Growing up in Southwest Alaska, where travel by boat is more common than by car, I've sadly become accustomed to tragic boat wrecks and survived a few close calls myself. If you live in Alaska long enough, you are likely to encounter someone who has survived a boating accident, manage to survive one yourself, or lose someone you know to our dangerous waters. While working with Jimmy Settle on "Never Quit," his memoir about becoming an Alaska pararescueman, I found myself taken aback by his grandmother's harrowing story of her family's 1974 accident on Skilak Lake, the 15-mile-long lake on the Kenai Peninsula.
Old shipwrecks aside, I'd never heard of an Alaska boating mishap with so many souls lost to the cold depths of one of our lakes in a single incident.
Alaska waters can turn dangerous and deadly in an instant. This is a theme we're all-too aware of but often neglect when it comes to our own decisions on the water. Basic precautions, such as possessing proper safety equipment, honing knowledge of essential survival skills, and paying attention to changing weather conditions, can mitigate some of those dangers.
What follows is Jimmy's retelling of his grandmother's hair-raising ordeal on Skilak Lake. The full-length version appears in my new book written with Settle, "Never Quit." I hope others can learn from this tough Alaska family's tragedy and their resilience — and "never quit" being vigilant and cautious when enjoying our incredible waters.
— Don Rearden
One sunny summer day in July 1974, my grandma and her husband, Fred Schultz, were on their 24-foot riverboat with their children, some friends and their kids. Ten people in all. They were all camped out on the shore of Skilak Lake, on the Kenai Peninsula, and had gone out for a boat ride, when the wind picked up.
The famous Kenai River, with monster king salmon and huge trout, pours into the northeast end of the lake and drains out the northwestern end. The lake, shaped like a body of a giant helicopter, is 15 miles long, 2 miles wide, and more than 500 feet deep in places, with mountains and a glacier at one end. The waters of Skilak are notoriously cold and turbulent. It isn't unusual to have water temperatures hovering around 38 degrees, even in the summer. The mix of cold water and the glacial ice of the massive Harding Icefield, along with the high mountains that support it and work like a giant wind tunnel, make for a deadly combination that can turn a mirror-smooth lake into the frothing mouth of a monster in an instant. Within minutes, summer warmth combining with the cold can create winds that explode off the ice field in what Alaskans refer to as williwaws — strong gusts that tear down from glacial valleys, often wreaking havoc.
The families were camped where the Kenai drains into the upper part of the lake in a series of gravel bars and fast-moving braids.
They had been boating up the river to fish. This is my family. My roots. The generation before me, spending a beautiful sunny day together as a healthy, happy Alaska family.
Suddenly, monster waves
They fished all day long up the river, and around 6 that evening called it quits. As my grandma recalls, she wore only a T-shirt, jeans and hip waders. After a great afternoon of fishing, they packed their gear, donned their life jackets, and boated back down the Kenai. The agile riverboat slipped out through the flat water at the mouth of the river and into Skilak. At first, the lake's surface was only a little choppy, but in mere seconds their fun family outing turned serious and dangerous. The surface of the lake began to boil with huge, rolling waves. Fred, 35 and just named officer of the month by the Anchorage police force, had little choice but to try to turn the boat so they could stay closer to shore. The waves built and were soon 5 and 6 feet high, cresting and breaking and pushing and lifting. The flat-bottom boat wasn't designed for ocean-sized waves. Before any of them could react, one monster wave hovered over them and another surged at the bow.
"We're going to lose her!" Fred cried as the first wave crashed over the bow and thrust the boat downward. It was one of two things my grandma can remember him saying.
In an instant, everything went under. The next thing she knew, she was plunged into the water. The cold hit her with a jolt. Her rubber hip boots filled and began pulling at her legs like giant tentacles, sucking her down. She kicked off the boots and flailed for the surface. When she erupted from below, everybody was spread out and there were waves, giant waves.
My grandma spotted my grandfather and swam to him. He had been the only one of the 10 not wearing a life jacket. She wrapped her arms around him, trying to float and hold him above the water.
Fred gurgled and choked. Foam bubbled out of his mouth. He had only the strength to say one last thing to her, these words she would forever carry with her.
"I'm dying. Let me go."
Terror and confusion
She had to do the unthinkable. With no choice but to free her grip on the man she loved, she let go and began swimming.
The crests rose high over her head, and in the deep troughs she couldn't find the others. The situation was all terror and confusion.
At first, my mom and her best friend, Betty, held on to each other.
When my mom saw Fred drown, she realized the severity of their situation. She held on to Betty until her friend slipped from her hands, and she could feel herself slipping away, too.
My grandmother found Justin Koles, a family friend, holding my mom, who was 16. The young girl in his arms was unconscious, and Justin held her afloat and swam toward my grandma.
"Take Diane with you," my grandma, always in charge, yelled over the wind and breaking waves. "Swim for shore, and get help."
Justin, 27, also a policeman, kicked toward the shore, towing my mom. The cold was taking its toll. Grandma knew she didn't have much time left. With the last of her energy she made her way toward the rocky shore in order to save her own life. She had no idea what had become of their other two boys. All she knew was that her only chance of survival was to get out and find a way to get warm.
She struggled through the waves, her arms and legs so numb she couldn't even feel herself kicking.
When she reached the shore, the waves broke over the top of her and slammed her up against a steep cliff that rose straight up from the water. Her arms and legs barely held enough strength to keep her upright, but adrenaline and fear surged through her. All she could do was begin the steep climb. At this point she wore only a tank top, socks and jeans, all soaking wet in the wind.
While Grandma was climbing, Justin swam hard, with an arm around my mom. He fought the waves all the way to shore, and by luck he reached a small cove instead of the cliff face. He left my mom on the shore and ran. He sprinted along the shoreline to try to get help. In the meantime, my grandma reached the top of the cliff, not knowing if anyone else had made the swim to shore. She was hypothermic from the extended exposure to the frigid waters, and was trying to get her bearings. The shore of Skilak Lake in that area is rugged, with a dense forest of spruce, birch and tangled alder brush. She stripped down out of her clothes, wrung out her wet jeans, put them back on, and stuffed leaves and grass inside her clothes to try to stay warm. She continued exploring the terrain until she finally reached an overlook above the cove.
Below her, she spotted her daughter lying in the sand. She sprinted madly through the brush to reach my mom. When she arrived, she found my mom still unconscious, with foam bubbling out of her mouth, just like Fred. Grandma started doing chest compressions on her, yelling over and over, "You're not going to die! You're not going to die!"
With all the carnage on that day, Grandma felt she had to keep Diane from dying, and this was something she could do. She would do something about this. She wouldn't lose her girl, too. She worked until my mom's eyes fluttered and she started breathing on her own.
But Grandma's daughter still would die if she couldn't get her warm. Grandma found a Zippo lighter in her jeans pocket. The lighter was all wet and wouldn't work. She sat there, holding Diane in her arms, trying to warm her, and then an idea hit her.
She remembered a survival tip she had learned while watching an old show that aired in the early 1970s in Alaska, a short program about how to survive if you were caught in the Alaska wilderness. The 15-minute segments gave people all these little survival tips, and she realized the episodes kept flashing back to her. That was how she knew to use the grass to stuff into her clothing to create a barrier to keep her warm. The next thing she recalled was how to start a fire with a wet Zippo.
She collected a small pile of tinder. With her trembling hands, she somehow managed to get the lighter apart. She blew on the flint and wick to dry it a bit and then used the sparker to ignite the fuel sponge inside the lighter.
Soon she had my mom warming up by a big burning pile of driftwood, and then she ran down the beach and picked up life jackets that had floated ashore. She hung these up in a tree, so that boaters would see them.
Then, with the fire blazing, she took off on her own to try to find help. She bushwhacked for what felt like hours until she broke out on a rocky overlook where she could survey the lake. She couldn't see any signs of humanity. For a moment she lost it and began to shriek. She screamed into the roaring winds, and the way she tells the story, it felt like her screams were being shoved right back into her mouth. As if the wind that had already swallowed most of her family was just throwing her screams right back at her.
She wailed for a while and then started exploring again, until she realized she had just been walking in circles. Frustrated, disheartened and exhausted, she sat down, only to feel the vibrations of what she thought was an approaching boat motor. She raced over to the rocky overlook, hoping for help in the form of a fisherman, and she began to get excited. At first she didn't understand or believe what she saw. Instead of a fishing boat, there it was, nearly 12 hours after their boat sank: a giant green helicopter.
Frantic, she waved, and they spotted her. The helo hovered and a man in an orange suit jumped out of the bird, into the lake, and swam over to where she was. He checked her out and said, "We can't hoist out right here. We've got to hike a bit." So they hiked up above the prominence she was on and then they sent down "the bullet," the forest penetrator, a metal seat attached to the hoist cable, and hoisted her up into the helicopter.
Sitting inside were Justin and my mom. They were the only three survivors among the 10 souls on that boat. The aircrew flew them to the Soldotna hospital. My mother picked up pneumonia from the water that had penetrated deep into her lungs. My grandmother was treated for hypothermia. It would take a long time for either of them to warm up.
"It's really crazy that we got saved by the rescue guys and you went on to become one of them," my grandmother exclaimed to me, after sharing her version of our story. At first she had a hard time coping with the loss, but she said that what helped her move on was realizing that it's just life, and if you choose to live in Alaska, these things are going to happen.
‘We’re not boring people’
The remains of my step-uncle, Harold, 8 years old, were buried according to his living mother's wishes, and the remains of my aunt Kathy, also 8, were scattered over Sleeping Lady, a mountain north of Anchorage. To this day, my grandmother's husband, Fred, and their 9-year-old son Danny remain unrecovered.
The incredible thing is that during this whole struggle, my grandma never once thought she was going to die, never thought about giving up. According to my grandmother, smiling through the hard knocks and embracing the challenges in life is a family tradition.
"We're not boring people," she says. "Nothing is ever boring in our family."
I grew up with two notions as the only certainties in my life: nothing is ever boring, and, since that fateful day in July, that I come from a family where hardship and survival go hand in hand.
From "Never Quit" by Jimmy Settle and Don Rearden. Copyright 2017 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press.