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For years, Jim and Judi dreamed of owning a boat like this. It brought them many unforgettable experiences . . . including one that almost cost them their lives.
The scene was Kootenay Lake. This long narrow lake runs for 120 miles between mountain ranges. It’s surrounded by spectacular scenery. A tantalizing choice of bays with beaches abound. Jim and Judi could barely wait to explore them.
Their sleek 25-foot boat arrived in mid-summer. They could sleep and cook on board. It even had a toilet, or ‘head’ as sailors call it. The last months of the season were spent learning the basics of handling the big boat.
One especially tricky challenge was navigating a narrow passage in and out of the marina where they had a slip. Originally built for smaller boats, it required precise navigation. Both sides of the tight L-shaped entrance were made of massive boulders piled high. The design protected the marina from violent storms known to frequent Kootenay Lake. Fellow boaters in the marina warned them about the storms; fierce winds and enormous waves could spring come up in seconds.
When summer finally arrived, Jim and Judi set out immediately touring the lake’s sparkling blue waters, often anchoring overnight in secluded picturesque bays. Their favorite was a narrow cove with a wide sandy beach protected on both sides by 50-foot rocky outcroppings. The still-novice boaters felt as secure in that bay as in their marina, 15 miles north on the opposite side of the four-mile-wide lake.
One Saturday evening they were enjoying a campfire on the cove’s crescent-shaped beach. The cloudless sky promosed a carpet of stars that night . . . no moon to interfere.
Without warning, just before dusk, a dark shape appeared around a rock outcropping at the head of the bay. Jim and Judi could just make out a small boat, the motor slowed almost to an idle. It headed straight for them. Seated at the back of the aluminum boat was a strange looking figure.
A black top hat perched on the head failed to tame a tangle of long dark hair. The hat resembled something Abraham Lincoln famously wore. This one had a wider brim . . . ominous, like a witch’s hat. The figure itself looked even more bizarre. An unruly black beard announced the figure was a male. The jacket and pants were made from scraped bearskin, similar to those reputedly worn by backwoods mountain men, the hat from some other hide.
Jim and Judi watched apprehensively as the boat came to a stop on the right side of the beach. The man took off his hat, scratched his head and beard, and then nodded toward the couple. A fishing rod poked over one side of the 17-foot aluminum boat. Sticking up on the other side, Jim and Judi spotted the barrel of a rifle. It did nothing to ease their tension.
The man stood, displaying knee-high boots also made from some kind of animal hide. Silently, he stepped nimbly over the side into six inches of water. He pulled the boat far up onto the beach, tying it to a stout tree.
He began walking toward them and their campfire, his fishing rod in one hand and rifle in the other. Jim and Judi considered defensive weapons . . . she tried to gauge the distance to a pile of driftwood gathered for firewood, and he surreptitiously loosened the clasp of a hunting knife on his belt.
“How’re ya doin’ this evening?” the man asked in a friendly tone as he reached their campfire.
“Just fine,” the nervous couple replied. “How about you?”
“Been fishin’”, the strange looking man answered. “No luck.”
He turned to go and then stopped: “Mind if my wife and I join your campfire?”
Jim and Judi looked at each other surprised, silently asking themselves, ‘wife?’ He didn’t look the type to be married.
“Sure,” they said together, uncertain what might come next.
“We’re camped up over the ridge,” the man said pointing up a heavily treed slope beyond the beach.
His comment startled Jim and Judi. They’d visited this cove a few times and this time, as always, had gone exploring after setting up camp. They’d found no other campsites, and were surprised since this beach was accessible only by boat. The disconnect added to their unease.
“Back in a while,” the man said. He disappeared into the dark beyond the light of the campfire, leaving in his wake a distinctive odor created from bear grease mixed with sweat.
Jim and Judi looked at each other, silently knowing they’d be quite happy to never see him again. They wondered apprehensively where in the darkness he’d really gone.
Within minutes it was completely dark. The moonless night deepened their tension. Jim piled more wood on the campfire. Judi sat huddled in a beach chair, pulling her warm coat tighter around her petite frame.
A half-hour later they were startled when a female voice behind them called out from the dark:
“Hi there. May we join you?”
‘Good grammar,’ Jim thought, his mind seeking reassurance and a tincture of humor in the irony.
“Of course,” Jim replied, sounding more confident than he felt. “Welcome!”
A sturdy middle-aged woman dressed in a bright print sarong walked into the light of the campfire. She wore a heavy grey knit shawl over her shoulders. The woman’s face wore a pleasant, relaxed smile . . . her eyes genuinely friendly. Behind her was the man they’d seen earlier, now hatless. He stepped forward into the light, a smile creeping out from behind his long bushy beard. The man wore a home-woven cotton shirt with horizontal stripes of deep red, brown and grey. The neck of the collarless shirt and the cuffs were buttoned. His long dark hair was held under control by a rough-hewn leather headband tied behind with rawhide laces.
The visitors initiated introductions. Claire explained she was a loans manager for a bank in the small city a few miles south of the lake. Her husband Andrew was a ‘free spirit’, she said. Andrew sat on a log beside her, listening contentedly as she carried the conversation. Claire told them Andrew worked for the federal government, grooming hiking trails in parks when not teaching outdoor survival skills.
The strange couple turned out to be a fascinating dichotomy of town and country lifestyles. Jim and Judi soon were enthralled further as they listened to their visitors’ stories, particularly Andrew’s. He was committed to living in an environmentally responsible way, he said, following as much as possible a 19th Century lifestyle. As the evening ended, Claire invited Jim and Judi to visit their camp the next day.
The next morning they made their way up a faint path from the beach through dense trees to the ridge. There they found a large A-frame tent covered with bear hides. The tent floor was also made from bear hides. Above the campfire, a long iron bar was supported by two vertical bars driven into the ground on opposite sides of the stone lined fire pit. The horizontal bar held two hooks, each shaped like an elongated “S”. From one dangled a large blackened iron pot. The other longer hook held a smaller pot close to the fire. Steam rose from simmering water. Andrew told them he’d made the cooking equipment, in much the same way as early European explorers to North America might have done.
A few minutes after Jim and Judi had returned to the beach, Andrew arrived, saying he was going fishing again. He pushed the boat back out into the bay, started the small motor and headed around the rocky outcropping. As he disappeared, the couple chuckled at the contradiction between the man’s professed affinity for the 19th Century and the gasoline motor on his aluminum boat. They were also concerned for the man’s safety. The morning breeze had become a gusty wind.
They were just finishing lunch when a boat the size of theirs pulled into the bay and idled its motor. Two men were on board. The man at the helm slowly turned the boat and backed it towards the beach. The other man was standing at the transom in the open back. It was similar to their boat.
“You folks planning to head back home soon?” the man called out. It was more of a statement than a question.
“In a little while,” Judi answered. Jim was below doing maintenance on their boat. He stuck his head up as the man in the visiting boat continued:
“Have you seen the sky? A big storm’s coming in from the south. I would strongly suggest you consider heading for a sheltered marina right way.”
Jim and Judi couldn’t see much sky from the narrow confines of the high rocky walls lining the bay. A strip of shoreline was just visible directly east across the lake. But now, they’d noticed waves on the lake had become larger and the wind had picked up even more since Andrew had gone fishing.
The boat with the two men promptly headed out of the bay presumably to alert other boaters and campers of the impending storm. Jim and Judi climbed up the south slope to the top of the rock outcropping. What they saw confirmed the visitors’ warning. They looked south to the shore at the end of the lake five miles away. It was visible on a calm day. Now, angry clouds and heavy rain obscured it. Waves appeared much higher in that direction than near their bay. The storm was heading toward them.
Jim and Judi hurried back to their boat and quickly loaded their beach gear on board. They donned lifejackets, untied the boat and headed for the mouth of the bay. As the boat emerged, it was hit from starboard by winds much stronger than expected. The wind-whipped waves were at least three feet high. The boat swayed sharply.
They looked south. Less than a mile away was the infamous ‘line’ across the lake they’d been warned about. It foretold of a storm front. They secured the canvas that enclosed the back and rear sides of the boat. The top of the canvas attached with snaps to the fiberglass hard top covering the cockpit.
Jim turned the boat into the growing waves as experience boaters had taught him earlier.
High waves rose front and back. The wind screamed from behind. The flag on the bow was blowing forward, snapping sharply. Waves were splashing up on the rear canvas. Jim realized that strong waves could crash through the fragile canvas and swamp the boat. He had to keep the boat ahead of the waves that were chasing them from behind. He accelerated. The wind blew harder and harder. The waves kept increasing in size. They were now at a speed that maintained a precarious balance – just enough to stay ahead of the waves behind, but slow enough to keep from burrowing the bow too deeply in the waves ahead.
“My God, I sure hope the engine doesn’t stall,” Jim said. Judi nodded, looking scared for the first time in a many years. Loss of power would be a disaster. The boat would be blown sideways. It would be at the mercy of the waves, and almost certainly capsize.
A large wave slapped up against the rear canvas. Water splashed into the boat between the canvas and the transom. Suddenly a few snaps holding the canvas came loose under the weight of another heavy wave. Gallons of water splashed onboard. Judi rushed back, ankle deep in water. Despite the pain of hands weakened by arthritis she managed to close the snaps. Meanwhile, Jim had accelerated the engine more. The flag on the bow was limp. That meant they were keeping pace with the wind . . . and hopefully the waves. But now the bow was digging deeper into the high waves ahead. Huge avalanches of water broke over the bow, again and again, engulfing the windshield, obscuring their vision. Jim and Judi estimated the waves now were about six to eight feet high. They could barely make out landmarks on the shore through the driving rain.
Jim wondered how he was ever going to get the boat through the tricky entrance into the marina in the raging storm. He drew small comfort from hope that if they crashed on the rocks trying to get in, people in or near in the marina might see it happen and try to rescue them. Surely, he thought, someone will have a rope to throw to them.
For now, Jim was maintaining a precarious balance between speed, wind and waves. The boat was making headway, staying just ahead of the huge waves behind them. The waves in front kept crashing over the bow, flooding the windshield, blinding Jim and Judi. Every few minutes the boat plunged bow first into another breaking wave, threatening to swamp the boat. But the plucky boat would emerge again and again, after being almost totally submerged each time.
Finally, Judi spotted a lakefront cottage they’d used as a landmark before. It was just south of their home marina. They were almost home!
The couple and their boat had been more than an hour battling the unforgiving lake. The trip from the beach normally took 25 minutes. Then they saw the entrance to the marina. The couple looked at one another. Silently they agreed . . . yes, they would take a chance and try getting through the narrow entrance, despite the huge waves. Jim tried to gauge carefully the tempo of the waves, hoping for a trough between waves he could use to power the boat into the entrance. He hoped that once past the outer rocks, the wave action would diminish, allowing him to navigate better the rest of the way through the entrance and then into the calm water of the marina.
He was lucky. A longer than normal trough between waves appeared with perfect timing. He hit the throttle, aiming for the center of the marina opening. They made it in! The wave action dropped almost to none.
Relieved, Jim took the final turn into the marina. Both were startled to see people lining the side of the large marina. There must have been 60-70 people. Jim and Judi wondered to each other what they’d missed that had drawn such a big crowd. The crowd started cheering and clapping. Then they realized . . . they were the attraction!
As if Mother Nature was not yet through with them, half way to their slip a rogue cross wind came barreling down a mountain valley next to the marina. The gust caught the side of the boat. There was no way to control it. In a second, the boat was forced sideways into the ‘pulpit’ on the front of a large boat that for some reason had been docked backwards, improperly. The hoop of chrome that formed the pulpit poked through their boat’s starboard side windows just above the galley counter. After what they’d just survived, they looked at each other and both burst out laughing.
From that day forward, Jim was considered by other boaters in the marina to be an experienced sailor. He wasn’t so sure. They were just happy they’d made it home safely. Later, Jim and Judi were told the storm had created waves reaching eight to 10 feet high on gale force winds. A few days later, they also learned to their relief that just after they left the cove Andrew had arrived back, scant minutes ahead of the storm.
It had been quite a weekend.
“Boat Rides and Bearskins” is copyright 2013 James Osborne. All Rights Reserved