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.
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.
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.
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.
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.