Paddler sought life off the beaten path, respite from ‘paying to live’

Brandt Smith, 32, paddles his modified inflatable raft on June 7 in Gastineau Channel near Juneau. A Coast Guard boat crew intervened and took Smith and his dog Sam to Douglas harbor. (Photo courtesy Lt. Joey Schlosser/U.S. Coast Guard)

As KTOO reported, the Coast Guard pulled a man, his dog and a makeshift raft out of Gastineau Channel on June 7. As is usually the case, there’s always more to the story.

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Coast Guard Lt. Joey Schlosser was standing in his kitchen on his day off.

He has a nice view of Gastineau Channel and it was a beautiful sunny day.

“I was making breakfast and noticed something coming down Gastineau Channel,” Schlosser said in an interview. “I grabbed a pair of binoculars that I have there in the family room. And it looked like a kayak at first – I was like, ‘I don’t know what the hell that is.’”

As he got a better view he decided he’d better call the office.

“This is gonna be kind of a funny phone call,” Schlosser told the duty officer. “So I’m home and I’ve got a guy going by my house on Gastineau Channel on what looks like a makeshift float out of duct tape and god knows what else … I can’t see a visible life jacket and he’s a got a dog on this thing.”

His concern was for Brandt Smith, 32, and his black dog Sam.

“He’s paddling away right now but this thing is janky as hell,” Schlosser said. “So I figured I’d just give you guys a heads up because this probably doesn’t look like it’s going to end well for this guy.”

A few days later Smith and his black dog Sam visited KTOO’s studio to explain himself.

“My original plan was to get somewhere kind of off-the-beaten path and build like a log barge that I could pull behind me on low tide so I could walk along the shoreline,” Smith said in an interview. “And then I was at Fred Meyer picking up some last-minute supplies and they had this sale for these small, little inflatable rafts. They were only like $22 bucks and so I decided to go ahead and buy that.”

What Schlosser saw from his kitchen window concerned him.

“I’m a search-and-rescue controller here in Juneau so I’m looking at something that just doesn’t look inherently safe,” Schlosser told KTOO. “What kind of set my sensors off is when a barge went by and once the wake caught up to him he got waked out pretty good. And that’s when I was like OK, we have some issues here.”

“I was trying to get down a little past Snettisham,” Smith said of the fjord about 30 miles south of Juneau. “I mean, I was gonna try and modify the little inflatable raft as I went. Because it was going to take me a few days, maybe even a week to get down there with the raft. But that kind of didn’t really pan out.”

The Coast Guard launched a 25-foot lifeboat at about 2 p.m.

“When I saw the orange bowed Coast Guard thing I was like ‘Aw, crap,’” Smith recalled. “They were trying their best to figure out ways to try and tow me down there – they really tried.”

Both sides report the interaction to be positive.

“They’re always going to try and give the mariner the benefit of the doubt,” Schlosser said. “Up here in Alaska when someone’s trying to go somewhere that’s pretty far out and visually you’re taking a look around and you don’t see proper safety equipment, that’s where we tend to intervene.”

The Coast Guard crew loaded Smith, Sam the dog and the makeshift raft into their boat and took them across the channel to Douglas harbor.

In a wide-ranging interview, Smith explained he’s in Alaska to establish a homestead even though he knows it’s no longer legal.

“I was planning on going out there and kind of just making myself a little kind of home-away-from-home area where I could grow some food and maybe have some little inconspicuous house or something and be there for a little bit,” Smith explained.

Smith used to live and work in Juneau.

“I used to be a helicopter mechanic. Actually I used to work here for Coastal Helicopters – that was four years ago, almost five,” Smith said.

Coastal Helicopters’ management confirmed this.

“I kinda got burnt out on working on helicopters, got burnt out on pretty much everything,” Smith said. “I kind of saw the world as a bleak side of life where all you’re doing is paying to live.”

Smith has since set up camp outside of town and said he’s already got his cold weather crops in the ground. His goal is self-reliance, he said.

“Hopefully if I keep myself quiet enough and not make a nuisance of myself, hopefully where I’m at, I can be left alone,” Smith said. “I mean, it’s not a permanent thing and I’m fairly discreet – but I just don’t want to become another homeless person in the city of Juneau because there’s only two ways out of this friggin’ town: one by air and one by boat.”

Smith has already tried the boat.