Letter Re: A Reader’s Tale of Survival on Alaskan Rivers

In reading your last few days posts on preparedness for disaster, etc, it brought to mind an experience I had twenty plus years ago in Alaska’s wilderness. I am only here to relate this story for one reason – I listened to my father as a young man, one of the few times that I did, but it saved my life.

In 1985 I was on a moose hunting trip on a river boat with a close friend, whose nickname is Dangerous Don. We had put in our boat at the town of Nenana and proceeded up river to a smaller tributary, about 60′ wide. As we made the tributary, we got hung up on a sandbar. While we were stuck, Don decided to fill the gas tank on the boat motor from a jerry can. I was in the bow keeping us stable in the river with an oar. He filled the motor, and then used a battery cable from the battery to touch the lead on the motor. He had spilled gas in the back of the boat. As soon as he touched the post on the motor, it sparked and the gas immediately exploded. I heard the explosion and felt the heat on my neck at the same time. I turned and saw Don engulfed in the flames. At that moment, I panicked. I jumped out of the boat, and in the process, flipped my glasses into the river. I grabbed the rope and went towards shore. I was able to tie the boat off on a dead snag next to the river. Don was able to get out of the boat. We stood on shore watching the boat burn.

After watching the boat burn for what seemed like an eternity, we realized the boat was our only way out. We managed to salvage our clothes, a thermos of hot water, a bag of sugar and Don’s rifle. By then the fire was out of control, burning the wood transoms, seats and floorboards. We managed to swamp the fire out of the boat by pulling it up the bank and swamping the stern into the river. As we did this, an oar floated down river.

Don immediately dived in, swam down river and retrieved the oar. We then had to pull the boat out of the river after swamping it. By then 10-12 minutes had passed. We were soaking wet and chilled to the bone in the 35 degree drizzle. We were starting to exhibit hypothermia, and knew we were racing a clock. We decided one of us should immediately change to get into dry clothes, and the other start a fire. I changed to dry clothes while Don chopped dry branches off the dead snag, and found some somewhat dry plywood out of the boat. We found some tinder from some dry game bags. But nothing to start the fire. This was the most ironic situation I had ever faced – just put out a fire that was trying to kill us, only to not be able to start one so we could stay alive. Don finally got a spark off of his lighter to ignite the game bags we had soaked in white stove gas we had salvaged.

Once the fire was roaring, Don was turning white from the cold. I had to change his clothes, as he could barely stand. We found a blanket, tied it up as a windbreak and sat in front of the fire, feeding it branches until they ran out. We poured the baggie of sugar into the hot water thermos and drank it. I was sitting on a stump and was starting to doze off – which I knew was trouble.

I must digress here to relate the reference earlier of listening to my father as a young man. When I was 6 years old, my father’s brother-in-law was on an elk hunting trip with him and others in the Coeur d’ Alene mountains, when he became separated from the party during a snow storm that set in. My father looked until late and went to town to the sheriff’s office, only to be turned down by the sheriff – he said it would have till wait until morning. They found my uncle dead the next morning sitting on a stump with his glasses off and his wallet next to them. He was 19. (This happened in 1961.)

For the next ten years, I was schooled by my father in the woods, when we went hunting, fishing, camping, working on the farm etc. When I was twelve and old enough to hunt, I never left his sight for the first three years. After that he would put me on stands until he was certain I knew what I was doing. Most of my hunting was in the rugged Coeur d’Alene Mountains. His number one mantra “If you are in trouble and cold and have no shelter, and no means to make one, don’t ever sit down until you can find shelter.”

As I was sitting on that stump after the boat fire, my father’s words came back to me. I remember in my daze telling Don to “kick me” I woke up on the ground. I jumped up, grabbed Don by the lapels and told him we were leaving. We were going to somehow fix the boat, load everything back in it and float back to the truck. I told him I would rather die on the river attempting to get out, than I would of hypothermia sitting along the river bank. We had no fire, no shelter, no food – he agreed.

We patched the holes along the transom in the boat with foam from under the seats. We loaded all our gear in the front so as not to swamp the back where the holes were. We then shoved off and began to float back to Nenana. As I had lost my glasses, we switched off with Don’s glasses to read the river. Once we got to the Tanana which is over a 1/2-mile wide of glacial silt, we felt confident we could make it back.

We then encountered Mr. Murphy. (“Murphy’s Law.”]After thirty minutes or so on the big river, we saw a tugboat headed up to Fairbanks pulling a barge, and throwing a big wake. As we had a leaky boat on the stern, we knew if we took a wake, we were sunk, literally. We rowed frantically to the far side of the river, turned into the wake and crossed over behind the tug and barge without mishap. We made it to Nenana with no further trouble.

As I have related this story over the years, and am now preparing everyday for “The Crunch” I realize that no matter how prepared we are, how many books we read, how many exercises we drill at, we have to all at times rely on Divine intervention, first and foremost. Yes we were prepared that day for emergency, but not completely. We made mistakes, and we got things right. But without the intervention of YHWH, we would be dead.

During the times ahead of us, which I believe to be the unfolding of events that will usher in the return of our Messiah, we must be so tight with YHWH, that we will know what to do ahead of time prompted by his spirit. I pray that all that have read this, will understand we can be prepared, but if we aren’t redeemed, we don’t stand a chance with the Almighty when the last trumpet sounds. – Kepha in Idaho

JWR Replies: Thanks for sharing that story with us. As background, I should mention that I attended Northern Warfare School in Alaska, in 1980. It was the three week summer course for West Point and ROTC cadets. (It had nearly all of the fun of the winter course, but very little of the misery.) The first phase of the course was a week of riverine operations, on the Tanana River. What many readers that are unfamiliar with glacial rivers would not realize from reading your account is the depth of the peril you were in. For their benefit, let me add this: If Kepha’s expedient boat patches had not held and the boat had sunk mid-channel in the Tanana, he and Don probably would not have lived for more than 20 minutes, even wearing life vests. Glacial rivers are bitter cold–so cold that if you fall in, you can lose consciousness within 10 minutes. Their waters are also so silt-laden (which is what gives them their liquid chocolate appearance) that anyone that falls in very quickly has their pockets and every crevice of their clothing fill up with silt, weighing them down. This is often enough to drown even a very strong swimmer. Kepha’s survival was indeed a providential gift from God.