It was my first winter in Petersburg, Alaska. And by that, I mean it was probably October, and the first snowfall of the year came in fast and hard that day, in a blizzard that brought with it a foot of snow in no time at all. I was lucky to make it home from work, 3 1/2 miles out the road to the little house I shared with my future first husband Glenn, 3 cats and a cockatiel named Hairy. We were just sitting down to dinner when the scanner went off (I was a reporter, so I had it on at all times). The call went out for the Petersburg Volunteer Fire Department to mobilize and get personnel and an ambulance out to 4 Mile to try to find a guy who was floating out to sea.
To help the picture I'm about to paint come alive in your head, it might be helpful to know a few things about the lay of the land. Petersburg was on Mitkof Island in Southeast Alaska, on the Inside Passage. Mitkof is about 30 miles long, and just a few miles wide. Back in 1989, when this story took place, there was just one road along the western edge of the island to get from the north end to the south, and instead of regular street addresses, we used mile markers. So we lived 3 1/2 miles 'out the road.'
Mitkof Island was separated from Kupreanof Island by a stretch of water so skinny that you could kayak across from one island to the other, crossing "The Narrows" in about 15 minutes during slack tide. But when the tide comes in and goes out, it doesn't play around. The ocean becomes like a fast moving river. You do not want to get caught in that tide on a cold winter night in the middle of a blizzard when huge swells flip your little boat over, and you don't even have a lifejacket on. But that's exactly what happened to Whiskey Ted.
Out at 5 Mile, Bob Larson's house was on the water side. Across the road on the uphill side, his parents. His dad stepped out onto the front porch for a smoke after dinner. Although he didn't hear too well, he thought he heard a faint cry for help down towards the water. Worried that it might be one of his grandkids, he called the house below to ask Bob if any of his young boys were outside in the snow. But no, everyone was cozy inside the house.
Bob stepped out and saw the craziest thing floating down the Narrows: a man in an Australian Outback type oilskin coat and Xtra Tuffs clinging to the top of his overturned skiff, rapidly passing his house on the swift tide, yelling his head off. Bob called 911, and the community jumped to its feet to help a man who was headed towards certain death on a stormy night.
|Whiskey Ted, back in the day. Credit: Petersburg Pilot|
I remember hearing the call to mobilize the search & rescue team, which was planning to head out to 4 Mile, where the Beachcomber Inn & Restaurant had a dock. It sounded like they were planning to try to get a boat out into the water to try for an interception. We dropped our forks and ran for our boots and gloves. Glenn grabbed both of our snow shovels. I grabbed my mic and tape deck.
We ran down to the bottom of our driveway, just in time to see a convoy of emergency vehicles slush by. It was blowing sideways, and the snow was deep on the road. When we caught up with the team, they had realized that to get down the hill to the dock on the long, unplowed driveway, they'd have to shovel it. If only they'd brought snow shovels. So we handed ours over, and they went to work, breaking both of them within minutes. I followed one of the firefighters, Jim Stolpe, as he walked in the snow, yelling out towards the water in the pitch black night, trying hard to listen in the wind for a response. The first ambulance started down the hill, and became stuck immediately. Someone said they were pretty sure the little upside down boat had just passed by, so they decided to turn the second ambulance around and head closer to town to the next place with a boat ramp to try for a 2nd interception. I honestly didn't think it was possible.
The 2nd ambulance started to turn around in the middle of the highway, and it became hopelessly stuck as well. Somebody got on their radio to call for the last rescue vehicle, still in town at the firehall, to head out the road to the next interception point.
And that's when the lights went out. The entire island went dark. Just as the door to the ambulance bay was on the way up, but not quite enough for the vehicle to get out. There was no way any more emergency vehicles would be heading out for the next half hour to help Whiskey Ted, who was still floating down the Narrows, towards the open ocean a few miles away in the middle of an Alaskan snowstorm.
Meanwhile, down at the Harbormaster's shack in the middle of the city's main harbor, just before the Wrangell Narrows opens up into Frederick Sound, Hofter Gjerde was listening to events unfolding on the scanner. Hofter had lived on the island his whole life, and grew up on boats, but still didn't know how to drive a car by the time he was 40 (I know, because I was there when he did a few years later, but that's a whole 'nuther story). Hofter knew that if any more time was wasted trying to find a way down to a boat ramp, Whiskey Ted was really gonna be a goner (not that we knew it was Whiskey Ted at the time. We just knew it was some guy screaming his head off, sprawled on top of a little skiff). So Hofter got into the harbor master's boat, and sped off into the Narrows, hoping to come across our hapless victim before the boat flipped over again.
Miraculously, Hofter found him. He pulled Whiskey Ted aboard his boat, and took him back to town. I don't know how Whiskey Ted got to the hospital, since I know Hofter didn't drive him the 3 blocks. But Whiskey Ted pulled through. In fact, he lived until last year, when cancer took him at the age of 64.
So when the wind is blowing and you can feel the chill to your bone, when inches upon inches of snow are coming down and you start mourning for your oranges and jasmine, when you lament that you might have to walk to work the next day or entertain your kids because the schools are shut down, remember Whiskey Ted. And how much worse it could be. The plants in our garden might not survive, but we will.
Have a warm and safe holiday, don't EVER get in a boat without a lifejacket, and enjoy the Whiskey Ted Xtra Tuff Xmas Cocktail Hour Playlist.
Click on the Xtra Tuff Xmas Cocktail Hour Playlist below to play, or go directly to the playlist at Grooveshark.