*A Problem While Dipnetting Salmon*
The Copper River narrowed part-way through the canyon causing the water to run faster and more treacherous. The boat I was steering wallowed drunkenly in the current while the wall of the canyon we were in appeared stationary 20 feet away to port (thats on the left side of the boat). We WERE standing still! If that wasnít enough, multiple large eddies showed here and there indicating big rocks just under the surface waiting to damage the boat or motor. The 85 horse Johnson outboard jet was straining at full throttle but could not push us fast enough to get the welded aluminum boat up on step and maybe make some headway. It was still miles up-river to the boat launch and safety, or a couple hundred miles down river to the ocean and the next place where we could get to any habitation. Plus we were down to the last few gallons of gas in the tank.
The morning had started off pleasant enough. A beautiful 1st of July 1999. Four friends, four "dip nets", a cooler full of lunch and extra drinks, our aluminum boat we had rented from the military MWR, about 20 gallons of gas and plenty of outboard oil. I was designated as boat operator/captain with the most (only) experience running rivers. We climbed out of the campers after a good nights sleep and headed out onto the river. The Copper River is a fast-moving large river. It has one of the most celebrated and largest runs of salmon on the west coast of America, it is also one of the most difficult to get access to. We were anticipating netting red salmon and king salmon, which are the best eating, as both were running in good quantity at the time. Dipnetting is allowed in Alaska for residents to stock up their freezers with salmon. To dipnet you take a net with a handle long enough (usually at least 10 to 15 feet long) to get to the bottom of the river and stick the net in the water and sweep it with the current until you get a fish. We were at the last boat launch and access to the river. The next possible point of rescue was about 150 miles down river near a town called Cordova. Knowing that people are killed on this river almost yearly doing something stupid, we planned and planned some more to prevent any problems. We had a life jacket on every person in the boat, not just in the boat but worn. Each person also had personal survival items in pockets or in their floatation vests. We had a fair survival kit aboard, but we kept it small as our overall weight was an issue. We figured that we would power down the river to where we planned to dip-net. The plan was that we would go down to a place we liked to dip then setup a routine where we would drift a while netting fish over a quarter mile path then power up to our begin point and do it again. This we planned to do until half of our fuel was consumed, or we became to tired to do it anymore, or we limited out (about 135 fish total for the four of us). We stuck to the plan and were netting fish in no time. We were in the middle of a large run of salmon and were getting multiple fish on each pass. We were using large fish landing nets with extra long handles (15 ft) that allowed us to put the net down just off of the bottom of the river as we drifted with the current. When a fish swimming up-river swam into the net we would get a characteristic "tug" and would quickly pull up the net hand over hand, dump out the fish, bonk them on the head a time or two and get the net back down for another one. Some times we would get multiple fish or a King salmon in our landing nets making it just a little more difficult. Our count was approaching our limit when our fuel limit was also reached. The guys encouraged me to do one or two more laps before we quit so we could limit out, after all we did figure in a large safety margin for fuel. I consented (hey I was having fun pulling in fish too). All in all we had a great haul, but I noticed that we were no longer getting up on step going back up to our begin point where we were netting, course we were not using full throttle so I figured we were still ok. Not a good decision.
When we got the last of our limit I beached the boat on a short stretch of sand and took inventory of our situation. We had our limit of fish, we had about 9-10 gallons of gas and usually at this point it would take me about 5 gallons to power the boat back up to our camp with the boat up on step. Most recreational runabout boats are designed to travel most efficiently while up on step or skimming across the top of the water, not plowing it aside. Usually it takes a bit of power to get up on step then you can actually back off on the throttle a little and cruse without falling back into the water. Plowing the water takes a lot more power and fuel. I looked around but there were no other boats out in our area, so no help from that quarter. No radios, with the canyon radio communication was just about nil so we just didnít take any (not a good decision in retrospect). We decided that we could at least make about 15 to 20 mph, it would take a little longer but we should be able to get back. We launched the boat and started back up the river. I powered up river the best I could and made some fair headway where the river was wide. But, as the canyon narrowed we slowly seemed to come to a standstill. The wall of the canyon seemed to just stand still, almost as if we were tied off to a rock. Seeing a big eddy I knew that the water there was swirling but not moving like the current so I steered the boat into the lower end and started to move forward faster and faster. The water in the eddy seemed to swirl but was not in the main current, so we could make some headway and started to accelerate a bit. Just before the end of the eddy, and a probable rock, I steered into the current and the fast water in the current popped the boat up on step, it stayed on step for a hundred feet or so and then our momentum slowed enough to fall off step. So I steered into another eddy and did it again. This process went on and on for what seemed like an eternity, but soon we were out of the canyon and the river spread out, the current slowed and we could make headway even if we could not get on step. Around the last bend we could see our campers still a couple miles off. We could have jogged faster and the gas gage was bouncing on EMPTY. I had one of the guys look into the filler mouth watching to see when the last of the gas was sucked into the fuel hose. When it did I had him change the fuel hose to one of the other "empty" tanks that still had something around a gallon still in it. We finally made it with less than a quart of gas left in the last tank. Talk about total relief. The two guys in the bow never had a clue, they thought everything was just fine. The one helping me and I looked at each other and agreed we would never do that again.
Out of the Canyon which is off of my left shoulder.
What had happened? I had planned for our load out and back. I had figured on
our fuel use and even included more than I thought we would need. But this was a
boat that I had not operated before, it was similar to mine in that it was the
same basic hull albeit a smaller motor, but I figured it was lighter because my
boat had a windshield and multiple seats and the 85 horse motor was sufficient
for the anticipated load and the Coast Guardís Vessel Certificate. I had not
anticipated we would get as many larger fish as we did. If you do the math we
had 135 fish, with an average weight of probably 4-5 lbs for the Reds and we had 5 king
salmon that averaged about 25 lbs each, or over 600 lbs of fish. If we had
gutted them on our little beach and came back up with just the meat and not the
guts and such we probably could have lightened our load by 100-150 lbs. That
might have allowed us to get up on step and get out easier and faster with
considerably less fuel use. Or I could have off-loaded one of the guys and some
fish and powered up to the launch, dropped off all the other fish and one of the
guys, fill up on gas and take one guy with me to go get the one left behind.
Either would have been fine, except we did not think we were in trouble until it
was too late to go back to the little beach and try either option. We got lucky
and I knew it. I have gone back many times to dipnet, but always even more
careful with my fuel and loading.
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