Skull not best company for stranded duo

Posted: Sunday, June 15, 2003

Cold, wet and waiting to be rescued from a tiny deserted island in Southeast Alaska, Kathleen Hargraves showed her husband, Jerry Fields, a moss-covered human skull lying half-exposed on the muddy ground near the couple's tent.

Fields looked at the banana slug making its way back home by way of an empty eye socket and thought to himself, "This doesn't look good."

The Juneau couple had talked about kayaking the length of Seymour Canal for years. The plan was to paddle the 60-mile canal near Admiralty Island, just south of Juneau, from Portage to Oliver Inlet in about 10 days. The allure was the beautiful scenery, the exotic wildlife and the total seclusion the canal provides.

"No one really goes out there," said Fields. "We found out later that's not necessarily a good thing."

On May 24, the couple loaded their gear and two kayaks into a plane and headed out to Pleasant Bay on an island Fields said was "about the size of a football field if you went all the way around it," where they were going to camp for the night.

They planned to wake early the next morning and get about 10 miles down the canal in order to make camp on Buck Island.

But the morning brought torrential rain and no hope of it letting up. Around 3 p.m. on the second day the couple saw a small break in the clouds and assumed they could beat the storm, the wind would be right, and the strong current would be to their advantage.

"In retrospect, we made a lot of bad assumptions," Fields said. "What do they say about assuming? We're living proof of that."

Fields began paddling his heavily weighted kayak into the water. He was carrying the couple's tent, two weeks' worth of dry clothes and the sleeping bags. His wife had the food for the two-week trip in her kayak.

"The kayaks were very tippy," Hargraves said. "That doesn't necessarily mean they aren't seaworthy - to some extent you want that - but these just seemed extra sensitive and tippy. Also, they were rentals and we didn't think to try them out before we went on the trip."

Fields paddled out about 20 feet and turned to fix the rudder.

"It just happened so fast," he said. "I turned and I just popped right out of the boat and right into the water."

Fields, weighed down by a wet suit, several layers of clothing and the kayak skirt, struggled to break the surface of the water.

"In that instant I thought, 'This water is too cold to survive, my clothes are going to weigh me down, I'm going to die.' "

Hargraves said those were Fields' first words when he surfaced.

"When I heard him say that I think I initially just panicked and started wading into the water," said Hargraves. "I was going to swim to him, but it was just too cold. Both of us in the water wasn't going to do him any good. That's when I saw his paddle and his sweater floating away with the current."

Hargraves thought about swimming after it, but the same current stealing the paddle also was carrying Fields into deeper waters. Hargraves knew she had to get calm and help her husband from shore.

"I told him, 'Start swimming!' " Hargraves said.

Fields said Hargraves gave him his second wind.

"I heard Kathleen and responded to her voice," Fields said. "She just sounded so calm and it calmed me right down. I found the kayak. It was full of water, but I turned it over, buried my head in it, held on and kicked for dear life."

Seeing her husband swim against the current, she yelled words of encouragement.

"She just kept telling me I was doing good and that I was getting close," Fields said. "That was good because I didn't even want to look. I didn't want to know how far away I was. I didn't want to think about how much more I had to go. I just followed her voice and focused on it. It kept my mind from going places I didn't want it to go."

When Fields neared the shore, Hargraves rushed into the water and pulled him and the kayak in.

The couple quickly regrouped. Soaking wet, tired but alive, the couple made camp, thought of the worst that could have happened, and realized they were stranded.

"We weren't really scared because we knew if nothing else, we would be picked up in 10 days," said Hargraves. "We knew we had enough food, we had a good shelter, and we're both experienced in survival techniques. We also thought since Memorial Day was coming, there was a good chance we could flag a boat and maybe get picked up."

The next morning the rain came at the couple sideways, but they decided to explore their 10-day home.

"That took about 10 minutes," Hargraves said. "It was just so small."

The island is made up of steep bluffs and sharp drop-offs into the water, and most of it had been eroded over time. Ominous burned-out tree trunks, the remains of a ground fire, and abandoned crab pots littered the island. And then, well, there was the human skull.

"I looked down and saw this thing that looked like it had teeth and there was moss and dirt up the back of its head," she said. "I thought, 'Oh no, was this the last guy that guy stuck here?' "

The couple left their sort of silent partner where it lay and tried to make the best of the island.

"We had a good history book," said Fields. "It was 'The History of the World.' We got to the Greeks. ... It really wasn't too bad. Kathleen's my best friend. I genuinely enjoy her company so it really wasn't a chore to be stuck there with her."

"I definitely was getting island fever by the fourth day," said Hargraves. "It was just so small and there was nowhere to go. I kept running to the beach every time I heard a plane or a boat, waving this orange jacket I had. No one saw me."

That is until the sixth day, when Skip Gray, a reporter for KTOO radio, and Peter Metcalfe, board member for Totem Creek Inc., boated into Paradise Bay.

"I just saw this frantically waving orange dot," said Gray. "So we pulled in and found them. They asked us to send the Coast Guard for them, but since we had planned to camp on the island anyway that night we said we would just take them back with us."

They were rescued, four days early. The couple looked on the bright side.

"We were alive," Fields said. "We were just so grateful for everything. We were just so grateful to be alive."

Melanie Plenda can be reached at

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