Episode 368 (053) Death, Escape, Retirement
This is Retirement Talk. I’m Del Lowery.
The Noatak River is north of the Arctic Circle. It flows 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 would be okay. I had lived a good life and it was about to end. There would be no retirement. I was accepting of the circumstances. Of course, I didn’t die. I’m doing this podcast 27 years later.
Death is a constant companion in life. It can come quickly and quite unexpectedly. We may have escaped death once, twice, or perhaps several times. If we are lucky Retirement becomes a possibility. We need to remind ourselves of our good fortune.
In the summer of 1980 my wife and I decided to stay in Alaska. No trips. A friend went to the Brooks Range every summer and had 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 that river to Kotebue Sound.
We took a jet out of Anchorage to Kotzebue. Two time zones away – an Alaskan concept of staying home. Then a smaller plane to Ambler; a small native village on the kobuk River. 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.
We carried 85 pound packs and a shotgun. I had been told that I couldn’t go with a gun. It was bear country. Jack Rule, a bush pilot, flew us into the Walker Lake and let us off on a silent and dreary shore in a steady rain. I remember him asking 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. Though mid afternoon wepitched our first camp right on the shore. Spirits were not high.
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. We followed the stream down as it grew into a river
On the fourth day 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. What would have happened if he had charged? Would our shotguns have stopped him? We were neither one hunters. If we would have stopped him what would we have done with a nine hundred pound bear? We couldn't legally kill it and then leave it. I guess we all three escaped the bullet.
Our bush pilot came in on schedule at a small lake. 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 on including our life jackets. We had no business on the river but our shrinking time frame made us push on. The river bradded and then rejoined. Atongerak Creek feed into the river. A large whirlpool appeared at the junction. The wind was standing the water high and 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 a Fred Myers store, stop lights, and family. These could all be elaborated on, but –
One thought that survived the whirlpool was that life can end any day and I would retire the first chance I got. That came just four years later. The escape - that is what makes all of this possible: the story, retirement and a good cup of coffee.
This is Retirement Talk.