Couple Survives Incredible TrekHomer News
January 17, 1980
by Annabel Lund
A young couple's romantic dream of mining for Alaskan gold became a three week nightmarish struggle for survival in the wilderness, without food, without fire, without adequate clothing.
The agony ended Jan. 9 when Homer pilot Bill DeCreeft spotted an SOS made of spruce boughs in the deep snows of Sun Point.
Not until a Coast Guard helicopter plucked Roger Lewis, 31, and Denise Harris, 20, from the rocky bluff, did the couple know for sure that their grueling journey would end in anything but death.
"We thought of suicide many times," Roger said from his warm bed at the South Kenai Peninsula Hospital Thursday. Although suffering from severe exposure, exhaustion and frostbite, Denise and Roger will apparently recover without major consequence. Doctors say Denise may lose a few toes from her right foot due to frostbite. But Roger will suffer no lasting injuries.
The couple left their snug cabin in Surprise Bay in warm winter clothing-with the exception of the snow boots they left behind, expecting their expedition to last only a few days--but ended up shivering for 18 days, trying to combat 40 below temperatures in nothing more than jeans, wind breakers, sweaters, raingear, and improvised mittens and scarves sewn from scraps of a discarded wool blanket. Homer residents may remember those weeks of record low temperatures and white-out snow blizzards as a terrible time of discomfort. Roger and Denise, huddling together with a single wool blanket and a small Malamute dog as their only source of warmth, endured some of the coldest temperatures ever recorded here.
Their story is one of bitter mistakes and tragically naive decision making. It is also a story of love and courage and perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. A cIassic Alaskan tale, the ordeal could have been written by Jack London or Robert Service.
The survivors met and fell in love two years ago at Glacier National Park in Montana, where Roger worked as a ranger and Denise worked in the lodge. They moved to Alaska less than a year ago, taking odd jobs in Ambler, Kodiak and Homer before settling down in Seward. Roger got a job there as a carpenter constructing the dock for Seward's new small boat harbor.
As gold prices soared, he became fascinated by tales of rich gold mines on the Kenai Peninsula. Jack Koglen, a diver from Seward, and John Kenney, an ex-miner, stepped into their lives. Both were middle aged "adventurers." The four formed a partnership of sorts: Kenney, Harris and Lewis were to take ore samples from a deserted mine near Surprise Bay in the Gulf of Alaska.
"It was greed," Roger said later from his Homer Hospital bed. "We dreamed of having a sailboat and saIlIng around the world together."
Neither Roger, a wildlife biologist, nor Denise had ever had experience mining for gold--in Alaska or otherwise.
John, Denise, Roger and $100,000 worth of mining equipment were loaded onto a chartered barge owned by Bill MacDonald of Seward and were deposited on the shore of Surprise Bay. They carried enough supplies to last a month and a half, hauling in a 70 foot trailer, a D8 Cat, dynamite and blasting equipment, saws, a log hoist, and about 300 gallons of gas and diesel fuel. Also along was Roger's Malamute, Nuka.
It was the understanding of the three companions that they would merely take ore samples. Jack Koglen would send a plane for them in a few weeks to bring them back to Seward where the samples could be assayed and they could lay in new supplies. Jack Koglen never came. Neither did he send supplies or word to the would-be gold miners.
The stifling trailer existence closed in on the threesome and Roger and Denise split from their partner Kenney, establishing themselves fairly comfortably in a cabin three miles away.
"Our supplies were getting kind of low," said Roger. "We ran out of coffee. We ran out of sugar, ran out of tobacco. Those are essentials for life in the back country . It was getting close to Christmas. [We thought] it sure would be nice to get out for the holidays."
The couple decided to visit Kenney but when they discovered Surprise Bay icebound, they turned back, afraid of damaging their canvas folding kayak. They never contacted John Kenney again.
Roger explained, "So we decided, 'Well, John is iced in for the winter. There's no way he can get out.' Our water supply was freezing up pretty quickly and all we had to eat was mushy potatoes and goat. We were doing okay, but it was Christmas and we kept thinking, 'There's people out there who are eating turkey right now and there's people out there singing Christmas carols. It's a joyful time of year and we're sitting here.'"
December 23 was to be Roger's 31st birthday, but it wasn't visions of sugar plums that danced in Roger's head. It was visions of German chocolate cake from the Seward Bakery. Roger's eyes lit up. "All I could think of was that great German chocolate cake from the Seward Bakery. That's all I could think of. I kept watching our water ice up and our food supply dwindle and all I knew was that I wanted some of that cake for my birthday."
From their beds in a shared room at the Homer Hospital, Denise and Roger, thin, feet blackened from frostbite, their faces and hands cut and bruised, told the Homer News about the next 21 days of their lives.
December 19--Roger felt antsy, he says, and announced that he-was going to go to Seldovia for help. Denise pleaded with him to be allowed to go along and he reluctantly agreed. Roger, in his mind's eye, put together the two creased scraps of maps he had of the area--one of them no more than an Alaska highway map--and figured that Seldovia was only a few miles away. The missing piece of Roger's map, as any resident knows, represents some of the most rocky and treacherous coastlines in Alaska. The couple loaded their provisions and puppy, Nuka, into their canvas kayak for the' 'brief' trip to Seldovia. Assuming the journey would only take a few days, they packed few supplies.
"The day we left I was a fool," said Roger. "I was excited. I'd been there for two and a half months and that German chocolate cake was right around the corner. I was pretty stupid. I made some bad decisions." Roger left their winter boots in the cabin. "We didn't think of walking much," he said. They didn't carry a great deal of food. "I could go a day or two without food and still work hard." And it was only at Denise's insistence that he left a perfunctory note to John Kenney: "Heading out. Good luck, Merry Christmas. Roger and Denise." The note failed to say where they were going, when they had left, or how they thought they would get to where they wanted to go. When Kenney finally hiked to their cabin and saw the note, he assumed the couple were dead.
The first day out was rough. Crossing West Arm, Denise became alarmed at the high seas and wanted to turn back. Roger persuaded her. "I said, 'Look, Denise, we can't stop now. We can't go back, we just have to go on. We've got to make the best of a bad situation.'" They got to Yarrow Point and camped for the night. Roger, giddy, felt like celebrating. "We had a bottle of wine I was saving for my birthday. I said, 'Denise, this is getting kind of heavy, I think we ought to go for it (the wine).'"
December 20--The next day was exhilarating. Roger and Denise revelled in the bright sunshine, the eagles, the whales and seals cavorting in front of them, the flat calm of the water, the mountains a delicate pink behind them. Roger remembered, "It was a beautiful day! We were singing and having a gay time and feeling good. It was spring. It wasn't winter. And I thought, 'Hell, I should have done this a long time ago.'" The couple camped on a cozy black, sandy beach on Petloff Point.
December 21--0n Roger's highway map, Gore Point was barely a nub on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula. They were surprised and startled at the treacherous waters, the sheer rock cliffs, the small forbidding beaches. It was the shortest day of the year and they were losing daylight fast. Denise was frightened, so Roger put the boat in at a small cove he assessed as the safest. " A sea otter barked at us when we went in, like a warning," Denise shuddered. They leaned the kayak and the tent against sheer rock, a 500 foot wall.
"All night long we kept hearing the waves," said Roger. "If you've ever seen Hawaii-Five-O and those waves at the start of the program, then you know what it looked like when we opened the tent flap: thirty foot waves hitting the beach!"
The in-coming tide relentlessly ate away more and more of their beach and they realized in slow dawning panic that they would be washed away. The only way was up. Roger discovered a small cave with a narrow shelf near the top and a two foot opening onto the cliffs. They hauled the boat and their supplies to the cave floor and squatted, shivering, on the narrow ledge.
The tide did not seep into the cave floor as Roger had assumed it would. A terrible breaker crashed into the cave. Roger attempted to make a grab at the supplies, but was engulfed by the next surge of water. "It was over my head, all I could see was bubbles. I was gulping water," said Roger. "I grabbed Denise's legs and pushed her through the hole (at the top of the cave)." Denise clutched their dog as she squeezed through. Roger was able to stuff a piece of plastic tarp and a wet wool blanket through the opening before crawling in himself.
He was scared. "'We're dead,' I told Denise. 'We're dead and that's all there is to it. If we don't get warm now, forget it--we'll die of hypothermia.' We lay under the blanket and piece of plastic, suffocating but trying to keep warm on those boulders. It was cold and raining and we lay there never knowing if the next big wave was going to get us. We were in a state of shock."
December 22--Roger's soft voice described what was left after the storm. "The next day we looked down into the cave. We dreaded the worst and hoped for the best. The ocean was kind. It left us the food pack, the tent, two frozen down sleeping bags, a rifle with five bullets, a stove, two wet wool blankets and our lives." The couple made camp and tried to dry out, sipping lukewarm soup, holding sodden clothes over the little camp stove. With only a third of a canister of fuel left, they rationed themselves to seven minutes of fire at a time.
The couple recuperated for four days in their campsite, never really drying out, always cold and wet.
One morning Roger discovered a wolf gnawing at a pile of Denise's clothes lying in a damp heap on the beach. He fired his 30/30 once and wounded the animal. Panicking, he shot again and missed. "I couldn't waste another of our bullets on him but I knew I couldn't leave a wounded wolf here at night. I threw rocks at him." Roger would stun the snarling, foaming animal and then rush at him, bashing him on the head again and again. The beast finally died and was cut up for food, his skin crude salvation for Denise's swollen aching feet.
Roger talked Denise into leaving their campsite. "We'd been there for four days and hadn't seen a boat or a plane. No one was looking for us. It was during the holidays and everyone was home eating turkey." Finally, discarding all but their wool clothing, the couple decided to strike out on their own. "I looked at that five hundred foot cliff and knew our only chance was to walk out of it." Roger said.
The couple had climbed only about 30 feet up the rock when Denise stumbled and dropped her pack into the ocean. The pack with the food. The pack with the matches. The pack with the stove. "About that time I wanted to give up," said Roger. Stunned, he suddenly began slipping backwards down the steep cliff. He remembers with amazement. "I fell down a hundred foot drop, tumbled down, down and I thought, 'This is it. This is where I die.' But I didn't want to suddenly. I'd be leaving Denise alone. I just dug my heels into the ground and hung on."
December 23--Roger remembers his 31st birthday with pain. "I thought. 'My God, why did this have to happen to me on my birthday? Why on my birthday do you leave us here, God?'" They continued to climb.
December 24 to January 8--Denise, Roger and Nuka stumbled up the side of Gore Peak for a week and a half, battling seven-foot snow drifts, Roger dragging a duffle bag behind him. The blizzard and their weakened condition made travel slow: only 500 yards a day. Nuka snuggled alongside, but they woke up every morning with several inches of snow on them.
Roger glanced at his feet, now covered with a hospital blanket. "By then our feet started hurting real bad, turning funny colors. We'd drop off to sleep for about 20 minutes and then one or the other of us would wake up screaming in pain. This went on and on. Every day my stomach would tighten up more. It would growl louder and louder and I kept thinking of German chocolate cake."
"We shared our last food," Denise said quietly, "a tube of Tom's Fennel Toothpaste. We licked that tube clean. That and smelling a cherry scented chapstick kept us going."
Roger tried to convince Denise to wade out into the surf and shoot themselves. "I told her we'd lose our feet," said Roger, "and that we wouldn't make it anyway." But Denise refused. She said she wanted to see her mother again. She told Roger that she would crawl to Seldovia even without the use of her feet. "We could still go to the movies," Denise had said. "We could still go to the library. We could still taste food. We could have children who could walk!"
"I was ashamed," admitted Roger. "Boy, here I was ready to blow my brains out and this girl was going to crawl." Roger continued to think of suicide, sometimes three, four times a day. "Every day I'd say to myself, 'You're not going to kill yourself. You're not going to leave Denise out here by herself.' I lay there and started thinking, 'Why, Jesus, why? It would be so easy to die. So easy to give up.' Every night when we drifted to sleep I thought we'd be dead by morning."
Confronted with a sheer wall of ice, it was slow going, Roger digging out finger holes with a dulled buck knife. Roger, leading each painful, precarious step, Denise behind him with Nuka; the couple almost gave up four different times. A shriek split the silence and Denise plummeted down, bouncing her body off the rocks and mountainside. "I couldn't look," said Roger in a small voice. "I thought, 'Well, Denise is dead now. She's dead and I'm all alone.'" But Denise was not dead. She called out to Roger for help. Roger yelled back that he couldn't help her, couldn't go backwards, couldn't drop the duffle bag that contained their only wool blanket. "Don't leave me, Roger, don't leave me!" Denise cried. "I yelled back, 'I'm not going to leave you. I'm going to stay up here until you die and then I'm going to die."
Somehow, with awe inspiring courage, Denise gathered up her battered body and, jamming her fingers into the rough ice holes until they were bloody, crawled slowly back up the mountain.
January 9--0n this morning Roger awoke with a strange euphoric feeling. "There was a glow inside me," he said. "I knew that you just didn't suffer for nothing. God wouldn't let you do that. He wouldn't save you so you could die slowly. We were pretty good people. I knew that, we didn't deserve this. I started to feel something inside me--and it was hope. If you've got hope and you don't give up, that's all you have to do. I wasn't asking God for a miracle, I thought, maybe we'll die tomorrow and maybe, just maybe, God just wanted me to know hope."
The couple had been painfully aware that some day they would have to kill their loyal puppy for food. On the morning of Jan. 9, ironically and sadly the day of their rescue, they decided it was time for little Nuka to die. They knew they couldn't waste one of their last three bullets.
Roger and Denise wept while they recounted the awful nightmare. "I said, 'Come here, Nuka,' and Denise held her little head. That poor little dog who trusted me, who followed us through everything. I stabbed her. She looked up at me with those gentle eyes. She didn't believe it. She didn't know what was happening. And I killed her. I killed her."
Roger skinned her, sobbing. He took the puppy's heart out and tried to eat it raw, but couldn't. "I crawled into the woods and said, 'I can't. I can't. I'd rather die. I killed her. I killed my little puppy. Oh God, what is happening to us? We are killing our dog, we are killing our little friend!" Denise, weeping, cut the dog into strips and she and Roger started off into the snow once again. "I knew then that if we were going to crawl we were going to crawl. If we were going to suffer, then we were going to suffer. It didn't matter anymore." The couple reached Sun Point and heard a helicopter. Roger recognized the familiar orange and white chopper of the Coast Guard Rescue Unit.
Roger and Denise panicked when the chopper passed overhead without seeing them. "They guy was looking out the window. Looking right at us!" Roger cut down spruce boughs and formed a large SOS in the snow, placing his red shirt in the middle on a stick. "I thought of it as Custer's last stand," he laughed. Denise stood in the middle of the "O" and wept.
Suddenly, around the corner came the most wonderful sight, a Kachemak Air Service airplane with Bill DeCreeft at the controls. He spotted the couple and dipped his wings. Roger, overcome, fell back into the snow, laughing. "Things started happening inside me," said Roger. "I got Christmas, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July all at once inside my heart."
The Coast Guard helicopter hovered over Roger and Denise, lowering a basket to pick them up one at a time. "When they put that big spotlight on us," Roger grinned, "it was like a beam from heaven. "One at a time, first Roger, then Denise, the two were raised into the helicopter and greeted with bear hugs and big kisses and warm cinnamon rolls. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
They were transferred from the Coast Guard helicopter to a Homer ambulance and taken to the emergency room of the Homer Hospital where they were treated for exhaustion, malnutrition, and frostbite.