Mistress of the Mix: Shipwrecked! (Sorta.)

And then there was that time we were shipwrecked in Alaska.

This is a story I almost never tell, probably because it involves a little stupidity and poor planning, so even my own family will be surprised when they read the true story of the time we got stuck on a little island with no possible way to get back home, and not a soul knew we were there. Maybe I’m over dramatizing it a bit with the title, because we weren’t on a ship, and we weren’t actually wrecked. But close enough.

It was back in the ’90s, and some good friends were visiting from down south. Mike, Delynda and their daughter Apryl, who was about 12 years old. We wanted to take them on a truly Alaskan adventure, and well, we certainly accomplished that.

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One of the cooler (pun not intended) things about living where we were in Alaska was the ability to rent remote Forest Service cabins, most of them accessible only by boat or float plane. Over the years some of our best mini-vacations were the ones spent at these bare bones cottages out in the wild, drinking good wine and eating expensive cheese, watching the fish jump and studying ancient graffiti carved into the wooden platforms that served as bunk beds. And never seeing another soul.

The Mallard Slough Cabin on Dry Straight. As photographed by someone who actually made it to the cabin.

Of the dozen or so cabins that were in the the area, only one was available for the dates we were interested in, so we reserved it and paid the $25 fee (today it’s $49). The Mallard Slough cabin on Dry Straight was an A-frame with a wood stove, an outhouse, and two single wooden bed platforms. There was no drinking water or firewood provided, but we were Alaskans, we knew what to do. We were reminded that we’d better check the tides to make sure we timed our approach and departure at the right time. That’s because the tides in this part of Alaska are extreme, and they are even more extreme in the area we were headed to.

High & Low Tide at Sandy Beach, Petersburg, Alaska.

When I say extreme, I really mean it. Not only is it common for the area to experience an extreme 20+ foot high tide, it also experiences extremely low tides. The lowest on record for the area is -4.6 feet. Due to the gradually sloping sandy beaches surrounding many of the islands in the area, and the unforgiving, brutally fast tide that rushes in and rushes out, people perish every year getting caught out on the mud flats for something as simple as getting a boot stuck in the muck.  The headline for the obituary of another Alaskan who died on the flats told one of the truest cautionary tales: Tides wait for no man.

We didn’t own our own motorized boat, only kayaks. So we rented a 15-foot aluminum skiff, packed it with food, sleeping bags, and five humans, and set out on our journey. We figured it’d take an hour-and-a-half to get there, and the tide was in our favor. For awhile.

Then we hit a rock about half an hour into our journey.

Although we thought we knew what we were doing, we didn’t, not really. We were experienced Alaskans who understood the possibilities of danger, but we weren’t truly experienced boaters. We knew the lay of the land, not the topography under the waves. We were in deep water, and suddenly we weren’t. Thunk. Fortunately, it was just the prop that got destroyed, but we couldn’t continue on. There was nothing to do but turn around and go back to town, using the little troll motor. The guy who rented us the boat was seriously pissed off, but was able to find us another one, and we took off again.

Now we weren’t so sure about our timing. We had a very specific window of opportunity to successfully get to where we were headed. There was a reason the area we were headed to was called Dry Strait. Because sometimes it goes dry. And that’s what we were worried about. Running out of time, and running out of water. And that’s exactly what happened. We got close. So close that we could see the A-frame in the distance, but we didn’t have enough water to get to the island because we’d missed our narrow opportunity to get in before the tide got out.

Also, we could also see that someone else was already there. The fact that someone else was at the cabin that we had reserved and paid for was pretty inconsequential at this point, although it was a little nerve wracking for us at the time, because we still thought maybe we had a chance of getting there. We could see from their jet boat that they weren’t from Petersburg, but from Wrangell, the town on the next island south of ours.

Not to disparage the good people of Wrangell, but there was a rivalry between the rough and tumble Wrangellites and the proud and prosperous Petersburgeronians, and we were a little worried that if we did make it to the cabin, that it might be difficult to make the other inhabitants understand that we had a rightful claim on the place, because although we had paid for it, they were there first. In the end, it didn’t matter. Because we simply couldn’t get close enough. Not for trying, though. The men got out of the boat in hip waders and even tried walking the boat in, but we were going to be high and dry soon, with a lot of mud to slog through, and no way to secure the boat.

We had to turn back.

So we turned around, and started to head north. And that’s when we encountered the whale.

A breaching Humpback Whale in Alaska. Probably not the same whale, but you never know.

There are a few experiences that I’d say are the hallmark moments of a real Alaskan Adventure. Reeling in a king salmon. Seeing the aurora borealis or a calving glacier. Capturing a moment from a safe distance with a bear or moose in the wild, or getting up close and personal with a humpback whale. And here we were, in the presence of the largest animal in the modern world. A glorious, beautiful whale gliding through the water. There’s just nothing like it.

Apryl did not concur. Reflecting on it now, I completely understand her rationale. While we were mesmerized by this great, gentle creature of the deep and wanted to get closer, Apryl saw the possibility that we all might die in the next few moments. She was terrified that the whale would either breach or ram our little aluminum boat, sending all of us into the frigid waters of the Alaskan ocean. At the time that kind of event was completely unheard of (but a few years later it actually did happen, to my next door neighbor Steve, although he lived to tell the tale).

We tried to calm Apryl down, but she wasn’t having any of it. She was crying hysterically, panicking. And weirdly, that whale wasn’t going anywhere. It just hung out, between us and the way home. And every time we got anywhere near it, Apryl started to panic again. She begged us to please, please, please get as far away from the whale as we could.

That was when we remembered Camp Island. We’d seen it earlier that day on our way south. An island at the mouth of the inlet to the LeConte Glacier, where we had hoped to go the next day. We’d seen a cabin on that island from afar, and knew it didn’t belong to the Forest Service. It was a private cabin, and that’s where we were headed. That was Plan B.

A map of Mitkof Island (with Petersburg on the north end), and Camp Island, at the mouth of
the fjord leading to the LeConte Glacier. The Mallard Slough cabin is south of Grassy Island.

We were blessed with a more forgiving, rocky shoreline on Camp Island, although we still had to stretch out every inch of line to secure the boat to something on shore, and haul our stuff a long, long way to get up to the cabin. And the boat still went dry. We were now officially marooned (but only until the next high tide).

When we got up to the cabin, we saw it was new. Not even a cabin. This was a house. With new windows and siding, a generator shack, and a refrigerator. I think there was even a real working bathroom inside. But we never got inside. Because it was locked up tight. At first we considered trying to break a window to get in, but it was a last resort. I thought maybe I could jimmy the lock (don’t ask why I thought I might be able to do that, I’m taking that one to my grave), but after getting up to the door, I saw the note.

I recognized most of the names of the people who had signed the note; the Petersburg family that owned the cabin. These weren’t deep pocket out-of-staters, who bought an island and only came up once a year to enjoy it. These were Alaskan-born locals. They were locals who knew that every once in awhile some nimrod was going to miss the tide, and be desperate for a place to stay.

We worked hard to build this beautiful cabin. Please, don’t vandalize it or try to break in, the note said. However, if you find yourself in a desperate situation, we invite you to stay in the old cabin out back.

We headed back into the woods behind the house, and found the most incredible old moss covered homesteader’s cabin waiting for us. It had to date back to the ’20s. The cabin was equipped with a couple of bedrooms and bunk beds with actual mattresses. They were flimsy and mildewy, but better than no mattress at all. There was a whole living room full of old furniture, magazines, board games, even a deck of cards. There was a stove, lanterns and an outhouse. It was magnificent, even in all its mustiness. Even with all the mouse poop, single-paned windows and soft floorboards. Compared to the cabin we thought we were going to stay in, this was the Hilton. I felt like we’d hit the Alaskan vacation lottery.

We built a bonfire out on the beach that night and drank good wine, ate expensive cheese, and Apryl (who is now a mother in her mid-30s) still remembers almost every moment of our great Alaskan adventure, including her first glimpse of the northern lights, and the musty smell of the Camp Island cabin that saved our butts. She remembers that her dad walked around the island the next morning and found the giant, unmistakable tracks of a bear. I’d say that we gave them the Alaskan adventure of a lifetime.

I look back on that moment, and realize that sometimes you can find bright moments in the midst of an otherwise disastrous situation. That day so many things went wrong that I felt we’d failed completely, but at the end of the day, we’d found some magic. I couldn’t be happier that we hit that rock, missed that tide, and ended up high and dry. With all the imperfect moments of that day, it still ended up being one of the highlights of my 13 years in the last frontier.

I just hope that one day we can all look back on 2018 and find that with all the disasters this year has brought us, that we can find something positive to grasp onto. It could be as simple as an encouraging note and a place to lay your head at night.

And yeah, I’ve got some music to go with this story. Hope you enjoy getting Shipwrecked, sorta. Feel free to share your own songs (and stories) in the same vein in the comments below, I’m sure there’s so many I’m forgetting.


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Valerie Ing
Valerie Ing has been the Northern California Program Coordinator for Jefferson Public Radio in Redding for 14 years and can often be found serving as Mistress of Ceremonies at the Cascade Theatre. For her, ultimate satisfaction comes from a perfect segue. She and her husband are parents to a couple of college students and a pair of West Highland Terriers, and Valerie can’t imagine life without them or music. The Mistress of the Mix wakes up every day with a song in her head, she sings in the shower and at the top of her lungs in the car.
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20 Responses

  1. Avatar CODY says:

    What is the story with the boat in the photo, the Point Reyes?

    It is amazing that someone would rent you another boat, after you destroyed the prop on the first one…

    • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

      The “S.S. Point Reyes” was a dilapidated fishing vessel intentionally beached by the owner so that he could do some repairs on the cheap, rather than dry-dock her. Probably some hippie who bought her for chicken scratch and intended to live on her—he never got around to the repairs and abandoned it. An idiot burnt about a third of the boat to the ground while photographing it several years back—he was doing shot with a steel wool fire burning in or near the stern, which sends up sparks, creating a fountain effect with time-lapse photography. He lost control of the fire. People were pissed, because it’s a landmark.

      Bent props happen, and they’re not cheap. Can’t run ’em when they get bent unless you want to shake the engine to pieces.

      I guess I can excuse the exclusion of “Wrangell Mountain Song” by John Denver, even though the town of Wrangell is mentioned prominently in the story. The Wrangell Mountains aren’t anywhere close, and John Denver isn’t everyone’s cup o’ tea. As a Colorado native, I really don’t ever need to hear “Rocky Mountain High” again in my life. (Any mention of aurora borealis always takes me to the opening lines of Neil Young’s “Pocahontas,” and I’ll take it.)

      • Avatar Eleanor Townsend says:

        Yeah but what about ‘Wild Montana Sky’ John Denver with Emmylou Harris. (nothing to do with Val’s story.) And sometimes I wonder, Steve, (and this is a compliment, truly): Do you know everything, or just most things??

        • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

          I’m pretty good at trivia. Not so adept at learning foreign languages. Or names, unfortunately—including Latin binomials, which is something of a failing in my profession.

      • Avatar CODY says:

        Interesting. Is the ship near Point Reyes?

  2. Avatar Darcie Gore says:

    Thanks for the story Val. Cody the photo was related to her title of the story. It is a reminder that just because things don’t go as planned or expected, doesn’t mean it won’t turn out well.

  3. Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

    Ebb tide? Ummmm . . . maybe a bit before your time.
    And I’ll have to say, having transversed the Narrows, TWICE, going from Wrangall to Petersburg, I can see the need for GREAT respect for the tides. All’s well that ends well, as they say, but sometimes the best part of the story comes before the “ends well” part.

    And yes, let us all pray that there is an emotional homesteader’s hut to shelter the broken hearts and lives living in the north state this year.

    • Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

      Adrienne, isn’t Wrangall where you bought me that chunk of Garnet stone? One of my treasures.

      • Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

        Yes , , , you are absolutely right, Joanne. A long story about miners and some family that bought the garnet mine then ended up willing it to the local youths (scouts, sports teams, etc.) who go on mining expeditions then sell the chunks of garnet stone to tourists when the ferry lands. It’s not terribly high grade garnet, which is why it isn’t mined commercially, but is a lovely way to support the local youth activities.

        • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

          Nifty!!

          • Valerie Ing Valerie Ing says:

            I still have a sweet little rock with a chunk of garnet sticking out of it from the Wrangell garnet mine! Every time I see it, it reminds me of the Stikine River and that time we came face to face with a bear. But that’s another story.

  4. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    I’ve never been shipwrecked or otherwise stranded on an island. Stuck on a boat with a dead outboard in a frigid rain with ice on the water? Yep. Swept out to sea by a rogue wave? Once, and that was enough. Caught on the wrong side of a river when it suddenly rises too high to wade? It happens. Pretty damned lost in the woods? Too many times to count.

    Regarding tides, one of my all-time favorite gigs was a tidal energy pilot project initiated by the U.S. Navy in Puget Sound. The Navy has lots of remote outposts, many unmanned, and the source of energy is generally diesel generators, so any alternatives to that are attractive. The tidal energy turbines for our project looked like underwater windmills. My role was to determine potential environmental impacts and mitigate them. The big issue was conflicts with orca whales. Orcas are smart, and the potential for a harmful encounter was low, but one orca strike was going to be one too many from both permitting and PR standpoints, so there needed to be a fail-safe method of detecting orcas in the area and braking the turbines until the whales moved on.

    There wasn’t a cost-effective way to do that, and there are other tidal turbine designs that are better suited for remote locations that don’t have potential marine mammal-chopping capabilities, so the Navy pulled the plug and the pilot turbines never went into the water. (Not in Puget Sound—we did put six in the East River in New York City, next to Roosevelt Island. There’s an Atlantic salmon run up that river, but the public outrage over a few dead salmon wasn’t going to be a show-stopping PR nightmare. And it turned out that the salmon gave them wide berth.)

    It was a fun three years. One of my favorite aspects of the project involved tipping a few beers in the evenings with the retired career Navy engineers and scientists who were working on the project for the design engineering consultant. Super smart guys, with amusing Vietnam- and Cold War-era sea stories.

    • Valerie Ing Valerie Ing says:

      I think the world needs to do a lot more exploring into energy that can be harnessed through wind, waves and tides! You are right about Orcas. So smart. While humpback whales were a far more common sight in Alaska, we also had a pod or two of Killer Whales that would come up every year (usually we’d see them around Easter), and it was such a spectacular sight that people would line up along the shoreline for miles. In fact, people would call the radio station to let us know they were headed up the narrows, and we’d pass it along to everyone so that the entire population had a chance to watch them. So beautiful. Until they would hunt and kill the seals in the harbor. Then it was kind of a bloody mess, but that’s nature.

  5. Valerie Ing Valerie Ing says:

    The photo (like Darcie said) was just part of an illustration, but thanks Steve for the story behind the Point Reyes! It’s kind of an iconic old wreck, a lot like this year. I should’ve photoshopped “The Year 2018” over her name! I tried to find a photo that would fit a bit better, but that’s what I ended up with. I’m still trying to track down a photo of that old cabin. I’ve got my feelers out, just waiting to hear back.

  6. This is what I love about ANC’s comment section: it takes on a life of its own and completely spins off into new stories and interesting exchanges.

    I love it. I love you.

    • Valerie Ing Valerie Ing says:

      And I love you back! Hey, if I DO get my hands on a photo of that old cabin, how would I post it? Can I do it in the comments?

  7. Val, if you find a photo, send it to me or Joe and we’ll post it for you in your column. 🙂

  8. Avatar Matthew Grigsby says:

    Val, I truly love this article! Interesting, funny and filled with stuff this landlubber would have no way of knowing. I learned a lot about tides and that I never, ever want to have to “time the tides” to try and keep from dying because my shoe got stuck.

    • Valerie Ing Valerie Ing says:

      Matt, did you read the articles I linked to about Some of the people who have died that way over the years? Just before I moved to Alaska I bought an issue of Alaska magazine that carried the sad tale of a honeymooning couple that were gold mining on the flats and got their ATV stuck. She got out to help push it and got one of her legs stuck in the mud. People tried so hard to get her out. They gave her a breathing tube, they considered cutting her leg off with a chainsaw. In the end, she drowned in her husband’s arms as that ruthless tide rushed in. I’ve never forgotten that story.

  9. R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

    I once made a port-of-call in Ketchikan, Alaska. My mates and I bought a fifth of Yukon Jack and polished it off next to a river overflowing with spawning salmon. We walked across the backs of the salmon into town to the strip club. The strippers asked us all to take our clothes off. We obliged. Unfortunately we weren’t shipwrecked.

    “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen
    “The Endless Sea” by Iggy Pop