Alaska had always topped my wish list of places to visit for a true wilderness experience. On Kodiak Island one cold and dreary November day, I discovered how wild it can really get. I also learned that even if you leave the rugged slopes and freezing waters of that frigid paradise, they never, ever truly leave you.
That hunting trip has become an endless journey, one that I embark on every day, even though 16 years have passed since my adventure turned into a hellish nightmare.
A Dream Start
My hunting partner on the trip, Don Travarelli, was from New Jersey, and I’m from Michigan. We had met several years earlier on a Texas whitetail hunt and had become fast friends. Our passion for hunting cemented our friendship, and we began planning other hunts together. The trip to Kodiak in quest of Sitka blacktail deer would be our fourth.
Crammed inside an old floatplane, headed for our final destination–Fraser Lake on Kodiak–I wondered if the relic in which we were flying should be suspended from the ceiling of a museum instead of in the turbulent air. A rough landing on the lake punctuated the end of a tiresome trip, but it was worth it. Kodiak’s awesome grandeur is truly breathtaking.
In camp, I quickly acquainted myself with the people I’d spend the next five days with. Outfitter Paul Reynolds, though only 27, spoke with the authority of a grizzled veteran. Lean, agile and precise, he ruled the camp with a decisive hand, which gave me the impression he clearly understood what should and should not be done in the wilderness.
Harry Dodge, a bearded beanpole of a man, had been a guide for 15 years. He was so introverted, it sometimes seemed as though it was actually painful for him to talk. What he did say hinted at a man who was in an uneasy relationship with life. A black Labrador, named Tom, was his constant companion. Harry’s affection for Tom and the wilderness led me to believe that in the remoteness of Alaska, he had found a refuge from civilization.
Joel Krueger, a stocky 20-year-old, was an apprentice guide. He bragged incessantly. The fantastic stories he told only emphasized his young age. Still, I liked him. He reminded me of myself in my youth.
The hunting got off to a quick start. It was everything I’d expected. The first evening, only a few hundred yards from camp, Don bagged a trophy Sitka. Later that night, inside our cozy cabin, excitement ran high for the next day’s hunt.
The following morning dawned gray and wet. Intermittent snow and sleet fell from a heavy, overcast sky as we departed camp, trudging along in the hip boots required to navigate the mucky terrain. We split into two groups: Don would hunt with Paul, and Harry and Joel would accompany me. I didn’t like the strategy–especially with the Lab tagging along–but as the day progressed, it made sense: The more ground we covered, the more deer we saw. By early afternoon, I had already taken my first buck.
Field-dressing the animal was quick and deliberate. The coastal grizzlies that roam Kodiak are among the largest in the world. Opportunistic and unpredictable, they might claim any kill given the chance. Harry carried a .458 Winchester, a gun renowned for its stopping power, but no one–especially me–wanted an encounter with a hungry bear.
The next two days produced three more deer. On the fourth day, Paul announced a change of strategy. Everyone would hunt together.
Do Not Go Silent
That morning I took my seat in the 14-foot skiff at the edge of Fraser Lake. Four men and a dog had yet to board, but the boat, laden only with gear, already seemed to be sitting low in the water. Still, I ignored the voice of caution inside my head. Our guides were seasoned professionals. Besides, they would also be in the boat with us and had safely crossed this lake countless times.
After Harry handed Don and me the last two life jackets–neither he nor Paul thought it necessary to wear one–my mind eased. Harry, Joel and I had made the crossing the day before, so I told myself I was being foolish.
A skein of ice covered the lake. The boat plowed forward, shattering it into jagged shards. Looking down, I noticed the glasslike pieces appeared to be mere inches below the gunwale. Yet I said nothing.
Into the Nightmare
The boat moved farther out to where the unobstructed winds churned the lake’s surface. The skiff collided with oncoming waves, kicking up spray. In the distance, I noticed a single, wide wave rising taller than the others. I watched the swell build. By the time I realized we were in trouble and yelled to alert the others, it was too late.
The wave swallowed us. From my comfortable seat, I was plunged into water just a few degrees above freezing. I was mad as hell. Nothing made sense, especially the predicament I’d been thrown into–literally.
I ditched my Weatherby and backpack full of gear and tried to remove my hip boots. Despite the life jacket, my heavy clothing seemed destined to pull me down.
Even if I could stay afloat, I didn’t know which way to swim, or how far it was to shore. The only things I did know were that I couldn’t stop shaking, civilization was at least 70 miles away and I was going to die.
I saw Don gasp for air as he struggled in the freezing water. His terrified face is an image I see every time I close my eyes.
“The Fish and Game cabin… swim for it,” Harry shouted from somewhere among the waves. We had seen the agency’s cabin from across the lake while we were hunting the day before. Reaching the shelter was our only chance.
But Paul clung to the sinking skiff, screaming, “Stay with the boat, stay with the boat.”
No way, I said to myself. Staying with the boat would mean certain death. Who was going to come to our rescue out here? Help was miles away. But what could I do? I suddenly felt very confused. The swim to shore seemed impossible.
I had to make a decision and make it quick. What difference did it make if I died beside Don or a hundred yards away, struggling? The key word was struggle. I wasn’t ready to accept death without one. I began swimming. The decision to leave Don arrived almost automatically, yet since then I have spent countless hours replaying that choice in my mind.
Without a parting word I left Don clinging to a red gas can. But he still refuses to leave me. On gray days, usually in November, waves build in my mind. Don floats among them, still clinging to that gas can.
The Struggle Ashore
In the icy water, fear reigned. Anger laced with despair gave way to blatant guilt, as I assumed responsibility for my own death. I felt as if I had chosen to abandon my wife and five kids back home to take part in this adventure that would surely kill me. Overwhelmed by this painful realization, I prayed.
Call the dynamic feeling that followed whatever you choose–a second wind or pure adrenaline. Maybe it was fate or the Almighty answering a desperate prayer. Even now, I can’t be sure. Friends still marvel that I swam 300 yards in hip boots. Absent now of that strength, I can’t believe it myself.
When I finally reached the rocky beach, I ditched the life jacket. The windfall of energy that had powered me to shore was gone. In the frigid air, I shivered uncontrollably. I wasn’t sure where the cabin was; I just knew I had to get there quickly.
Since leaving the swamped boat, I hadn’t seen anyone. Then, from out in the lake, I heard a voice. At first I saw nothing but waves. I suspected that I had imagined the cry for help. Confusion brought on by the cold water and the exhaustion of my struggle made me uncertain. But then, 50 yards out, I saw Joel.
“Help,” he cried, as he struggled to stay afloat.
“I made it. You can, too.” I yelled. I stood resolutely grounded on shore. As if to underscore my reluctance, I screamed over and over, “I’m not going back in the water.” It was unthinkable. I couldn’t risk my life again–the remainder of it was precious and belonged to my family.
Haggard, wide-eyed, Joel crawled ashore, struggled to his feet and mumbled, “Cabin.” As quickly as he gained his footing, he stumbled away. I was 45 at the time but suddenly felt much older. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t keep up with Joel. He was almost out of sight when I saw him plunge back into water.
The horror of that sight stopped me in my tracks: I was on an island. I still had to swim another 40 yards across a channel.
Dumbfounded, I watched Joel emerge on the other side and move off into the distance. He was leaving me behind. I attempted the swim after him, but I couldn’t stay afloat.
Unless I wanted to freeze to death on this small strip of land, my only option was to retrieve the life vest. It was just a few hundred yards away, but that walk became the longest, loneliest trip I have ever taken.
Back Into the Water
With the life jacket back on, I crossed the channel, an act that sapped my remaining energy. Hypothermia beset me as I began what would turn out to be a two-mile trip to the cabin.
Trudging along the shoreline, I began to hallucinate and imagined weird creatures riding the crests of oncoming waves. I felt sleepy and had the almost overwhelming urge to curl up on the ground and a take a nap, but I knew if I fell asleep I’d never wake up. I tried counting steps, but everything felt out of sync.
A voice inside me began to scream. Like a drill sergeant motivating a recruit, I called myself a wimp and a quitter each time I entertained thoughts of giving up. Completely spent, I spotted the cabin in the distance. But on limp legs, it seemed totally out of reach.
I remember little about negotiating that final 200 yards. Somehow I found myself standing in the doorway of the rustic cabin that belonged to the Alaskan Fish and Game Department. Positioned above the outlet of the lake, it was home to state employees as they monitored salmon returning upstream during the spawning season.
Beyond the broken door, which hung askew on a single hinge, I saw Joel. He was straddling a pile of crumpled newspapers, trying to light them with wooden matches. As I entered the cabin, Joel yelled: “Fire! Get matches!”
I looked about and spotted a box of them sitting on a nearby counter. My brain gave orders, but my fingers wouldn’t obey. When I managed to strike a match against the box, instead of igniting, it usually broke in two.
Who finally succeeded, I don’t remember, but eventually, a fire burned brightly on the wooden floor. Close to the flames, void of any legitimate feeling, I just stood there absorbing heat.
The Cabin’s on Fire!
Suddenly, I came to my senses. I was gagging. “Smoke,” I yelled. The cabin was full of it.
“The cabin’s caught fire,” Joel screamed. With renewed senses, we extinguished the flames, aired out the cabin and repositioned the door that Joel had kicked open. In the frenzy to light a fire we hadn’t even noticed Harry, who had crawled through a window and was silently lying in a bed next to a back wall. Tom was beside him, both of them covered with blankets. Harry was warming himself with the body heat from the big Lab.
I would later learn from Harry that he and Tom had swum ashore together. To stay afloat he had removed his hip boots but paid the price for such an action. He rolled back the blankets and exposed his lower legs. They were bluish-red–the effect of severe frostbite.
In a lighter moment, Joel later rubbed his belly and declared, “This fat finally did me some good.” It had kept him warm and afloat.
“I’m finished with guiding, though,” he added seriously. I voiced my support with a simple “Yeah.” Harry petted his Lab and said nothing.
Joel rummaged through a back room while I tinkered with an old kerosene heater. Finally I was able to get it lit. As our clothes dried, attitudes changed and we began to make plans.
The floatplane was due to pick us up the following day. Once the pilot saw our empty camp, he’d know something was wrong. We would just have to wait.
In the back room, Joel found a side-band radio, but with a battery too feeble to transmit. In that same back room, I discovered three spare batteries. But after shorting them out with a metal coat hanger and barely generating a spark, I realized that, like us, they were too weak.
A farmer all my life, I’d learned to improvise: What if all the batteries were wired together in a series,
creating one big battery? Together, they might generate enough power to transmit. Using coat hangers, I connected all the positive posts, did the same with the negative ones and then pinned the alligator clips to the makeshift battery. The radio crackled to life.
After a Mayday distress call, Joel finally reached the Coast Guard and gave them our location. Soon, they’d be on their way in a helicopter to rescue us. When the Coast Guard arrived, we told the rescuers what had happened.
Although low on fuel and short on daylight, the helicopter crew flew over the lake in search of survivors. They found only Don’s body, still clinging to that red gas can. Paul was never found. His final resting place remains somewhere in the frigid depths of Fraser Lake.
I have never returned to Kodiak, but my Alaskan adventure hasn’t ended. It shadows me every day of my life, as I continue to make sense of the tragedy. What I know is that it taught me about raw struggle, gut-wrenching decisions and the terrible consequences of choices we make in moments for which nothing in life prepares us. For me, the ordeal plays over and over in my mind, like a living testament to man’s vulnerability and his amazing will to survive.