Windy Arm Storm 1997

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Dyea to Dawson 1997 – Windy Arm Storm

Fred O’Brien

In  June of 1997 Karl Dittmar and I took part in the Dyea (near Skagway, Alaska) to Dawson, Yukon International Centennial Race to the Klondike. The race was limited to 50 teams of two, and was a re-enactment of the great gold-rush stampede of 1897-98.  We had a 56 Kl. hike over the Chilkoot trail and a 1000 Kl. canoe trip from Bennet Lake, through several lakes and down the mighty Yukon river to Dawson City.   We each  had to carry a minimum load of 22.5 Kilograms (50 lbs), which included listed compulsory items such as a gold pan, 12 inch diameter cast iron frying pan (heavy!), hatchet, shovel, flour, beans and dried fruit – all to make it a realistic commemoration of the stampede.

The canoeing was an unexpected adventure.  While sails were not allowed I had occasion to use a golfing umbrella on Bennet Lake; and more importantly, on Windy Arm (another large lake) during a storm of biblical proportions!  One team sank in the storm, had to be rescued and nearly were lost, suffering hypothermia.  Having lost most of their gear and not in a position to continue, they scratched from the race.  All the other competitors, except Karl and I, stayed ashore until the storm abated!  We were traveling close to shore, Karl in the rear and I up front.  With the wind picking up I opened the umbrella and we started to pick up good speed.  I was happy to display the umbrella to all those  stampeders on shore, gesturing to them, bravado style, that we would see them in Dawson!!  Being close to shore I felt that the breaking waves in the shallows were treacherous and I suggested to Karl that we move out a little farther into the lake.  To my surprise, Karl turned to cross the lake, using his paddle as a rudder.  The storm increased in ferocity.  The sky darkened and, with the increased wind speed and gusts, the umbrella was blown inside-out some seven times.  With the sudden pulls and thrusts things got very unsteady in the canoe and I started to fear for Karl and for the circumstances of my own family in the event of a looming disaster.  I managed to brace myself, with my two knees against the gunnels, and to hold the stem of the umbrella in my left hand and the sky-pointing rib in my right hand so as to continue catching the wind and remaining relatively steady.

Umbrella used on Windy Arm 1997


The waves had increased up to some seven feet in height, according to Karl.  We were trying to reach the narrows to Tagish River and had to cut across the wind and were buffeted by gusts and waves on the right side of the canoe.  Every time we got a blast of wind and wave I called out (not too loud) “Jesus” in  prayer.  I recalled St. Therese of Lisieux’s reflection on the Bible story of Jesus asleep in the boat during the storm where she indicated that she would not wake him.  I resolved to take her advice and prayed for Karl, myself, our families; and put my trust in God.  The wind was so powerful that we were shooting across the lake and over the waves at great speed.  Without the umbrella, I am sure, we would have sunk in the storm!   Karl was using the paddle as a rudder and I was constricting the shape of the umbrella to hold it intact, bag shaped, and capturing the wind.  The sky was ominously dark, the far shore seemed to be receding and the journey seemed to take an eternity.  Now and again I thought:  how far could we swim if we went down?  how cold is the water?  The situation was so serious, I thought, that, come what may, even though my knees and arms were rigid and tired, I would not flag in my efforts and determination.  I believe I was not afraid for myself.   Karl had nerves of steel in the rear of the canoe and, with his steady hand, solid sense of humour in the face of challenge, and  aided by the prayers of our Maryhouse supporters in Whitehorse, we did not take a drop of water in the course of the crossing!! On arrival at the other side the storm was still at its height and we had to beach the canoe with the lashing waves and gusting windblasts hitting us from the right.  As we approached the shore I leapt from the canoe, was sideswiped by it in the shallow water and fell.  The canoe was swamped and Karl and I were totally immersed in the freezing water.  We struggled with the canoe and, managed to drag everything ashore.  We were famished and proceeded to transfer canoe, tent and gear out of the wind-swept open area and around the corner of the sheltered narrows.  We gathered firewood, found dry matches and tinder and lit a blazing fire.  We pitched tent, stripped out of our wet clothes and hung clothing and gear to dry on some beach-lain deadwood.  Our sleeping bags were dry on the inside and we bedded down for the night.   It was the most incredible adventure I had ever experienced.  Praise the Lord for delivering us safely from so great a storm!