A good friend died a couple weeks ago, a few months after being diagnosed with cancer. I attended his memorial service last night. Larry was many things to many people; an administrator, a pilot, a fellow ex-Coastie, a kayaker, diver, member of the mountain rescue team. His son read a last letter that Larry had dictated to him, meant to be read at the service, and his widow talked about how Larry was always stressing safety and competence. [Side note: both Larry and I had served tours in search and rescue, he as a helicopter pilot. It doesn’t take many SAR cases before you develop an intense interest in safety and competence. It’s an occupational hazard of professional SAR crew]. Other people spoke. I had not intended to speak at the service. Here’s what I said:
“I did not plan on speaking… but listening to the other people in the room, I have this mental image of Larry saying “lighten up folks!” We all know Larry was big on safety. We all know Larry stressed competence in everything he did. Now let me tell you a story.
About ten years ago, Larry and I kayaked Tracy Arm. We planned to be out 10 days. Larry always listened to the weather forecasts. The weather forecasts didn’t look good. The day we were to leave was cloudy, raining, the wind was blowing, just generally lousy. We both agreed to scrub the departure. The next morning was the same, but in the afternoon a patch of blue sky, locally known as a “sucker hole”, appeared. We loaded up and went. It was beginning to rain when we got dropped off at the mouth of the fjord. It rained for six of the next eight days… we kayaked the entire length of Tracy Arm in one day simply because it was drier inside the kayaks than outside.
The second night found us far up the fjord at North Sawyer glacier. Rock walls on either side, a low terminal moraine in front of the glacier… not a promising campsite. But we had been paddling for over twelve hours and it was at least four hours paddling back to a good campsite. Larry checked the tide book. “High tide is at 3:00 am, plus 2 feet. This spot looks to be about 6 feet above high tide mark, I think we’ll be OK.”
I hauled my kayak up into the sedge grass and tied it off to a small willow twig. After a full day of paddling we were both tired. We quickly ate, set up the tent, and went to sleep almost immediately.
I dreamed. I dreamt that I was in a warm sunny place, floating on an air mattress in a swimming pool. I could feel the mattress bobbing up and down in the water. Life was good. At that point Larry entered the dream. I won’t quote him exactly, but it was along the lines of “Dang, I’m wet!” At that point I woke up. I was indeed floating. There were several inches of water in the tent. My first thoughts were, in order:
1. The kayaks have undoubtedly floated off.
2. I have my VHF handheld radio with me.
3. We are in a fjord, the radio is damn near useless.
4. Nobody is going to know we are in trouble for six days.
5. We are going to be cold, wet, and miserable for a long time.
6. This is not good.
What I didn’t know, was that Larry had tied his kayak to mine… he had also made a deadman anchor and tied his kayak to the anchor. They were calmly floating at anchor when Larry waded out to recover them.
Picture this scene. It is 3:00 am, a full moon, blood red in the sky, burning through the clouds. Dark rock walls on either side, a glacier snout on another. It’s still raining. Two grown men, wearing nothing but polypropylene underwear, franticly wading around in waist-deep glacier water, towing kayaks behind them, bobbing for cookstove, pots, pans, bags of food, soggy sleeping bags, and wet clothes and tossing them into the kayaks. This was day two of a six day trip. The camp stove never did fully recover.
We spent the rest of the trip in a state of perpetual damp. The sun did come out the last day. We spread out our gear on the beach to dry. The scene looked like a shipwreck. We both agreed that next year’s trip was to include a hot springs.”
Here’s a picture of Larry paddling off – goodbye friend