No Big Event
Easter Sunday, 1958:
It was a gorgeous day for Alaska, or for most any other place I can imagine. With temperatures in the mid 30’s, and the northern sun still hanging low in the sky, colors were bright and vivid, with sharp cut shadows of naked birch and spruce trees dancing on the snow. Crystal clear water was dripping from small icicles that circled the cabin eaves and the promise of a coming spring was in the air. It’s on days like this when Spring Fever blooms and depression born of a long cold winter wanes.
Mom, my best friend Jack, and I had driven north from Anchorage to Big Lake. Even then, Big Lake was primarily a weekend, or summer retreat from the relatively fast paced life of Anchorage; however, a few hardy souls called it home, and a few of those homes doubled as lodges to provide supplemental income for their owners. Big Lake Lodge was one of those places, with a year-round bar, a few cabins and a small marina for summer visitors.
Mom was still working as a dancer at the Last Chance Club in Anchorage; she had been lured there in 1954 with the promise of good wages, and more money to be had from tips and commissions. A two-month contract stretched to 4 and then 6 months; with no end in sight she sent for me, and by the summer of 1955 Alaska became home for the both of us.
By 1958 Mom was nearing the end of her dancing career and forming plans to open a club of her own. In the meantime, she ended each night as the closing act at work before heading home, sometime between 4:00 and 5:00 in the morning. It was a tough time for her, with the long hours, and heavy drinking taking their toll.
Easter in 1958 fell on the first weekend in April; it was right after payday, with Friday and Saturday nights being especially busy at the club. Mom had done well and work morphed into celebration as Saturday gave way to Sunday.
I don’t recall what prompted us to go to Big Lake that Easter Sunday; perhaps friends from Big Lake Lodge had been part of the earlier celebration, but in any case there we were, 47 miles north of Anchorage, with the party continuing in the lodge while Jack and I explored outside.
We were typical Alaskan teenagers; we enjoyed the snow, the outdoors, the wildlife, and life in general. I don’t know how our friendship grew; our families shared little in common, but we shared a passion for life, and a passion for learning.
That day, while exploring around the lodge we spotted an overturned boat, on the shore, just across the lake from Big Lake Lodge.
Come winter time, when the surface of the lake freezes, cars and trucks drive on the ice, using it as their primary means of accessing remote cabins. In mid winter, the ice can reach a thickness of 3 ft. or more, and little thought is given of the potential dangers involved. Since daytime temperatures had just started to creep above freezing, neither Jack nor I were the least concerned as we headed across the ice for a closer look at the boat.
The first fall came without warning; we were about a quarter mile from the lodge, walking about 50 feet apart, when suddenly we both found ourselves breaking through the ice. It wasn’t a gradual break, but a sudden failure that plunged us both into the icy water. Being fully dressed in winter gear, it took a few moments for the chill to set in. As water soaked my clothes, I sank lower and the chill ran down my neck, and over my head. I grabbed the edge of the ice for support, and time after time the ice broke as I tried to support my weight. I caught a quick glimpse of Jack; he had managed to fall forward as the ice broke and only his legs dangled in the water.
Panic had not yet sunk in and I continued to break away the weakened ice. As it turned thicker I continued to pound till it would no longer crumble. Finally, when it would hold my weight, I climbed, pulled and half swam onto the ice. By then Jack was also out of the water, and we both lay there, spread eagled, trying to spread our weight over the weakened ice and catch our breath.
We were alone, no one saw us, heard us, or was aware of our plight. Slowly I started to creep toward shore, slithering like a snake on the frozen surface. By now the chill had settled in; my hands burned from the cold water, my fingers wouldn’t move, and blood flowed freely from ice inflicted cuts. I was exhausted, I had to stop, I had to rest, and so I did. As I lay there, I looked across the surface of the ice, trying to find Jack, to see if he too was moving toward shore.
Around me the ice sagged, frigid ice melt collected around me… there was no warning, no sound, just the surrender of rotten ice as it released me back into the lake. Water closed over my head, an incredible cold clawed at my eyes, filled my ears, and seared my brain. Panic pushed deeper as an involuntary gasp found only water, not air.
I could see streams of sunlight dance around me, filtered by ripples and shards of ice; it was an unearthly beauty that brought with it a sense of calm. I relaxed for a moment, looked towards the surface and reached for the brightness above.
Another gasp, this time it found air, and then a retching cough, another, and another, as my lungs cleared.
Half swimming, half crawling I tried to climb onto the ice, but as I moved from liquid to solid, the ice would break beneath me, numbing cold drawing me back. Time and time again this happened till thicker ice was found. Energy was nearly gone, lower legs still in the water, ice providing just enough support for my torso and arms. Totally spent, I needed rest.
I was no longer cold, shivering had stopped; a blanket of exhaustion was coaxing me toward sleep when I heard Jack calling. He was on shore, perhaps 50 feet away; he too had escaped the rotten ice.
It took another 20 minutes to get to shore and cover the quarter mile or so to the lodge. A long soaking shower, warm clothes, and a hearty meal followed. What could have been a tragedy for two families became a story that will be told, retold, and embellished, both as an adventure, and a warning of the quiet, often fatal dangers that live in unison with the beauty and awe of Alaska.
About Dan Riker