That Sinking Feeling
You may have heard a rumor milling about that Dorian and I were involved in the sinking of a boat in the Kenai River this summer. I am embarrassed to to tell you that the rumor is true. We are both unhurt, and besides the death of a few salmon, a boat and two expensive iPhones, we came out of the whole incident relatively unscathed. So in honor of that, and in order to share the story exactly how it occurred, I thought I would take the opportunity to write about that fateful afternoon.
It was not a warm or cool day on the Kenai River, it was just a mild afternoon, good for a light jacket or sweater. The fish had yet to arrive and there was a frenzy of activity in search of the prized red meat half way through the season. As I kissed my wife goodbye she said “Don’t come home without fish.” In her loving and joking way. “I’ll do my best.”
The prize of the Kenai peninsula is the Kenai River, a river that runs from Kenai Lake near Seward into the Cook Inlet in Kenai Alaska. The river runs about 80 miles and holds one of the biggest salmon runs in the world. Every July the sockeye or red salmon make their return to the river by the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. And every year, as they strive to make it to the mating grounds, they meet a myriad of obstacles, killer whales, salmon sharks, sea lions, seals, commercial fisherman, sport fisherman, guides and snaggers. If, by the grace of God, they dodge each one of the obstacles, then they have the pleasure of entering the Kenai river to swim hard against the current and grow old quickly. However, from July 10th to the end of July, there is one more major obstacle wading in their way, the dipnetters.
The Kenai River, a 180 minute drive south of Anchorage, is home to the personal use fishery. It is an Alaska Resident fishery. Alaskans deploy nets up to five feet wide, filled with monofilament netting. With long poles, the nets are held in the water off shore or from boats, hoping to scoop up the sockeye that survived the gauntlet. We look at it as saving them from dying at the hands of the bears and snaggers, so basically we are doing them a solid by moving them from certain death into our freezers and smokers.
So there we were, participating in our Alaskan given right to drag nets of death in the Kenai River in hopes of filling our quota of 90 salmon. It was a very slow day of fishing. There have been days when we filled our boat in a matter of an hour or two, and other days, like this one, where hours resulted in just a couple of fish. After four hours of dragging, we decided it was getting just a little too frantic out there. Hundreds of boats of all sizes and horsepower were stirring the waters in such a manner that the swells were tough to manage in a silver 14 foot narrow skiff. The motor was strong, and the boat was sea worthy, but the low sides, an narrowness made the ride wet, with waves consistently washing over the sides and bow.The bilge pump was on often returning the Kenai water back to its rightful place.
As we attempted to leave the fishery, we were turned away. The mouth of the Kenai is affected by tides, and on this day it was a small negative tide, and because of that the boat launch was closed until there was enough water to pull boats out safely. I told the dock attendant that we were having boat troubles, which we were as one of those waved rocked George and I into the console and broke it loose. But to no avail. We would have to wait for another couple of hours. So me, in my infinite wisdom suggested that we head back to the fishing grounds. No use sitting around and twiddling our thumbs. We would take our six fish and see if we could nab a couple more, gently and slowly amongst the wasp swarm of fisherman.
We started fishing the main drift, along with about 80 other boats. Each drift took about 8 minutes, two nets in tow. Fishing was picking up. Every drift yielded at least one red, and sometimes two. I knew if I kept my head on swivel, kept dodging boats and nets, only feet away, we would be okay. I just had to go slow, watch 360 degrees and soon we could get out of the water, and I would get home with fish, as ordered by the boss.
We finished another drift, going right to the edge of the marker that designated where boats had to stop fishing. We drifted past the markers as we pulled our nets in turning upstream in the light chocolate muddy water. Two, maybe three more drifts I thought to myself, and we would salvage an okay day. At least enough to smoke a batch of 15-20 reds.
Slowly I started back up stream. “Do you want me to come back to the stern” asked George, which is our practice to keep the weight of the bow. “Nah, don’t worry about it” I said. “We’ll just putter up slowly and slide in a drift”.
Behind me I could hear the roar of jet engines, large river jets meant for shallow waters. These Thunder Jets, as they are called, put off a big wake and sound like small jet planes. One jetted by us on our port, and I got caught surfing his wake. ” Hang on we’re surfing “, I warned George and Dorian, and skillfully I eased out of the tractor beam of the surf enjoying the ride. To surf a wave on a boat, at times you give up full control, and the wave controls your ride, just like on a surf board.
Right then, another Jet boat blew by us and we got caught again. “We’re surfing agai………”
Before I could finish my sentence the flat silver bow of our boat buried itself under the water, lurching forward and toward the port. And, like a giant soup ladle, it scooped every gallon of water it could fit into the boat. In less than a second we were near swamped, we were wet and we we in shock. For a second we just gazed at each other in disbelief.
Quickly, I turned on the bilge pump and it began pouring water out taking great pleasure in doing its job. “Do we have a bucket or anything George?” Knowing the answer before I asked the question. George began scooping water out as fast as he could with a small container, and Dorian followed suit with my blue coffee mug. We were still afloat, barely, but floating.
Should I head for shore or try to motor outside the boats? I didn’t see how we could frogger our way through the boats to make it to the beach, so I turned the boat into the seas, hoping to hold it steady while George, Dorian and the bilge worked to get the water out.I just didn’t want to get hit or run over, but most of all I didn’t want to sink.
The boat felt wrong. It was not moving with the wakes, it was not moving hardly at all. I felt as if we were on a water logged log, neutrally buoyant. I did not like the feeling, and I cannot recall ever feeling before in my 40 + years of being on the water.
Dorian was waving his arms and screaming “hey” trying to get someone to help us. George had his head down and was bailing faster than a 60 year old man should’ve been able to. I joined Dorian in the waving and screaming, trying to get everyone to slow down as they passed us by.
I decided to turn the bow into the wakes, as I have done all my life, to gain control and stability. As soon as the boat was facing into the wakes downstream, I saw the most miserable sight of my life, a bevy of high bows coming at us at mach 3. Waving our arms and screaming at the top of our lungs, we begged them to stop, to slow down, to help us, to do anything but go by as fast as they could, which they did, unable to see us over the lifted bow, especially since we were sitting very low in the water.
One more small wave is all it took, and the boat yielded itself to the river. In a second, our boat was gone. It just disappeared from beneath our feet, literally gone, and literally, in a second. The water won, the boat lost. It was then the boaters passing us thought that perhaps we could use hand. There was something odd about three grown men standing in the middle of the chocolatey Kenai River up to their waste with no boat in sight.
Unknown to me, an ex trooper friend of mine had pulled up behind us. Prior to that, I recall looking at George and feeling relieved that he had his army green trusty float coat on and fully zipped. Then I glanced at Dorian, his bright red life jacket fully secured on top of his blue and white stripped hoody, again I was happy. However, I knew that my life jacket was not on me. I also knew that I had several jackets on, jeans, and shoes, and the silty Kenai River would weigh those down in seconds.
I remember recalling I had been sitting on my life jacket, to keep my bum of the wet seat, a logical place for the jacket. I glanced down at the jacket, and made a decision, the decision was that if I did not get to another boat right now, that I was likely going to become part of the Kenai River, and not in a good way.
I glanced up and saw a dark brown flat bottom camo skiff had slowed down a few feet away, ironically powered by a converted jet outboard. “Do you need a hand?” I didn’t answer, I just jumped toward that beautiful brown skiff as hard as I could. However, jumping when you have no earth beneath your feet is not jumping, it is flopping, so I flopped. I flopped into the river. In my head I remember thinking three strokes, you have a good three strokes and you better be holding on to another boat. After that, I did not think I would stay afloat.
I promise that Michael Phelps never swam as hard as I did, and he probably didn’t look near as good as I did with my camo Jacket and New Orleans Saint Football ball cap. I don’t know if it was three strokes, but it was hard and as fast I could swim. I could feel my clothes getting heavy, very heavy very fast, and in a flash my hands were grabbing the stern of the beautiful brown skiff.
I held on and I held on tight. I was not cold, I was breathing hard from mass exertion and from adrenaline, as if I had just swam 800 meters, not 8 feet. I looked over at where our skiff used to be, and I saw Dorian in another boat, and George being pulled into the same skiff. I also saw that someone had the presence of mind to grab a line from our skiff and tie it to their boat.
I felt several arms tugging on my arms, and I remember telling them to give me a minute. I slid up to the middle of the boat, and told them here I come. For the first time I saw the practical use of the bar muscle up that I had learned in Crossfit, and it helped plop me onto the deck of the beautiful brown skiff. It was then that I noticed that my life jacket was draped on my left arm through the left armhole. At some point I had tried to don my jacket, but instead just took it for a ride.
“We need to get you out of those wet clothes. Why don’t you start taking your clothes off.” I noticed I wasn’t cold at all, not a chill. I was in shock, I was embarrassed, and I was ashamed that I had let this happen, but I was not cold. I told him I did not need to disrobe, especially considering that there were now about 70 boats, bows facing in watching us as if at a drive in movie, all suddenly wanting to help. The river was instantly eerily calm, as if the water had stopped moving at all.
My first thought, was of the fish. Did we lose the fish, the fish we had worked so hard, and sacrificed so much for. Yes, they were gone. The trash can we kept them in was floating empty down the river. Then my phone, where was my phone? I had left it on the console of the boat, only learning later that Dorian had tried to save it for me throwing it to the kid on the boat that saved him. The kid missed.
The next hour was a blur, picking up pieces, transferring from skiff to skiff, watching the unsung heroes save our boat, talking to the police, coast guard, and fireman. About an hour after I began to get cold, and I just wanted to go, I wanted to leave that place. At some point I noticed I still had my ball cap on. Odd, how did I not lose the hat? My head never went under water, I told you I was swimming fast!
There are so many things to be thankful for. Minutes before we sunk, I took of my chest waders. If I had worn my chest waders, and no life jacket, my odds of swimming at all would’ve been greatly diminished. My friend in the other boat was awesome,not only swooping in to save George and Dorian, but working hard to save our boat as well. No one was hurt at all, and George’s flip phone still works!
As I walked into our home, still in shock, a little cold, and feeling awful for what had happened to George’s boat, I was greeted with, “did you get my text? Did you pick up the kids? ” ” I did not get your text, and I came home without any fish.” Then I began to share the story, at first to strong disbelief, until my dripping clothes provided the evidence that this time I was not teasing. I have shared the story many times since then, hence the blog.
I wrote this from my perspective. Being a trooper for many years I know that my perspective is likely different than Dorian’s and George’s, and if you see them you can ask them to tell their story.
I have learned a lot from this small incident. I have been humbled and I have renewed respect for the water. Since this has occurred I have been dipping on the river twice with my kids, and fishing for King salmon twice with friends. I will not stop fishing or dipping, but I will definitely be more careful and respectful. I can’t stop fishing, because I want to keep doing those red salmon a solid! And I certainly do not want to come home again without any fish.
I wish I could share the pictures of that day, but alas the pictures that I took were on my phone, and my phone, undoubtedly sits buried beneath the silty bottom of the Kenai River, encased in its waterproof container. Instead I share with you pictures after that day, pictures that would not be possible if not for those who helped us when we most needed it. I am very thankful that we will continue to make memories, in life jackets on the Kenai River and I hope to share again a successful fishing season in the near future.