Growing Up Alaska: Drowning

As I have mentioned in previous postings, growing up, I worked on a mine in one of the more dangerous positions; manning the sluice box.

My family was working a narrow valley on the North Fork of Harrison Creek in the interior of Alaska. The width of the valley not only concentrated the pay dirt, it also lent itself to smaller operations.

We’d set up a modified sluice box that would work well in such places as it didn’t take a lot of room but still ran a good amount of dirt each hour. It was stacked with a feeder mouth at the top that pushed the dirt over punch plate that allowed the dirt to drop to the single sluice run that ran perpendicular to the plant. Gravity helped move the rocks down a steep steel chute and into the settling pond below.

Where the rocks piled up, the water was only about 6 feet deep, but it dropped off quickly to twice that depth. The loader operator would have to move the big rocks every three or four dumps into the mouth.

I stood perched on a catwalk up near the mouth and regulated the flow of the water, helped push along any rocks that didn’t immediately slide down, and monitored both the sluice run and the pump. So much water sprayed around that even on a full sunny day, I didn’t always know.

We were about 7 hours into a 12 hour run. The job is very monotonous and the only change for me was when the pump would shut down and I would have to wave off the next load and run down to refuel it. I’d refueled the pump about an hour before and it should run the rest of the shift, or at least close to it.

I was cleaning up the mouth after a load of bigger material was dumped in. It had a lot of clay in it which caused it to stick together and I was doing my best to break it up as the clay was a good indicator of gold.

As I was pulling on an oblong rock with a special pry bar that had a hook welded onto it, my grip on the rock slipped and I slid backwards to keep my balance. Instinctively, I released the pry bar and grabbed for the railing.

Only I missed.

In that split second, as time slowed down, I realized that my rubber boots had slid off the edge and I was falling between the catwalk and the lower rail. My hands had clutched empty air and I fell, catching my armpit on the catwalk which sent me spinning and landing awkwardly on the steep dirt that lead to the rocks and settling pond below.

I managed to hit the rocks feet first, absorbing most of the impact, before somersaulting onto the pile. I lay there for a moment, dazed and dizzy. I couldn’t help but laugh as I groaned, checking to see what hurt the most and finding out if I’d broken anything.

Then I heard it.

Above me, the dirt had washed free and the rocks started their way down the chute to where I lay. There was no time to get up or run, so I did the only thing I could do, I rolled off the pile and into the water.

As I hit the muddy water of the settling pond with more of a gurgle than a splash, I heard the rocks smash into one another with the ear shattering sounds of a shotgun.

I am a pretty good swimmer since we had an Olympic sized pool at the Hot Springs that I swam in at least twice a week during the winter. I kicked for shore, the closest of which was the spit the pump sat on.

I kicked as hard as I could and could feel myself going under. My rubber boots had filled with water and they pulled me down like anchors. I frantically tried to kick them off and keep my head above water, but neither was successful.

I lunged to the surface, gasping and sputtering, muddy water coating my face and eyes. I splashed and blindly lunged for land, but knew I was no where near.

I went under.

I tried again to free my feet, but the boots were stuck. I splashed around and one hand broke the surface and I lunged again. I barely broke the surface and inhaled almost as much water as I did air.

My chest burned as I sank again. I looked up and saw that it was a sunny day, though the sun was a yellowish smudge in the water. I tired to swim towards it, but my hands didn’t break the surface.

I choked out precious air, trying my best to move towards shore, but in my panic, I was no longer sure which way that was. The pressure in my ears were getting strong, so I knew I was getting close to the bottom, so once I felt it, I pushed off, but hardly moved at all.

My head began to hurt as I gasped out the last of my air and stared up at the murky sun. Then I took in a gulp of water, setting my lungs on fire and realized in that moment that I wasn’t going to get out.

In that moment, the pain numbed and things began to calm. All I could think about was how mad my mom was going to be at my dad for letting me die. The pain it would cause my family.

Then it all went red and faded into black.

I woke up trapped over the 8 inch hose that ran from the pump to the sluice box and I was aware that someone was yelling at me from far off though I couldn’t hear them over the pump.

I spat out water and mud seeped from my nose. I tried to get up, but pain erupted across my body as I spasmed and coughed up more murky water. It was then that I realized that the voice was not far off, but the loader operator that worked for us was nearly to me.

And the pump was off.

I shook the cobwebs from my head and wiped the mud from my nose. It came back red as I was bleeding. I rolled over and sat up. The world spun and I still struggled to hear and see clearly.

“Where’s your boot,” was the first thing that I heard.

I looked down and saw that my left boot had come off. I also noticed that I was somehow in the middle of the ten foot wide spit that was 3 feet out of the water and laying across the hose so that my gut and sternum were pressed down.

As it turns out, the pump had mysteriously stopped. The loader operator had come to check because he’d seen the water had been off for a few minutes and thought I might be struggling to restart it. Only it wasn’t out of fuel and started easily.

To this day I do not know what happened between the time I blacked out and I woke up.

And I never found the boot.

Author: matthewlasley

I am a school teacher and an author. I like to write picture books, middle grade, science fiction and short stories. I live in Alaska and I love history, so those two things often influence my creative writing.

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