Letting your guard down: Husband still has a ways to go before he’s a sourdough

Voices of the Clarion

Posted: Sunday, August 27, 2006

It’s really just a fine line between being a sourdough and a cheechako.

Most think it is your years of residency, how many bears you have fought off, cords of wood you chopped, gallons of water you hauled or trips to the outhouse you endured. Sometimes it is as simple as having common sense.

Common sense is something even those of us like my husband, Scott, and I with our combined 60-plus years of residency forget. Not forgot — maybe more like grew complacent. OK, OK, we’ve become arrogant in our ability to handle ourselves in the outdoors.

The demise of Scott’s hard-earned sourdough status took place earlier this month when, as a birthday present, he took our youngest, Zack, by boat to his favorite place, Seldovia.

A shakedown trip the previous month found our most aptly named boat, Empty Pockets, shipshape. We are a seafaring family at heart and have a healthy regard for the old man of the sea. The guys work hard at keeping the boat in running order and they adhere to all the safety rules. For us that includes making a float plan so those left on land know where the boaters are going and when they will return.

Never deviating from this routine is what led me to being within five minutes of calling the Coast Guard.

Overdue by 20 minutes and unable to reach them, I began to wonder if they had gone down.

It sounded a little hysterical, however, according to Bosun Mate First Class (BM1) Mark MacDonald, stationed with the Coast Guard cutter the Roanoke Island. On the long list of questions they ask when you call is, “Does the overdue party have a history of this?”

No, he didn’t. And knowing from personal experience how cold Alaska’s waters are and how fast things can go wrong, I felt the need to worry. As I weighed my options I thought back on the day I almost drown.

When I was a junior in high school, me and two other family members decided to float a canoe down the Kenai River when it was at flood stage. A lot like the weather this summer, it had been raining and the river was running fast.

The problem with this decision was one of us could not swim, two of us had no real paddling experience, we had no canoe or life vests and floating the Kenai in a canoe is not generally considered a smart thing to do. Since it was a group decision of stupidity, though, I won’t name the family members.

Scott and I were dating at the time, so I went to his house for a canoe and life vests. He was not happy with the idea and his mom predicted a bad ending. But he lent me the gear, and after writing his name and phone number in the canoe said jokingly, “At least I will get the canoe back.”

It was a terrible moment for him when a man called to say he found his canoe half submerged, floating down the river without people in it.

Yes, we dumped it over. (Next to waiting for Scott and Zack to call, I have never been so scared.)

We continued on with our stupidity and did everything wrong — panicking, leaving the boat and getting near the nonswimmer, who climbed on my head — we were all lucky to make it to an island on the river.

We spent the day there getting hypothermic waiting for someone to notice we had not returned home. We were found by rescuers looking for a man who had filed a float plan and hadn’t showed up.

That man did not survive. We had no right to be lucky enough to live.

When my grandfather drove me over to Scott’s to let him know I lost the canoe, he was much more loving and understanding than I was when I got a hold of him.

Scott told one of my co-workers later that that’s when he decided to marry me, so he could keep me out of trouble.

Up until a few weeks ago he has repeated the Kenai River story to remind me and our kids to be safe.

At the 25-minute mark of their overdue adventure — and knowing every minute counts and they could already be dead — I remembered he has a friend who owns a bed and breakfast in Seldovia. I didn’t know the name of the inn, so I called their home, hoping someone would be there. I cried when the answering machine came on, but luckily they gave the name on the machine.

In tears, I called. Scott and Zack had just walked in the door at the inn. Their boat had broken down. Scott decided to fly home but the weather was so horrible flights were put off. Then there was his fateful decision: He knew he was fine, and we had been together so long, he assumed I would know that, and that he had a nice place to stay and be out of the weather. He wasn’t worried.

Five minutes is how close I came to calling the Coast Guard. They, in turn, would have put out an all-call to mariners in the area, launched a cutter and/or helicopters. With the weather conditions, we easily could have put the lives of several hundred people in jeopardy.

Alaska waters are cold and unforgiving. The thought of my family being at the bottom of the bay made me sick with worry, but the thought of risking the lives of others for what turned out to be nothing made me heartsick.

I decided to write about this to let others know how easy it is to let down your guard. After all, it is like BM1 MacDonald said — it will be a series of things that go wrong, sometimes so rapidly you don’t have time to recover. For us our new game plan for safety is no matter how small that one thing is, we call and let someone know.

Scott didn’t mind that I wrote this, and he has had to tell his friends why he has no free time. You see he has 50 more cords of wood to chop, 60 trips to the outhouse/doghouse to make and a few more bears to deal with before I quit calling him a cheechako.

Nancianna Misner is the newsroom assistant at the Clarion.

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