We had just moved from South Dakota to Anchorage in March of 1977. When spring came, we couldn't figure out why everyone was rushing off every weekend like a bunch of ants. In South Dakota people were kind of laid back; that first summer in Anchorage I thought everyone had gone crazy -- rushing around, going camping, fishing, hunting and whatever else they could think of. Then winter came and we could not afford to do much for outside winter sports. That was one long winter and I figured out what the rush was all about the previous summer. By the next summer, I was also running around like a chicken with his head cut off, enjoying the good weather and the outdoors.
That fall one of our tenants, John, asked me to go duck hunting with him. I said, "great, let's go!" He told me to dress warm and bring a lunch because we were going to go by small boat and would be gone all day.
He picked me up the next morning and we went down tot he ship docks in Anchorage. We unloaded his 18' aluminum V-bottom boat and an old 40 horsepower motor. He also put a small 7HP motor in the floor of the boat. I asked what the other motor was for and John replied, "It's for emergencies, in case the other motor quit."
John explained our plan of action was to cross over to Point McKenzie and then proceed west down to where the Big Su River enters Cook Inlet. I was to find out this area was called the mud flats and the duck and goose hunting was fantastic. We had told my wife, Sandy, we would be back about dark.
The day started off great. It was a cold October day with a light breeze. This was my first Alaska adventure out in the boondocks. When we passed Point McKenzie there was a neat old hull of a fairly large boat marooned on the shoreline. The mud flats were covered with small, little hochs mounted way up on pilings about 5 to 6 feet above the mud. They reminded me of the hochs in Viet Nam so that's what I called them. John explained that these were duck hunting cabins and that when the tide came in, it covered the mud flat with water and went under the cabins. I was amazed. Most of those hochs were from 1/2 mile to a mile inland. I could see I had a lot to learn.
John shot 2 ducks and a goose and I shot 2 ducks. He said it was time to head back. Wow, I could just visualize the big steak Sandy had promised when I got home. I had eaten my lunch hours ago.
We headed out to sea about a half mile from shore. We had only gone about 1 or 2 miles when the 40HP motor quit. John worked on it for about 30 minutes when I said, "John, we seem to be getting farther from shore and we are back to where we started at the mouth of the Big Su." John decided to put on the 7HP motor. It took quite awhile to get it going - I was getting a little worried. We headed once again towards Anchorage, and also toward the shoreline. After another half hour, we were back by the shore, but if watched the shoreline, we were not even moving forward. John explained that the tide was moving back out into the ocean and that we could make no headway. The 7HP motor could only hold us in place. It was getting dark and it was now raining lightly. We agreed to go back into one of the many inlets of the Big Su and find a hoch to spend the night in.
I decided then that if John had not brought that 7HP motor, we would have been dead ducks floating around somewhere off the Russian coast.
We had brought only our lunch and still had 2 candy bars, no dry clothing and no sleeping bags. Guess what we had for supper? You guessed it, duck! That was the best duck I ever ate, even though we had no salt or anything else except the two candy bars.
That was the most miserable night I ever spent. The hoch we found had no blankets, mattresses or food. It did have a small wood stove. The mud flats were lacking trees, therefor there was no firewood. We did manage to find a couple of pieces of driftwood. When they were gone we ended up tearing one of the bunks apart for firewood. I fell asleep on the top top bunk. After a couple of hours, I woke up and thought I was freezing to death. The fire had died. I started to get out of the top bunk and fell. I landed on the stove and hurt my back and leg, but luckily nothing was broken. We finally got the fire going again. After all that I just stayed awake. This cabin did not look like it had been used in years, but did leave a note with our names and addresses and explained why we used the cabin and tore up the bunk.
The next morning we left early. It was one of the longest days of my life. This time we stayed right along the shoreline. I could have walked faster than we were traveling. During the day we had another outgoing tide, the motor was running full speed forward, but we were going backwards. This was easy to tell by the shoreline. We finally got real close to the shore and started inching forward. I could see Anchorage all day long, it hardly seemed like you could be in so much trouble and big old Anchorage was just ahead. About the time we got to Point McKenzie, a small airplane was circling our boat and the pilot waved. It was Tony Turinsky from Anchorage. We had only been in Anchorage about 7 months, but had joined the Anchorage International Jaycees and we had really made some good friends. My wife had called Darryl Logan who called another Jaycee, Tony, and he came out looking for us.
When we got to Ship Creek I told John to let me out on the mud and I would walk in and call while he went down about a mile to the docks and load the boat. I didn't go 100 feet in that mud and I knew I was in trouble. My feet were sinking in about 8 inches and sticking. Luckily, John was looking back in his slow moving boat and I was able to wave him back. It took me 15 minutes to work my way out of that mud, retrieve my boots out of the mud and get back into the boat. Boy, I had so much to learn! I found out later how those same mud flats had claimed other lives.
In this 36 hour adventure we had made so many mistakes that could have cost us our lives. We all need to make sure we know the elements and always take along survival gear when we go out out in the wilds of Alaska.
Over the next 12 years I had many more adventures in Alaska, but none I will remember more than my first.
Billy Norman lived in Big Lake, Alaska, for 13 years. He is a bush pilot and raced the Iron Dog snowmobile race 5 times (1984 through 1988). Billy and his wife Sandy presently live in Gillette, Wyoming. They have 3 children and 5 grandchildren. Jami, Randy and Todd are in Big Lake, Alaska, and Chipper, their youngest daughter, lives in Gillette.