An Alaska short story, Ship Creek Adventure tells the true story of a boy who fell into a deep creek, but couldn't swim.
by Michael R. Dougherty
I carefully placed my foot onto the slick log I was going to use as a bridge. The creek's fast-moving waters had splashed over it and left the wood glistening with moisture. I braced myself and slowly stepped forward, but before I could take a second step, my boot quickly slid out from under me.
When I was 12 years old, we were living in Mountain View, Alaska, which is a suburb of Anchorage and not far from the waters of Ship Creek.
In the summer, my younger brother Tom and I would team up with two neighborhood friends named Patrick and John. Together, we would embark on many adventures. Before setting out, we filled our Army Navy store packs with peanut butter sandwiches. For something to drink, we packed Fizzies (those flavored tablets that turned plain water into fizzy flavored drinks), and we would head off for a day of fishing and exploring in and around Ship Creek.
The wooded areas around the creek provided plenty of places to explore, and of course, the creek itself was a great place to hang out.
Near downtown Anchorage, the shores of Ship Creek are a magnet for combat fishing crowds when the Salmon are running. And in 1915, Ship Creek Flats, at the mouth of Cook Inlet, was where the now famous Tent City sprang up, that would become the town of Anchorage.
Adventure filled our treks to Ship creek. Some days, it was all about fishing. On other days, we were just exploring the woods.
Years before, when our family was living in a small cabin on Goose Bay Road near Wasilla, Alaska, I had become a good marksman with my BB gun. I was a good enough shot that I was able to bag a few Spruce Hens. As a result, a friend of my father's had rewarded my hunting ability, with a shiny new pellet rifle.
Later, we moved from the Alaskan woods of Goose Bay Road back to the city streets of Mountain View. It was fun to spend our summer trekking through the woods of Ship Creek, and I would often take my trusty pellet rifle.
One day, me, my brother Tom, Patrick and his older brother Tim were walking along a well-used path that ran along the sometimes swift waters of the creek. It had rained the day before and the grass was still wet. The creek was much more crowded than usual. Along the banks, there seemed to be people fishing everywhere
Our path brought us to a place where the creek had carved a sharp “eddy” into the bank, and it had created a large, deep and swirling pool.
In front of us was a large fallen log that went across the deep pool to a spit of grass covered land on the other side.
Tim and Patrick were walking ahead, and my brother Tom was right behind me.
When we came up on the log bridge, Tim and Patrick crossed in front of me. When it was my turn, I held my pellet rifle in both hands as I started to cross the log.
Then about halfway across, my booted foot slipped off the wet log and suddenly, my body lost its balance. I then fell off the log and made a big splash as I sank into the cold, fast-moving water of Ship Creek, where my world instantly changed.
I didn't know how to swim at all, but there I was in a deep and fast-moving pool of water. Not only that, but I was churning around, completely submerged. Not knowing which way was up, I couldn't find the surface. Underwater and frantically looking around, bits of wood and bark churned all around me. I was in a cold and dangerous slow motion ballet.
Suddenly, the top of my head popped up out of the water and I had this weird view because half my eyes were still submerged. In the upper half of my vision I could see land in front of me, and in the bottom half I could see below the surface.
Getting some air became my frantic goal.
Somehow I managed to bend my head back just enough so I could catch a quick gasp of air before the current pulled me back down and underwater again.
In my murky, submerged world, I could see the muddy bank in front of me. In my terror, I knew that if I got stuck against the bottom of the eddy, I might not be able to get to the surface in time to get the air I needed.
This was looking bad.
Much to my surprise, my head popped up out of the water again, only this time it was all the way out of the water.
At that moment, I was so horrified that I couldn't open my mouth to shout for help. In front of me, on the creek bank, was a small clump of grass.
My mind raced as I thought that if I could reach out with one arm, I could carefully grab hold of the grass. But I knew that if I pulled too hard, the grass would come apart in my hand, and I'd end up back underwater again.
For some odd reason, right at that moment, my memory reminded me of something I had either read or heard before. “If you go down under the water for the third time, you'll drown.”
I was determined not to go under for a third time.
Somehow I was able to take hold of the grass.
But I was so cold and terrified that I still couldn't speak. Try as I might, I couldn't get the words “help” out from between my cold, chattering teeth. I knew my friend Patrick and his older brother Tim had been right in front of me, but I was out of sight, below the grassy creek bank, and bobbing around in what could have been my watery Alaska grave.
Then, out of nowhere, I managed to force a feeble and Trembley “help” out of my shivering mouth.
Suddenly, Patrick was there, looking down at me.
Then Patrick and Tim quickly got hold of my arms, pulled me out of Ship Creek and hauled me onto land, where I gladly laid on my back.
When I was able to sit up, I discovered that my poor brother Tom was still straddling the wet log with his feet in the cold water. When he saw me fall, he had become terrified, and he too was unable to holler for help. He had sat down on the log, so he wouldn't fall in like I had.
As Tim and Patrick rescued Tom, I managed to stand up. And as we all stood there talking about what had just happened, Tim asked, “where's your pellet gun?”
At that moment, I realized that as I had fallen in the water, my pellet gun came out of my hands and was now somewhere at the bottom of Ship Creek.
Then Tim got an idea.
“Hey Mike, we can get some rope, tie it around your waist and lower you back in the water, so you can look for your pellet gun.”
I loved my pellet gun and was proud that I had earned it because of my good marksmanship. But I looked at Tim and still shivering with cold, I said “are you crazy, no way… I'm not going back in that water.”
Tim tried to assure me that he would personally be holding the rope and that I would be perfectly safe, but I was not about to go back in that water, ever again.
Since that day, I have often wondered if someone might come across my pellet gun some day. You know, maybe if the creek changes course, or they do some construction. Wouldn't that be interesting?
It's been many years since I nearly drowned in Ship creek, but I have recalled that terrible memory over and over in my mind. Since then, I've learned how to swim, but I don't really think that would have helped very much.
Still in my cold, wet clothes, my brother and me, along with Patrick, and Tim, started walking back home. As we did, one of the fishermen along the bank asked me, “Hey, what was that big splash I heard?” I said, “It was me, falling in the creek.” He said, “Oh, I thought it was a big salmon jumping.”
And that was my Ship Creek Adventure.
“I’ve learned a lot about my hometown of Anchorage, and you’ve jogged memories of things I haven’t thought about for years. I can only say YAY!” Juanita.
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