RT 053 Death, Escape, Retirement
The Noatak River is north of the Arctic Circle. It flows out of the westerly out of the Brooks Range and empties into Kotzebue Sound. The summer of my 40th birthday I celebrated by lounging on the banks of Embryo Lake about 150 miles up river from the mouth. Three days later I found myself in the vortex of a whirlpool hanging on to one end of a kayak. Death roared all around me and my only thoughts were that my wife and kids, and that they would be okay. I had lived a good life and it was about to end above the Arctic Circle. I would say that I was - accepting of the circumstances. Of course, I didn’t die. I’m doing this podcast 27 years later.
This is Retirement Talk. I’m Del Lowery.
Death is a constant companion in life. It doesn’t take long to happen – and it is for sure. Some of us have the pleasure of at least reaching this advanced stage of life called retired. We have escaped death once, twice, or perhaps many times. The escape makes these days of retirement possible; also the story. We need to remind ourselves.
It was the summer of 1980. My wife and I decided to stay in Alaska that year. No trips. A friend went to the Brooks Range every summer and always wanted me to accompany him. He was a man of the wilderness. I always declined. This particular year I had no excuse. “Okay”, I would go.
We looked at maps. Decided on a two week hike over the head waters of the Noatak River in the Brooks Range.. And then a two week kayak down the river to Kotebue Sound.
We took a jet out of Anchorage to Kotzebue. Two time zones away – that was my idea of staying home. Then a smaller plane to Ambler and our rendezvous with Jack Rule our bush pilot. He flew us into the Walker Lake. We carried 85 pound packs and a shotgun. I had been told that I couldn’t go with a gun. It was bear country. As we waited for the clouds to lift from Amber we met an old native. He asked where we were going. He nodded his head slowly and said, “You go into their country now”. He was referring to the grizzly bear.
The guide let us off in a steady rain. He asked if we were sure we wanted off there. I remember a feeling of emptiness as his plane lifted off the lake and left us with only the sound of raindrops. We pitched our first camp right on the shore.
We did not walk across clear, open tundra as promised. We fought our way up this draw through dense 10 to 20 foot alder and willow. We say many signs of bear. It never stopped raining. We were soaked. The mosquitoes were Alaskan in size and quantity. On the fifth day we crested the top and enjoyed the next four full days of sunshine and tundra beauty. Down we went.
A big bear appeared about a mile down valley; he was moving across the valley towards our side of the mountain. We lost sight of him. Later, we decided to take a pipe break. We threw our packs on the tundra, and as we started to sit down - within 40 feet, this big, blond, grizzle stood straight up. He was right behind my friend. We grabbed our shotguns; pumped shells into the chambers. The bear must have been 10 foot tall. Enormous! He moved his head up and down getting our scent. Then he came down and ran faster than any horse I have ever seen, away and right up the side of the mountain. Amazing.
Our bush pilot came in on schedule and we shifted everything to the kayak. It was a canvas fold boat; we were overloaded. My long legs made attaching a spray skirt impossible. We had to strap a couple of things on. I was much bigger than my friend and sat in the back of the boat. The river was small and we made poor time. We knew our wives would call search-and-rescue if we were not back on time. We stayed on the river for long days.
The wind blew stiffly on the fifth day. Whitecaps appeared as the river got larger. It was cold. We had everything we owned including our life jackets. We should have taken the day off, but our shrinking time frame made us push on. The river braded and then rejoined. Atongerak Creek feed into the river right at that point. A large whirlepool appeared at the junction. The wind was standing the water high, but my paddle on the right side of the boat was hitting only thin air. The water dropped off into a vortex. We spun around the outside of the whirlpool once and then as we struggled to break from it’s grip, a standing wave swamped the boat. We were in the water; clinging to the boat.
Being the larger of the two I found myself right in the center of the whirlpool. My friend was spinning around out towards the perimeter. This was glacial water and we could not remain in the water for long. It was noisy. I shouted, “What do we do”. He shouted back, “Next time we come around, swim for shore”.
I remember letting go of the boat and then swimming hard. Exhausted, I found the shore with my hands, my body still floating in the cold water. I might insert here, that just by chance, I had spent the entire previous winter swimming every morning before work. Luck again at work.
Then hypothermia, getting the boat out, days camped on the tundra, sending out a message, a bush plane flying over dropping a note suggesting we kayak on down the river for three days to a ranger station at the Cutler River, three days waiting for a plane to take us to Kotzebue and a three hour flight back to Anchorage with Fred Myers, stop lights, and family. These could all be elaborated on, but –
Sometimes I think the most important thing about whatever we do is the story. We might escape death on occasion and when we do the story becomes an important part of our life. The escape - that is what makes all of this possible: the story, and retirement.
This is Retirement Talk.