“This doesn’t look good,” Seth Kantner muttered, peering at the pale gray end of a spark plug, then passing it to Vic Walker and me for inspection. The top plug on my side looked even worse—grains of aluminum piston speckling the electrode, sure signs of a damaging, possibly fatal, engine overheat.
My jet skiff lay against a cut bank up the Nuna River in northwest Arctic Alaska on a fading September evening. Globs of icy rain hissed on the still-hot engine. At the very least, we were bound for a three-mile slog over swampy, slush-coated tundra to Seth’s cabin, and after that, a chain of logistical headaches trailing over the horizon, featuring a crippled skiff far from home.
It was one thing if an impossible-to- dodge boulder or a twitch of fate had caused the mess. But none of it had to happen. I had three rapid-fire chances to avoid that mechanical dogpile, each a no-brainer, considering I had 35 years of jetboat experience, 20 of them in this very skiff, which I loved like a friend. And like some green-gilled cheechako, I managed to screw up each one.
Mechanized wilderness travel in bush Alaska is a dicey business under the best conditions; and jetboating along the spine of the Brooks Range is…well, imagine an ever-steepening, ultra-remote ice water slalom course often just inches deep, riddled with rapids, downed timber and hairpin turns rushing at you, all in a half-ton rig that’s skid prone by its shallow-running nature. The question isn’t if you’re going to beat on your equipment and yourself; the question is how much and how hard. While practice doesn’t make perfect, experience goes a long way toward easing the blows; I’d like to think I’m not the rash driver I once was.
So there were Seth, Vic and I, three quarters of the way back to his cabin after an afternoon run up the Nuna, a roughly 50-mile round trip. I’d run a couple dozen bends higher than I’d intended—including a spot where I’d ripped holes in a lesser boat years before—but had reversed course before the going got stupid. Despite the weather, we’d had a fine day: watched a big band of caribou, skimmed over green pools where chum salmon and grayling scattered like birds and pulled up a couple dozen yards from a grizzly who huffed at us before loping into the brush. Fall colors glowed in the muted, misty light. The driving had been exhilarating, the boat cutting beneath me like a quarter horse through complex turns.
On the home stretch, eye-tired and probably a bit too cocky, I’d misread a shortcut where I should have steered to the outside. Strike one. The engine’s cooling intake had slurped a bit of gravel, and I shut it down, then restarted. I heard the rocks rattle through and, I thought, clear out. All seemed fine, and stopping to check my straining filter seemed unneces- sary. Strike two. The too-faint shriek of my
ancient overheat horn, the one I’d meant to replace, didn’t make it past my ear protection until the engine stuttered, and I caught the first whiff of scorched metal and oil. Strike three.
Of course I was kicking myself, and would be for months. Screwed up, let down my friends, beat up my boat, all for a rehash of lessons I’d learned years ago. Never mind that I escaped a total disaster. After that nasty ankle-twisting hike to Seth’s cabin, we managed to return the next day to replace head gaskets and torque bolts. We revived the skiff, and I drove it 40 miles back to Ambler. The jury’s still out on whether I’ll need to pull the engine and air freight it to Fairbanks for rebuild. If so, it won’t be my first, and though I hope, probably not my last.
So, why bother going so hard and far? Answering, I’d point to that day—not just the grizzly, or the shoulder of the Jade Mountains glowing in the mist; but that slog to Seth’s in the rainy twilight, laughter among friends and the sound of that good boat roaring to life one more time. It’s all I’d ever hope for.