Rick Steves Wants to Save the World, One Vacation at a Time

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Rick Steves Wants to Save the World, One Vacation at a Time

The whale sighting happened right away, minutes into Day 1. Jon, Dave and I had just been dropped off on a remote Alaskan shoreline, an hour and a half by boat from the closest speck of a town. Jon was working as a sea-kayaking guide that summer in Glacier Bay National Park, and he had invited us up for a seven-day excursion during his week off. As the boat that delivered us vanished, the drone of its engine dampening into a murmur and then finally trailing off, it became unthinkably quiet on the beach, and the largeness and strangeness of our surroundings were suddenly apparent. It was a familiar phenomenon for Jon from the start of all his trips: a moment that people instinctually paused to soak in. To me, it felt like those scenes of astronauts who, having finally rattled free of the earth’s atmosphere, slip into the stillness of space. Except we weren’t in space. We were on earth — finally, really on earth.

We were only starting to move around again, packing our gear into the kayaks, when we heard the first huff of a blowhole, not far offshore.

Jon was ecstatic. It seemed to him as if the animal were putting on a show, swimming playfully in the kelp, diving, resurfacing, then plowing its open mouth across the surface to feed. He took it as a good omen. Though I had no idea at the time, he was anxious that Dave and I might feel intimidated about making the trip; such a big payoff, so quickly, would get us excited and defuse any apprehensions.

For Dave, the whale-sighting had exactly the opposite effect. Once, when he was a kid, his dad took him scuba diving with dolphins. They were friendly, awe-inspiring creatures, purportedly, but they terrified Dave instead. He could still conjure the feeling of hanging defenselessly in that water while the animals deftly swirled around him, less like solid objects than flashes of reflected light, while he could move only in comparative slow-motion. Ever since, he had harbored a fear of large sea creatures — a niche phobia, particularly for a young man who lived in the Bronx, but a genuine one still. And so, even as Dave understood that a chance to see whales up close like this was a major draw of a kayaking trip in Alaska, and though he feigned being thrilled, some second thoughts were kicking in: We were going out there, he realized.

The whale left me exhilarated and gleeful, like Jon; but deeper down, I also remember feeling shaken, like Dave. Nothing about the animal registered to me as playful or welcoming. It just appeared in the distance, then transited quickly past us, from left to right. My uneasiness had something to do with the whale’s great size and indifference — its obliviousness — as it passed. Watching it made me feel profoundly out of place and register how large that wilderness was, relative to me.

At the time, I was working at a literary magazine in New York City called The Hudson Review, picking poems out of the slush pile and mailing them to an outside panel of editorial advisers. I was trying hard in my letters to impress one of them: Hayden Carruth, a gruff and irreverent 81-year-old poet who lived far upstate. I loved Carruth’s work but was more enamored with his persona: his yeoman life in the woods, his intolerance for phoniness and, most of all, the precision with which he articulated common suffering, including one strain of his own suffering that I related to, particularly in those years, but wouldn’t have had the courage, or clarity, to examine.

“I had always been aware,” Carruth once wrote of his youth, “that the Universe is sad; everything in it, animate or inanimate, the wild creatures, the stones, the stars, was enveloped in the great sadness, pervaded by it. … Never then or now have I been able to look at a cloudless sky at night and see beauty there. A kind of grandeur, yes — but not beauty. The profusion and variety of celestial lights have always frightened me. Why are they there? Why these instead of others? Why these instead of nothing?”

That was how I felt, watching the whale from the beach: afraid that everything was accidents. Then again, maybe it’s just hard to picture the start of the trip in retrospect without amplifying some feeling of foreboding. Something else Carruth wrote that has always stuck with me: “The wilderness begins at the edge of my body, at the edge of my consciousness, and extends to the edge of the universe, and it is filled with menace.”

[Read about Aleksander Doba, the 71-year-old who kayaked across the Atlantic 3 times.]

It was mid-August 2002, and we were 23, 24 and 25. We had graduated from college together two years earlier. Dave, whom I also grew up with, shot out of undergrad knowing he wanted to be a doctor and had just finished his first year of medical school. Any similar momentum I had after graduation was instantly sapped. Three nights after I returned to my parents’ house from school, I found myself driving my father to the emergency room. Three weeks after that, he died. My grief was disorienting and total; at a moment in life when everything is supposed to feel possible, making any single decision became impossible. I gave into that sadness for the better part of a year, resettling at home in New Jersey with my widowed mother and sliding back to the summer job I worked during school, glumly breaking down beef at a butcher shop two towns over.

I coped with my fatherlessness and confusion in ways I’m not proud of and still don’t understand. I read a lot of books about Ronald Reagan, for example, even the collection of his love letters to Nancy. I also lashed out at Dave, who was living at home that summer, too, studying for the MCAT. He withdrew awkwardly after the funeral, and I suppose I was happy to hold that against him. It triggered some longstanding jealousy. A part of me always resented how he seemed unfairly exempt from the self-doubt and heaviness that I was prone to.

Jon, meanwhile, was teaching at a rustic little boarding school in Switzerland, where his mother was from. The summer after graduation, before starting the job, he set out for Alaska with a friend, sleeping in the bed of their old pickup. In the minuscule town of Gustavus, the gateway to Glacier Bay, he picked up seasonal work in the warehouse of a kayak-tour company. Jon had little actual experience of sea kayaking but had always felt drawn to the ocean in the abstract. In college, he and another friend plotted out a paddling expedition near Glacier Bay, across the border in Canada and applied for a grant from our school to fund it. The grant was set up in memory of an alumnus who died in an avalanche while mountaineering. It was meant to encourage the “responsible and conscientious pursuit of wilderness expeditions.” Safety was key. But the committee rejected Jon and his partner’s application. They seemed insufficiently prepared.

That wasn’t surprising. Jon grew up doing a lot of backcountry camping and was a competent outdoorsman, but putting together a grant application required a kind of administrative fastidiousness he didn’t always possess. He was bright but scatterbrained, forever picking up things and putting them down, both figuratively (music projects, conversations) but also literally. I can still picture him hustling around the house we shared in college, hunting for his keys or his soldering iron, having gotten in over his head rewiring some device. He was an artist; one piece I remember consisted of a half-peeled banana, implanted with circuitry and suspended in a jar of formaldehyde. Once, he grew grass in our upstairs bathroom — a living bathmat, he said — until the turf became muddy and flooded the downstairs.

This was Jon’s third summer in Alaska, and he’d worked his way up to leading expeditions, taking out vacationers for days at a time. Our trip, however, would venture beyond the typical circuit, into a remote corner of the park that he’d never been to. Jon had no serious concerns about our safety, but he felt he bore responsibility for our emotional well-being. To enjoy ourselves, we would need to feel comfortable, not just in the wilderness but also with him as a leader.

He suspected we wouldn’t trust him entirely. We didn’t. We knew him before he became a professional guide, and our perception of his expertise lagged behind the reality. “With Jon,” Dave told me, “it was always unclear to what extent he’d thought everything through.” Dave remembered landing in Gustavus the night before we got underway and casually asking Jon a lot of questions: Where are we going, exactly? Do we have everything we need? Jon seemed to have solid answers for all of them. As we headed back to his place for a good night’s sleep, he told us to wait in the yard. He was living alone for the summer in a house that an acquaintance was building in the woods. The structure was framed-up but largely wall-less, and Jon, to be safe, needed to check that no moose had wandered in.

After a spectacular first day of paddling, we came ashore on a rocky tidal flat about two miles from where we were dropped. Jon gave us his detailed tutorial about bear safety while we set up our campsite. He taught us, for example, to holler “Hey, bear!” if we heard any rustling but also preventively, ahead of us, when we walked through the woods. The last thing you wanted was to come across a brown bear unannounced.

“Hey, bear!” Jon kept hollering, by way of demonstration. He said it goofily, like a children’s TV host greeting some down-on-his-luck ursine neighbor at the doorway to their clubhouse. This was intentional. Jon had noticed that the people on his trips often resisted bellowing “Hey, bear!” into the wilderness. It was essential for their safety, but it felt silly or vulnerable somehow, like singing in public. So he learned to turn it into a shtick, spinning it into a stream-of-consciousness narration: Hey, bear, I’m coming into the trees now. Hope you’re having a fantastic evening, Mr. Bear! It loosened everyone up. They were performing for their friends now; the whole group was in on the joke.

I had never seen a wild bear, though I have backpacked in bear country a handful of times. I felt comfortable with the animals in the abstract. But here, the bears weren’t abstract; they breached the material plane. There were bear trails everywhere, leading from the tree line to the water, and disquietingly close, I felt, to where we were pitching our tent. We found heaps of their scat. We saw trees where the animals had slashed off the bark to eat the inner layer, tufts of fur from their paws still plastered in the sap.

I pretended I was having fun. But that evening I grew increasingly petrified, almost delirious. My eyes tightened, scanning for bears. The sound of the wind became bears, and so did the mossy sticks cracking under our feet. I gave myself a migraine, then phased in and out of sleep.

At sunrise, I woke feeling foolish. While Jon cooked pancakes, I reasoned with myself, privately, in a notebook I brought on the trip. I tried to conceive of the situation as a geometry problem. Yes, some number of bears roved this landscape, I wrote: relatively tiny, independent blips, going about their business randomly, just like us. In all that empty space and confusion, a lethal collision of their moving blips and our moving blips would be an improbable coincidence. I’d been distorting those odds, mistaking myself for “the absolute focus of all bears’ attention,” I wrote. It was embarrassing, really. “To be afraid of bears,” I concluded, “is to be narcissistic.”

I was reminding myself that freakishly horrible things are, by definition, unlikely to happen. Even now, my reasoning feels sound.

[Read about the search for a missing hiker in Joshua Tree’s wild interior.]

Day 2 was a slog. We paddled through a spitting drizzle in an endless straight line, along the high granite walls of the coast. We talked less and less, just pushed through the emerald chop. Then eventually we gave up, hauling in our boats and making camp in a wide, crescent-shaped cove, short of the site that Jon originally picked out on his map.

We had entered Dundas Bay, a rarely visited pocket of the national park that, I’ve since learned, has a storied history as a hide-out for solitary misanthropes. In the 1930s, one prospector built a cabin not far from our campsite and brandished a gun at the Alaska Natives who passed through.

We intuited that the scenery was beautiful, but we could see very little of it through the fog. Our guidebook explained that “the east side of the bay” — where we were — “can get extremely rough during foul weather, since large waves roll in … and batter this shoreline.” That was happening now: The weather that plinked at us all afternoon was roiling into a storm. Soon, the big rain started. We rushed through dinner, then loafed in our tent until, eventually, the loafing turned to sleep.

A local newspaper would later describe the storm as “short but intense.” In Gustavus, a creek swelled to about a foot higher than its previous record. Gale winds, with gusts up to 59 miles per hour, turned back two cruise ships in Skagway, about 85 miles north. Around 2 a.m., we woke to discover the wind had shorn the rain fly off our tent. Jon’s sleeping bag and mine were soaked, while Dave was snug and dry between us. We heard torrents of water lashing down and the waves crashing in the cove.

We got up three or four hours later. The rain and wind no longer felt ferocious but were still too gnarly to paddle through; there was no question, Jon said, that we were staying put. We cooked breakfast and took turns playing chess in the tent. By late morning, the storm seemed to have passed. We were antsy. We figured we would take a look around.

The terrain was crammed with thickets of alder and spruce, underlain by ferns and a furor of prickly things. Jon pointed out devil’s club: three or four feet tall and leafy, armored up and down with spines. The plant pierced fleece and hurt like fire.

There were no trails. We’d been trudging for some time when we reached a fast-moving stream, maybe 10 feet wide. Jon was surprised; it wasn’t on his map, most likely just a drainage bloated by the storm. We followed it downstream, looking for a way across, and eventually found it bridged by a hefty tree trunk. It seemed like an easy crossing. Jon stepped up and led the way, and Dave and I waited in a single-file line on the stream bank behind him. The creek was loud, like a factory with all its gears and rollers churning. Looking down, Jon realized there was more water than he’d thought.

That’s when I heard the snap in the woods behind me. After all my paranoia, I instantly understood that the many bears I’d thought I heard before were absolutely not bears — were nothing — because this sound was so unmistakable and crisp, so explicitly something. I turned and hollered, “Hey, bear!” then waited a beat. Maybe I said “Hey, bear!” again; I’m not sure. But I must have scanned those trees long enough to feel satisfied and safe, because I know I was turning my head, to go back to my friends, when I saw the dark shape rushing forward in my peripheral vision.

What I heard must have been roots popping. If a tree is large enough, you can apparently hear them cracking underground like gunfire.

The thud was seismic. The trunk crashed down right next to me. Mapping out bits of evidence later, we concluded that the tree must have been about 80 feet tall and perhaps two feet in diameter. It was some kind of conifer — a spruce or cedar. I screamed, involuntarily, “Look out!” then watched Dave, a few steps directly in front of me, dive sideways and hit the ground. When I got to him, he was crouching, stunned but O.K. He looked up and said, “Go get Jon.”

It hadn’t clicked back in for me: There were three of us. The sight of Dave going down had canceled out everything else. I scrambled out over the creek, running across the tree that had just fallen, shouting Jon’s name, then spotted him in the water, tangled in a snarl of sheared-off branches near the bank behind me — a cage, which kept him from hurtling downstream.

He did not know he’d been hit by a falling tree. It had narrowly missed his head, struck his left shoulder, shearing it from his collarbone and breaking many of his ribs. Later, a doctor would explain that the downward force had been so powerful that it had probably squashed Jon’s entire upper body, and all the organs inside, down toward his waist, momentarily compressing him like a bellows; for a split second, his shoulders headed in the direction of his bellybutton, before his torso sprang up again.

Jon had heard nothing, seen nothing. He was turning around to help Dave onto the log — again, feeling responsible for our safety — and the next thing he knew, he was in the water. He tried to reach out his left arm but could not make it move. He could not move his legs. He felt a bolt of pain down his spine.

Jon later described flashing through an idiosyncratic sequence of thoughts, all in a few milliseconds, as if watching a deck of cards fanning across a table. One was an image of himself in a wheelchair, sitting behind a mixing console in a fancy recording studio. “I guess I can become a recording engineer in a wheelchair,” he remembered thinking. He had never worked in a recording studio and, though he played music, he had no particular plans to. Still, this vision apparently felt like an acceptable future and freed him to resurface in the present. That was when he registered me, screaming his name.

Jon told himself he shouldn’t move. He knew from his many wilderness first-responder trainings that moving a person with spinal injuries risks paralysis. Then again, he also knew that most of his body was submerged in cold water, and he recognized that he risked dying of hypothermia if he didn’t move. “If I’m already paralyzed,” he concluded, “I may as well move.”

He somehow hoisted himself out of the stream before Dave or I got to him, using his right arm and his chin and biting into something loamy with his teeth, for additional leverage. He reassessed the situation: better. Also: worse. He now realized that we were at least a mile inland from our camp.

Suddenly, his body was walking; his legs just started working. Dave and I put him between us, supporting his frame. He was moving faster than we expected, but uncoordinatedly. Then he crumpled between us. We tried again; Jon was dead weight. Dave noticed that his breathing was shallow and his voice was low — signs, Dave knew from med school, of a collapsed lung. He began battering Jon with a pep talk, telling him, firmly, that he had to get up, that we had to get out of here. Jon didn’t need that explained to him; he was cogent and still trying to plot our next steps in his mind. He looked down to see why this log he was resting on was so lumpy and realized that he was, in fact, sitting on his left arm. The arm was slack, obviously broken; his sleeve, pierced up and down with devil’s club. Jon had zero feeling in it. He found it amusing, this sensation of complete estrangement from one of his limbs.

Jon had been stressing that it was important to stay together. But this was another theory of wilderness survival that appeared to be breaking down in practice. Someone would have to get on the radio back at our camp. By chance, while marooned in our tent during the rainstorm the night before, Jon showed us how to use the device, though he did it almost as a formality; the hand-held VHF unit was merely a line-of-sight radio, he told us, meaning its range was small, its signal too weak to pass through most obstacles. You were unlikely to reach anyone you couldn’t see, and we hadn’t seen anyone since a faraway fishing boat, early on Day 1.

There was a moment of discussion, or maybe just an exchange of looks between me and Dave. I told Dave he should go. I didn’t trust myself to find my way back. I also knew that I lacked the courage to try; whether I was being sensible or cowardly, I still don’t know. Besides, I took for granted that Dave would make it. He was more capable in my mind, less likely to cinch himself in indecisive knots.

Recently, though, Dave told me: “You probably had no idea how much in my own head I was. I know that you, growing up, definitely felt insecure about things, and I think you looked at me and thought, Dave has everything figured out. But I had so much anxiety.” He brought up the tremor he used to have in his hands. I knew about it; in high school, we waited tables together, and I occasionally had to carry out Dave’s soup orders, so he wouldn’t spill. But I guess I thought of the tremor as strictly physiological. I couldn’t see the vulnerability causing it.

Now, as Dave sprinted away from me and Jon, swatting devil’s club from his path with the rubberized sleeve of his rain jacket, his nerves rose up and rattled him. He worried he wouldn’t be able to find the radio once he got back or know how to turn it on. What if he broke the radio, foreclosing whatever marginal chance we had of getting help? There were lots of ways to screw this up, Dave realized. More occurred to him as he ran.

He found the radio. He turned it on. Then, having solved these problems, he encountered another he hadn’t anticipated: “What is the appropriate thing you’re supposed to say?” he remembered thinking. On TV, you see a lot of people saying “Mayday.” And so, Dave faced the open water and started broadcasting into the fog: “Mayday, Mayday.” Even in that moment, though, alone on a beach in the middle of nowhere, he felt slightly self-conscious about it. This is so goddamn cliché, he thought.

Back in the woods, kneeling over Jon, I was having the same problem: I didn’t know what to say. He was lying near a log on his injured side, his beard and glasses flecked with dirt and tendrils of moss. He seemed to be on the brink of losing consciousness. At no time would the possibility of Jon’s dying surface concretely in any of our minds. Still, I knew I was supposed to keep talking to him, to tether him to the world with my voice somehow.

I started vamping platitudes: We were going to get out of here soon, and so forth. But I could feel myself treading water, even blundering, at one point, into a long-winded apology, worried I overstayed my welcome that one Christmas with his family. I was afraid that the helplessness in my voice might be counterproductive, unsettling Jon instead of steadying him. It was a tremendous silence to fill.

What can a person say? I had two literature professors in college who made us memorize poems. You never knew when some lines of verse would come in handy, they claimed. One liked to brag that, while traveling through Ireland, he found that if he spat out some Yeats at a pub, he could drink free. This is how I wound up reciting a love poem to Jon.

It was “The Shampoo,” by Elizabeth Bishop, a lyric poem about the enormity of time, which turns startlingly intimate at the end, when Bishop offers to shampoo her lover’s silvering hair: “Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,/battered and shiny like the moon.”

After that, I imagine I also did some W.H. Auden; I knew a fair amount of Auden back then. The stuff in rhyme and meter was always easiest to memorize — “Looking up at the stars, I know quite well/That, for all they care, I can go to hell” — which is why I had a lot of Robert Frost at my disposal as well: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “The Road Not Taken.” For the most part, I trafficked in hits.

Jon and I would spend about an hour and a half together alone on the forest floor. I ran through everything in my quiver — Kay Ryan, A.R. Ammons, Michael Donaghy — padding each poem with little prefatory remarks, while Jon said nothing, just signaled with his eyes or produced a sound whenever I checked in. I felt like a radio D.J. playing records in the middle of the night, unsure if anyone was listening. And here’s one about owls by Richard Wilbur, I would tell Jon, and off we would go.

I must have also done at least one by Hayden Carruth, my curmudgeonly pen pal at the literary magazine. Carruth’s poems didn’t lend themselves to memorization, but I’d worked hard to nail one of my favorites, in which he describes stopping to notice a deer standing in an apple thicket, then realizing the northern lights are flaring overhead. Hayden and the animal pass a moment in stillness together. “We are proud to be afraid,” he writes, “proud to share/the silent magnetic storm that destroys the stars.” Relative to that boundless violence above them, he and the deer are momentarily allied, though still not entirely connected: “a glimpse, an acknowledgment/it is enough and never enough.”

That’s what I said to my friend, powerlessly, tenting my jacket over his face when it started to rain. The title of the poem is: “I Know, I Remember, But How Can I Help You.”

The Coast Guard cutter Mustang wasn’t where it was supposed to be. The 110-foot patrol boat normally spent its time coursing through the Gulf of Alaska, inspecting halibut-fishing vessels, or circulating, as a terrorist deterrent, near the oil terminals at Valdez. It was home-ported in Seward, hundreds of miles from Glacier Bay. But the crew was transiting to Juneau for a training when, a few days earlier, they were smacked by the same storm that later poured inland, over us. “We had gotten absolutely pummeled,” John Roberts, a petty officer on the Mustang, told me recently. For two days, the boat swished around in 15-foot-plus seas. Many on the crew had been hunkered in the mess deck, vomiting, while Roberts and a couple of his shipmates did their best to cover everyone’s watches. Finally, the Mustang slipped into Glacier Bay to find some protection. The weather started to ease. That afternoon, as Roberts piloted the Mustang east, toward Dundas Bay, his pallid crewmates were finally staggering back up to the bridge, asking where the hell they were.

That was when Dave’s Mayday call came through. The signal on the Mustang’s radio was thin and faint, barely edging into range. Another of the ship’s petty officers, Eamon McCormack, explained to me that in retrospect the connection feels “mind-boggling.” Glacier Bay National Park extends over more than 5,000 square miles. Our signal would have covered two or three miles at most. And yet, a boat — a Coast Guard boat, no less — happened to be passing through that exceedingly small window at precisely the right time. “I don’t know if, nine times out of 10, you play that over again and the outcome would be the same,” McCormack said. A moment earlier or later — seconds, potentially — and we might have slipped out of alignment. The moving boat would have cruised out of range, uncoupling from us forever.

It was 1:25 p.m. when the Mustang received Dave’s call, according to one of the subsequent Coast Guard reports. Roberts couldn’t believe it. “Come on, man, I’m tired,” he said aloud, wearily, to the receiver in front of him. Roberts waited for a moment, per protocol, on the off chance that the Coast Guard’s central communications center in Juneau would pick up the call instead. Then he turned and asked his watch commander to pull out all the standardized search-and-rescue paperwork. He was steeling himself, resummoning his professionalism. “I guess we’re doing this,” he said.

Roberts was the crew member on the Mustang with the most current medical training; he would complete his E.M.T. certification the following month. As he started firing questions at Dave on the radio, he didn’t like the answers that he heard coming back: the shallowness of Jon’s breathing, the likelihood of a punctured lung. More fundamental, Roberts remembered: “Any time a tree falls on somebody, it’s not good.” He was also unsettled to learn that Dave and I both lived in New York City — a red flag, he had found, when someone winds up in trouble in the wilderness.

We were 100 nautical miles from the nearest hospital; a half-day trip, even in ideal conditions. The Mustang requested that the Coast Guard Air Station in Sitka send a helicopter, but the immediate plan was for Roberts and three crewmates to peel toward shore in the ship’s Zodiac and track us down. Dave had found the flare in Jon’s emergency kit and now, at 2:20, with the Zodiac underway, the Coast Guard asked him to fire it. He was still in front of our campsite, facing the water. He’d never shot off a flare before. He aimed straight up, then watched as the bright tracer rose and arced somewhere far behind him, deep in the woods. He was uncertain whether this counted as a success. He started scanning the fog in front of him, but the Zodiac never appeared.

Someone on the Mustang caught sight of the flare near the end of its arc and immediately directed the crew on the Zodiac toward it, steering them far away from Dave to the opposite side of the little peninsula we’d camped on. And yet, this was lucky: they wound up coming ashore much closer to where I was waiting in the woods with Jon. Soon, whatever poem I was reciting was interrupted by whistles blowing and voices calling, and eventually three shapes, wearing hard hats and heavy orange rain gear, rushed toward us out of the trees.

Roberts was especially impressive, a reassuringly large Boston-area native with a booming voice. He knelt and took Jon’s vitals. The information was troubling: his pulse was 60 beats per minute; his breathing, fast and shallow. They put his neck in a brace and eased him onto a kind of truncated backboard, called a Miller board, to move him out to the beach. Dave had returned by then. He and I crouched at one end of the board, near Jon’s feet, as someone — presumably Roberts — bellowed a count of three to lift.

Later that night, lying down to sleep in a bed-and-breakfast in Gustavus — stunned and depleted, but dry and warm — Dave and I would talk and talk, reviewing the entire ordeal. We had drooped into a long silence, coasting toward sleep, when Dave spoke up with one last observation. When we were getting ready to lift Jon on the backboard, he said, it occurred to him that this was one of those crisis moments you hear about, like when mothers are suddenly able to lift a car off their baby. Dave expected we were going to have superhuman strength.

We did not have superhuman strength. On Roberts’s command, the men raised Jon to waist height, swiftly and seemingly perfectly level, as though their arms and deltoids were hydraulic. Then, in one motion, they took off downhill, with negligible help from us. This can’t be accurate, but I remember the sensation of being almost dragged, like children in a sled.

A National Geographic television crew was embedded at the Coast Guard’s air station in Sitka, filming an installment of a thrill-ride reality series. The network had sent crews to other Coast Guard stations around the country too, though this assignment appeared to hold the most dramatic potential. Air Station Sitka was unique: Its pilots were responsible for 12,000 miles of coastline, a sprawling, treacherous wilderness riven with fjords, inlets and glaciers, often buffeted by implacably horrible weather. People who went into the backcountry in Alaska had a way of getting themselves into a different magnitude of trouble, too; as Roberts put it, “When stuff happens in Alaska, it’s big.” Still, this was the television crew’s eighth day in Sitka, and as the show’s producer, Annabelle Hester, explained: “I was having calls with my bosses at headquarters saying, ‘Nothing is happening!’ We were scrambling to come up with Plan B.” Then, the Mustang’s call came in at 1:42.

“What type of injuries are we looking at?” asked the dispatcher. She was taking the call from behind a semicircular counter, like the reception desk at a midlevel corporate branch office. She had a framed snapshot of a parakeet to brighten her work space, and a photograph of a dog with a heart that said, “I Woof You.” A cameraman stood conspicuously beside her, holding a tense, tight shot.

“Probable broken ribs, a definite broken arm,” said the man on the other end. Then his voice faltered, seemed to give up: “And whatever else would happen to you if a tree fell on you,” he added.

The dispatcher retrieved the appropriate paperwork and scribbled “Tree fell on person” on one line. She read the current weather aloud: “30 knots wind, 300 ceiling, heavy rain and one-mile vis.” That would soon be revised: the ceiling had dropped to 100 feet. Entering the weather conditions on one of the Coast Guard incident reports, someone would write, in a kind of nihilistic catchall: “Extremely terrible.”

The Coast Guard’s policy was to deploy a helicopter within 30 minutes of the initial request, but the Air Station’s operations officer, Cmdr. Karl Baldessari, informed everyone that this mission would take longer to plan. Baldessari was a 25-year veteran of the Coast Guard, a fast-moving, sinewy man in a blousy flight suit, with a tidy mustache and spiky hair. His role at the air station was that of a firehouse chief. He was responsible for the safety of everyone working there, which meant making judicious decisions about what warranted sending them hurtling through the sky.

That calculus got knotty in conditions like these, though there was a baseline volatility to flying in Alaska at all. The Coast Guard didn’t let its helicopter pilots fly lead out of Sitka, no matter how much experience they had at other air stations, until they practiced difficult landings at specific locations in the region and got their egos battered a little by logging a full winter in the state. Visibility in Alaska was frequently poor; conditions changed quickly. One pilot told me about blindly tunneling through fog in the dark when his co-pilot got “caged”: The man lifted his eyes momentarily from his instruments and, without any visual references or a horizon to latch onto, found it impossible to reorient himself, lost all sense of direction and was felled by vertigo.

During much of the year it was also cold enough, with sufficient moisture in the air, that ascending to clear the region’s many minor mountains or even just flying through a cloud risked the aircraft’s icing up. To mitigate this, the Coast Guard had laid out virtual “track lines” across the entirety of their range: a grid of GPS points and a network of paths connecting them, along which pilots could chart a course and fly at a relatively low altitude, confident they weren’t going to smash into a mountain. The system wasn’t comprehensive; the track lines got the pilots close to their destination, but ultimately they had to diverge from this GPS superhighway and fly the remaining distance the old-fashioned way, with their radar and eyes. It was like taking an exit off the interstate, except there might be a granite wall in front of you wherever you chose to get off. It was possible the pilots would travel very far — a half-mile away from whoever needed their help — only to discover that the last leg was too risky and be forced to turn back.

Baldessari gathered the two pilots on duty that afternoon and the Air Station’s flight surgeon, then unrolled a large paper map. He pointed to our location, explaining: “That’s probably one of the lousiest places we fly in and out of. This Inian Pass, right here, is the worst place we could possibly go.”

Inian Pass is a slim channel near the center of the Icy Strait, the long, interconnected system of waterways stretching through Glacier Bay. Conditions in the Icy Strait can be bad 300 days of the year, Baldessari recently told me; wind, rain and storm surges all push through it fast from the open ocean. But Inian Pass is a narrow keyhole at the center of the strait — a mile-wide opening between a few uninhabited islands and a rocky point — where all that weather speeds up. The only way for the pilots to reach us would be to fly straight through it.

Nothing in the National Geographic footage, at this point, feels reassuring. The flight surgeon holds his hand over his mouth and bites his lip. The co-pilot, Chris Ferguson, only a few months into his posting in Alaska, mills around and fidgets with his ear. It’s obvious Baldessari needs convincing. He wasn’t eager to send his men up if he didn’t have to and wasn’t certain they would make it all the way there if he did.

“It’s kind of funny,” he told the pilots, pointing at the map. “You’ve got a boat right here.”

Lying on his backboard like a burl of driftwood, Jon was conscious and cognizant of his pain, but he had started to feel somehow buffered from his body, uninterested in connecting with the world beyond it. He would later describe himself as a “thinking blob. It was a very passive experience.” He didn’t know what was happening but could tell our momentum had stalled. He was confused and felt impatient. In his mind, the three of us had solved the impossible problem: We’d managed to get help. This was supposed to be the simple part, when everyone rushed him to the hospital. Instead, his condition deteriorated. Within 10 minutes of reaching the beach, Jon threw up. I’d never seen anything like it, a kind of dark purple gristle. I took out my wool cap to wipe his face, and he retched a second time, straight into my hat.

“I got that all over me,” John Roberts told me recently. He’d seen vomit like that before; it meant Jon had ingested a fair amount of blood and signaled internal injuries. It made Roberts anxious. He had been on the Mustang for two and a half years at that point but had spent the previous four years in Palm Beach, a busy but less extreme posting that often involved rescuing weekend boaters from relatively close to shore — and where, Roberts pointed out, the water is warm and won’t necessarily kill you if you go in. Moreover, the bulk of the Coast Guard’s training is for maritime rescues, not rescues on land. Counterintuitive as it sounds, Roberts’s comfort level and confidence had dropped significantly once he hopped off the Zodiac and set foot on the beach.

He reported back to the Mustang that Jon had thrown up, then soon radioed again, explaining that Jon was going into shock. He kept giving and requesting updates, trying to gauge how long this might take, and eventually started erecting a makeshift shelter out of plastic sheeting and medical tape, hoping to keep Jon out of the rain. Out of earshot of us, Roberts explained to his crew mate Eamon McCormack what the vomit meant: The possibility of Jon dying, here under their care, was real. At one point in the National Geographic footage, as Roberts’s calls are relayed to the air station in Sitka, you can see where the dispatcher clearly writes on her form: “E.M.T. does not feel comfortable.”

By this time, the air station’s flight surgeon had received enough information to be alarmed. “It sounds like he’s got a pretty significant chest injury,” he told Baldessari. Baldessari understood they would need to launch a helicopter but warned the Mustang that the aircraft might not make it through the weather; ultimately it would be the pilots’ call, once they veered off their last track line and tried to shoot through Inian Pass.

They would go and give it a look, Baldessari explained over the radio, but the outlook was iffy. The guys on the beach, he said, must be prepared to get Jon back on their cutter and haul him to a hospital themselves, as fast as they could.

One evening this winter, my phone rang, and it was Karl Baldessari. Long retired from the Coast Guard, he was teaching aviation at a community college in Oregon, where I left a voice mail message earlier that day. I meanwhile had metamorphosed into a 40-year-old father of two and fumbled to explain to Baldessari that, as thrilled as I was to have tracked him down, I was, at the moment, racing to finish a risotto for my daughters before gymnastics practice and would have to call him back. Without missing a beat, Baldessari blared orders at me, joking, but still sounding as instinctually in charge as he did in the National Geographic footage: “O.K.,” he said, “you want to stir it constantly, but slowly!”

I didn’t expect any of the Coast Guardsmen I was cold-calling to remember that day. However dramatic it remained for me, I assumed it would have been obscured in a yearslong wash of more sensational incidents. But everyone I spoke to did remember it, immediately and in detail. Baldessari had been involved in hundreds of rescue operations during his 30-year career, and yet, as I stood at the stove on the phone that evening, he told me: “The moment I listened to your voice mail, I knew exactly the case! It was almost like it was yesterday.”

There was something about the supreme freakishness of the accident that left a lasting impression. For those who came ashore, the experience was also marked by a feeling of subtly escalating chaos and the pressure to surmount it. McCormack told me that ours was a story he retold endlessly, often to the younger Coast Guardsmen he was eventually tasked with training. In it was a lesson about “not taking situations that look impossible at face value,” he said. “When things start to go wrong, don’t panic or lose sight of what resources you’ve got.” Keep working the problem until its absolute end — even, McCormack added, if it means deviating from official policy.

McCormack was not supposed to be landing an inflatable boat on an unforgivably rocky Alaskan shoreline, for example. But there he was, anyway, beaching the Zodiac as gingerly as he could, so that Roberts and the other men could load Jon aboard. They slid him in on his side “like a folder into a filing cabinet,” as Jon put it, and started motoring through the chop, very cautiously, back to the Mustang, about a mile away.

As relieved as Jon had been when the Coast Guard first arrived, he also felt instantaneously more vulnerable. Strapped to the back board, his neck in the collar, he surrendered control of his body, however imperfect that control had been. He was being hauled around as an object now, with no ability to wriggle or shift positions, to manage his pain or even to turn his head and see what was happening. He was helpless, entirely dependent on the upright people operating around him, those voices he could hear discussing him on the far side of some gauzy divide. About 10 minutes into the trip on the Zodiac, Jon heard one of those voices say, “Oh, shit, we’re losing air.”

A section of the Zodiac’s sponson — the inflatable fender that wraps around the boat — had punctured. One side was completely deflated. “It’s a big deal,” McCormack recently explained to me, sounding surprised that I had to ask. The sponson increases the boat’s buoyancy and stability, as well as keeping water from cresting over the side; under normal conditions, a Zodiac with a broken sponson would have been taken out of service automatically. Instead, McCormack found the puncture and wedged the nozzle of a small pump inside. Then — steering the boat with one hand, operating the throttle with the other — he started working the pump with his foot, essentially doing leg presses, to keep the fender partly inflated. The ride was already bumpy in four-foot seas. Now McCormack began tracing a slow, zigzagging course, doing what he could to tamp down the turbulence and the violence to Jon’s spine, as well as to guard against the possibility of the injured man’s suddenly bounding over the side on his backboard.

Roberts and the other Coast Guardsmen on the Zodiac leaned over Jon to shield him from the splash. The pain was heinous; Jon seemed to be passing out. Roberts talked to him, held his hand. Roberts felt crushed, he told me; he was torturing this guy in order to save him. When they finally reached the Mustang, rather than hoist Jon off the Zodiac, they swung the ship’s crane around and simply lifted the entire boat out of the water, level with the deck, and then carried him aboard, to keep from joggling him any more.

McCormack eventually returned for me and Dave, and a half-hour later we were reunited with Jon in the Mustang’s athwartship passageway, a cramped, steel hallway, like the space between two cars of a train. Jon was still battened to the backboard, wedged up to keep the weight of his body on his less-painful side. They had cut off his clothes, though he’d murmured a plea not to — he was wearing a brand-new Patagonia jacket that he had borrowed from a friend — then swaddled him in a hypothermia blanket. Dave and I knelt and rubbed his feet.

The helicopter was going to make it. I don’t remember there being a grand announcement. I’m not sure we were ever made aware of the possibility that it wouldn’t. Now the crew got busy below: tying down anything that could be blown off by the rotor wash or stashing it in the mess. I also don’t remember hearing the helicopter when it finally arrived. Instead, I remember only a heavy door to our left swinging open to reveal, like a scene from an action movie, the silhouette of a man in a blue flight suit, feet planted shoulder-width apart to steady himself as the ship rocked sideways. The cable he’d been lowered on drew back into the ocean spray and fog behind him. “I’m flight surgeon Russ Bowman,” he said and stepped inside.

Bowman took Jon’s vitals and gave him several, successive shots of morphine. Soon, everyone was working to squeeze him back through the narrow doorway and onto the deck where the helicopter, an MH-60 Jayhawk, was idling overhead.

Until recently, the story I told about the accident unfolded in two basic acts: the tree fell, instantaneously unleashing a kind of unfathomable chaos; then the Coast Guard appeared and, just as swiftly, regathered that chaos into order. It was like watching footage of an exploding object, then watching it run in reverse. The maneuver the Coast Guard was readying to execute now, on the deck of the Mustang, would be the climax of that progression.

The helicopter hovered 30 or 40 feet over the boat, mirroring its speed and trajectory, while both vehicles moved slowly forward. “Looks like you’re heading for a rain squall,” the co-pilot, Chris Ferguson, radioed the Mustang at one point, and asked the ship to adjust its course, to keep them in as forgiving weather as possible. Soon the flight mechanic was calling out instructions to tuck the aircraft into alignment: “Forward and right 30. Forward and right 20. Forward and right 10.” Then, finally — speaking, in the flight recordings, with an almost galling air of imperturbability — the lead helicopter pilot, Rich McIntyre, radioed the flight mechanic to begin the hoist.

The whole procedure, from our vantage point, seemed seamless and routine. In a way, it was: After the agonized deliberation at the air station, the pilots exited off their GPS route into fairly manageable conditions around Inian Pass. The winds were workable; the water wasn’t excessively choppy. Ultimately, scooping Jon off the deck of the Mustang would resemble a standard exercise that the pilots drilled in their trainings. “Not to dumb it down,” the co-pilot, Chris Ferguson, told me — plucking someone with a spinal injury off a moving boat and hoisting them into a moving helicopter is a pretty insane thing to do. “But we normalize what isn’t normal.”

A few moments earlier, as the men scurried around Jon on his backboard, packaging and fastening him for the hoist, Jon worried that the second he got airborne he would start twirling uncontrollably, like the feathery end of a cat toy, and potentially thwack his head on the equipment on deck. But now, he was levitating smoothly — a solitary, swaddled bale of a man, perfectly perpendicular to the ground. Dave and I watched it happen: our friend rising steadily away from us, improbably, to safety. As Jon floated higher, he could hear the Coast Guardsmen on the Mustang beneath him begin to cheer. He felt it was safe to open his eyes. When he did, he saw someone, hunched in the open cargo door of the helicopter, pointing a television camera at him.


Video Clip From National Geographic Image Collection

Jon was rushed into surgery at the hospital in Sitka that evening. He’d punctured both lungs, one to the point of collapse, sustained multiple fractures on eight of his ribs, broken several vertebrae, shattered his left shoulder blade and snapped his brachial plexus nerves. His spleen had been macerated into countless flecks. After awakening from surgery, Jon was disappointed that the doctors had swept those shards into a bag and thrown his spleen in the trash; he wanted to get a look at it, maybe even keep it preserved in a jar, alongside his cyborg-banana.

Once back in Gustavus, Dave and I realized that we would need to call Jon’s parents in Switzerland. I didn’t have to push the job on Dave this time; he was adamant. He felt he would need to face conversations like these if he was going to be a doctor. It was Jon’s father who picked up, and after absorbing the news, he paused and caught Dave off guard. “Thank you,” he said solemnly. “You guys saved my son’s life.”

Dave’s stomach dropped. “I remember thinking about it,” he told me recently, “and realizing, Yeah. I guess, logistically, we did.” I had the same reaction when Dave hung up the phone and, clearly shaken, relayed his conversation to me. Until that moment, the idea that we saved Jon’s life had never occurred to us, possibly because the idea that Jon might have died still hadn’t occurred to us. We had zero sense of accomplishment, or even agency. In our minds, all we did was avoid screwing up until the real help could arrive and save him.

But Jon hadn’t absorbed the story that way. From the instant he willed himself out of the water, he felt all of us locking into that same seamless flow of order steadily displacing chaos that Dave and I only experienced once the Coast Guard arrived. It was amazing to him how the three of us managed to generate solutions for each successive problem. Even my reciting those poems, which to me had always felt like a moment of utter helplessness, became, in Jon’s telling, a perfect emblem of that streak of serendipitous problem-solving. “You conveyed a calmness,” he told me recently. “I remember it being this nice moment.” He added that if he ever has to spend two hours dying on a remote forest floor again, having me there to recite poetry would be one of his top ways to do it.

The feeling of inevitability that day became only more pronounced for Jon as time passed and the entire story of our rescue receded into a prologue to the rest of his life. The surgery in Sitka was only the first of half a dozen, and it would take several years for him to regain 60 percent of the use of his arm, wrist and hand, as the nerves gradually regrew along his injured side. He was in good enough shape to go back to Alaska the summer after the accident — repairing boats in the company’s warehouse and occasionally helping out at the bed-and-breakfast — but he struggled. He could repair kayaks but needed help lifting them. He was unable to wrestle the mattress corners into the fitted sheets when he made the beds. After that, he started working at a recording studio in Portland, just as he envisioned while stuck in the water, and he now runs his own audio-mastering company: Spleenless Mastering.

Eventually Jon seemed to have recovered from the accident without any conspicuous disabilities. But his life has been quietly corroded by chronic pain and, almost equally, by the stresses of navigating the doctors, medications (and their side effects) to manage it. About two years after the accident, he learned he had PTSD. The trauma wasn’t the falling tree, but his experience of powerlessness as a perpetual patient in the American medical system. It manifested as a kind of unbearable empathy for anyone who was suffering. Jon found himself shouting at doctors, on his own behalf but also on behalf of strangers in waiting rooms who weren’t being seen. He would hear interviews with natural-disaster victims or the homeless on NPR and have to pull his car over. There continued to be other tribulations, too — more mundane ones. A few times a year, he still rebreaks a rib out of nowhere; once or twice, Jon told me, all it has taken is an especially affectionate hug from his wife.

Jon found early on that he could cordon off this suffering, both in his own mind and in conversation, by making jokes about the accident itself and sticking to the happy ending of our rescue, a trick that got much easier after the National Geographic show aired later that year. “Mission Rescue: Final Frontier,” the program was called. The soundtrack was all heart-thwacking synth drums and shredding guitar. A foreboding, Ken Burns-effected snapshot of Dave and Jon looking joyful before the trip gave way to a whirring re-enactment of someone else’s legs — cast in the role of Dave’s legs — sprinting through the blurry woods for our radio. A melodramatic narrator pondered the fate of “Kayaker Jon Cohrs.”

Initially, the schlockiness of the production felt like a blessing. The show depersonalized the accident, giving us all a shorthand to convey how dramatic that day had been, without confronting how destabilizing and senseless it might have felt. At a party, you could lay out the basics — a tree fell on Jon — then say, “National Geographic even made a TV special about it,” and everyone would go wide-eyed but then move on, figuring you would unspool the real story some other time.

But we never realized the degree to which that kitschy shorthand started to obscure the real story — then, gradually, to replace it. I’m embarrassed to admit that, though Jon and I have remained close, I did not know the extent to which he has continued to suffer for the last 17 years until talking to him for several hours in order to write this account.

The morning after the accident, Dave and I traveled back to Dundas Bay to pack up our campsite and collect the kayaks we abandoned the previous evening. We were shuttled there from Gustavus by the same boat captain who dropped us off three days earlier, a forbiddingly taciturn commercial fisherman named Doug Ogilvy.

The tide in the cove was way out when we arrived; it was, as Ogilvy put it, “a suck-ass beach.” The approach was so shallow that he had to drop anchor a hundred yards or more from shore. He asked if we had waders. We did not. So Ogilvy put on his, climbed down the ladder and told Dave to get on his back. Then stoically, like an ox or an old-timey strongman hauling a safe, he trudged through the thigh-high water, dropped Dave on the gravel beach, then lurched back and hauled me the same way, as if I were a man-size infant in a papoose.

Dave told me he’d had a strange feeling on the ride out, as if we would discover that an even more massive tree had fallen on our tent since we last slept there and that all three of us would have been crushed and killed if we’d spent another night in Dundas Bay, as planned. That is, he half-expected to find evidence that the accident had been fortuitous somehow, that there was a reason, or redemptive value, behind it. My mother had the same instinct when I called her the night before. On the phone I strained to emphasize for her — she was only two years into her cruelly premature widowhood, and I was new at being the overprotective son of a widow — that Jon was going to be all right, and that Dave and I were safe. She told me that my dad must have been up there looking out for us somehow.

I resented all the supernatural thinking. If it comforted other people, fine, but I’d somehow known right away that I didn’t need a reason for the accident. It was senseless, but straightforward, as unequivocal a fact as my father’s death had been. A tree fell in the woods. It might not have, but it did. Jon could have died, but he didn’t. Other possibilities spiraled infinitely outward from there, though apparently I wasn’t too interested in contemplating them. As strange as it sounds, it was years before I realized that the tree could have hit me — and only after a friend pointed this out, as I told the story around a fire one night. And it was only a few weeks ago, while on the phone with Jon, that it occurred to me that the tree could have hit all three of us — we were standing in a single-file line, after all, waiting to cross the creek — and that we all might have wound up clobbered and scattered in that river, dying slowly and watching each other die.

It’s also probably true that I helped preclude these possibilities by being so feverishly paranoid about bears, wheeling around at the sound of the snapping roots. That’s what allowed me to see the tree coming, just barely, and scream that infinitesimal heads-up for Dave. And so, the real meaning of the accident, if I felt compelled to find one, might be that it validated my most exaggerated fears. But instead, it somehow helped cleanse me of them. There was comfort for me in accepting the arbitrariness of what happened, in regarding it as a spasm of random damage in time and space that, just as randomly, a small number of human beings got the opportunity to repair. We were more capable than I had understood. We were also far more helpless.

On the ride back to Gustavus with our gear, I pictured myself, again, as a small blip in empty space. The ride was rough and jumpy as Ogilvy impatiently pounded his boat through the last vestigial wave energy of the storm; Dave and I had to hold on, to plant ourselves on the bench behind him. But there was a moment when I felt so safe that I loosened my grip, leaned slightly into the motion of the boat, and, closing my eyes, felt myself lift off the seat.

Jon Mooallem is a writer at large for the magazine who is working on a book about the great Alaska earthquake of 1964. His last feature for the magazine was about our climatological future.

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