Two friends rescue commercial pilot in Alaska wilderness

As darkness fell we paddled harder, hoping to make landfall while we could still see. The floatplane we found ourselves attempting to maneuver refused to cooperate. The slightest gust would catch the tail rudder, sending us spinning, making forward movement all but impossible. A fall into the cold lake waters would result in the immediate onset of hypothermia, worsening our already precarious predicament. On the opposite float, I watched as my friend of 14 years paddled from a kneeling position. He looked back at me and even in the darkness I could make out his grin. How do we keep finding ourselves in these situations?

Tyler moved to my hometown of Seward, Alaska when he was in the third grade. We struck up a friendship through a shared affinity for math, and shared time on the end of the bench during JV basketball games. Our friendship deepened through hiking trips where we spent our time philosophizing and getting lost.

While I devote much of my time searching out adventure in the mountains, Tyler is pursuing adventures of the mind. He has Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from Stanford and is working his doctorate in philosophy at Berkeley. The trips I take with Tyler are the only time I plan ahead, book cabins or double check my gear. I look forward to good conversation and real meals on these trips, not misery and risk which are my usual companions. It should then come as no surprise that every outing with Tyler goes horribly awry.

We’ve come across a lost, waterless hiker in the desert, only to lead him astray and become lost ourselves. We have found ourselves taking shelter in a very remote outhouse during a storm. Numerous times we have verged on hypothermia in the freezing rains of coastal Alaska.

I planned this trip to be a relaxing journey, a change from previous experiences. A mellow five mile hike to a forest service cabin situated on a pristine lake. It started uneventfully and upon reaching the lake we were deep in discussion about the merits of donating money and volunteering time for charity. “How much is enough?” I asked Tyler.

“There is no defined line,” Tyler replied. “You can’t just give a thousand dollars to Red Cross and then never think about the plights of third world countries again.”

Our conversation was cut short as we came upon a floatplane tied to the lakeshore, blocking our path. A middle-aged man jumped out of the cockpit and introduced himself as Michael. He told us he was in need of help and explained his situation. He had flown from the city of Anchorage and spent the day fishing from his floats. He inadvertently left various instruments in the cockpit on while the motor was off, killing his battery and effectively stranding him.

As he talked we heard the approaching growl of another small aircraft. Michael had reached a friend by relaying a message through the radios of other aircraft pilots in the area. The friend didn’t have a floatplane, so he circled over us several times while they talked via radio. On his last pass he dropped a large blue duffel from his door. We watched the duffel miss the beach by several hundred yards and fall into the unnavigable forest of alder and devil’s club that blanketed the mountainside. According to Michael the duffel contained food and survival gear.

An hour’s worth of searching saw us back on the beach, cursing, covered in scrapes and without the duffel. “Screw this,” I proclaimed. “Come stay the night in the cabin with us, we will feed you and you can fix your plane in the morning.”

Michael refused to leave his plane for the night, but was visibly enticed at the thought of staying in a warm cabin as opposed to crammed in his cockpit. He suggested that the three of us could easily paddle the floatplane a mile down the shoreline to the cabin to where he could tie it for the night and rest easy. For some reason we agreed that this would be a simple task and helped push off the plane without a second thought.

Hardly a half hour later we found ourselves blown a half-mile off shore and making no visible progress towards the cabin. Night was rapidly approaching and the winds increased.

Two of us paddled while the third manually moved the rudders on the back of the floats. Occasionally one of us would tire of our position, and we would all switch places. This required an awkward scuttle around the outside of the plane. A thin wire stretched between the front of the two floats allowed for crossing between them.

Darkness fell as we continued to splash helplessly in circles. Then we made out an approaching shape, cutting its way efficiently across the lake towards us.

“Looks like you fellas could use some help,” cried out the shape.

It was a man decked head to toe in camo, rifle at his side, in a tiny rowboat. We tossed him a rope attached to the front of the plane. He began rowing and was able to counteract the winds and keep us on straight trajectory. With the additional help we reached the cabin in less than 20 minutes. Tyler and I were immensely relieved to be back on dry ground. A mellow paddle had turned into a four-hour escapade.

The man in camo introduced himself as Joey. He was hunting big horn sheep over the weekend, so far unsuccessfully. He had watched us from his spotting scope, and when things appeared to be getting desperate he jumped into a forest service rowboat to help out.

The four of us spent the night together in the cabin. We shared a big meal and exchanged stories. Michael was a commercial airline pilot and he was scheduled to fly a jet to Indonesia the next afternoon.

The next morning, another of Michael’s friends flew in, this time with a floatplane. He landed and helped Michael to hook up a new battery he had brought. Michael got the plane started up without any problems. “I don’t know how to thank you guys,” he said. “How about a ride home in the plane?”

There were no hesitations in accepting his offer. We loaded the plane with all of our gear, including Joey and his 80-lb. hunting pack and rifle. It was a quick, breathtaking flight. Flying small planes through big Alaska mountains is notoriously dangerous. I was not disappointed at all.

Michael landed the plane at a lake near the highway and our car. Then he was back in the air headed towards Anchorage, hoping to make his international flight on time, of which he was the pilot.

Tyler and I shook hands and patted backs. “Another mellow trip,” I said, as he nodded in agreement.