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Wet and freezing in remote Alaska, the flick of a Bic saved 2 lives

Craig Medred
Aaron Jansen illustration

Without their $1.50 butane lighters bought from the village store in Grayling, Alaska, Edgar Rock, 52, and Michael Hamilton, 50, might well be dead men today. The same could probably be said had Hamilton not managed to grab an oar and hang onto it after their 18-foot riverboat rolled over on a dark and stormy night on the Yukon River near the end of September.

Rock and Hamilton were then more than 20 miles north of their home village, a cluster of houses on the west bank of the big river. It would be five days before the two men would see friends and family again.

"Rough water,'' Rock said. "Big waves, windy and night time. Dark up here. The boat sunk, tipped over ... and the boat was upside down, and we were hanging on the boat right there in the bow because it was floating high enough.

"We had to get on the boat so it would save us, and it did, too. It brought (us) to shore about three hours later.''

Numb soon becomes unconscious 

To this point, the men had survived only because they'd been able to get on top of the boat. The water in the Yukon in late September runs at temperatures from 36 to 42 degrees. A man can survive for hours in water this cold, but he is likely to lose consciousness in less than an hour, and he probably has only 15 to 20 minutes before his body becomes so numb from the cold that he can no longer help save himself.

Rock and Hamilton -- men who've lived their lives in the Alaska beyond the road system -- instinctively understood this. They knew their only chance at survival was to get out of the water and on top of that boat. Getting their bodies out of the water would instantly increase their survival time by hours.

"We got on top of the boat upside down,'' Rock said. "Mike, he saved one paddle. I don't know how, but he saved one paddle. He said, 'Don't move. I'm going to paddle us to shore, up to that sandbar up there....''

A long way from home

For Rock and Hamilton, a life-or-death struggle to survive began with what was to be a simple run up the Yukon to a long-abandoned community known once as Blackburn Landing, near what is now called Blackburn Creek but once was called Blackburn River. The place names date back to the Klondike gold rush. Blackburn Landing was a firewood stop for sternwheeler riverboats hauling passengers and freight from the Bering Sea up the Yukon to Dawson City in Canada.

At their peak near the start of the 1900s, there were more than 200 of these vessels steaming on the Yukon. They began to disappear quickly as the banks of the river were denuded of wood. By the time of the Great Depression, the riverboat traffic was down to a trickle and the boats converted from burning wood to gas. Blackburn Landing died as a steamboat stop but remained for a time as a trading post called simply Blackburn.

Blackburn wouldn't last either, though, as the once-nomadic Native peoples of Alaska began to settle into permanent villages built around schools, churches and post offices. Blackburn eventually became a seasonal camp, a fishing spot and summer retreat for villagers. Hamilton was headed there in September, Rock said, to pick up summer camping gear.

"His boy was cutting wood up there,'' Rock said. "Then he went firefighting. They just left camp there when they went to the (Lower 48) states. They wanted Mike to go up there and get everything, get all of that stuff and bring it home because there was nobody up there. They all left.''

Jobs fighting wildfires -- not just in Alaska but in the rest of the country -- have long helped provide much-needed cash in remote, rural communities. Alaska firefighters, nationally respected for their skills, helped battle forest fires in Wyoming, Utah and Montana this summer. Hamilton's son was among them.

Rock said Hamilton invited him along on the ride upriver just to have some company for the trip. "He said, 'C'mon a big ride,''' Rock remembered. "We'll make a quick run up to Blackburn and back.''

Big ride goes bad

The weather was nice when the two men left Grayling, and they almost made it to Blackburn before the first in a series of problems arose. "There was water in the gas,'' Rock said. That stalled the boat about 30 miles out of Grayling, just short of Blackburn. "We made it to shore,'' Rock said, "drained the carbs, switched the tanks.''

There were some problems getting the motor running again after that, but it finally fired up. Neither man worried much. This sort of thing is normal on the remote rivers of Interior Alaska.

"We started to go again,'' Rock said, "and the motor started making weird noise, a loud noise from the lower unit. I said, 'What's that, Mike?' Hamilton answered, "We lost forward gear. We started swearing,'' Rock said.

Now the men had a serious problem. Again they went to shore, but there was no fixing the motor this time. They debated what to do. The weather was "pretty calm,'' Rock said, so they decided they would try to drift and motor in reverse back down the river to Grayling. The plan worked fine until the weather changed.

The stern on a river boat is wide. It does not cut through waves; it swallows them. Hamilton was forced to try to back the boat down to keep the bow pointed into building waves. This is a damn difficult task that would eventually prove impossible.

"In reverse, night time, dark,'' Rock said. "The wind was howling. We were scared.''

There were no good options. The men worried that if they hit a sandbar, the boat would immediately stop and flip, so they tried to stay in the middle channel. The plan worked for a while. It might, indeed, have taken the men all the way home, but the waves kept getting bigger and bigger.

Pretty soon, waves were breaking into the boat. "The boat was filling up with water really quick,'' Rock said. The men tried to stabilize the now half-full craft as best they could. Rock remembers there being a lot of swearing.

"Then," he said, "the wind hit us, and rolled us right over, just flipped us. I grabbed the boat first thing as soon as I hit the water. Mike said, 'Grab that damn boat! Don't let it go!' He said, 'You just hang on man.'" It wasn't easy. Rock remembers "getting dragged around, tossed around in the big waves."

'Is this really happening?' 

Eventually, however, the boat stabilized in an upside-down position and drifted around a bed in the river where the wind abated. Rock, who'd been "hanging on with everything I got ... forever,'' crawled up onto the overturned hull with his friend.

"But we were in the middle of the damn river,'' Rock said. The two men, who know this part of the Yukon intimately, understood they were drifting toward a big cut bank. "We were floating down fast,'' Rock said. "For us to get caught against that cut bank, we'd be way worse off. We'd never get out. The cut bank is too high. There's no shore. I kept thinking, 'Is this happening? Is this really happening?' "

The men had a couple things going in their favor, however. They'd grown up in this country. It had toughened them and left them knowing that survival is a minute-by-minute business. You don't think or worry about the future. You fight to survive from one minute to the next and if you are successful, the minutes will add up to days and the days to weeks and, if necessary, the weeks to a month.

And, they had that paddle Hamilton had grabbed. He started paddling the boat away from the cutbank toward an island.

The time was the early morning of Sept. 25. Rock remembers that he’d asked his friend the time just before the boat rolled: It was 45 minutes past midnight. Almost exactly three hours later the men would make it to an island. "Three-fifty, he told me when we got to shore,'' Rock said. They were wet, cold and shivering, and it was not a pleasant night.

"There was a big wind,'' Rock said. "We couldn't hardly hear each other.''

To light a fire

Then again, the two men didn't need to do much talking. They knew what they needed to do to survive. Their float coats would provide some insulation even when wet, but their soaking Carhartt cotton jeans and wet undergarments were still sucking heat out of their bodies.

"Mike said, 'You got your lighter?'" Rock said. "I said, 'You got yours?' He said, 'Yeah...put it in your hand. Start drying it off right now.' We dried it out and then we walked back off the sandbar. It was a long way to the woods. I said, 'We need to get a fire going Mike.'

"It's dark, and we're wondering where we’re going to hit the woods.''

Come daylight the next day, Rock would estimate the two men walked the length of a football field or more before they encountered willows along the shore. That was good enough. They started searching in the dark for dry, dead chunks of brush and dry grass. Willow isn't the best firewood, but it will burn.

Rock and Hamilton stacked up grass and twigs, and got the flames of their lighters cooking beneath them. When they got the twigs to burning, they started adding bigger and bigger sticks. It took a while, though, to get a real fire going.

"A long time,'' Rock said, "maybe after a half hour, 45 minutes. We finally got a fire going. It was the best thing. We was cold and shaking but we had that fire going. We just stayed there by the fire and just kept it going all night.''

By morning, they were warm enough to start thinking about what to do next.

Now what?

Stranded on an island in the Yukon far from anyone, the two men decided the first thing they should do was go get the boat and see if they could somehow make it useful again. They didn't think this would be difficult. Hamilton had stuck the oar into the sidebar the night before and tied the boat to it before the men waded ashore.

Now when they went back to find the boat, it had disappeared.

"We went out there and the boat was gone,'' Rock said. "When we got there only the paddle and the rope was there.'' Hamilton decided the men had to try to find the boat.

"He said, 'We've got to find that boat. If somebody finds it before us, they don't know where we are.''

Eventually, the two men knew, searchers would come looking for them. Hamilton feared that once searchers found the boat, they would focus the search around it. Thus, they might miss the two men stranded on an island far away. And searches in rural Alaska don't go on all that long after an overturned boat is found. If survivors aren't found within the next day or so, they are usually given up as dead and drowned in the cold waters.

Hamilton and Rock started down the beach of their sandbar island hoping for the best. They got lucky. "We found it,'' Rock said. "We was happy. We know where the boat is.'' It wasn't on their island, however. It was lodged on a sandbar some 300 to 400 feet offshore.

"We made another fire,'' Rock said. "It was windy, a cold, cold wind. We was thinking how to get to the boat out there. (Mike) had a radio on the boat. We tried to figure, maybe we could get that working.''

Hamilton floated the idea that maybe the two men could wade out to the boat, flip it over, empty it out and paddle it home. Rock, who has a bad back, didn't think he was up to that task. He didn't think he had the strength to help right the boat, and he didn't want to get back in the water.

One goes, one stays 

"I said, 'I'm not getting in that water,'" Rock said. "I started swearing. He said, 'Hey, well. We got to.’ ''

Hamilton was worried searchers might not find the men on their island. He wanted to get across the Yukon to a point about a mile distant where there would be a chance to flag down a passing boat. There isn't a lot of traffic on the Yukon in September, but there is some.

"That was the plan,'' Rock said. Hamilton, who could not be reached for this story, was committed to it. When Rock refused to go, Hamilton said he'd take off on his own to get help.

"He left that afternoon about 3,'' Rock said. "He made it to the boat. I seen him out there a long time, looking around. Maybe two hours later, I see him pushing a log down by the boat.'' Hamilton used the log to dislodge the boat from the sandbar. Rock watched Hamilton and the boat float away.

"I knew he was trying to go to the mainland (the Grayling bank of the river),'' Rock said. "That's what he told me before he left. I told him, 'You better make it, Mike.' He told me, 'You better not lose your lighter.' I'm not going to lose my lighter.''

Rock knew what that lighter meant -- the difference between life and death. There was no telling when help would come. With nighttime temperatures dropping toward freezing, he would need fire to stay alive. The date was Sept. 25. The men had been gone from Grayling for a little more than 24 hours. It would be two more days before anyone began to seriously worry about them.

A search is organized

There are no rescue services in Grayling except for those the villagers provide each other. The nearest post of the Alaska State Troopers is 93 miles to the south in the village of Aniak on the Kuskokwim River. The nearest Alaska State Troopers post on the Yukon is even farther away, 115 miles downstream at Emmonak.

Troopers say they weren’t notified Hamilton and Rock had headed upriver in an 18-foot boat until Sept. 27. The men were due to return the night of Sept. 24, but hadn’t been heard from. Troopers contacted Kaltag, a village about 60 miles upstream from Grayling, and Anvik, a village about 15 miles downstream, to ask if anyone had seen the two men. No one had.

"Due to poor weather conditions on the river,'' the trooper report said, "a river-based search (by villagers) was not possible.''

Between the Interior Alaska villages of Kaltag and Anvik, the Yukon River is in places more than a mile wide. It is, in that way, more like an inland sea with a strong current than anything most people know as a river. When the winds began to blow across this water, it churns like an ocean.

On Sept. 28, the weather that had been buffeting the area finally began to calm. A Civil Air Patrol aircraft and a Trooper aircraft began to search. Rock said he heard aircraft and lit a signal fire, but searchers did not spot him.

"They were looking on the main channel,'' he said. "I was maybe three miles away from the main channel.''

By now, it was Friday. The boat had flipped Monday night. Rock and Hamilton had made the island early Tuesday morning. Rock had now been there all of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. He was hungry.

"Very hungry,'' he said. "I was trying to think about food and drinking the water. The Yukon River (a glacially turbid stream) there in the fall, it clears around the edge. That's the part I was drinking. That kept me going, but I was getting weaker and weaker.''

Not to mention running out of wood. Friday morning he decided to move his fire to be closer to more wood. It was when he noticed the search, which had been hampered by weather, was amping up.

Planes finally circling 

"I knew there had to be people looking for me because I heard the planes,'' he said. "I knew they spotted the boat, (too) because I saw them circling. They were three miles away, and I could see them.''

The skies over the river that day were so still, Rock added, he could hear the riverboats that came upstream from Grayling and circled around Hamilton's overturned boat. "Now they got the boat,'' he added, "it's got to be some time, any time before they find me.''

According to the official trooper report, the boat was found just after noon about six miles north of Grayling, and local search volunteers in skiffs quickly rallied to the scene. About two and half hours later, according to that report, "the Alaska Wildlife Trooper (aircraft) located Rock on a sandbar alive and well.''

It would still be a while until Hamilton was found. Rock said he told the Trooper pilot of Hamilton's plan and the search for the other missing man shifted to the area downstream from the boat. Hamilton had by then made it to within about a mile of the village, but he was on the wrong bank of the river.

"He told me he almost didn't make it to shore,'' Rock said, "too high of winds. The current kept him there in the middle mostly. Finally when he went to shore, he was way further down than where he thought he was going to hit the shore. So he walked down to a point across from Grayling.''

Both men were reported to be healthy when found. Neither required medical attention.

Aside from being hungry, Rock said he was quite comfortable once he got himself and his gear dried out. "All my cold weather gear I had on,'' he said. "My big coat. Everything's gone from the boat, guns and all ... but we're here today. It's a good thing. We've got our lives.

"Those Bic lighters. That's what saved our lives. I dug in my pocket. I knew that lighter was still in my pocket. It took a while to get that fire going because it was so windy. (But) once our lighters got going with wood and grass and twigs and finally, man, fire. It was the best thing that happened.

"I want to tell everybody make sure you have lighters, Bic lighters, butane lighters, (for) any kind of trip. $1.50 down at our village store. You're going to need to have fire.''

The need for fire is a story as old as Alaska. Without fire, Hamilton and Rock might have perished. Even if they'd turned on a personal locator beacon or a $5,000 emergency-signal equipped survival watch, the cold might have claimed them before help could reach the scene. But because they had two simple butane lighters and -- just as importantly -- the knowledge of how to build a fire, they are alive today.

Rock, of course, credits only that cheap lighter and thinks nothing of his own fire-making skill. Little does he know of the passing of that skill in most of America today. To build a fire was something almost everyone once learned. Now, many -- if not most -- Americans who visit the far north are unaware such a simple skill could mean the difference between life and death in Alaska.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com