Part of my adventurous second career operating a water taxi and tour business in Prince William Sound was running deer hunter transport charters out of Whittier in the fall. With challenging, potentially-dangerous fall weather always a threat, no two trips were alike. “Weather rules in Alaska,” as the saying goes, and hunters had to accept the possibility of being weathered in or weathered out. The shorter daylight hours of fall often complicated things as well. More often than not, this forced unplanned changes to the schedule. Most of my hunter clients were weather-savvy Alaskans, so that was rarely a problem. Thanksgiving weekend in 1997 proved to be a “good” example of how that scenario can play out.
Three parties of hunters had booked for November 26, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. There were two dropoffs of two hunters each at the Forest Service recreation cabins at South Culross and Port Chalmers, and a pickup of a couple I had dropped off at the Green Island cabin a week earlier. That November 26th was to be the busiest day of my fall deer hunter transport season, and one of the busiest of this second full year with a new boat. If the weather cooperated and all else fell into place, it was theoretically possible to accommodate all three parties in the several hours of daylight then available.
A big snowstorm on the 26th was the first domino of a series that was to fall during that trip. My two dropoff parties were already in Whittier, but all we could do is sit tight until the weather broke. That put everything on hold until the next day, Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving dawned to a light, freezing drizzle, with the temperature hovering in the low 30°’s. I checked the weather conditions at the weather buoy closest to the farthest dropoff, at the Port Chalmers cabin on Montague Island. That was years before the easy access to real-time weather conditions now available via the internet at a network of weather buoys. At the time, the US Weather Service broadcast weather forecasts by VHF marine radio, and also provided recent conditions by pre-recorded telephone messages. The snowstorm of the day before had stopped, but a small craft warning with westerly winds was flying. That meant the trip was doable, but it would be slow going and a bit rough, with following seas most of the way.
The first challenge of the day was to shovel a foot of snow from our vehicles so we could get to the harbor. And then for me to clear snow off the boat tied up in the harbor. The roads hadn’t been plowed yet, and I got my Subaru 4WD wagon stuck in heavy, wet snow just 100 yards from the harbor.
We were finally loaded, and got under way about 9:30 AM, in the feebly-growing light of a reluctant dawn. An hour later we were safely past the last narrows in Culross Passage, a 9-mile long protected waterway, at the lower end of which was the first dropoff cabin. Suddenly, the boat’s twin outboard engines started losing power and running rough. That was the next domino to fall. We weren’t in immediate danger of going aground, so I killed the engines, and pulled their cowlings to see if I could figure out what was wrong. The problem stared me in the face: carburetor icing. Carburetor icing can happen when the humidity is high and the air temperature is close to freezing. The rush of intake air through the carburetor’s throat cools the near-freezing, moisure-laden air enough to freeze on the outside and in the throat of the carburetor. That prevents the gasoline from vaporizing properly, and that’s why the engines had lost power and were running rough. Thankfully, there was a quick fix – just put the cowlings back on to trap the engine heat, and wait a few minutes for the heat to melt the ice before restarting the engines.
That did the trick, and we were on our way again. We soon arrived at the dropoff cabin, where we found the shallow lagoon in front of cabin covered with a couple inches of soft ice. An alternate drop-off spot was just outside the lagoon, but it was under a foot of water from an extremely high, and still-rising tide. With high tide still over an hour away, I dropped the hunters off on a nearby wafer of beach, where they could wait for better access to the cabin with the inflatable skiff they had along, after the tide went out a couple hours later.
By then it was approaching noon, and we continued on with the second dropoff party to the Port Chalmers cabin on Montague Island. Montague, at 50 miles long and 5-to-10 miles wide, is the main barrier separating Prince William Sound from the open Gulf of Alaska. We made steady progress, but encountered three- to four-foot beam seas (approaching from the boat’s side) in the open waters east of Knight Island. With the long distance between the wave crests, the boat did fine. As we traveled farther east out of the “wind shadow” protection of the smaller Seal & Smith Islands east of Knight, the seas had built to five- to six-feet. With the wave crests still far enough apart, once we safely rounded the Applegate Rocks shoal, we were able to pick up speed. We were soon past Green Island and in the protection of Port Chalmers, a somewhat convoluted, but longish bay, protected from the open Sound by barrier islands.
We arrived at the cabin about 1:45 PM, with the tide still on the high side, but now falling. We had to unload the boat quickly to avoid getting stranded by the outgoing tide. Even at that, it took both engines running in reverse, me standing on the boat’s stern to shift my weight off of the boat’s grounded bow, and both hunters pushing on the boat’s bow before it finally eased off the beach.
It was a big relief to be under way again, with my first two parties safely at their destinations. Once outside the protection of Port Chalmers, what had been following seas on the dropoff leg were now pounding the boat’s bow, making for slow going and lots of spray. It was also a long run back to Whittier, and the indifferent, overcast fall light was already starting to fade. I wasn’t looking forward to having to tell my pickup party on Green Island that they would have to spend yet one more night at the cabin – and on Thanksgiving at that.
I finally arrived at the Green Island cabin about 3 PM. The McCann’s (not their real name), a couple newly moved to Alaska from Mississippi the prior summer, were waiting on the beach below the cabin when I arrived. They were packed and eager to load up and go. Persuading them that safety demanded that we wait until morning to return was a challenge. But with only a couple hours of daylight left, and with choppy seas, snow, and freezing spray a potential problem after it got dark, it would have been foolhardy to head back then. Hubby Roy, the only hunter of the two and being outdoor savvy, understood. His wife Carol, on the other hand, was clearly upset. After more discussion, she finally relented and agreed that safety dictated we stay put for the night.
I’d planned on easing off the beach and setting anchor a short ways offshore. Unfortunately, time had gotten away from us while we had talked. Using the same drill that got the boat off the beach on Montague an hour earlier, Roy pushed mightily on the front of boat, with both engines running in reverse and me on the rear deck, that I thought was still afloat. That had done the trick an hour earlier at Port Chalmers, but here at Green Island, we had waited too long. I realized that the boat was stuck until the tide came back in later that night. It was nearly 4 PM, with not much daylight left. After being up working steadily since 5 AM that morning, it sank in just how exhausted I was. I found the captain’s chair, sat down, relaxed for the first time of the day, and waited for the tide to go out.
After the tide was completely out, I climbed down onto the tide flats to check the boat’s undersides. Yikes! The wash from the propellers running in reverse when I’d tried backing off the beach had piled up muddy sand under the hull. Lots of it! No wonder the boat was stuck. But at the same time, that prevented the boat from leaning all the way over to the 16-degree deadrise to the boat’s bottom (the amount of “vee”). Once back in the boat’s cabin, everything would be at an angle, but not as bad as it would have been leaning at 16-degrees.
Back in the boat cabin, I realized again just how beat I was. And hungry. I’d brought some canned turkey and veggies along that I’d planned on heating on the boat’s cook stove for Thanksgiving dinner. But with the boat leaning over as it was, trying to use the cookstove was out of the question. By then I was rummy-tired anyway, and the boat cabin was in the coolish 30’s because the boat heater also had to be level to operate. All I wanted to do was eat something that was quick and easy, and slip into my warm sleeping bag. What could be quicker and easier than that emergency can of Dinty Moore beef stew I always had aboard? So, it was a can of cold Dinty Moore beef stew for Thanksgiving dinner that November 27, 1997. I really didn’t mind, and I was counting my blessings for having one of my best money-making days of the year, summer included. Just under $1,000 gross.
After dinner, I finished rigging insulation pads for the boat windows. Those big windows were great in summer, but in winter, they lost an enormous amount of heat. On top of that, condensation was often so bad that much couldn’t be seen out of them anyway.
A check of the tide table revealed that the boat wouldn’t be afloat until 10 PM at the earliest. I set up the seats for sleeping, rolled out my sleeping bag on the angled bench seat, and napped until the tide came back in. I awoke at 10:30 to discover the boat was mostly afloat. The engines fired right up, and the boat easily backed off the beach. I anchored in 20 feet of water, and with the boat finally level, was finally able to get some sleep.
We were all up at dawn, and after a quick breakfast of coffee and granola bars, loaded up on a rising tide, and finally headed away from Green Island. Thankfully, the seas had calmed way down overnight, and we made it back to Whittier in two-and-a-half hours, without any more changes to the oft-changing plans of the prior three days.
It was good to finally be home, and catch up with my family for the rest of this strange Dinty Moore Thanksgiving weekend.