This is a long post, but the post below made this a good reason to blog about this.
The post below involves a post by Kevin Ramey, aka Birdman, on his myspace webpage. What I really remember Kevin for is not really Kevin, but his brother Ron. You see, Ron died in my backyard on December 31, 2002.
To fully understand, I need to set some background. At the time, I was the public defender in Dillingham, Alaska, about 350 miles westsouthwest of Anchorage. I lived about 20 miles north of town in a village named Aleknagik. It sat on the shores of Lake Aleknagik, the southernmost lake in the Wood-Tikchik park. (Check out the map - it will help make more sense of this story.) Aleknagik is, for now, split into two parts, north shore and south shore. The north shore part of town is on the north shore of the lake. You should be able to figure out where the south shore part of the town is. We lived in a house on the lake on the south shore. It's just above the asterisk on the map linked above.
Because of where we lived, people would frequently come by our house when crossing from the north shore to the south shore. We travelled across the lake via snowmachine in the winter and boat in the summer. The narrrow point between the north and south shore right by our house rarely froze because that area was comparatively shallow and the water was fast moving. As such, it was generally open year round and some people could cross via boat even in cold times of the year.
Some of this story we pieced together later, but early in the morning of December 31, 2002, around 1:00 or so, we heard a truck pull up by our house and sit there for several minutes. The truck then left. It turns out that a friend of ours from across the lake, Jim Caston, had tried to cross the lake in a canoe with a couple of friends, Chris Cooper (who had been a client of mine a couple of times) and Ron Ramey (who had not been a client of mine). Ron Ramey is the brother of Kevin Ramey from the post below. Jim lived directly across the lake and we could see his house from ours. He had been at the house of his sister's and her husband. Chris and Ron had stopped by to see him. They were fairly inebriated and announced that they were going to canoe across the lake. Jim, who was pretty much sober, said he would row the canoe since they were intoxicated. John Scott, Jim's brother-in-law, drove them to our house where they could launch the canoe. Ron's excess movement tipped the canoe and they went into the water by the shore.
Now, it had been fairly chilly for the past couple of weeks. The temperature was roughly 10 - 15 below Farenheit. If you look on the map, you see that a little bit east of the narrowing of Aleknagik is a small bay. That bay would rarely freeze over completely because it too was shallow. Nonetheless, at that time of year, the ice extended roughly 75 - 100 feet into the bay. The owner of the house where we lived would frequently park a barge along the shore there to keep it available for the spring barging season and this winter, a barge was included in the ice. Also on our property was a small shed where the barging company of the property owner would store some equipment.
In temperatures that cold, Jim rounded up Chris and Ron and they went back to his brother-in-law's house to dry out and get warm. They warmed up a bit and Chris announced he and Ron were going to cross that night. They were told this was a bad idea. Chris said, "What are you going to do - lock the canoe?" So, they went back and got in the canoe. John sat in the car and watched them cross. Jim's wife, Darilyn, was watching from the north shore.
Christina and I heard the truck come back and sit by the house idling for a while. Then the phone rang. Once. I had been lying there listening and when that phone rang, my heart skipped a beat. I opened one eye and looked at Christina. She was looking at me. A few seconds later, the phone rang again. Christina got it (it was on her side of the bed) and she told me that Jim needed some help. She told me to get dressed and go help him. So, I grabbed my fleece-lined jeans and a flannel shirt and went downstairs to get my bunny boots. As I'm putting them on, I can see John walking up to the house. He walks into the house and says, "Jim just went into the damn lake."
If you are reading this in warm comfort from some place like Arizona or Florida, you have no way of knowing what that statement meant. It sounds dramatic, but it's true - Jim was a dead man. I threw on my boots and coat and stepped outside.
Have you ever noticed that on clear, cold nights, sound travels very, very well? It did that night. I did not ever hear Ron, but I could hear Jim and Chris. They were yelling for help. That does not really cover it, though. Jim kept saying, "Oh my God. It hurts. It's so fucking cold. Get your ass out here. Get out here right fucking now. Do you know I'm dying. I'm dying goddammit!" Chris was yelling, "Get out here! We need help. Come on! Oh God it hurts. Where are you?"
John and I ran down to the point, the place where the distance between the north and south shores was the shortest. People would often leave boats here and there was a short skiff with a kicker (outboard motor) on it. Between this skiff and the water, though, was a small ridge of gravel left over from barge work in the summer. At that temperature, it was solid as concrete and we needed to move the kicker over that ridge. The kicker was encased in ice - it wasn't starting until spring. But we could see an oar handle and we figured we could get to those guys and try to get them in the boat. Before we put the boat in the water, I looked at John and said, "We're going to do what we can to get Jim and Chris, but we are not going to endanger our lives. If we cannot save them and return safely, we're not going to do it." John, who had been an MP, paused for a second and nodded grimly. He climbed into the boat and I got ready to push off.
"Wait! There's no oars in this boat!" John yelled at me. I looked at him quizzically because I had seen the handle. He held it up so I could see that the blade had been broken off the oar. "The goddamn oar is broken!" he sobbed. I paused a second as the impact of that news hit me. Jim and Chris were continuing to yell, although Chris was getting fainter because he was drifting away. I told John there was no point in going in that boat. With no oar, there was no way to steer and the current would take us away from Jim, who seemed to be in one place. I remember thinking quite clearly that Jim was going to die and I was going to listen to him.
We pulled the boat onto the shore and I told John to go into the house to see if Christina had reached the VPSO (what passes for a cop in rural Alaska - long story). I was going to try to find an oar in the shed. At that time, a snowmachine pulled up with two of John's teenage boys on it. Darilyn, Jim's wife, had called to John's house and they were coming to help. We found out that Darilyn had also called the VPSO. We sent them to the end of the barge to keep talking to Jim and Chris (if he could hear) and I went to the shed to get an oar. While I was in the shed, I heard a boat motor running and the VPSO (he kept his motor ready for accidents) came up to the point to pick up John. I left the shed and went to the end of the barge with John's boys. Jim had kept up his tirade. It turns out that he had borrowed some gloves that were a little bit too small for him and so he was not able to get them off. When the canoe tipped over, he kicked off his shoes and swam for shore. When he put his hands on the ice, the gloves instantly froze, preventing him from slipping under the ice.
I could see the VPSO and John reach Jim. They yelled, "We got him" and started to head for shore. The boat was crooked and I did not know what had happened, but I got the boys to bring the snowmachine down to the point. The boat pulled up and Jim was still in the water with John holding his head out of the water. John and I and his boys grabbed Jim (he was no small guy - about 250 normally; figure about 300 pounds with the water-logged clothes he was wearing) when he was in about 1 - 1 1/2 feet of water and dragged him to the snowmachine.
Jim started to slip into delirium - he started rambling and mumbling. He had been in the water about 10 - 15 minutes. He kept saying, "Tell my wife I love her." He talked about how pretty the stars were against the night sky. He talked about how he liked our house. He talked about how he wanted to fish off the point again. He talked about all sort of stuff. This is a sign that the hypothermia was worsening. Once hypothermia starts progressing, it goes fairly fast so we needed to get him warmed up.
We got him up to our house, about 20 yards away. To give you an idea of how cold it was, the bottom of my pants was covered with ice from being soaked with water and then freezing in the cold. The VPSO and John went off to look for Chris. Other people from town started patrolling and searching on their snowmachines as well. We got Jim into the kitchen, where Christina was on the phone to the hospital. She is a nurse and she worked at the hospital so she knew the doctors out there. We stripped Jim and dried him off. He kept going in and out of conciousness. Every time he started to go to sleep, we would try to wake him by talking to him. Several times, I had to slap him and yell at him. I usually yelled, "Dammit, Jim! You are not going to die in my kitchen!" I must confess that when I entered college, that was a phrase I never thought I would utter in my adult life.
We ultimately put him in front of the Toyo stove and covered him with many blankets, watching over him as he warmed up. It took almost 3 hours, but Jim pulled through. He did have a giant spot of frostbite on his heel. When the VPSO and John got to him, they tried to roll him in the boat. He was too heavy to get into the boat. As I mentioned earlier, he had kicked off his shoes. In trying to roll him into the boat, his foot hit the gunwale of the boat. It instantly froze to the side of the boat. He had a frostbitten area of about 2" wide on his heel where it hit the side of the boat. Ultimately, they pulled him off the ice and John just held him with his head out of the water and they drove the boat, slowly, over to the point with Jim still in the water, head and foot (frozen to the side of the boat) out of the water.
As for Ron, we never found him. He caused the canoe to turn over. They were about 1/2 of the way across when Chris remarked that the canoe was tilted. Jim started to say, "Don't move" but Ron, sitting on the floor of the canoe, shifted his weight. It tipped the canoe and he went right over. He sank and was never found. Chris Cooper found the canoe, floating upside down and got on top of it. He drifted with the current to eventually land on the south shore, a few hundred yards east of my house. From the tracks in the snow, it was determined that he got off the canoe and rested for a few minutes under a tree. He then began crawling toward the lights of my house. He was found a few hundred yards away, frozen in mid-crawl. He had already started to shed his clothes (those suffering from hypothermia will, in the last stages, think that they are hot and start shedding clothes. If searching for a person in conditions ripe for hypothermia, follow the clothes and you will usually find a body). His eyes were eerily open, staring at the goal he would never make.
The New Year's Eve celebration later that night was subdued. No fireworks. Everybody went to bed early. Nobody really talked about what happened, but just stared into New Year's drinks. We ultimately had some mental health counsellors come out and provide some counseling/therapy for those who were involved. John and Jim moved back Outside. I left Dillingham for the Mat-Su Valley.
Bush life is hard. There is no margin for error. A stupid mistake that causes embarrassment or discomfiture Outside will kill up here. Ron and Chris found out the hard way. As for me, well, maybe its superstition, maybe its an irrational fear, or maybe its my way of making peace with that night, but I've not gotten into a canoe since then. And I don't plan on it.