found the bodies of 70-year-old Jim Gardiner and his 61-year-old brother Mark submerged under frigid water.

Ranger Dano Jauregui of the Heber-Kamas District of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest explains.

“When water temperatures are that cold, the victims, unfortunately, have a tendency to…that water temperature keeps them down,” Ranger Jauregui said. “That’s what happens. The bodies don’t tend to rise.”

The reservoir is actually a flooded canyon at 7,612 feet of elevation. That altitude means sudden pop-up storms and strong winds funneling through the surrounding mountains.

“Waterspouts come down and get sucked up out of here,” says former game warden Paul Davis, who remembers seeing a clear day abruptly turn treacherous on the water. “Within a minute it was 60 mile an hour winds, hail, lightning.”

Those types of winds likely capsized the canoe of 24-year-old Benjamin Magalis and 26-year-old Chenoa Plank who drowned here on November 12, 2018.

Twelve years earlier the wind nearly killed Kimball Roundy who was fishing in the middle of the reservoir with his brother Steven, his sister-in-law Catheryn and friend Michael New when waves began filling their boat with water on November 8, 2006.

“It was literally just like you put a cup and go like that under the water and it just ‘Shoop’ and the boat disappeared right out from under us,” Kimball told ABC4 News. “It doesn’t feel cold. It feels like it’s burning hot so you hit this water, your breath goes out.” They grabbed onto floating life jackets and a gas can. Steven and Catheryn tried to swim into the waves toward the Strawberry Bay Marina. Kimball and Michael decided to go in the opposite direction.

“The last exchange I had with my brother was me saying ‘We need to go this way’ and him saying ‘You think?’,” Kimball recalled. “I was like ‘Yeah, we’re going this way. I’m going this way’ and he went the other way.”

Kimball says he and Michael prayed and swam for two agonizing miles before reaching the shore.

“I should have been dead in 41-degree water within thirty minutes,” he said. “41-degree water, two and a half hours. Nobody lives through that unless it’s divine intervention.”

Roundy says another miracle occurred a few days later while crews searching for Steven and Catheryn located a body using sonar equipment.

“Then word comes back it wasn’t them,” he said. “It was just this heartbreaking yet amazing closure for another family but this heartbreaking feeling ‘What do you mean it’s not them?’ And it happens again. And it happens again.” 

Crews hauled up four bodies: 46-year-old Drake McMillan of Salt Lake City who drowned August 31, 2001, plus Phillip Shepherd, Austin Lloyd and Daniel Maycock of Spanish Fork who disappeared during a fishing trip on September 23, 1995. 

Cameron Phillips, operator of Strawberry Bay Recreation, says after 11 years their bodies were intact.

“There’s not enough oxygen down there to allow a body to decompose and so they remain. There’s nothing living organisms-wise down there that would consume them,” Phillips said. “Once they realized that those bodies weren’t decomposing the way you kind of expected they would they kept looking and were able to locate pretty much everybody that had gone in Strawberry and not been found.”

On November 17, 2006, nine days after the accident, crews recovered Steven and Catheryn Roundy.

“Yes, it was tragic that my brother died and that his wife died,” Kimball said. “But at the same time, it was beautiful that they died together.”

Nearly four years later on Memorial Day of 2010, 26-year-old Christopher Tyler Barton, of West Valley City, fell overboard and drowned near Soldier Creek, where Phillips says his body remains nearly 300 feet below the surface.

“We know where it’s at but the search and rescue crews haven’t been able to recover because of his location. Very deep and he’s kind of pinned between a rock and fence post in a weird angle and so the robots that can go down there because of the elevation aren’t able to free him.  

Captain Kam Kohler of Wasatch County Search and Rescue Team says there’s no telling how many bodies are still in Strawberry but he personally knows of one other in addition to Christopher Tyler Barton and their final resting place will likely be there, somewhere on the reservoir’s rocky bottom.

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