In the fall of ’83, I worked for Rich Guthrie both in the Brooks Range guiding sheep, moose and caribou hunters and on the Alaska Peninsula guiding both caribou and brown bear hunters. When I was in the Brooks, Rich asked me how much experience I had with small boats. I told him that small boats were about all that I had experience with. I told him about using Folboats and a couple of small inflatables in rivers, lakes and even the ocean. He said that was great because he had bought a 15’ Grumman Freighter square stern canoe that he needed to get from Cold Bay to the Joshua Green River.
I was familiar with the Joshua Green River as Brent and I had gone brown bear hunting there back in the fall of ’79. We had Larry Rivers drop us off below the high tide mark on the tide flats at the mouth of the river and then used Brent’s 12’ Avon Inflatable raft to go up the river. Landing below the high tide line was the only legal way to access the river unless you could get a boat over to it. I found out later that was a big problem. To reach the mouth of the river you had to navigate twelve miles of the Izembek Lagoon and another six miles of the Moffet Lagoon. Those waters were semi-open ocean waters filled with eelgrass and mud. There was a snake like channel that meandered through the lagoons and was almost impossible to find or to stay in. They were tide affected but some days depending on the wind direction and speed and of course the tide level the water would raise only 6” or so. You had to deal with the water depth on that given day.
Once I arrived in Cold Bay the only thing that the locals could tell me was the last two times that someone tried to make it across the lagoons, they both burned their outboard motors up because of the eelgrass, along with the silt and mud covering their water intakes. So, I was warned.
Rich selected a calm wind day and the morning that I was to leave he flew me in his “super cub” over the lagoons to see if we could locate the channel. Flying as slow as he safely could, we could see the channel but once in the water with any speed I felt there would be no way to stay in it. But being the optimist that I am I said, “I’ll give it a go.”
Right after lunch Rich had Tom Jesiolowski, another one of his guides, load up the canoe and my gear in the truck and drive me to Grant Point. There we unloaded the canoe and a small 6 HP Johnson motor into the water/mud and loaded my pack with my sleeping bag, small tent and a couple days of food into the canoe. I tied all the gear to the canoe just in case I got turned over. Tom told me that he was glad I was doing it and not him. In fact, he said, “I wouldn’t do it!” With that he told me to be careful and that he would see me at the end of the season.
It was a relatively calm day by Cold Bay standards, in fact it was kind of eerie. I had to drag the canoe about fifty feet out in order to have enough water to float me and the gear and to be able to paddle the canoe. After about a hundred yards I had enough water to use the motor. I actually got into the channel where I had five to six feet of water for a little while and then I started running into the eelgrass. It was everywhere and most of the time was growing to the top of the water, especially when I was in three or four feet of water. I tried to stay between three and four hundred yards from shore just in case something happened. I had to place the motor in neutral every three or four minutes to clear the eelgrass off of the prop and the shaft to keep it from covering the water intake.
For the next five hours or so I meandered from the channel through the eelgrass and then to the mud. Sometimes I used the motor, other times I had to use the paddle and quite a few times I had to get out and drag the canoe. When I did that, I would sink a foot or so in the mud. It was extremely slow going and at times I thought it would be impossible to made it to the shore because of the tidal mud or silt. When I am by myself in the wilderness, especially in dangerous situations, I always have an uneasy feeling and look at everything with a different perspective. It’s always nice to have someone have your back.
After about eight long hours and as the wind started to come up, I arrived at Blaine Point which was at the twelve-mile point. The water around the point was about five feet deep so I was able to motor the canoe onto the shore. It was also fairly dry around the point itself. I had brought a small two-man tent along so I had shelter. I had an uneventful night which was good.
The next morning brought sunshine and a slight breeze. The first couple of miles went fairly fast as I could stay in the channel and it seemed like there wasn’t as much eelgrass. About two miles from the mouth of the river I started running into mud and silt and had to get out many times to drag the canoe. As I finally got to within a half mile of the mouth of the river, I found the main channel and motored into and up the river another quarter mile or so. I pulled up on a sandbar and found a good place to camp in the alder. Later that afternoon Rich was bringing Donnie Smith, his other guide, and an inflatable that we would use to get the clients and all the gear about ten miles up the river. I was to meet them about a half mile from the mouth of the river in a tidal flat area where Rich could legally land the cub.
Rich showed up around 5 PM and made two trips with Donnie, the inflatable and our supplies that we needed for the next couple of weeks. He was going to bring our two clients in the following afternoon. Donnie and I pumped up the Zodiac and managed with the help of Rich to get it out far enough into the water so it could float while we loaded it with the supplies. High tide wasn’t until around 9 PM, which by then would be dark. The high tide should give us at least a foot or so more water. As the raft got heavier, we kept moving it further out. In most normal tide affected waters on an incoming tide you could load a boat and it would float itself but that wasn’t the case here. We were finally ready to start dragging the Zodiac about 8 PM. We drug it about 50 yards further out from shore and started for the mouth of the river. It was fairly easy dragging as long as the water was deep enough, but we kept running into sandbars created by the water coming out of the river. Finally, there just wasn’t enough water and the Zodiac got stuck. We only had a hundred yards or so to go before we were in the river channel. We sat there on the Zodiac waiting for the tide. By 8:30 PM nothing happened, no more water. Where was the tide? What a strange place. We debated about unloading the raft and taking everything to shore hoping there would be enough water for just the raft. However, that would be a lot of work and it was already dark enough to use flashlights. As we stood there an hour after high tide, all of a sudden the raft began to float. We ended up getting about a foot of water which got us to the channel and then we started the engine and motored up to the canoe and my camp.
The next evening Rich brought our two clients, David Morris and Steve Vaughn from GA over to the tide flats. We started up the river the following day. I ended up guiding Dave and Steve both to brown bears and a caribou for each and guided another client Chip to a big caribou. I used the canoe to run up and down the Joshua Green to drop off and pick up clients along with supplies at least five different times. Because of the moving sandbars I wore the prop down to almost a nub, over half of it wore off. The sand also destroyed the water pump but the canoe made it so much easier navigating the river.
It was a fun and successful fall. I’ve never operated again in waters like the Izembek Lagoon and I sure hope I never do in the future, but it was a great learning experience and just another part of guiding.