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Surviving Bear Island
By Paul Greci
Move Books LLCCopyright © 2015 Paul Greci
All rights reserved.
A WALL of dog-like heads was closing in on us. Sea lions, six or eight of them, swam side by side. They raced toward us like they were gonna swim right through us, stretching their necks and plowing through the water like they had motors attached to their backs. I gripped my paddle tighter and held it just above the water, waiting, watching, just like Dad. Then, at the last second, they dove.
"They could've dumped us if they wanted to," Dad said. "It's happened to other kayakers."
I felt some bumps right under my feet, and the nose of the kayak shifted.
"Crazy," I said. "You feel that?" The last thing I wanted was to take a swim. We'd be in trouble if we dumped. The water would freeze us solid.
"Never been touched like that," Dad said. "Let's paddle. Now."
I dipped my kayak paddle into the blue-green salt water and pulled. Then did it again. And again. I twisted side to side, pulling one blade through the water while pushing the other through the air. Like Dad always said, "You get your back muscles working for you when you paddle. If you just relied on your arms you'd be trashed in a couple hours."
Sea lions swam along on both sides of the kayak, easily matching our pace.
Just as I pushed my paddle in again, a gust of wind came out of nowhere and water slammed into my face, running down and underneath my raincoat. I felt the sweat building under my raincoat and rain pants and just wanted to crawl out of them. At the same time my hands were turning to ice from being washed by the waves and chilled by the wind.
The sea lions dove under the boat, nudging it. Two of them surfaced right next to me, and opened their mouths and made these roaring sounds that made my breath catch. Then they dove again and disappeared.
I couldn't see Dad, but I knew he was behind me, using the rudder to steer, keeping us pointed at an angle to the foot-high waves to help steady the kayak. Left. Right. Left. Right. I was a first-time kayaker.
Left. Right. Dad was the expert.
Left. Right. More water stinging my face.
Left. Rubbery arms.
Right. More water up my sleeves.
Left. I can't feel my hands.
Right. Where are those sea lions?
Left. This was so Mom and Dad's thing. I just agreed to go because this was the first time in three years that my dad actually acted like he wanted to do something with me.
I tried to keep paddling, but the water was dragging my arms down.
My body was burning but my face was freezing in place and my hands were completely numb. And to make matters worse, the gray clouds looked like they would dump on us any moment. But hey, that's how it is in Prince William Sound, Alaska. You come out here to kayak, your muscles work overtime, and you expect rain. We'd been gone for two and a half weeks and still had sixty miles to paddle to get to Whittier and then a four hundred mile drive north to Fairbanks. I just wanted to get home.
The kayak slowed down. I stopped paddling and twisted my body around.
"Just making a clothing adjustment so I don't overheat," Dad said. His paddle was lying across his cockpit as he wrestled with his raincoat and life vest. "Looks pretty rocky ahead, but I'm gonna try to work us closer to shore. Hopefully that's the last we've seen of those sea lions."
I nodded, turned back around and waited. Mom should've been with us. Everything was better when Mom was around.
I scanned the water. No sign of the sea lions. And the waves seemed to be calming down. Little did I know I would be upside down in the water in less than an hour — fighting for my life.CHAPTER 2
I BROKE the surface and spit salt water.
Shore. Shore. Shore, my mind screamed.
But my dad. My dad. Where was he?
I yanked my hood off and stretched my neck. Giant green waves tipped with white surrounded me. I jumped and twisted.
"Dad!" I yelled. No orange anywhere.
Another wave slapped my face and I spit more salt water. I grabbed at a slippery log but another wave ripped it from my grip.
Then I angled toward shore. Alone. I kicked and kicked, but my rubber boots were filled with water and dragged me down. And the cold slashed me from all directions, like a sharp knife. My life vest was riding up on my neck, driving my head down. The waves washed over me from behind and kept dunking my head. I kept crawling forward with my arms trying to swim.
But my legs wouldn't rise. I felt like ropes were attached to my feet and I was being reeled down.
My head went under again and I pulled harder with my arms but they were moving in slow motion. My lungs burned for air.
I kept reaching and kicking — trying to get my mouth above the surface. Don't take a breath, I thought. Don't.
My lips touched the air, but another wave broke on the back of my head, pushed me under and forward, and I inhaled salt water.
My feet bumped the bottom, sending a jolt through my spine. I pushed upward, felt the wind on my cheeks and coughed up the water. I sucked air and my chest burned like a forest fire. Then I saw the biggest wave –
It body-surfed me up the beach, filling my mouth and scrubbing my ears with a salt-watery grit.
The waves kept rolling in. Stacking on top of each other. Too many for me to keep track of. I just kept pulling with my arms and pushing with my legs, trying to keep from scraping the bottom, breathing when I could get my mouth above the surface.
The water sucked back, and for a moment, I was free. Just lying on the rocky beach. I pushed with my arms and legs, kneeling on all fours, then a wave poured over my back like cement from a mixer, and drove me up the beach. I tried to stand and get away from the water, but the retreating surf tackled me at the knees and yanked me back toward the water.
Crawl, I told myself. Get yourself above the strand line. I had to get beyond that strip of nasty seaweed along the beach.
Water hissed around my knees, covered my hands, and tried to pull me back toward the disaster behind me.
I forced my numb arms and legs forward, pushed through the slimy seaweed in the strand line and collapsed onto my stomach, with my head just under the towering evergreens. The next wave tugged at my feet, so I clawed my way farther into the forest.
I flipped onto my back, pulled my knees to my chest, and breathed.
Yeah, I'd made it to shore. But what about Dad? I gagged, then rolled onto my side. The salt-watery puke burned my throat.
I rose to my knees and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, which covered my lips with spruce and hemlock needles. I spit and tried to blow the needles off my lips, then wiped my mouth again.
I pulled myself up and stepped out of the forest. Both my knees ached like the caps had been struck with a hammer. Big drops of cold rain pelted my face. I placed my hand just above my eyes and searched the white-capped waves for the orange of my dad's life preserver.
"Da-a-d," I tried to yell. "Da-a-d." My voice sounded strange. It was stretched out and slow, like a sheep baaaing. I rubbed my face with my hands, then cupped them over my mouth and breathed, and kept working on my cheeks until they could move on their own.
But all I heard was the boom of the waves as they broke on the beach, and a hiss as they were sucked back into the sea. And the wind flapping my hood.
I ran north along the rocky beach, my feet sloshing in my boots, my kneecaps stinging with every step. I kept ducking into the forest, hoping Dad had washed up and crawled under the trees like I had.
I called out again and again, and kept calling until my voice gave out. At the base of a rocky point where a small stream carved its way toward the sea, I dropped to my knees and pounded the beach with my fists. I rolled onto my side, then curled into a ball.
Where was he?
Dad. Dad. Dad, my mind screamed.
The rain pounded my exposed side — big, fat drops making dull thuds on my raingear, like the clouds were dropping marbles on me. I knew if I just lay here, I'd be dead soon. But I didn't want to move. Didn't want to face whatever there was to face, alone.
I rolled onto my stomach, pushed with my arms and stood up. I scanned the water again.
Monstrous green waves, topped with white froth, ran to the horizon.
My head fell forward and my chin pressed into my life vest.
This was my fault. All my fault. My mistake. My stupid mistake. I kicked the beach and sent small stones tumbling toward the surf.
A massive shiver took control of my body and for several seconds wouldn't let go. The wind was gonna freeze me solid if I didn't take shelter.
My hand brushed my side and I felt the bump in my jacket pocket, the survival kit Dad insisted I carry. I hadn't touched it since I stuffed it into my pocket at the start of the trip — August first — almost three weeks ago.
I turned my back on the water, and the wind pushed me into the forest. On the back side of a massive spruce as wide as a dump truck, I worked the kit out of my pocket.
Tom. Tom. Listen.
"Dad," I said. "Dad?"
I walked all the way around the tree but saw nothing.
You never know, son, but in case something happens and you get into a pinch, it doesn't hurt to be prepared. It's unlikely, but in case we find ourselves separated from each other or from our gear, at least you'll have something.
I turned in a circle, searching. "Dad?" I called again. "Dad?" But saw nothing but green. Wet green.
But his voice, I'd heard it. And, he'd said those exact words when he'd handed me the kit.
Dad had made it himself, double-bagged in one-gallon Ziploc baggies. The kit was bulky, always causing my pocket to catch on the combing of the cockpit when I got in and out of the kayak. I hated it. I wanted to put it somewhere else, but Dad had said, "No. Absolutely not."
"Whatever," I'd said, as I stuffed the monster into my pocket. "Like I'm really gonna need it."
"I hope you don't. But if you do, you'll have it."
And now, holding it in my hands, the kit felt small. Incredibly small. I knelt gently on the back side of the tree, and checked it out:
1 emergency blanket
1 small box waterproof matches
2 pixie fishing lures with treble hooks 1 bunch of fishing line
1 pocket knife about four inches long
2 Meal Pack bars
6 small pieces of rope
1 small piece of flint
4 two-inch-long fire starter sticks
I leaned forward. Moisture from my nose dripped onto the knife.
My teeth knocked together like one of those wind-up chattering-teeth toys. I stood, and jumped up and down, rubbed my hands together, then stuffed everything back into the bags to keep it all dry.
Without a fire, I was as good as dead.
Look for dead tree branches that are attached to big trees. They stay the driest during the rain.
Where was he? Just in my head? Those words, his words, his voice, echoed in my mind. It sounded like he was right next to me. I glanced around again, but saw nothing.
I worked in a fury, snapping dead branches from big trees, and then piled them on the backside of the spruce. I knelt, and scraped away a layer of wet needles. With the lighter, I lit a fire starter stick, fed it dry twigs, and got a small fire going.
I held my hands — white and wrinkled — over the pocket-sized flames, hungry for the heat.
But I needed more wood. It was gonna get dark. And I'd be alone. With the bears. I tried to swallow the lump of fear in my throat, but it kept coming back up.
Bears. Hungry bears. I wouldn't want to come face to face with one. Where we lived outside of Fairbanks, we'd seen bears on our road a couple of times, once in our driveway, and lots of tracks on the trails my dad made behind our house. When I was little I wasn't allowed to play outside alone. Mom said if we'd lived closer to town it'd be different, but we lived on the edge of wild country, and you never knew what might wander through.
I loaded a few sticks onto the fire, then searched the forest and the top of the beach for more fuel. And I kept running to the shore, scanning the crashing waves, hoping to see the orange of my dad's life preserver bobbing toward shore. Or to see my dad standing, to hear his voice calling to me.
I was on a tiny flat spot of forest. Behind me the land turned steep. It was still forested, but I knew what was above that forest. I'd seen it from the kayak. The granite-capped mountains of Bear Island. And they were steep, like you'd need a rope to climb them.
I crisscrossed some branches onto the fire. I wanted it big.
Dad, I thought. He'd know what to do. Wild country was one of his two loves. My mom was the other.
My dad was kind of a loner. But I didn't realize how much of a loner he was until after Mom died three years ago. I mean, they used to have friends, but really they were her friends. "Your mother had a lot of friends," he would say, "and I had your mother." He felt more at home in the woods than anywhere. That's why my dad moved to Alaska in the first place. That's why we lived ten miles out of town on a big piece of land.
He liked the quiet. Every winter he'd pick a spot farther away from the house down one of the trails he'd cut by hand, and he'd set up a canvas wall tent with a small woodstove. When I was little he'd put me in a sled and pull me out there. "Going for a sled ride, Tom." I loved those rides. Then later, I got my own snowshoes and I'd walk out with him. I'd help him cut firewood, and we'd have hot chocolate, and we'd explore from there, examining tracks, and animal scat, and places where moose rubbed the bark off the aspen trees with their antlers. We were a team. A happy team.
Mom would usually ski out. Sometimes she'd bring part of a story she was writing and would read it to us, or a song she was working on. But after Mom died that wall tent sat folded up in the shed. It's still there. And my dad pretty much sat folded up in the house. But on the drive down to Whittier to start the kayak trip, he said it was time to pull the wall tent back out this winter. That I was gonna have my old dad back. We were gonna be a team again.
I ran back to the shore, searching for him, calling, calling, calling. The gray waves rolled up the beach, matching the color of the darkening sky. He's out there somewhere. Alone. All because of me. My head felt heavy, like it was being weighed down by a big bag of sand and it was taking all my strength to keep it attached to my neck.
I glanced up the beach toward the rocky point. Maybe he'd washed up on the other side of that point.
He had a survival kit, too. Tomorrow I'd get over that point and look for him, but right now I needed to take care of myself 'cause if I didn't I wouldn't even see tomorrow.
I walked back to my fire and loaded more sticks onto it. Then I pulled my spray skirt off and let it drop to the ground. Because I was on shore it hung down to my knees, but in the kayak it stretched around the combing of the cockpit, sealing you in. It was supposed to keep out any water that splashed over the top.
I unzipped my life vest and let it drop on top of the spray skirt. Peeled off my raincoat and rain pants, draped them over a tree branch. Took my pile jacket off, wrung it out and hung it on a branch, then huddled near the fire, thankful that the rain had let up some.
I rotated my body, trying to dry off all over. Steam rose from my drenched long underwear tops and bottoms. I pulled my rubber boots off, dumped the water out of them, took my wool socks off, squeezed what water I could out of them, then put them back on, followed by my boots.
Staying dry is one way to stay warm. Moving around is another way to stay warm. You lose a lot of body heat through your head.
Hat and gloves. I got them out of the other pocket of my raincoat, and put them on.
That image. The last glimpse I had of my dad bobbing in the waves kept replaying in my mind. His wet, hatless head and matted beard. My stomach clenched. It started to burn. I took a breath but it kept on burning.
The popping, crackling fire shot sparks. It sizzled as moisture from the branches above dripped. Darkness came. I crawled back into my rain gear and scooted as close to the fire as I could without actually being in it. I wished this was all a bad dream, but knew it was a living nightmare.
Excerpted from Surviving Bear Island by Paul Greci. Copyright © 2015 Paul Greci. Excerpted by permission of Move Books LLC.
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