Walking Across Alaska: The River, Part II

Posted May 7, 2012
Walking Across Alaska: The River, Part II

By: Scott Railey

Read Part I Here

Part II

“Man, it’s cold,” growled Steve Vogt.

I stirred in my sleeping bag listening to the loud river roaring by our tent. The old toboggan on my head helped me keep warm through the night. It was a lesson I had learned in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness area while elk hunting. Like the ole American Express says, “Don’t leave home without it.”

I moved my .45 Long Colt to the side and piled out of my sleeping bag. Dang, it was cold. I jumped in my jeans and flannel shirt, pulled on my hip waders and grabbed my coat. Unzipping our dollar store tent, I stepped out facing the morning and looking at the most beautiful river I had ever seen. The Chili River was about 30 yards wide at this point with a 20-foot bank on the other side. There were several rocks in the middle of the current the size of a Volkswagen, and the water pounded them with anger, leaving a tail stream behind each rock. I stood in awe, staring at this highway of water, wondering where it would take us today.

Steve had already started a fire using driftwood. Since our stove didn’t work, he took the grill out and used it to cook over an open fire. Before long, we had coffee percolating in my Dad’s old aluminum pot from the 1940’s. We used maple syrup instead of sugar and had no cream, but my gosh, it was good. You know…coffee really hits the spot out in the woods and drinking it out of a tin cup makes it even better.

But something changed on this trip…I was demoted as camp cook. Steve was on one knee leaning over the fire, cooking oatmeal. He looked up and said, “I’m not eatin your food no more...I’m cookin! I been eatin your food since we were kids, you can’t cook and I’m takin over!” 

I arrogantly replied, “Good, that’s just what you need to do. Heck, I’ll take over washing dishes, so knock yourself out Dr. Cook.”

Dern, that was a good move for real. Steve is a great cook and took over that job from then on until this day. We ate our breakfast and finished the pot of coffee, broke camp and loaded the raft to head downriver for a mountain range 20 miles away. As I manned the oars, Steve sat in the bow. As I eased the raft into the current, it picked up speed, and then took off at an alarming rate. 

“Man, this river is hot,” said Steve. 

“Yeah, she’s fast,” I replied. I had never navigated a class II river before, but you have to learn somewhere. A baptism under fire ain’t the place. To make matters worse, this wasn’t a class II… it was faster. Surprisingly I learned quickly and begin to read the river and stay in the edge of the current and to instinctively stay out of trouble. Lesson number one - watch out for sweepers! A sweeper is a washed out tree hanging in the river but still attached to the bank.  Water crashes into it sucking everything through and under the limbs and trunk. Make no mistake, it’s a death trap. 

The raft had to be controlled at all times. It was both physically and mentally taxing. It was also extremely humbling. The river doesn’t care who you are or where you’re from or how much money you have. You mess up, there’s a price to pay.

I fought the river for several hours when we decided to pull over and eat lunch. I found a spot where the river made a sharp bend to the left and I rowed hard to a pool on the right side at the bend. It was just the spot to safely beach the raft. I ran the bow into the shallows and Steve jumped out with a rope to secure it to a tree. 

We ate a sandwich and rested for a few minutes. 

“Scott, look at this map. We need to travel a few more hours to reach this mountain range,” Steve said. 

“Well, let’s saddle up,” I replied. 

We jumped back in the raft and Steve said, “Let me drive for a while.”

We traded places and I shoved the raft out while Steve was behind the oar. Steve, like me, grew up in Florida on the water. We drove boats before we rode bikes. But this was different. We were 400 miles from nowhere. There was no one there to help us if we got in trouble. 

Steve oared into the current and then it shot us down river at a deadly pace. The river picked up speed…then it got faster. As I looked at the bank and surrounding landscape, I realized we were racing downhill. I looked ahead and realized the river was going to force us into a head-on crash against a six-foot tall bank at the next bend. There was nothing Steve could do, or me, if I had been behind the oars. 

The raft crashed into the wall and we were thrown into the floor of the raft. Water crashed over the back of the stern and filled the raft full. We recovered our positions as the current grabbed us again and shot us downriver. The raft was no longer a boat….it was filled with water and was now one with the river. 

“Scott, I can’t hold it,” Steve yelled. “I can’t control it!” he yelled.

 I reached for our cooler in hopes to use it to bale water from the raft. At this point the river was so loud you had to yell at each other to communicate. As I grabbed the cooler Steve yelled, “Do you hear that? What is that, Scott?”

A roar, almost like a moan, was coming from downriver. We were crashing into rocks and the bank….totally out of control. The river made a sharp bend to the right and there it was…like a monster perched waiting for its prey. It was a sweeper on the left bank where the river was deep and fast. A large tree hung there in the current blocking the way. Water was smashing into it and sucking under it with a sickening sound.

 I yelled, “You better do something!” 

Steve was putting all of his strength into the oars to no avail. The river owned us. 

Steve yelled, “Hang on Scott!”

“My God,” I said. 

We smashed into the tree breaking limbs and part of the trunk. Steve was flattened to the back of the raft with a vicious blow to the head. I vaguely remember seeing a vacant seat where Steve had once sat. 

Suddenly I was slapped violently from the raft into the icy river and into the storm of water attacking the tree. As I hit the water I was sucked to the bottom and was instantly entangled into the limbs eight feet below the surface. Immediately, my first thought was my Dad pulling the truck over on the way to the airport, begging me not to go. 

“This is going to kill my Father,” I thought.

Then I thought of my daughter Elizabeth. She was only 2 years old…I could smell her hair. I could feel her kisses on my cheek. I thought of my two little boys attacking me when I would come in from work. 

I fought to free myself from this watery grave, but I was hopelessly tangled. 

I remember praying, “God help me,” as I fought for my life. 

Agonizing for a breath, I fought and then I fought more - like no other time in my life. The thought of death enraged me and my lungs desperately ached. The pain was excruciating as I continued to fight to free myself from the mortal grips of the tree. 

The next thing I remembered is being shot above the water. I gasped for air, filling my lungs and crashed into the six foot wall of the bank. The river pounded me for another 20 yards against the bank, when as unbelievable as it sounds, I spotted a huge root sticking out of the bank at water level, like a large hand reaching to me for safety. I grabbed the root with all of my strength as the river slapped me on top and against the bank. I scratched and crawled my way onto the bank and finally dry land. 

I said, “Lord, thank you.” 

Exhausted, on hands and knees, I watched as the raft disappear around the bend. 

I struggled to my feet and noticed I had my Stetson hat in my right hand. Don’t ask me how, but I did. I continued to catch my breath and immediately worried about Steve. I thought I had seen him in the raft before it disappeared and knew I had better get downriver and try to find him quickly. 

I sat down, took off my hip waders and drained them. Putting the waders back on, I stood up, checked my Ruger .45 Long Colt, pulled my Stetson hat down on my head like a football helmet and started walking. 

The temperature was in the high 30’s and it started to rain. I got cold…I mean real cold. Within a few minutes I started to shake. No problem, I thought. I stopped, gathered driftwood, pulled out a tube of fire ribbon from my pocket and applied it to the wood. I pulled out a cigarette lighter from another pocket, got down on a knee and thumbed the lighter. Nothing. I shook the lighter, thumbed it again and…nothing. I wasn’t thinking clearly…the flint was wet and it was not going to light. 

Well, the old pucker factor kicked in. I was in a world of hurt. I abandoned my fire attempt and started walking again. Surely Steve got the raft over to the bank if he wasn’t injured. But the longer I walked, a fear of doom started to overwhelm me. 

I had gone several miles and the cold was slowly taking the life from me. Then the unthinkable happened…I started to hallucinate. I was having a conversation with my Dad. I was actually talking to him. Heck, he was actually talking back to me. Hypothermia had set in. It affects different folks in different ways. 

After a while I stopped shaking and got real sleepy. I thought if I could just stop and sleep for one hour I would be ok. I shook my head, realizing I was in trouble. I convinced myself this was merely a training exercise…that’s right, a competitive event. So I started a slow, controlled jog and folks I’m telling you…in five minutes I was feeling much better. I then would walk, but when I felt hypothermia creeping back, I would jog and it worked. 

Dark was closing in and the reality of surviving an Alaskan night…wet, in the middle of September with no fire…well…the odds were against me and I knew it. I looked downriver and there was a bend a quarter of a mile downstream. Maybe Steve would show up around that bend. I started to limp and noticed my knee was swollen so bad that my jeans were skin tight on my right leg. Dang, I must have sprained it in the wreck. Then I noticed blood dripping off my face. I was beat up, but I was still alive.

I jogged to the bend and desperately hoped I’d see a raft around the corner, but it wasn’t there and the temperature was dropping as night approached.

I was almost sick worrying about Steve. He was more like a brother than a friend. We had grown up together. Steve was now a Doctor of Pharmacy in Orlando. It’s kind of funny, as kids we fought, even slugged it out in high school. But in college, I tore a knee up and Steve volunteered to drive me around for a couple of weeks while I healed from surgery…from then on, we were best friends. I felt sure he was alive…he was tough and he was smart. He’d find a way to get that raft over. I had to find him fast or walk all the way to Dillingham, several hundred miles to the south, and that wasn’t going to happen.

I thought about my Dad again, realized how much I loved him and my Mom….how proud I was of him and how much I loved them both. My thoughts then went to my children again. 

From nowhere, a grizzly cub raced across a gravel bar a football field ahead. Then the mama followed the cub at a sprint into the timber on my side of the river. 

“Crap…that’s just great.” Here I am worrying about freezing to death when I’m going to get eaten by a mama grizzly and her kid in tow. I checked the rounds in my Ruger 45, holstered it and did the unthinkable. No…I didn’t shoot myself. I waded back out into the river and swam with the current past the point where the bears entered the woods. The river took me on for another 100 hundred yards past the bears where I climbed back on dry land. You see, I had no choice but to enter the water again. To walk into a mama grizzly with chillins would have been the end for sure.

I started to walk again, but from my second swim in the frigid water, I started to feel hypothermia creep back in, so I started to jog. After a few minutes I begin to feel better. 

It was getting darker and it was getting colder. I stopped and looked at the beautiful scenery as darkness was stealing. Even in my condition I realized how beautiful Alaska was. 

I then went to a knee and prayed, “Father, you know I love You and trust You. I know You love me, even though I’m not worthy. I’m in trouble here and need your help. Please get me out of this mess. Amen.” 

I started a fast walk. There was another bend in the river a few hundred yards. I started to jog and then ran to the bend. I anxiously looked downriver and what a sight…a beautiful, blue raft was two hundred yards from me on the other side of the river. Lo and behold, old Steve Vogt was standing next to it.

“Thank you Lord,” I said. 

Steve saw me and started some kind of Indian dance, or at least that’s what it looked like to me. Again we had to yell as we attempted to communicate across the river as the roar was deafening. It was twenty yard wide at this point. 

Steve yelled, “Scott I knew you would make it. I swear I heard angels when we hit that tree.”

 I yelled back, “Steve, I’m in trouble. I’m not thinking right.”

I had now been in wet clothes for several hours in freezing temperature.

Steve had done a miraculous job in getting the raft to shore. He had taken a water jug, tied it to a rope and snagged it in a tree, which swung the raft over to the bank…pretty smart. 

I yelled, “I’m going to walk on downriver a hundred yards. You row the raft over on my side and I’ll jump in when you pass.” 

And that was exactly how we did it. I jumped in the raft as he floated by….then Steve rowed to shore. We slapped each other on the back and grinned. I noticed a huge bruise on the side of his face. 

He looked at me and said, “You don’t look good.” 

We made camp. We wrung our wet sleeping bags out. They were made of Hollofil. If they had been made of cotton or down, we would have frozen to death. I remember that I ate an apple and a hunk of cheese. I stripped my wet clothing down to my polypropylene thermal underwear and climbed in my Coleman Peak bag. Then within a few minutes, for the first time in many hours, I was warm. Then we started to laugh. 

Steve said, “I guess you’ll tell everyone that it was my fault.” 

“No,” I replied, “it was unavoidable.” 

The warm bag brought me back to my senses. It was like nothing had ever happened now. The warmth seemed to erase the horror of the last few hours.

Then out of the clear blue Steve said, “You remember when we were kids and Jimmy Desbolt beat the crap out of you on Pershing Avenue. Man that was funny.” 

I replied, “Well dang, he was four years older than me.”

Steve said, “He hit you in the head with an orange and knocked you off your bike. You walked up to Jimmy and, like an idiot, punched him in the face. Ha!” 

I said with disgust, “Well it was not my finest hour.” 

Steve said, “That may have been the dumbest thing I ever saw you do, but dang it was funny.  He beat you like a yard dog.”

I replied, “Steve, remember when you and I got in that boxing match? I had a mouth piece and you didn’t. So you waded up a big ole piece of toilet paper and put it in your mouth.” Steve didn’t reply so I went on. “Remember I hit you with a body shot to the stomach and that toilet paper shot out of your mouth like a canon ball.”

Steve finally replied, “I don’t remember it that way and I ain’t talkin no more, you fool.” 

We both started laughing until exhaustion finally took over. Right before I drifted to sleep I thanked God again for sparing my life. Then I listened to the river. Just an hour before my life dangled at its mercy. Now, warm in my sleeping bag, the same river talked to me, easing my mind, calming my spirit, drifting me into a deep sleep.   

To be continued………….

scott railey, alaska