It's only taken me five years to put pen to paper on this.
I probably should have learned my lesson on day three when one of our bush planes crashed on an extremely remote and exposed island beach. Down a plane, there was no way for nine of us to fit into the two remaining Piper Super Cub airplanes. Which meant three of us needed to stay back, shore up the downed plane from the incoming tide, and wait six or so hours while the rest of the party returned over the mountain range to come back and pick us up. Naively eager for adventure I volunteered to remain on Kayak Island and help pull the aircraft out of the tidal zone and find freshwater. Meanwhile my 32-week pregnant wife and 2 ½ year old daughter were back at basecamp lodge, unbeknownst to any of this.
At first I thought it was a mosquito buzzing my ear but it grew louder. I asked the other two guys to stop and listen. As we looked parallel of the beach, a tiny silhouette of a single plane appeared low on the horizon only minutes after we discussed our island game plan.
As the red Piper approached, six hours too early, we immediately knew something was wrong. Landing on the very beach where the other plane just crashed, the pilot was yelling out the window before he even had a chance to throttle down. “Get in! Get in! – go, go go!”.
Us three guys plus the pilot, squeeze in, nut-to-butt, taking off over the drift wood strewn beach and sharply turning over the icy Pacific not having a clue what is going on other than it was urgent.
Quickly landing and regrouping with the rest of the crew and the other plane on the mainland we found out a storm was rapidly approaching and the likelihood of rescuing us was slim.
So going against protocol, as a visible storm front moved closer, the-quick thinking pilot demanded to know everyone’s weight. We distributed accordingly and crammed us nine into the two planes and made our flight over jagged peaks and some of the largest glaciers in North America. In the end it took the crew 10 days to get back to Kayak Island to repair the plane.
Welcome to Alaska.
I was hired to shoot a very remote lodge and its client’s deep in the Wrangle – St. Elias Wilderness, the largest wilderness in America. At nearly 10 million acres, nearly nothing comes close. Yosemite is only 750,000 acres by comparison. And I got to take my family. The lodge, literally grandfathered into one of the newest wilderness' designated places in the USA, now has a veritable monopoly as the sole lodge and outfitter. They only way in and out is by using their flight / piloting services. At $7,900 / person for 4 nights, this was not something I wanted to pass on - especially because we were to be there for 3+ weeks. But early on after a few small weather-related events happened a lot of their guests canceled at the last minute - leaving me and my family as a fifth wheel. The high cost of me flying around with clients in bush planes would be easily covered but without paying guests to underwrite my time, left me and my family high and dry and more or less stuck at this remote outpost.
After a few weeks of short photo stints, I / we got anxious to get outside of the lodge compound. So the crew offered for me and my family to fly out to an even more remote trapper cabin and drop us off for 24 hours. What could go wrong? Like I said, I should have learned my lesson on day 3.
On one side was a steep drop off into a glacial river. 100 yards the other way was a near vertical mountain. In between the two, amongst a scraggly spruce grove sat a tiny, one window and thoroughly depressing shack that would become our home and refuge.
As soon as the bush plane flew away we were alone on a scale unimaginable. It was beautiful and remote beyond description. We loved it.
The following morning anticipating our 9:00 AM rendezvous I walked through the spruce grove to an opening where the day before I could see straight up to the 17,000 ft. peak up the valley. But at 7:30 AM all I could see was a white wall but couldn’t determine if it was coming or going.
I ran back to the shack to grab a topo map and went back to the clearing. Studying the smaller perpendicular valleys funneling into the larger glacial valley, my heart sank. This white wall was descending and fast. Running back to the shack to find the satellite phone, I looked over our meager food supply. I rang the pilot to notify him to come sooner as we didn’t have enough food to stay much longer. He couldn’t make any earlier. At 8:30 AM a white omnipresence overcame our camp. You couldn’t see 10 feet in front of you. By our 9:00 AM scheduled pick up time, we heard the tell-tale sound of the Piper circling above, unable to land.
Food rationing was our first plan. We had so little that there wasn’t much to plan with. Summer in the northern latitudes meant that darkness hardly came. Yet we found dark as my daughter, very pregnant wife and myself crammed into a dank windowless closet of a bedroom.
We woke to another day of foggy, damp, directionless white light and still unable to see more than 10 feet. By the end of this day was when the anxiety kicked in. Food supply was getting dangerously low, especially for a 32-week pregnancy and a 2 ½ year old. Zero sign of the weather lifting.
Waking to the same on day 3 I think broke me. Lindsey started to have small contractions. We were a 4+ day hike to the nearest camp and we didn’t have the gear to get there. We hadn’t seen any evidence of animals to trap not even a bird or chipmunk. Except for the sound of the glacier creaking, I’ve never heard such pure silence, like there was nothing alive but us. I always had a .45 mag on me for a possible grizzly encounter and at this point I would have welcomed one to enjoy its meat.
Let me sidebar here for a moment. I’ve covered some of the worst hunger situations you can imagine. I’ve seen food insecurity at dire levels across whole regions. Refugee camps where families are staggering in from famine. But I didn’t know a thing about hunger and the crippling emotions of a father not able to provide for his family or deciding who gets what calories. I pray you never experience this.
We were out of options, nearly out of food and at the mercy of the weather.
The final morning, I walked yet again through the foggy dripping spruce for a sign of change. I looked down the valley to see a tiny break in the cloud as if it were a tunnel to another world.
I sprinted back and grabbed the satellite phone, with one bar of battery left and rang the pilot. He too saw the hole as he had been camping, with is plane down the valley waiting for this very moment.
The image that I’ll never forget was that bush plane landing on the narrow strip as my wife, carrying my daughter running up hill as fast as she could and the pilot again, hardly throttling down yelling out the window, “Get in! Get in! – go, go go!”.
In a matter of seconds, we were whipped around and taking off from the grass strip heading back through the brief hole in the cloud. Together and safe the shack disappeared from view and the deep well of human emotion erupted in us all.
– I will forever be amazed at the resilience of my wife and daughter.