If you’re stupid, you’ve got to be tough. Now don’t get me wrong here. Alaskans are not stupid - far from it. I’m talking about kids in general and two specific kids in Alaska. Many of us guys remember what it was like to be invincible - when the laws of nature and causality only applied to others and not to us. Youngsters in Alaska are no exception of course, but when they do something really stupid, they have to be a lot tougher.
My wife and I and our 35 y.o. son were on vacation in Alaska last week. We had all flown to Anchorage, and used that as a home base while seeing the sights in our rental car - the Alaska State Fair, Talkeetna, the beautiful Kenai Peninsula... On Thursday, we were enjoying crab omelets for breakfast with a 27 y.o. young man from Anchorage that I knew from an aviation forum. He offered to take my son 4-wheeling in the back country and since my son owns a jeep and is into that sort of thing, they both headed out for the Knik glacier about noon. (The Knik glacier is on the middle right of the map, below.)
They asked me to come along, but I didn’t relish the idea of bouncing around in fetal position the back of a jeep so - luckily as it turned out - I declined. Instead, I bought a $10 fishing pole at one of the two Wal-Marts in Anchorage and went fishing. After several hours of not getting any bites at the various lakes and streams in Anchorage , I gave up and returned to the hotel. Being late afternoon by now, the wife and I decided to retire to the patio behind the Millennium Hotel, which just happens to be on the final approach path to the Lake Hood floatplane base. That’s the biggest floatplane base in the world, located right next to the Anchorage airport. Guests can sit on the patio and watch the constant stream of float planes coming and going while sipping adult beverages and eating gourmet snack foods, which is exactly what we did.
I left a voice message on our son’s cell phone telling him where we were and to come join us when he got back. When he wasn’t back by 5PM, I left another message, then called the jeep owner’s wife. She told me "don't worry, they'll be fine". Yeah, right.
About 9 PM - back in our room now - I got a cryptic voice message from Mr. Jeep on my cell phone that they had “lost the jeep” and I needed to come pick them up at the Palmer airport, about 45 minutes north of Anchorage. Terri and I were about ready for bed, but instead we put our shoes back on, gassed up the rental car, and headed North. We got to Palmer about 45 minutes later, but amazingly, nobody there seemed to know where the airport was - it was very strange. I finally went into a pizza place and some old-timers pointed me in the right direction and we got there a few minutes later. The last message I had gotten from the kids was that they would be waiting at the Flight Service Station, so that’s where I went.
When I got to the FSS - almost 11PM now and dark - it was all closed up and nobody was around. About that time the cell phone rings again and it's them telling me that a friendly cop let had let them sit in the back of his cruiser to warm up, and that I should just look for the flashing lights. I saw the red and blue flashing lights midway down the airport and found the kids, shoeless, shirtless and still soaking wet. I thanked the police officer politely then we all headed back to Anchorage.
Now I wanted to hear the story about what happened, but She Who Must Be Obeyed had had it by this time. She screamed at the two kids to keep their d**n mouths shut and not say a single word all the way home. They didn’t. When SWMBO’s in one of “those moods”, I just keep quiet too.
Well, it didn’t matter - the story came out over the next few days. The dumb-a**es tried to ford a river too far. The water turned out to be much deeper than they had thought, the engine quit and the Jeep started floating down stream. They both scrambled up on top and for some reason, decided to strip down before they swam for it in the 35 degree water, like that would help. I guess they thought they could try to keep their clothes and belongings dry by holding them over their heads. Needless to say, that didn’t work. They lost everything in the rushing, icy water and scrambled empty-handed and half-clothed up the bank. They were forced to start walking out of the wilderness as the sun was going down.
After walking barefoot over rocks for five miles and as proof that there is a God - they came across a pilot couple of who were out there in their bush plane moose hunting. (That may have been at the Hunter Creek airport - the “circle-R” on the map.) The pilots took pity on the two kids and after doing some weight and balance calculations, the woman - the lighter of the two - flew them out to the Palmer airport. They crammed my son into the baggage compartment in the tail cone, and put the jeep driver (code name: “Swimmer”) in the rear seat. When they got to Palmer and once again had cell phone coverage, the good Samaritan pilot allowed the kids to use her cell phone to make the original distress call at 9PM. My son’s cell phone was somewhere at the bottom of the Knik river, of course.
So my son lost his cell phone, wallet, his last $100, his shirt and leather jacket but luckily, not his life. His feet were bruised from walking barefoot on rocks for five miles and he limped for the next couple days.
OK, so much for the “stupid” part. They went into the wilderness alone, didn’t tell anyone exactly where they were going or when they would be back, didn’t carry any survival supplies, didn’t check the depth of the river before crossing, then panicked and took their shirts and shoes off. But that’s all water under the hood... Now for the “tougher” part.
Having survived all that, most kids in the lower 48 would have called mommy and daddy and asked for a new jeep. Failing that, they would have called the insurance company and asked for a new jeep. But not Swimmer. Over the next few days, he rounded up his 4-wheeling buddies and they all drove up to the scene of the sinking and managed to pull the jeep out and tow it back to Anchorage.
My friend had to wade/swim back out in the 35 degree water (again) and dive down to hook up the tow rope. Me? I would have borrowed a dry-suit from a fisherman, but not these guys - they’re tougher in Alaska.