A Winter Fireside (True) Story Part I
The winter was 1947, Strawberry Point, Alaska. Two of our pioneers climbed in their boat to go to Juneau for badly needed freight and Christmas supplies for “the flats”. The tale of wind, waves, freezing cold and harrowing survival would eventually be published in The Alaskan Sportsmen where once again the escapades of our early pioneers would put tiny Gustavus on the world map. Here is Nell Parker in her own words…
We were just making a trip to Juneau for freight, as we have innumerable times during my ten years at Gustavus. The trip takes some three days in normal weather, but as usual we took along a little extra food just to be on the safe side. There’s always the possibility that we’ll have to stay over a day and a night in Swanson Harbor, a tiny group of islands at the halfway point, where Lynn Canal and Chatham and Icy Straits converge, to wait for weather.
It was a year ago last Thanksgiving day (1947), after a big holiday dinner with guests from the airfield, that the local superintendent of the Civil Aeronautics Administration (early FAA) asked Glen to go into Juneau for the Christmas freight. Glen’s brother, Bert, had a contract for hauling the C.A.A. freight, but he had put his boat up and gone South for the winter. It was up to us to substitute.
We spent several days getting ready and making our foodstuffs “freeze-proof” as a precaution. We then loaded the necessary supplies aboard our gas boat, the Glenellen, and started out. The weather was clear and freezing, but a cloudbank was coming in from the west. All indications pointed to a southeaster, and we hoped to make Swanson Harbor before it hit hard.
We made the safety of the harbor, although the Glenellen acquired a good inch and a half coating of ice from wind-driven spray, and settled down in our bunks for the night. And what a night. It turned so cold that our sleeping bags didn’t keep us warm, and we couldn’t sleep. Glen had to start the engine at intervals to keep it from freezing, and the wind blew so hard that we drifted anchor. The portholes froze over on the inside, and although we kept our little oil burner going constantly, we were so cold that we simply ached.
“Doesn’t look as though this will break very soon,” remarked Glen when daylight finally came. “I think we’d better go home while the going’s good.”
We pulled anchor and started home. In just four hours we were back in Salmon River. When the wind blows from the northeast it doesn’t hit “the point” as Gustavus is called by us who live here. Everyone was surprised to see us back so soon. We had drained our water tanks before leaving, so I stayed all night with one of the neighbors while Glen stayed on the boat to keep the fire burning. He put anti-freeze in the engine, and it was a lucky thing he did. The mercury dropped to fifteen below.
By ten o’clock next morning it was snowing, and the weather seemed to be warming. Glen got our little battery radio and some more fuel oil from the house, and we started out again on the high tide hoping to make Swanson Harbor before the wind turned to the southeast.
Again we got to the harbor, and anchored to wait until daylight. During the night the weather cleared, and things started to freeze again. The wind grew stronger and stronger.
“Well, we’ll just wait here,” Glen decided on observing the weather at daylight. We had brought along forty-five gallons of stove oil this time, so we felt more or less cheerful about being able to wait out a day or two of storms. It wasn’t very pleasant, at that. We kept the stove red hot and slept without taking our clothes off. Besides that, there wasn’t much to do except listen for each weather report on the radio.
Alas, the wind continued to grow stronger, and soon everything was frozen solid again. All the lines on the boat were rigid with ice. The windows of the pilothouse and all the portholes were coated with ice on the inside. The wind listed the boat far over on first one side, then the other. Two days crept slowly by. Our bread, eggs and butter were almost gone…
Surely the weather would break tomorrow, they thought. Would they finally cross Lynn Canal—“that long, narrow stretch of water dreaded by all boats under sixty feet”—or would they be foiled yet again? Read more in the upcoming February issue.