Thursday, July 7, 2011

Near-Death Experience on Lake Laberge: Day 4 of the Yukon River Trip--part 2

What?  It's 1:45 a.m.? 

It's now 1:45 a.m., and I'm writing in my journal with no headlamp!  This almost constant light is strange and plays with my internal clock.  We have not had trouble sleeping in the light as I had expected; we're just too worn out--sometimes sleeping 10-12 hours a night without meaning to do so.

So, back to the day's horrific events…

A Somewhat Calmer Lake Laberge
When the waves finally subsided to a lazy rolling motion, we made our way out from where we had been holed up and paddled north while hugging the eastern lakeside.  The shore offered our only means of survival from the nearly icy waters of Lake Laberge should tragedy strike. The condition of the water pleased us, though it was nowhere near the mirror we gazed into yesterday.  Once again, the sun prodded us to shed our layers, and Lake Laberge poured on her charm & deception.  Our life jackets seemed cumbersome & unnecessary as well as my shoes, and all were foolishly shoved aside as we paddled on to make miles. 

The warnings of unpredictable Lake Laberge were carelessly forgotten by the time a sudden drop in temperature snatched me from my fog of sluggish daydreams that can only come after sleep deprivation, too much physical exertion, and not enough food.  Chasing the sudden coldness was the haunting sound of the Yukon wind bellowing through the trees on a high bluff to our right.  Before I could grab a layer to throw on, Lake Laberge began to flaunt her intention of taking our lackadaisical approach to safety as a challenge.

It was as though a giant index finger flipped a switch and turned on the most awesome wave pool at the largest water park in the world.  Had that been the case, I would’ve giggled & squealed during the next 25-30 minutes while helplessly flailing to & fro and desperately trying to cling to the flat wooden deck of our boat.  In reality, Lake Laberge had just waged a relentless war of trying to cast us off the Sundowner, which now seemed more like a Bucking Broncho ride than the pontoon boat we had built for our Yukon River Trip. 

Wickedly undulating, Lake Laberge then conjured her confederate, the ruthless Yukon wind, to aid in her assault. Whipping the Sundowner sideways, the escalating tempest forced us to teeter-totter up & down the 6-foot swells that were closer together than our boat was wide.  Jake, our lone warrior in this indefensible battle, mustered his strength (from where, I don’t know) to keep us from being sucked out into the middle of the 3-mile wide lake.  Feeling helpless without knowing how to contribute, I kept thinking he won't be able to keep this up for long.

The shock of our situation released its freeze on my brain, and I lunged toward the trolling motor that had been helping us keep our steady 1 mph pace before calamity struck.  Twisting the handle clockwise to increase the motor speed and slamming it to the left, I hoped to somehow aid in Jake’s campaign in getting us to the eastern shore.  In what seemed like only seconds, the motor slowed to a low hum, and I knew that the battery was drained.  Instinct prevailed and I began unscrewing both wing nuts in order to switch the connector cables to a second marine battery.  Nimbly putting the wing nuts back on the first drained battery, I then twisted the next set on our second (and fully charged) deep cycle marine battery. 

Ardent prayers of anguish escaped my mouth as I again tried to aid in Jake’s pursuit to shore.  Jake barked orders of correction in my angle of the trolling motor while he desperately continued paddling.  My prayers to God, feverishly increasing in volume & intensity, continued and then halted as I realized that the second battery was nearly exhausted of all power.  It can’t be I thought, knowing that this battery had held a full charge before engaging it.  But, it could be, for I returned the handle to a twelve o’clock position and felt no power when I yanked it once again clockwise.

My prayers then called on God’s angels as I released the connector cables from the second drained battery:  “God, if you won’t help us, please at least send some of your angels!”  I then began broadcasting my pleas to His angels, begging that at least one feel pity for us and come to aid in our fight for survival.  Connecting our third and final (and fully charged) marine battery, I once again thrust the handle of the trolling motor clockwise and felt the buzz of the motor fighting the vicious billows of Lake Laberge. 

Amidst his combat with Laberge’s rampage, Jake interrupted my heavenly appeals by yelling, "The oars are bending!  The oars are bending!"  These were the 11 ft. Cataract oar shafts that are "made with the used by the aerospace industry" (company description).  We weren't getting swept out to the middle, but we weren't getting any closer to shore. 

“High side!  Low side!  High side!  Low side!”  Jake’s words reached my ears, and I struggled to decode their meaning.  I abandoned the trolling motor, which no longer provided power due to a third (and final) depleted battery.  How Lake Laberge devoured two-and-a-half batteries in less than 15 minutes will forever remain an enigma.  “High side!  High side!”  Jake hollered, and my body jolted into submission, translating his command. I lay flat on the Sundowner’s deck as she surged my head upward to the empty Heavens while my feet pointed down to the icy waters.  The grunt of the next “High side!” triggered me to contort my body into a folded V position as we rode the wave back down.  Again and again, I flattened & folded on Jake’s “High side!” orders, while all the while calling God’s angels to come rescue us.

"Rocks!  Jake, we're headed straight for those rocks!" I pointed & screamed over the wind, the deck-drenching waves, and the creaking & moaning of our cabin with all of its contents banging in rhythm to Laberge's turbulence.  Most unnerving was the ever-constant CLANK…CLANK…CLANK of our shovel beating and sounding out a promised death toll. As water swamped our deck & cragged rocks threatened our fate, Jake tried to change course and paddle the Sundowner farther out onto the lake with its murky depths reaching almost 500 feet and its water temperature measuring around 40
.  Surviving a swim from this distance in the frigid Yukon waters was not possible.  As death blew down upon us and Lake Laberge grabbed at the oars, our spirits raged & fought for the incomprehensible prospect of surviving this horrific battle. 

“Life vests!  Jake, get the life vests!” I yelled, and a life jacket flew into my hands as though drawn by a strong magnet. Slipping it on, my thoughts turned to my dear, sweet Gretel, our dog of eleven years.  Not understanding why we didn’t return for her, would she ever stop watching & waiting for us?  How heart-wrenchingly unfair!  And, my parents…oh, my parents!  “God, please don’t let us go this way for their sake!” I lamented, thinking they didn’t deserve to lose us like this—never knowing what happened…always wondering if we were somehow still alive and deserted in the unforgiving Yukon wilderness. 

Looking north over my right shoulder, my eyes locked onto the ominous sight of the jagged rocks, which promised imminent destruction of the Sundowner and all of her cargo.  Visions of flesh tearing & bones splintering as we slammed into the rocks fueled my imagination.  Terrorized by the impending pain that lay in our path, I once again proclaimed the presence of rocks jutting out of the water before us.  “I know!  Susan, I know!” cried Jake.  “I can’t stop us!”  Watching Jake wrestle the oars, I knew he was right; we were on a course bound for collision.

Looking back at the rocks, I tried devising a plan to implement upon impact.  All-consuming anxiety prevented me.  I was sure of one thing:  the Sundowner with all of our gear would sink hundreds of feet to forever rest on the bottom of Lake Laberge.  It certainly wouldn’t be the first (or the last) shipwreck in these waters.  I knew the bitter cold water would not grant our muscles the ability to swim the long way to shore, so I allowed myself to once again try out the idea that we actually might not survive…  No! 

Ripping my eyes from the rocks, I frantically searched for a witness to our vicious demise.  Who would tell our story?  Who would share how we battled Laberge?  …how we clung to each other in the end?   I craned my neck to survey each shore—no tents, no cabins, no roads—nothing.  My eyes scanned all around the choppy lake for another vessel—nothing.  I searched the skies for a plane, a helicopter—and again, nothing.  We were alone; no one was watching…

God’s mercy came in the form of wind.  It flipped us 180°, and we sailed farther out toward the middle of the lake.  By God’s grace & Jake's unrelenting struggle against the wind & waves, the Sundowner narrowly missed the rocks.

With her stern now pointing toward the eastern shore, Jake rowed instead of paddled, granting his crippled muscles a minuscule reprieve.  I stood for the first time since before Laberge’s traumatizing assault to assess the distance to shore.  It was still so far….  Jake grunted & moaned with each straining row, further tearing and ripping his already overburdened muscles.  I raved aloud constant praise to Jake and cheered on his progress while updating him on distance & becoming the eyes for his blinded path. 

Still fighting the somewhat subdued yet choppy waves, the Sundowner made her way closer to shore.  When I could see the lake bottom & hoped I could touch, I jumped off the deck with the blue NRS straps that were tied to the bow of our boat.  I crashed into the frigid water up past my waist and ran in slow motion against the surging water, fighting my way to land.  Upon seeing me take that plunge, Jake collapsed into a pile of exhaustion, trusting that I would now be able to tug us safely to shore.  Adrenaline masked the stabs of icy pain violating my legs & lower torso as I trudged on, my eyes fixed on the shoreline.

"Don't worry, baby, I won't let you go!  I promise.  I've got the boat!"  These sentences and other similar utterings tumbled out of my mouth all the way to shore where I tied us to an old, sturdy stump.  Once the Sundowner was secure, I mumbled & muttered myself back into the biting water and then up onto the boat where I crawled to and collapsed on top of Jake.  We sobbed & shuddered as we clung to each other, both of us not quite sure how or why we escaped the terror Lake Laberge had just thrown our way.  

The Sundowner Tied to the Sturdy Stump with her 3 Drained Batteries

The Infamous Rocks of Lake Laberge Loom Just around the Point

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your story and it brought back memories. A friend and I shared a similar event on Lake Labarge in 1983 in a grumman canoe.. Water started calm and nothing but blue sky, went down the middle, got caught in 3 to 4 foot swells. Couldn't turn left or right and had to keep paddling to gain relative speed to stay straight. Gunnels swamped twice and about 10 to the rim. Made a bee line for the edge of Richtofen island. We made it there near midnight, exhausted, and we were both pretty happy to touch terra firma. The most unpredicatable water I have ever experienced.