This story could have ended much differently and had a title like, “Three Strikes You’re Out.” With my airplane accident, getting stuck in the mud and now turned up-side down in the raging ocean it could have gone either way.
AAA’s guides had crossed the bay for fourteen years in the Zodiacs with no major problems. Even this trip, had I left 30 minutes earlier we would have been on the other side before the seas flared up and there would be no story. I believe everything happens for a reason. That God has a plan and I am a part of his plan.
I became a Christian or was saved when I was 9 years old. I prayed prayers of gratitude all the time but for whatever the reason I normally didn’t pray for things or ask for help. I guess being young, dumb and independent made me think that God had made me strong and I could do most anything myself. But I will say when you know it is over it is almost too late to ask for help. I was at that point and I know that when I prayed for God’s help, He rescued me.
Read my story on how God Saved me.
AAA Alaskan Outfitters’ first hunting area was across the bay from Cold Bay, Alaska. We started hunting there the spring of 1984. Like most remote Alaska communities Cold Bay has a small population that has varied between 80 - 90 people over the years. It has the fifth longest runway in the State which was built during World War II. Currently it is used as a hub for traffic from Anchorage and Seattle servicing the small surrounding communities on the Alaska Peninsula. It also serves as an emergency runway for aircraft flying over the North Pacific. The home office for the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for waterfowl is in Cold Bay. The reason we hunted in Cold Bay was that it’s a great area for big brown bears. Cold Bay is about 650 miles south of Anchorage and would take us 8 to9 hours to get there in a Super Cub.
We had to cross nine miles of open water to get to our base camp on the shore. We used inflatable boats to access the area. We initially used a 15 ½’ MK III Grand Raid Zodiac and a 12 foot Avon. We found out very quickly that the 12’ Avon was inadequate because it allowed water to come over the tubes. I personally used the Avon for two seasons. We then purchased another 15 ½’ MK III Grand Raid which worked much better. We used a 30HP Johnson outboard motor for one raft and a 25HP Evinrude outboard initially for the smaller boat. Then when we up-graded the raft, we got a 35HP Evinrude outboard for it.
The weather in the Cold Bay area is some of the worst in Alaska. I’ve always said that all storms begin in Cold Bay. Because of so many storms the water on the bay could become treacherous in a hurry.
We spent lots of time at the Cold Bay weather station checking the weather to see if we could make it safely across. Once we were on the other side we had no commutation with the weather station so we had to go with what we could see. We never left shore if we thought we had over 3 foot seas because we wouldn’t be able to load or launch. Numerous times we would load and launch on one side with it dead calm and by the time we got to the other side there were rolling waves three or four foot high. When we hit shore we had to turn the bow of the boat into the waves and hold it there while we unloaded. We needed at least three people to do this properly and sometimes there were only two of us. It could be a very wet ordeal even with three of us.
After we obtained the Dog Salmon area in the fall of 1987, my partner Brent Jones managed that area so it was up to our new partner Dan Schwarzer and me to run the Cold Bay area. A few of our guides didn’t care for working with the boats in open water so they never wanted to work at Cold Bay. It was also labor intensive because of having to carry all the gear including the boats and motors down a 100 foot bank. A couple of them hung in there and stayed a few years but most only stayed for one season and then headed to the Dog Salmon camp. We took four hunters per season so we always needed two guides plus Dan and me.
During the fall we could combine caribou with brown bear and that made a great hunt. However in 1991 Fish & Game did an emergency closure on caribou so that was the last fall season we hunted the Cold Bay area. We did however continue to do the spring brown bear hunts.
My boating attire for crossing the bay was long underwear, wool pants and shirt, fleece jacket, wool balaclava, hip boots, neoprene gloves, Helly Hansen rain gear (bibs and jacket) and a life preserver. 90% of the time this kept me dry unless the engine stalled; then, I would overheat trying to get it started so I would start peeling off layers to keep from getting wet from sweat. My partner Dan and one of our guides would use a Mustang suit which is a water survival suit instead of the rain gear and life preserver. Since the clients only wore rain gear and a life preserver, I felt that is all I should have.
1998 was a late spring with lots of snow and the weather was less than desirable. It was May 8th, the camps were set and we were on our way to Cold Bay to pick-up four clients. John Koldeway had come down to guide for us again and he even brought his own 15 ½ ‘Grand Raid so there were three boats going over. When we left base camp the wind was blowing 15-20 in our face which was about normal. As we progressed the wind started picking up and the swells kept getting bigger. About 4 miles into the trip, the seas were at least 10 foot and it was becoming harder to keep the boat into the wind. Twice as I was coming up the swell, the boat turned sideways and it would sluff off. I was the second of the three boats and with the seas that high I could only see the other boats occasionally. We were really getting spread apart. We were now about half way across and the seas were at least as large as the boat and as I topped over the wave keeping it straight the wind lifted the boat and it turned completely over top of me. I was now in the water under the boat. As this was happening I remember thinking and I hate to say it but, “oh shit!” I had always told the clients in our safety briefings that if they fell out of the boat they could use the ropes that lined the top of the tubes to hold on. With the boat upside down the ropes were in the water. I tried to get my legs up into the ropes by leveraging with my arms but the longer I was in the water the heavier my legs became. My hip boots were filled with water and my wool pants were soaked. I tried to somehow dig my fingernails into the top seam where the tubes met the floor but I had Neoprene gloves on and I just couldn’t do it. I held on to the ropes and tried to get around to the back of the boat but the ropes didn’t go all the way to the end of the tubes and if I let go of the ropes the wind would blow the boat away from me. I was now both physically and mentally exhausted. I just couldn’t do anything with my legs. They were just too heavy. I then decided that this was it, I was going to die! I put my arm all the way up to my armpit through the ropes that were attached to the boat so that when I died, I would at least be with the boat. I was at a point where I could see my life passing by. I could see my beautiful wife Karen and my two beautiful daughters, Kim and Michelle. I kept thinking of all the times Karen had told me not to do anything stupid when I would leave for the season. I had been so blessed. I prayed, “Please Lord don’t let me die like this!” All of a sudden my energy was restored and I tried to get around the boat again but this time the boat didn’t leave me. As I came around the end of the tube I could see the shaft of the motor horizontal with the boat about three inches under the water. I had always run the motor with the release on so if I hit something I wouldn’t lose the shaft or damage the prop. I slide up the shaft and onto the bottom of the upside down boat. Thank you God!!
I was now in the middle of the bay sitting on top of the boat with the wind blowing somewhere between 35 -40 MPH. It seemed like I was in the water forever but I’m sure it was only 5 minutes or so. Some people in Alaska have died just being in water that cold for 2-3 minutes. With me being wet and now exposed to the wind the chances of me dying of hyperthermia were strong. I felt much better about everything now that I was out of the water. I was looking in all directions for one of the other boats. I finally spotted one about a ½ mile away. It was only visible for a few seconds because of the swells or waves. Every time I spotted him I would wave frantically. After seeing him 5 or 6 times, he finally saw me and turned toward me. Another great feeling, help is coming. Thank you Lord!!
It took the boat at least 5 minutes to get to me. It was Brent Richardson, our new guide, in the boat. As he got closer he has a look of disbelief. He told me later that when he first saw me he thought that the motor had quit and I was just standing in the boat. He got next to the boat and yelled for me to get in. I just rolled into his boat. He said that we had to get out of there. I told him we have to get the boat!! He said no and I said again, “We have got to get the boat!” We circled a few times trying to get close but the boat kept moving away. I was leaning out and finally got hold of the anchor rope that was tied to the rope on the tubes. I held on as he started to pull away but my hands were too cold to hold the rope. He said again, that we had to get out of there and I said again, we have to take the boat. I told him I would get the rope again and cut it and tie it to his boat. It took a few trips around the boat before I could get the rope. I had to get my gloves off to get my knife out of my pocket. My hands were so cold I couldn’t feel them but I was able to get the knife out and finally got it opened and cut the rope. It was all that I could do to tie the ropes together. Then we were on our way towing my upside down boat very slowly. I had been shivering a little earlier when I was on top of the boat but now that I wasn’t moving I started really shivering. I sat up front of the boat on the floor with my back to the wind. I was cold and shivering but I was safe. It was noisy with the wind and the sound of the motor so Brent yelled, “How are you doing?” I told him fine, remembering what we used to say as a joke when the waves were bad and swamping the boats, “Real men would have been scared!” This time I said, “Real men would have been scared and so was I!” We finally made it along side of the pier and then to shore.
The normal time to cross the bay was about 35 minutes and with flat water we had made it before in less than 25 minutes. This harrowing trip took way over an hour.
John Koldeway was waiting by his boat and yelled out, “Man that was crazy! How did it flip you over?” John said he got turned completely sideways three times and if he hadn’t had the canopy he would have been swamped. As soon as the boats touched shore, John told me that I needed to get in a hot shower to warm my body, and for us to get out of there! I told him no we have to turn the boat over so that when the tide goes out we can work on it. Both Brent and John said we had to go and get me in some warm water. I said, “Only after we turn the boat over!” All three of us grabbed hold of the boat and flipped it back over up right and left it tied to the other boat and headed for the truck.
We drove straight to the Weathered Inn. It was the only hotel in town and was initially opened by and used for the old Reeves Aleutian Airlines employees. It was a complex with 8-10 hotel rooms, a bar/restaurant and a small grocery store. By the time we arrived, I had started to shut down. John opened the door and shouted, “We need a shower and quick.” There was someone cleaning the rooms and they opened the door to the shower room. They put me in the shower stall with my clothes on and turned the water on. It didn’t seem to matter if the water was hot or cold I couldn’t tell much difference. I told Brent and John to go get the clients. I knew they would be waiting for us. I stood in the shower for about 45 minutes eventually taking off my clothes. I was starting to feel normal again, no more shaking, and I was now warming up. My clothes were nice and dry from the dryer. They had put them in it as I took them off. I was able to get dressed.
John and Brent had brought the clients to the restaurant and were waiting for me. When I showed up I told them the water was too rough and that we would have to leave in the morning. We got everyone checked in, told them we would see them at supper and left to go work on the boat.
When we got to the boats they were floating in about 6 inches of water. We pulled the spark plugs from the motor and took the screw out of the bottom of the carburetor to drain the water. We pumped fuel from the gas tank and also poured some gas into the cylinders. We pulled the motor starter rope about 20 times. We put the screw back into the carburetor, poured gas on the plugs and put them back in. After pulling the starting rope a few times, it started. It was amazing! The motor had been upside down in the salt water and towed for four miles and it started. Again, thank you God. That was a 1986, 30 HP Johnson motor. I still use that motor today and have only done minor tune-ups. We were now ready for a morning crossing if weather permitted.
We headed to the weather station to see what was in store for us. When we arrived at the counter the weather guy asked if we were the ones that were turned over in the bay. I said, “That was me.” He told us the winds had come up really quickly and had changed from 15-20 mph to 35-45 mph with peak gusts to 50+ mph. He said that it really must have been bad out there. He told us the winds had dropped back to 20-25 and would be better in the morning. That was good news. As we were leaving Rod Schuh, another guide/pilot, was going in to check weather and said he had heard about the boat incident and was glad that I made it. He told us that we wouldn’t catch him out in the ocean in those rubber boats. He said every time he flew over us he thought, “Those guys are crazy.” I always ask everyone when they say something like that, what do people get into when their big boat sinks, little rubber boats or life boats. Rubber boats save them, so we just start out in them.
By now it seemed like everyone in Cold Bay knew about the overturned boat. Cold Bay being a very small community, news travels fast, good or bad.
When we got back to the Weathered Inn I told the clients all about what had happened and that we would be leaving in the morning, weather permitting. We all ate supper and the stories continued.
After breakfast and a quick check on the weather we headed for the boats. Once there we started loading the gear. I gave them a life vest and began my safety briefing. I told them about holding onto the ropes and what would happen if the boat was up-side down. Needless to say this particular safety briefing was in much more detail. One of the clients said, “Aye, Aye Captain Poseidon.” It was less than a year after the movie “Titanic” had been out so everyone was humming “My Heart Will Go On.” We were now ready to go. This was a normal crossing-the-bay trip. When we arrived at base camp we were met by my partner Dan. He said, “I didn’t think you guys would be coming back last night. The wind really got bad not long after you left.” I told him, “Yeah it really got bad out there. The worst I’ve ever seen, and in fact, it turned me up-side down.” He responded by saying, “That’s bad!” He knew that no one had ever been turned over in our 14 years of operation and over 150+ crossings.
As I stood there talking to Dan, I looked down the beach and I saw something orange about 50 yards away. I walked down to see what it was and discovered it was our safety box with our flare gun and tools. About ten yards further was the oar we use if the motor stopped. Next to it was the plastic garbage bag with my hat and camo rain coat that I put on to meet the clients once we dock the boats. The winds had been blowing straight across the bay so everything ended up on the shore. That meant that if I hadn’t made it, I would have been within 50-60 yards from base camp. At this point the only things missing from the turned over boat were the spare 6 gallon gas can and the inflatable boat pump. That evening we found the gas can about a mile down the beach. So for such a major ordeal the outcome was unreal.
The bad weather continued. It was our worst bear hunting season ever. We had discussed on several occasions about closing the Cold Bay camp and had decided to close it after the 2000 spring season since hunters were already booked for that spring. But I knew in my heart this was my last season and Dan said he didn’t want to come back either, so 1998 was it.
When we did our last trip across the bay, I rode in John’s boat with the canopy and as I sat under the canopy I told him this is the warmest trip that I had done. I knew I would miss the great bear hunting but I sure wouldn’t miss all the hard work and the bay crossings.
This was my closest call to death and I knew that God saved me. Psalms 50:15 says, “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me. “ I called upon Him, He saved me and I will honor Him.”