Bear Guide Down

Flying in a whiteout, two hunters survive when their plane crashes into the sea. But can they reach safety before hypothermia or giant brown bears claim their lives?

For three weeks, hunting guides Jim Bailey and Jesse Gray had been guiding spring brown-bear hunters near the southern tip of the Alaska Peninsula. After their clients left with their trophies, the pair planned to hunt the remaining days of the season themselves. Unfortunately, a three-day storm kept the men in their tents and the bears in the alder thickets.

An opening in the overcast skies provided the visibility Bailey needed to get airborne and avoid being stranded for several more days. Gray stuffed gear into the rear of the P-11 Cub, while Bailey conducted an inspection before the long flight to Anchorage.

Once airborne, Bailey searched for a route through the soup of low-hanging clouds and patchy fog that swirled around them. The clear sky they took off into was nothing more than a sucker hole. The fog was thickening and a massive snowstorm was rolling in from the Bering Sea. There were no landing spots on the boulder-strewn beach. As the plane flew through the slop, icy slush accumulated on its wings and fuselage, making the aircraft unresponsive. Bailey was piloting a snowball with wings and they were slowly going down.

Nickel-sized snowflakes clung to his windshield. Flying blind at 70 mph, Bailey frantically pushed open his clamshell door and looked down to orient himself. He was flying 5 feet off the water--the occasional whitecap seemed to touch and spin his tires. He throttled forward and pulled back on the stick. The plane groaned for altitude.

The weather had him cornered. Worse yet, somewhere ahead in the snow and fog was a rocky cliff that jutted into the ocean. He didn't know if it was a hundred or a thousand yards away. He couldn't delay any longer. Ten feet above the whitecaps, he began a gradual turn to head back to bear camp.

The shoreline disappeared and Bailey found himself in a grayout, a condition in which gray sea and low gray clouds create a seamless confused mass. Vertigo set in.

Crash at Sea

The world exploded into chaos. The plane cartwheeled and folded onto itself like a poorly flipped pancake. Salt water burst through the windshield, sending shards of glass into Bailey's face. The aluminum airframe around him crunched like a can underfoot.

Water poured into the cockpit of the upside-down plane. Bailey wiggled out the door and into the frigid water, coughing up salt water and spitting blood. Not seeing Gray, he took a breath and dove, twisting and kicking as he ran his hands down the fuselage to the cockpit door. He reached inside and felt an empty backseat. When he surfaced, the storm howled in his ears and wind-driven snow bit at his cheeks. Seconds later, Gray's head appeared near the crest of a wave. He signaled he was okay.

Bailey looked around, blinking to clear the blood and burning salt water from his eyes. The Bering Sea rollers were as huge as cargo containers, and his low position in the water kept him from locating shore. The tail of the plane pointed skyward. The weight of the engine put it in a slow nosedive to the bottom.

Swimming into the guts of a roller, Bailey rode the upsurge to its crest. Like a seal bellying up onto a rock, he scurried onto the tail and bear-hugged the plane with his arms and legs. The fuselage bucked in the rollers; hanging on to the plane was like trying to ride a greased pig in a rainstorm. He sunk his fingers into the canvas, creating a handhold, and pulled himself up to a higher vantage point.

Snow stung his eyes as he squinted and focused to find shore. Something. Anything. And there, separating the two gray halves of air and water, was a black shoreline stretched as thin as a spiderweb. Bailey estimated they were 1,500 yards from land.

"We should stay with the plane," shouted Gray. "It's floating."

"Not for long, it won't be," Bailey countered.

Bailey looked at Gray and pointed the direction to shore. Perhaps this was the last time they would see each other. The pair pushed off and started swimming. Behind them, a roller engulfed the plane and sucked it from sight.

Curling whitecaps struck repeatedly like fangs, injecting Bailey with venomous cold. He swam an eternity of strokes, but soon realized he was doing nothing more than useless splashing.

The cold made his thinking fuzzy and incoherent. He thought he was kicking hard and steady. Looking back, he saw that his legs were barely moving. He soon didn't think much about anything.

"I remember sinking beneath the surface and looking up to see snow swirling above me," he says. "I had nothing left to give.

"Suddenly, my feet touched bottom, which was a shock. I kicked up, and realized I had a chance."

The kickoff was barely enough for his head to clear the surface. He gulped a breath of air before the next breaker drove him back to the bottom. He kicked off again and found the depth was decreasing.

In the shallow flats, rollers turned into 5-foot coastal breakers that tossed Bailey about as he neared shore like a dog shaking a play toy.

The spray-capped waves flung him into the shallows. With his remaining strength, he stabbed his toes and fingers into the sand, fighting the pull of each wave's undertow. He tried to stand but couldn't use his legs, so he slithered like a snake to higher ground.

His body resembled the kelp that littered the shore: limp, wet and motionless. He was so hypothermic that his uncontrollable shaking ceased. He opened his eyes. The jagged cuts on his face oozed thick drops of blood into the black sand. His mind was blank.

Then he remembered Gray. Bailey forced his cramped neck to turn. Gray was in the breakers, half swimming, half floundering.

Bailey shouted, but his throat, parched from the salt, only managed a squeak. He tried again. "Stand up and walk," his voice cracked. Struggling, Gray made it to shore.

The next 20 minutes were the most difficult. The two men were critically hypothermic, and they had no survival gear, dry clothing or firewood. Bailey then remembered a book of water-resistant matches he always kept in his pocket. He had hope.

Gray yanked out handfuls of dry beach rye and stacked them in a small pile. The wet matches fizzled. Finally, one smoked and exploded in a ribbon of flame. It quickly ignited the rye, which burned as if doused with gasoline. Yet the burning grass created no embers or lingering warmth. Whirlwind devils quickly snatched up the burning stalks and propelled them down the beach like tracer rounds on a battlefield.

Three matches remained. Bailey and Gray found a slight depression protected from the wind, started another fire and heaped on clump after clump of dry grass. Soft from seawater, the few driftwood branches they collected smoldered and popped in the fire. Bailey, crazed with cold, thrust his hands into the flames and rolled his shirtless torso through the fire, trying to burn warmth into his body.

For three hours they huddled shoulder to shoulder to form a windbreak. While one side warmed, the other froze in the wet snow and wind.

From the Water, Hope

The tide was receding. Bailey stared catatonically at the gouges in the black sand where he had dragged himself out of the surf.

The sea that almost took their lives was now bringing hope. As the tide ebbed, more of the plane revealed itself on the flat. Bailey knew what he had to do. He removed his pants and steeled himself for a walk to the plane. The receding water might cough up the .375 rifle he always tied with a bungee-cord to the right strut. The Alaska Peninsula has one of the densest populations of brown bears in the world. If a bear sensed their weakened condition, they'd be helpless in an attack.

The abrasive action of sand and wave had stripped all the covering from the plane. Only a few tubes remained from the tail. The wings and struts were ripped off, and with them the rifle. There was nothing left except the engine, a few cables, a front seat and the landing gear.

Bailey reached under the seat and smiled as his hands closed on the .44 magnum he always kept there. He staggered back to shore, quivering with hypothermia.

Bouts of shivering overpowered him each time he stopped to rest. The grass fire wasn't providing enough heat. They had to keep moving to stay alive.

A Desperate Hike

They tried to walk south, but the 30 mph winds overpowered their weakened frames. They turned around, allowing the wind to help lift their legs and push them up the beach. Even then, they frequently collapsed from cramps and fatigue. Bear tracks were everywhere. Bailey unholstered his revolver as they approached a bloated walrus carcass that had washed ashore.

They walked 34 miles in two days before spotting an automated Coast Guard light located 170 feet above the beach at Cape Seniavin. Bailey crawled up the hill, hoping to find shelter and supplies in the small enclosure. He pried open the wooden door, only to find the interior filled with snow.

He continued to walk the ridgeline above the beach, looking for a house or settlement. Gray remained near the surf so that any passing aircraft could easily spot him.

Suddenly, Bailey spotted a Super Cub flying just above the beach. He waved frantically, and his eyes met those of a passenger in the backseat.

Bailey was overjoyed when he saw the plane bank for a turn, level out and land. Both hunters grabbed the struts in the gusty wind to keep the plane from flipping until it taxied to a stop.

"Trooper Hensley with Fish and Wildlife Protection was piloting the aircraft," Bailey recalls. "He gave us a can of peaches and one sleeping bag, said he'd return with another plane from Port Heiden, and left. Three hours went by. Jesse and I traded use of the sleeping bag, but it couldn't keep us warm."

Hensley finally returned. They waited for the other plane to show in a wind that was gradually gaining strength. The plane never arrived.

"Hensley said it was impossible to fly three people off that beach in a Super Cub," Bailey recalls. "I told him to move over and I'd show him how. To his credit, he trusted me. I got that plane airborne, and once I did, boy, it felt good to be flying again."

Bailey says he wouldn't be here today if it weren't for the military-issue matches in his pocket, and for listening to his gut feeling in the snowstorm.

"If I hadn't turned around in that snowstorm, I would have pancaked into the middle of that rock face," he says. "Sometimes it pays to listen to your instincts. Being cold and hungry for a couple of days sure beats being cold and dead forever."

Crazed with cold, Bailey thrust his hands into the flames and rolled his shirtless torso through the fire, trying to burn warmth into his body.

Bailey reached under the seat and smiled as his hands closed on the .44 magnum he always kept there. He staggered back to shore, quivering with hypothermia.