My Alaskan hunting adventure was indeed powerful -
It shook the very foundation of my life!
November 01, 2007
|Jerry Bowers, of Laingsburg, Michigan hopes his words will help others understand the dangers of the wild . |
Editor's Note: Jerry Bower's story first appeared in Outdoor Life, 2006, gaining him and his longtime hunting partner Don Travarelli nationwide attention on this most tragic of hunting accidents. The story that follows is in Jerry's own words of his Alaskan adventure which ended up being a nightmare. Jerry hopes that others will learn and understand the dangers of the wild from this horrible accident. Jerry is now 63 years old and lives near Laingsburg Michigan with his wife, Mary. To this day he has never gone on another guided hunt and has not returned to Alaska.
Born a Michigan farm boy, I quickly developed a healthy appetite for the outdoors. Then, to whet the craving even more, I read hunting magazines and adventure stories. And long before I could afford it, an Alaska hunting trip was at the top of my wish list. But finally after arriving on Kodiak Island in November of 1989, I quickly got my fill of it. The Alaskan wilderness was almost more than I could handle, wilder than I could ever imagine.
The backwoods trip that I had waited over 30 years to embark on turned into a quest: An ongoing journey that I now re-embark on each day, even though 17 years have passed. My Alaskan hunting adventure was indeed powerful. It shook the foundation of my life.
My hunting partner on the Alaskan trip was Don Travarelli. I had met Don several years earlier while hunting whitetail deer in West Texas. Don's Roman nose, his piercing, black eyes, and close-cropped, curly hair were striking, physical attributes that disguised an amazingly dry sense of humor. A master of understatement, his ability to blindside an unsuspecting victim with his subtle wit was uncanny and enjoyable, if you weren't the brunt of it.
A savvy Italian building contractor, born and reared in South Philadelphia, Don was not your typical hunter. A city boy, he had developed a love of hunting and of the outdoors, not from exposure to it, like I had, but from a feeling that something was missing in his life. His friendly, outgoing personality first attracted me to him. His unadulterated passion for hunting cemented our friendship. The trip to Kodiak Island in quest of Sitka blacktail deer would be our fourth together.
As planned, the end of the first day of travel put us in Kodiak City, where Don and I spent the night at a local motel.
The following morning, the final leg of our trip, the flight to Fraser Lake was weathered out. But luckily, by noon the sky cleared.
With a half-ton of gear crammed inside the converted floatplane, we cleared the end of the short runway. Into a broken overcast we roared, balls to the wall, engines at full throttle.
Jammed into the antiquated military aircraft, I felt like I had been catapulted into the air, trapped inside of a vibrating tin can with no opening through which I could view the outside world. Duffle bags, gun cases, and an assortment of boxes packed tightly around me, I wondered if the relic in which I flew should be suspended from the ceiling of some museum instead of in the turbulent air. My better judgment begged me to relax. But the din from two enormous radial engines told me otherwise. Moving onward, exhaust fumes filtered into the cramped interior and further aggravated the sick feeling steadily growing inside my gut.
Numbed by the odor, noise and vibration, I bounced along through pockets of turbulence, shifting me sideways just enough to bring on the beginning stages of vertigo. Cautiously, I reached out for something solid. But with nothing substantial to hold on to, I revert to prayer.
In my petition to the Almighty I asked that the pilot be more than capable – that if the plane was forced down in the bush, his training included the miraculous ability to land aircraft, safely, in small openings. Or, if the situation proved to be hopeless, he had the good judgment to just nose the plane in, full throttle, so death would come quick and painless.
I managed to hold my stomach in check and didn't get sick, even though a rough landing on Fraser Lake did put me on the brink. But it was all worth it: Kodiak's awesome grandeur is truly breathtaking.
In camp, I got acquainted with the people I'd spend the next 5 days with.
Paul Reynolds, our outfitter, was only 27, though he spoke with the authority of someone much older. Lean, agile and precise, he ruled the camp with a decisive hand, which led me to believe he had a clear understanding of what should and should not be done in the wilderness.
Harry Dodge, a bearded beanpole of a man, was a 15-year guide. He was so introverted it often seemed like it pained him to talk. And the words he used sparingly spoke of a man in an uneasy relationship with life. Tom, his black Labrador, was his constant companion. His affection for Tom and everything wild, led me to believe that in the remoteness of Alaska, he found refuge from his affliction, whatever it was.
Joel Krueger, a stocky lad of 20, was an apprentice guide who bragged incessantly. But the fantastic stories he told to bolster his ego only emphasized his shortcomings. Still, I liked him, because he reminded me of myself when I was young and brash.
The hunting was everything I expected. The first evening just before dark, only a few hundred yards from camp, Don bagged a trophy Sitka.
Later on that night inside our cozy cabin, safe from the bone-chilling cold outside, the excitement ran high in anticipation of the next day's hunt.
The following morning dawned gray and wet. A mixture of snow and sleet fell from a heavy overcast as we departed camp — all of us wearing the required hip boots.
We split into two groups to cover more territory. Don would hunt with Paul and I with Harry and Joel. I felt uncomfortable with Paul's strategy at first, but as the day progressed, it made perfect sense: The more ground we covered, the more deer we saw. By early afternoon, I had taken my first buck and had passed up many lesser animals.
Field dressing the deer was quick and deliberate. From the onset of the hunt, in plain language Paul made it known that grizzly's rule Kodiak.
The Alaskan Brown bears that roam Kodiak Island are among the largest in the world. Opportunistic and unpredictable, they might claim any kill, given the chance. The stopping power of Harry's 458 Winchester was world-renowned. But, no one — especially me — wanted an encounter with a hungry grizzly.
The next two days produced three more deer, along with added excitement and adventure. Kodiak Island is the wildest place I have ever been, and one of the most beautiful.
The fourth day, for some unknown reason, Paul deviated from his original plan and decided that everyone would hunt together.
That morning, on the snow covered shores of Fraser Lake, as I took my seat in the 14-foot skiff, an uncomfortable feeling came over me. The boat was already sitting low in the water, and four more men and a dog were yet to board. But I ignored that warning voice inside me. Our guides were seasoned professionals. Besides, they would also be in the boat, and surely knew the dangers involved in such a crossing.
After Harry handed Don and me the last two life jackets, and neither he nor Paul deemed it necessary to wear one, my mind eased. In addition to that, Harry, Joel and I had made the crossing the day before with no trouble.
A thin skin of ice covered the lake a stone's throw from shore. As the boat broke free and began to move, the ice shattered.
I looked down at the jagged shards and noticed how close they were — just a few inches below the gunwale — yet I said nothing.
In the boat, with my 243 Weatherby and all of my other pricey equipment, I owned something far more valuable — knowledge. While hunting across the lake the day before with Harry and Joel, we happened by an empty cabin: A piece of precious information that would eventually save my life.
Farther out into the lake, unprotected from the wind, the water became rough. The skiff collided with oncoming waves, and kicked up a spray.
About halfway across, I noticed a wave in the distance. It was not much higher than the others around it, but a lot wider. Not aware of the danger it presented, I watched the swell build. By the time I yelled it was too late.
In an instant, the wave swallowed the boat and upset it. From my comfortable seat, I was plunged into water just a few degrees above freezing. I was mad as hell. Nothing made sense, especially the predicament I'd been thrown into — literally.
I ditched my rifle and backpack, then, unsuccessfully, tried to remove my hip boots. Despite the life jacket, my heavy clothing seemed destined to pull me down.
Even if I could stay afloat, I didn't know which direction to go. Or, how far it was to shore. The only things apparent were: I couldn't stop shaking. Civilization was 70 miles away. And, I was going to die.
Treading water, I saw Don gasp for air and saw his horrified face: An image that in some ways has now become even more terrifying. For I know it will haunt me the rest of my days.
Clinging to the sinking skiff, Paul kept shouting, "Stay with the boat."
"No way," I said to myself. If I stayed with the boat, what could I wait for? No one was within earshot. The nearest human was 70 miles away.
But what else could I do? The swim to shore seemed impossible.
I suppose my decision to leave Don without a single, parting word was automatic. But since then, I have spent countless hours reviewing it.
I have always considered myself a reasonable man. But, perhaps the specter of death alters reason. I was confronted with an unreasonable situation. With that in mind, how unreasonable was it to leave Don? What difference did it make if I died beside him or a hundred yards away? What little bit of energy I had left, was still mine. Even though it seemed like I only had minutes to do it, I was going to damned well spend all of it.
So I left Don, in Fraser Lake, clinging to a red gas can. But to this day he refuses to leave me. On gray days, usually in November, waves build in my mind, and Don still floats there, clinging to that red gas can.
|Don Travarelli, who perished in 1989 while hunting in Alaska.|
In the icy water, resigned to death but still using the last of my energy to avert it, a strange sensation suddenly enveloped me. As peaceful as it was, it was also demanding. It took hold of me, and ordered me to dig deeper, down into the strength hidden inside of me.
Call the invincible feeling that followed whatever you want — a second wind, or a mega-dose of pure adrenaline. Say it was fate, or even a miracle. Call it what you will. But after thinking about it for 17 years, I have my own ideas.
Today, some of my friends still can't believe that I swam 300 yards in hip boots. Some days, I can't believe it myself.
But there I was on the rocky shore of Fraser Lake. I had swam the distance and supposed that I no longer needed the life jacket, so I ditched it. The seemingly unlimited energy that had poured forth and kept me afloat for 300 yards was now gone. In the frigid air, I began to shiver.
I wasn't sure where the empty cabin was. All I knew was that it was somewhere up the shoreline to my right, and, that I had to get there very quickly, or else I'd die.
Since leaving the swamped boat, the whole time I was in the water I hadn't seen anyone. But then, from out in the lake, I heard a voice.
At first, I saw nothing but waves, and thought I had imagined the cry for help. Then, about 50 yards out, I saw Joel.
Again he yelled for help.
I wanted to help him. But, I couldn't risk it. I had already risked everything I had. What was left of my life was no longer mine to give. It was now precious and could not be squandered. It belonged to my wife and five kids back home.
I just stood there, yelling encouragement to Joel. "I made it. You can too."
When Joel finally came ashore, he never spoke; just got to his feet, mumbled something about the cabin, and stumbled away along the shoreline.
I was 45 at the time, but Joel made me feel a lot older. Hard as I tried, I couldn't keep up with him. He was almost out of sight when I saw him plunge back into the water.
I stopped in my tracks as it dawned on me: I wasn't on the mainland, like I had supposed. I was on an island, and had to swim 40 yards more across a channel.
Dumbfounded, I watched Joel emerge on the other side, and move away up the shore on the mainland. I felt betrayed. I had waited for him. Why couldn't he wait for me? There was an upside to Joel's actions, though. At least I knew which direction to go to reach the cabin, if I managed to swim across the channel.
Besieged by cramps, I attempted to swim the channel. But without a life jacket I couldn't stay afloat.
Stumbling across the island to retrieve the life jacket was only a few hundred yards, but it seemed like the longest, loneliest trip I have ever taken.
With the life jacket on, I crossed the channel. But the expanse of it took its toll: My strength and any hope of surviving had pretty much slipped away.
On the mainland, stymied by full-blown hypothermia, I began the two-mile trip to the cabin. Trudging along the shoreline, I hallucinated and thought I saw weird creatures coming ashore, riding the crests of oncoming waves. I felt sleepy — the overwhelming need to just curl up on the ground and a take a little nap — but I knew if I did, I'd never wake up.
Desperate for motivation, a voice inside of me began to scream. Like a drill sergeant trying to encourage a recruit, I called myself a wimp and a quitter for even thinking about giving up. I tried diversion — counting each step, trying to keep my mind focused. But everything was out of sync.
Almost totally spent, when giving up seemed like the only option available, I saw the cabin just a few hundred yards away. Despondent, on legs that felt like limp noodles, I had little control. I can't recall how many times I staggered and fell before reaching the cabin. But this much I seem to remember vividly: Whenever I stumbled, somehow I always managed to fall forward, never, back, or even sideways.
Finally at my destination, beleaguered, but not broken, I leaned against the door jam of a rustic cabin that belonged to the Alaskan Fish and Game Department.
Positioned above the outlet of the lake, during the spawning season the cabin was home to employees of the Fish and Game Department, while they monitored the numbers of salmon returning upstream.
Beyond the broken door that hung askew on a single hinge I saw Joel inside. He straddled a pile of newspapers, and was trying to light them with wooden matches.
I staggered into the cabin, and grabbed another box of matches off a counter top. My brain gave the orders, but my fingers wouldn't obey. When I did manage to hold on to a match and strike it against the box, instead of igniting, usually it just broke.
I don't know who finally succeeded, but eventually, a fire burned brightly on the wooden floor. I stood close to the fire and silently spread my hands over it, absorbing all the heat I could. Void of any legitimate feeling, I just stood there like a zombie.
I was already gagging when I finally realized the cabin floor was on fire. In a frantic attempt to save ourselves, we hadn't thought about the possibility of setting the cabin ablaze.
With regained senses, Joel and I extinguished the fire, aired out the cabin and fixed the door as best we could.
In the frenzy to light a fire, I hadn't noticed Harry. He also had found his way to the cabin, but had been silently lying in a bed, next to a back wall. His faithful dog Tom still beside him, Harry tried to warm himself with body heat from the big Lab.
Reluctant to talk, Harry slowly revealed his story. He said that he had always been a strong swimmer. That after the boat swamped, he immediately grabbed hold of Tom's collar. Together, he and the stocky Lab swam ashore. Because he had no life jacket to help him stay afloat, he had taken off his hip boots. Then, he rolled back the blankets and exposed his legs. They were blueish-red from the knees down — the affects of severe frostbite.
The three of us never discussed the accident directly. Joel said he was finished with guiding. Harry petted Tom, and said nothing.
As a diversion I suppose, Joel rummaged through a back room while I fooled with an old kerosene heater in the kitchen, finally getting it lit.
As our clothes dried, attitudes changed, and we began to make plans.
The floatplane was due the following day to fly us back to Kodiak City. Once the pilot saw our empty camp, he'd know something was wrong. We'd just have to wait.
In the back room, Joel found a side-band radio, but with a battery too weak to transmit.
In that same back room, I discovered three spare batteries. But after shorting them out with a metal coat hanger and barely getting a spark, I supposed they were also too weak.
A farmer all my life, I had learned to improvise. What if I hooked all the batteries together in series, like one big battery? Together, there might be enough power to transmit.
Using coat hangers, I connected all the positive posts together, then, did the same with the negative. I pinned the alligator clips from the radio to the makeshift battery and the radio crackled to life.
After a mayday distress call, Joel reached the Coast Guard and gave them our location. Soon, they'd be on their way in a helicopter to rescue us.
When the Coast Guard arrived we told them what had happened. Although low on fuel and short on daylight they flew over the lake in search of survivors.
All they found was Don's body, still clinging to that red gas can.
Despite three attempts, Paul Reynolds' body was never found. His remains lie somewhere in the frigid depths of Fraser Lake.
Three men triumph in the face of tragedy. But no one completely survives such an ordeal. Something is always lost. This I can attest to on cold winter days when the numbness that I felt in Alaska returns to raise havoc with my hands and feet. But aside from that and few bad memories, much has been gained.
I had capsized on Kodiak. And for a while shortly thereafter, my whole world seemed to have been turned upside-down. I kept regretting the fact that I gotten into the boat, knowing full well it was overloaded. I kept telling myself that if I had just said something to Paul, everything would have turned out differently. I had tempted fate. But in doing so I had been rewarded with a discovery.
The awesome ability to survive exceeds all expectations. Unfortunately, to know one's capacity for it, it must be tested. Sad to say, without a challenge its benchmark can never be found and therefore is usually underestimated.
But be prepared. Eventually, everyone at one time or another will end up isolated on an island of sorts. Continue to persevere through life's desperate situations. Just jump in and go for it. And perhaps in the end you will also be surprised. Just like me, you will be amazed at what lengths you can go: How much ground you can cover, if you really have to.