Kayak fire strands pair on island

Posted: Tuesday, September 19, 2000

HAINES (AP) -- Two tour guides waded through two miles of frigid, sometimes neck-deep water to shore after a freak fire destroyed their kayaks and stranded them on an island in Chilkat Inlet.

Johnny Lahr and Eric Koppe, both bicycle tour guides living in Haines for the summer, camped on Pyramid Island south of town on the night of Sept. 1, hoping to photograph the aurora borealis, the two told the Chilkat Valley News.

Before turning in at about 1 a.m., they doused their driftwood fire with water until no embers were visible, Lahr said. But at 6:30 a.m,. they awoke and saw flames near their boats, which were about 50 feet from the campfire.

By then, all that was left of the boats were their metal rudders and a small chunk of each bow.

''It was like a candle burns down to nothing,'' said Lahr.

A scorched trail showed the flames had spread from the beach to low brush, traveled along a 40-foot log, changed direction to follow a 10-foot patch of driftwood, devoured the plastic boats and died. Lahr said he picked up a four-foot remnant of his boat's bow and snuffed out the burning end like a cigarette.

''It was like it burned with intelligence, almost,'' said Koppe. ''It was just so preposterous. We laughed a lot and went back to sleep.''

At 10 a.m. they woke again to tackle the problem of getting off a wind-swept island with a storm approaching.

They stashed the gear the fire had spared, stripped down to long underwear, put their dry clothes into a waterproof bag, strapped their boots around their necks and headed into the water.

The incoming tide made the shortest route to shore impossible, so they headed north into the flats at the mouth of the Chilkat River.

Lahr said the water ranged from knee deep to neck deep, with no way of telling what was ahead. Their feet and legs became stiff with cold as they fought currents and river silt.

More than a dozen times they tried heading to shore, but each time they encountered sections of water running too fast and two deep to wade.

Finally, they discovered a passable channel and reached land, only to find that their waterproof bag had failed, soaking their clothes. They hiked two miles back to their car in their long underwear.

They returned to the island later and retrieved their bags and the bow from Lahr's kayak, but the tiny remnant of Koppe's 16-foot boat wasn't big enough to retrieve even as a souvenir of the ordeal.

''Basically, it's a key chain,'' Koppe said.

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