One would have to look at a map of Prince William Sound to understand this whole story. Understand also, that this story should be called Things One Should NOT Do In A Twenty-foot River Boat. Living in Alaska is a dream come true if you are fortunate enough to have at least three different kinds of boats and an airplane. If a person can afford only one boat, he (or she) is sometimes tempted to ‘push the fold' a bit, so that he (or she) can do all that he (or she) dreams.
We live in Soldotna, Alaska and that is where our journey began.
We prepared all that we could, including all the ‘extras' we thought we might need in case of an emergency. Knowing that we were fools to go on this adventure, but, for the adventure of the hunt, who could resist? We pulled the boat behind our truck to Girdwood, where we took the train over to Whittier. In Girdwood we drove the truck and boat right onto the train for the hour-long ride. When we arrived in Whittier they told us that there was a storm moving in but that it should be diminished by the next afternoon. Hearing that, we decided to continue on our adventure. We decided to get out of port that day, set up camp, and then ride out the storm for the night and following day. After all, this was my honeymoon. We were off to hunt deer, moose and bears!
The sea welcomed us as we sailed fifty miles into the area that we had planned to moose hunt. It was beautiful and we were seeing many bears in the creeks. We saw a huge black sow and her two cubs fishing in a creek. The pink salmon were jumping everywhere. The end of King's Bay, which is located between a mountain and glacier range, turned out to be a natural wind tunnel. We could not find a suitable area to camp, so at the end of the bay we stepped out onto a gravel bar to look around. Before I could slide on my waterproof boots, the boat was blown aground. There we were at the end of this wind tunnel at 8 p.m. and our boat high and dry. While we were attempting to assess our situation two black bears appeared seemingly out of nowhere. They appeared to be in the 250-300 pound range. I have hunted all my life and have never been given the opportunity to take an "easy" shot at anything. In the excitement I shot and missed. The two bears darted up the mountain faster than anything I had ever seen. We decided to follow them. The woods on the mountainside were thick and creepy, but we followed their trail until the rain began to wash it away. We could not hear the water anymore and were not sure of our exact location. We only knew that we should return to the boat.
When we returned to the boat it was 11:30 p.m. and the water was 100 yards away from the boat. This meant that we would have a long night ahead. We tarped the boat and decided to rest until the tide returned. By this time the winds had climbed to 40 miles an hour and the rain was coming down in torrents. The storm we had been warned about had arrived and now we had to hold out until the tide could reach us. The area we had landed in was all swamp, creek or tidal affected. When the tide finally came in we had to fight to keep the boat from being pushed up further on shore by the strong winds and the tide. We finally got the boat into six feet of water and then (again) attempted to figure out what to do next.
It was pitch black. The depth finder light went out and we were fighting 40 mile an hour winds. Unsure of what exactly to do we decided to travel toward the other side of the bay. We were about 350 yards from shore when we slammed into a gravel bar. I shined the flashlight on the water and determined that we were in about 1-1/2 feet of water. Jeff drove the prop in the gravel to keep us from being blown into the breakers. We were in serious trouble of being blown ashore and into the rocks. As Jeff throttled the boat trimmed high, we could feel the lower unit hanging up and dragging on the bottom. We finally made it back into eight feet of water. We did not feel terribly safe, but we were slightly relieved for the moment. We thought all was well when suddenly the entire boat jolted. We had run into a rock! We felt as if our situation could not get any worse--we were in a small boat, in the dark, with ice cold glacier-fed water and no clear answer of what to do next.
There was only one thing left for us to do. We could not risk traveling in the dark any longer. We had to try the anchor to ride out the rest of the darkness. We thought this would never work, what with the force of the wind blowing against us and the small stern anchor. We were in about eight feet of water with our bow to the wind. I could not close my eyes as we laid down in bottom of the boat. We were unsure if the anchor was holding or if we were being blown toward the end of the bay. By the grace of God, it held us until first light. As the day began to break we could see the shore. We set up camp in the first and only spot we could find in a cove. We knew it was not the best place but the 20-foot boat could take the seas there and that was the main concern. The land was mostly rock and swamp, but for now we had to take what we could get. We set up our tent as high above the water line as possible. Exhausted and cold, we crashed for a couple of hours in the tent.
When we awoke, we had a new problem on our hands as the tide had gone out and left our boat hung up on the rocks. The stern was full of water. We bailed the boat out and watched from the door of the tent as the tide returned. Soon it was deep enough that we could maneuver the boat off the rocks. Both of us, experienced with tidal effect water, could not figure out for the life of us what was the best thing to do with the boat. We also had another problem with the tide. As it reached its peak it stopped less than one foot away from the tent. Everything we owned was already wet from the massive amount of rain still coming down. It was the only place that we could have set up the tent, so talk about a catch 22.
I woke up at 2 a.m. and went to check on the boat. I almost went into a total panic! I ran and woke Jeff to telll him the boat was lying on its side. Here we go again. This time the boat was in trouble that was far more serious. It was lying on its side full of water in the mud and we knew we had better come up with a solution fast because if we didn't, when the tide returned we would lose the boat for sure. Jeff walked around in the mud and handed me the gear we had left in the boat. He could not stand up in the boat as it was completely on its side. We started bailing the water out of the boat and were out of ideas now as to how to save the boat.
The tide was on its way back in and we had to think fast. Needing some kind of buoy, we poured out two plastic cans of gas and tied them on the stern to float it up. Our sinking hearts were feeling almost defeated as the sea water started gushing back in. I grabbed hold of the paddle, placed it between a rock and the boat, and began to pry the boat up straight. Jeff almost began to dance when he saw it was working and the buoys were helping to float the stern. I was able to rock the boat a few inches at a time off its side. I never thought I would be so happy standing in the pouring rain and wind gusts that almost knocked me down when that final pry of my paddle slid the boat off its side and back floating again. Then the reality again set in of what to do with the boat so that it did not sink and we would not have to go through this kind of scare again.
There was a shallow lagoon at the end of the cove. If the weather broke we might not get the boat out of there, but it was a chance we would have to take. Jeff drove the boat into the lagoon at the high tide and it was again safe. The next three days were spent flat on our backs, as the wind was so furious that it was blowing the tent flat on top of us. Every meal was eaten inside the tent. I would heat up the cast iron skillet and press it onto the sleeping bags in an attempt to dry them as the rain was getting through to us.
Finally, a break in the weather and we had to wait for the tide to return to get the boat out of the drenched lagoon. Problem was, the tide did not get high enough to get the boat out in the morning. By the time of the afternoon tide the wind had returned and we were forced into staying yet another day. On the fifth day it was beautiful outside and we spent most of it outdoors waiting on the afternoon tide. When it came up, Jeff drove the boat out of the lagoon while I packed all of our rain-soaked gear. We made a run for it and headed toward Whittier. My heart sank as we got to the end of Culross Passage and saw that the sea was black with another storm. We were halfway out of there but there was no way we could take our boat any further. We were forced to set up camp again. Rolling out wet sleeping bags is not an easy thing to do. The only other option could have meant death as the worst part of the journey was still ahead. The same section of water that was so inviting on our way out and allowed us to begin this adventure was now keeping us from going home. Inside the passage it was nice weather and we were finally able to eat a meal outside.
Like idiots we thought the night would be friendly to us, so we did not put the raintarp up. Then, at 3 a.m., the worst rain yet hit us. The tent was filling up with water, and there was nothing we could do but lay there and watch the water drip on top of us. When morning came, Jeff took the boat to the end of the passage in an attempt to determine if we dare go for it while I cooked breakfast. We were trying to be careful with our fuel as we had poured out those two tanks of fuel and at the time the boat was full of water. Back in King's Bay the floor tank was filled with fuel mixed with salt water. We were down to six gallons of fuel and 25 miles left to go. Jeff came back and reported that there was a chance but that he was still unsure about what it was like around the final point that would lead us into the open sea. We were not sure if this was our only chance to get out of there but decided that we had to make our move. So we packed and loaded up the boat in the rain. The rain stung like needles when it hit our hands and face as it was coming down so furiously.
We were kind of hanging still in the passage and wondering if we really wanted to stick our nose around that point when we saw another boat. We pulled up next to them. They were in a 26' bayliner and had been trapped out in this weather as well. They had decided that they did not want to take the risk of leaving just yet. We, on the other hand, had to try it, as everything we had brought with us was drenched, and I did not want to spend another night in soaked sleeping bags ever again. When we got around that point it was not as bad as we had expected and we could see the line from the water we were in that the waters were calm about ten miles ahead. It was slow going getting to that calm water but knowing that the water was good ahead kept us going. It was like heaven when we hit that calm water and we had the boat at full throttle. There was a line of boats leaving Whittier. We must have passed a hundred boats that had been held up in Whittier during those days that we were in survival mode. The storm that was only supposed to last for a day had given us six days of Hell.
We were two defeated hunters when we arrived in port. The whole town was talking about the storm as one of the worst they had seen in years. I do not think anyone realized it nearly as much as we did. We also talked with some people who had just come off the ferry from Valdez and the captain said that it was the worst storm he had ever brought the ferry through. He did it in a 200-foot vessel and we did it in a 20-foot open river boat.
I know it sounds crazy, but I do want to go back again. I am not sure if I have the courage to go in our boat again but sometimes something just pulls you out of the comfort zone and causes you to do things that you should not. I just can't imagine spending the rest of my life here and that awesome hunting territory sitting just a little over a hundred miles away and not going there again. So, I guess the only thing to say now is, "See ya next adventure.."
Shella and Jeff Webster at: Wilderness Adventures