Kodiak Alaska, Coast Guard Air Station; was considered the end of the world in 1979.
It wasn’t really, but early on a clear morning just before sunrise, if you squinted westward you could just see the end of the world!
Well Kodiak Island is located on the western side of the Gulf of Alaska, 90 miles southwest of the Kenai Peninsula. Oriented northeast to southwest, the island lies 25 miles southeast of the Alaska Peninsula, separated from it by the Shelikof Strait. Afognak Island lies northeast of Kodiak, across Kupreanof Strait, which averages less than half a mile in width. The two islands are generally considered to be a single landmass, approximately 145 miles long by 50 miles wide. The terrain is rugged, with the mountains averaging from 2,000 to 4,000 feet in height. The highest mountains on Kodiak extend to roughly 5,000 feet. The island has many lakes, ponds, interconnecting waterways, and drainage streams. Numerous bays, many of which are deep and narrow, indent the irregular shoreline.
Kodiak has primarily a marine climate, which is exemplified by the limited daily and annual temperature ranges. During the summer, the mean air temperature closely approximates the mean sea surface temperature, rising slightly above it during August but falling below again in September. In winter, the mean maximum air temperature more closely resembles the mean sea surface temperature curve. The absolute temperature range is nearly 100 degrees. Summer maximum temperatures will vary 10 to 20 degrees, depending on whether the northwest gradient is strong enough to maintain a flow of air from over the island, or whether it is weak enough that the sea breeze predominates. The highest daily maximum temperatures occur with northwest winds in summer.
Wow that’s a lot of information, what does it mean? Basically it means that during normal times the temperature rarely fluctuates more than 20 degrees and it is rarely below zero even in the coldest part of winter. How can this be? Well Japanese current warms the Kodiak Archipelago. The climate is similar to Southeast Alaska, with much less precipitation. January temperatures range from 14 to 46; July temperatures vary from 39 to 76. Average annual rainfall is 74 inches. Ocean winds warmed by the Japanese current in the winter, give Kodiak a mild 30-degree average temperature in January and snow is the exception rather than the rule. The mountains around the island are a thousand feet plus above sea level and maintain snow-covered peaks from November until well into the summer. Because of this, there are glaciers and large ice deposits throughout the mountain crevices, causing the high country to remain at or below freezing year round. Prevailing winds usually come from the northwest and are warm; although, a chilly northeastern wind will occasionally blow in the winter and bring some snow. During the late winter and early spring, certain conditions can cause the winds to build up and funnel through the mountain passes at very high speeds, an occurrence referred to as a "williwaw." Williwaws are sudden violent winds that are always way below the freezing point. They are generated when the high mountain wind mass is very cold and there is a sudden increase in the temperature of the lower coastal areas.
Maximum gusts of over 90 knots have been recorded. Coast Guard Cutters docked in Womens Bay have reported williwaw winds off Old Womens Mountain in excess of 120 knots. Gusts of over 50 knots have occurred during each month of the year, but are most likely to occur in the winter months.
Hmmm, very interesting but where is the story?
Well in the year of 1979, I was a young Airdale Coastie full of energy and high expectations. Kodiak was the last frontier, and being a frontiersman at heart, I had volunteered for a tour of duty in this very dangerous climate to experience the “Last Frontier”.
I brought my young family to the Island with anticipation of living like the pioneers used to and at the same time working Search and Rescue from the big Sikorsky HH3F helos. Well I really got what I asked for, and more.
Life here was different than anything I had experienced in my 25 years of life. Being so far removed from civilization you had to always prepare for the very worst that life can throw at you. On the entire commercial portion of the Island there was never more than 3 days of food on the shelves and in the storerooms. So everybody ordered groceries from the “lower 48” in the summer, and they ordered enough for a whole year. Some food stuffs became found memories; fresh milk, fresh eggs, that cheap white bread, fresh vegetables…
But, the other benefits were remarkable. Fresh Halibut, King salmon, Silver salmon, Red salmon, King crab, Dungeness crab, Roosevelt Elk, Reindeer, Sitka Black Tail deer, Moose, Ptarmigan, Snow Hare and a wide variety of lesser animals, birds and fish available for the harvesting. Then there were the wild fruits, Blueberries, Salmon Berries, and High Bush Cranberries there for the taking as long as the Kodiak Brown Bear who owned the berry patch did not mind. The entire Kodiak Island population rarely exceeded 20,000 and a third of that was Coast Guardsmen and their families. So the tag limit was very generous on all game and fish. This particular year each adult licensed hunter was allowed 5 Sitka Deer, 1 Roosevelt Elk, Unlimited Reindeer, unlimited Ptarmigan and Snow Hare. Fishery limits were unbelievable, if you were a resident of the Island you could get a gillnet license that allowed 75 Salmon per family of four (that’s 75 times 5 lbs dressed weight of salmon). Plus you were still allowed you bag limits for your sport-fishing license. Needless to say during the short summer season we were very busy harvesting and storing wild foodstuffs.
My poor sweet wife First Mate was kept busy processing and canning in jars and cans. She also man handled the garden, as I was always conveniently away on a mission when digging and hoeing was required.
Well the time frame of our story is mid January 1979, my small family was tired of canned foods even if first mate had canned them. We wanted something FRESH!! So since I had saved three of our deer limit for just this reason it was off to the bush to get some fresh meat. We were experiencing a rare warm spell due to the unusual changes to currents caused by El Nino. For some reason the Japanese Current brought a flow of warmer waters from down south somewhere. This caused the Kodiak weather to warm in the lower coastal regions. It was well above freezing and an even rarer sunny day. The CO (commanding officer) authorized a sunshine day liberty for all hands that were not standing duty. My team mate Rocky and I both had the same idea, deer!!
This time of the year the best deer were high mountain Sitka that were feeding on the dieing low bush cranberry and blueberry bushes as well as the high Alpine Marsh Grass that was buried under the snow. These deer were smart but not really sharp. They knew that the hunters came from below the mountain so they stayed just below the snowline grazing and sleeping in the sun, always vigilant of what was below them.
Rocky and I had scoped out a trail that lead up Barometer Mountain (named for its ability to forecast weather, if you could see the mountain it was a nice day, if you could not see the mountain for clouds it was a bad day) on the housing side of the mountain. By following the snow line we could get above the deer and bag us a couple. Well you don’t have to hit me with a stick to get me going. I had my daypack always ready, all I had to do was change into my hunting clothes, notify first mate where I was and pick up my rifle. And we were off!!
I had to search a lot to find this but it is a picture of Kodiak taken during the summer. The unusual warm snap had caused the area to look almost exactly like this. Very pretty day, warm (above freezing) and so inviting. Notice the mountains farther in towards the Central Range of the Island, also notice the sudden absence of snow on the closer slopes of the nearer mountains. They had been covered with snow the previous two days but the warm snap had caused all the snow to melt.
Rocky and I drove my Cherokee Jeep back to the start of Burma road and parked off the road a ways, we then hiked up the near ridge of Barometer mountain that is visible in the for ground. It wasn’t too tough, we reached the 1800 foot mark (just above the second hump above the clouds) without to much trouble in just a couple of hours. Now Kodiak in the winter does not have but 5 to 6 hours of dim daylight during the day. It gets semi light around 10 am and gets dark around 4 pm. When I say dark, if there is no clear sky it is dark, dark, dark.
So there we were just before 10 and we were just below the snowline. I wanted to start angling inward as I could see some deer 2 to 3 thousand yards away and below us. Rocky on the other hand wanted to hike a little higher and hunt a small bowl we both knew about. Since we would be within eyesight of each other (500 yards and less) we decided to hunt the two different areas. Rocky commenced to climb and I started walking inland on a 65 to 75 degree sloped mountainside.
Very quickly I realized I should have gone with Rocky, but hindsight is a pain. Remember all the melted snow?? You guessed it, it was all running under my feet on the step slope. I kept slipping and having to climb back up to the snow line. I was making enough noise to scare a granite deer much less those grazing below. They simply kept grazing at the 2,000-yard mark from me. I stalked/slid/fell another 3,000 yards before I started to get discouraged. I stopped for a break and opened my daypack for some refreshments.
I should probably take the time to describe my gear at this point. For clothing I was wearing cotton socks, with wool socks and waterproof insulated boots. I wore cotton long john bottoms and tops along with wool pants and shirt. I had my foul weather jacket with liner (issued me by the CG) tied to the top of my pack. I carried my Ruger 30-06 (loaded with 5 rounds) rifle with a wallet pack of 8 spare rounds. In my pockets I carried zippo, folding blade, string, toilet paper, gum, chapstick, sunscreen stick, condoms, signal mirror and a whistle. In my pack I had two days worth of Rations, poncho, wool blanket, good segmented space blanket, candle lantern with two candles, alcohol stove, stove stand, folding saw, large blade knife, sharpening tools, etool, plastic bags, cheese cloth bags, 550 para line, clean socks and undies, angle head flashlight, firestarter, pen flare, smoke flare, signal mirror, two canteens of water, extra packets of cocoa, coffee, soup sugar and toilet paper.
Yea I know but remember this was 1979 way before all the cool gadgets you can buy today. Besides I was within eyesight of my home and did not expect anything to happen that a flare aimed at the housing area would not bring a quick solution to. Hah, I was a Cheechako (had not wintered in Alaska) and had no idea what that old man winter could do.
So I am stopped heating some water for cocoa watching the deer mosey away when I heard a rifle shot above me. I looked up to see Rocky standing in deep snow about 600 yards away waving at me as he shrugged out of his pack. More distressing though was what I saw behind him. Ptarmigan had been spooked off the mountainside by his shot and they were flying for all the were worth….BACKWARDS. That’s right, they were pointed inland and flying but were being driven backwards.
I quickly turned and looked inland and saw a multitude of long horses manes pouring over the inland passes of the mountain range. I looked back up at Rocky and saw nothing but his feet and flying snow coming from the hole he was digging. I started up the mountain and made about 30 yards before the chill hit me. The temperature dropped like a rock.
I stopped climbing and shucked my pack and started digging uphill madly with my etool . I quit looking at Rocky cause I knew he would be underground real quick, and I was behind… dangerously behind. As I dug upward I realized that I was only going to accomplish a two-foot cover of snow over my shelter and it was sun-rotted snow at that. For those not familiar with sun rotted snow it looks and crunches very similar to rice crispies, the only good thing being that it shovels out easily.
So what was the problem? Why didn’t we just high tail it down the mountain and drive home?? The vast majority of wilderness deaths in Alaska result from hypothermia. Any cold wind or stream can suck the life out of you in minutes. What Rocky and I saw heading our way was something neither of us had experienced in the wild, a Willawaw! The normal gentle 5 to 10 knot wind can instantly pick up to 120 knots with very little warning. The temperature can plunge 60 to as much as 100 degrees in a matter of minutes, that is the ambient temperature not the wind chill.
Think about it, here we were an unusual sunny January day with the temperature in the low 40’s. When the Glacier and Snow chilled wind rushed down out of the mountains at tremendous speed it could easily drop to an ambient temperature of minus 20’s almost instantly!! 60 degrees in minutes add to that the tremendous wind speeds that Williwaws create and you can be looking at wind chills that are way below zero.
Anyway I was concentrating on my digging and had progressed enough upward to where I was inside the hole, and enough downward so that I was hitting the dirt of the mountain. I really wished I had been higher up with more snow over me. The only good thing about my situation was that there were no large snow deposits above me waiting to come thundering down when the Williwaw dumped vast quantities of fresh snow on top of the old sun rotted snow.
I shinnied back out to find a wind that was really shrieking, I grabbed my rifle and daypack and looked up hill. I could not see Rocky even if he had been outside his hole. Visibility had dropped to less than ten feet and the snow was literally blowing sideways. I crawled back into my hole with the rifle and pack behind me. I continued widening the upper limit of my hole laterally at the dirt level until I had an area hollowed out that I could lie down in and a little extra room to mess around with my pack. I did not want to dig upward anymore because I was afraid I would breach the surface and screw up my snow cave.
Just like they taught us in Survival School! Always find shelter first, and here I was sheltered I guess. My body was heating up the inside from all my exercise in digging the cave. With the entrance much lower than my sleeping ledge, the cold air was wicked downwards as what warm air there was rose into my shelter. Shelter, let me describe the size of this shelter. I am 6’2” tall and at the time weighed about 200 lbs., I could lie down and just turn over. But that was it, it was closer in description to a coffin than a shelter.
I rummaged through my bag and got my candle lantern out and light it. Wow what an improvement that was, did not fell so gloomy then. Plus all the snow and ice made some really cool reflections. And the noise outside was unbelievable, I have no idea how fast the winds were but it sounded like a dozen cats in a large commercial dryer were being tumbled on high heat!!! I have never heard shrieking like that!!
Well I was stuck here for a while so might as well make some supper and get a little more comfortable. As my alcohol stove started heating up some water from my canteen; I shrugged my blanket, poncho and space blanket out of my pack. Remember now I have a stove going and am trying to maneuver all this stuff in a space the size of a coffin. I finally get the poncho down and rolled up on each side to keep me dry, I wrapped myself in the blanket with the space blanket doubled up beneath me to insulate me from the ground.
Whew all this struggling around had made me get out of breath. I stopped and watched my alcohol fire when I noticed it was burning really low and I was tired. I realized in shock that I was burning the air up in the shelter. Dang it I forgot to put in the ventilation holes. I retrieved a condom from my pocket and put it over the barrel of my rifle. I then poked the rifle as straight up as I could until it broke through the surface. There was an immediate increase in air from the hole in the roof down through the entrance hole that was rapidly filling in with snow. The stove roared back to life and my light headiness started to recede.
Around this time I got a really chilly notice. A large drop of water fell from the roof down my neck. I jumped as far as the shelter would allow and cursed a lot. It scared the bejeebies out of me, what with the wind screaming outside and it being so eerie inside. I looked around and saw that my stove along with my body heat was causing an increase in the internal temperature of the shelter and melting the snow.
Well Dang, I just could not catch a break!! I put the alcohol stove out and retrieved the lukewarm water and made some instant coffee with cocoa in it with two bags of sugar. It was going to be a long night. And nights in Alaska, in the Winter, in a Williwaw, in a snow shelter are really long!!! Trust me!
So stove out and the little candle did pretty good keeping the temperature hovering around freezing and provided a wonderful little light show. I know I dozed off once or twice during the night but for the most part I just lay there wet, cold and hallucinating watching the candle flickering. Your mind plays really cool tricks on you when you are alone like that. I thought I heard Rocky outside the shelter hollering for me at one point. Once I even heard a big buck huffing at the shelter entrance and you could hear voices in the wind it was really spooky. Anyway I weathered it out in the coffin sized hole in the snow waiting for the Williwaw to die or morning which ever came first; thinking about first mate and my two boys. Wondering what they were up to and hoping first mate was not to worried about me.
Anyway after 4 hours or so the warm drink came back to haunt me. Have you ever tried to piss in a coffin when there are absolutely no containers around? Well being the intelligent make do Coastie I was I found a new use for a condom…. Just be sure you are aiming down hill!! I know you are wondering why I had a condom to begin with aren’t you? Well besides being useful when you find a Tahitian girl behind a coconut tree in Alaska, they make great water containers when you need to carry extra water. Plus in the field they are great for keeping stuff out of the barrel of your rifle. And they make great emergency urinals!!
The storm seemed to rage on forever, but eventually it gave up enough that I was willing to peek out. Besides I wanted to get rid of that water balloon I had. I poked my head out of the shelter and looked downhill. Everything was covered in at least 3 feet of snow with some drifts much deeper. It was overcast with the wind about 20 knots and still flurrying snow. I looked uphill to see Rocky burst out of his shelter straight through the roof. Turns out he fell asleep with his lights out and when he woke up he was terrified and disoriented. I laughed so hard I rolled out of my shelter and lay there cackling at Rocky.
Rocky hollered something the wind whipped away, I am sure he was thanking me for my concern, as he began to dig around in his collapsed shelter for his gear. I drug my gear out and sat there waiting for him to stop kicking the snow of his shelter. As I waited I tossed the cold water balloon from hand to hand, thinking… just thinking!
Rocky rolled stumbled down to me and his first words were “Wow what a pisser!!!” I had to agree it had been a really cool storm and we were both very glad we had stayed awake during the survival training we had received when we were first stationed here. I reared back and heaved the water balloon as hard as I could down hill. It arced beautifully and splashed down about 700 yards below us creating a yellow stain. Rocky asked “What was that??? Naw don’t tell me that was piss…. We gotta go down that way you @#$&$#$!!”
So as Rocky began to grumble and stumble down the slope to the ridge, I looked around and had a sudden brain flash. I quickly rummaged in my pack and brought out the trash bags. I spread them out to full length one on top of the other and tied the ends together making a small area of thick plastic for….
You guessed, it as I whizzed by Rocky on my make shift sled I was squealing like a little girl. I did pretty well for the first 600 yards until I got to the drop off for the ridgeline. Where I proceeded to well drop! Boy my butt hurt for days, but at least Rocky followed me and we were both so sore we were not going to tell anybody. Of course WE told everybody we sledded the whole 1500 yards, so several folks went out during the winter trying to imitate our ride. That ridgeline scored a lot of bums that winter.
Anyway I made it home safe to get my sore butt chewed by first mate, who rightly felt that my fun had caused her to worry way to much.
It was an interesting experience and a definite eye opener. I hate small spaces with a passion, and big winds are no fun either.
Another True Adventure of Sitkastan!!! For more fabulous stories and true tales of heroism and courage come on inside, take
your shoes off!! Sit awhile!!
Sitkastan “Semper Paratus”
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