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Finding her strength

Mar 29, 2013

Kiwanian Mary Carunchia in Alaska

Forced by choppy, cold water to abandon the journey toward their appointed rendezvous, Mary Carunchia and her Wilderness Volunteers team rowed to safety on a rocky shore somewhere in the remote regions of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Cold, wet, exhausted and without a working radio, they waited for rescue. Plano, Texas, Kiwanian Carunchia learned a lot about herself through that ordeal. Here’s her story, in her own words.

It was a very challenging environment. We had to hike in through mud and snow, and there was no easy escape route. If there was any medical or personal emergency, we would have had to hike out one hour, use a satellite phone to call for a boat pickup and then get a water taxi into town. The nearest town was Whittier, which is only accessible by boat or a single lane vehicle tunnel through a mountain. I learned that I was capable of physically pushing myself more that I had thought possible.

I experienced one of the most intense situations in my life. A group of us were going to sea kayak from the first volunteer site to the second volunteer site, where we would be spending the last two and a half days with the State Park Service. Many of us were novice kayakers, and we had to cross a half-mile channel and then go about six miles along the opposite coast. There was a small craft advisory for the channel, and we ended up in one- to two-foot seas and a very strong crosswind. This might not sound dangerous, but the kayaks sit in the water so any waves at all are very disruptive. The water temperature was about 40F, and the air temperature was about 45F. It took all the strength I had to cross that channel. When we made it to the other side, the experienced kayakers in the group said it was far too dangerous for us to continue.

We landed up on a rocky shoreline. It began to rain. We were soaked all the way through and didn’t have many supplies, as the forest service was going to be transporting themselves, the tools and our packs in a small boat later that day. We had a satellite radio, but the batteries were dead. People in our group were getting colder and colder. Some people began to shake uncontrollably and were likely beginning to undergo hypothermia, which can become dangerous, even deadly. We only had one sleeping bag, food for lunch and a rain fly for the eight of us. We did have some trash bags, so using a trick I learned doing road races, we cut a hole in the bottom of the trash bags and wore them as ponchos to try to warm up.

At this point, we were not in our designated meeting place with the forest service, and there was no way to get there with the dangerous water conditions. Therefore, no one knew where we were. We didn’t have very many supplies, and we couldn’t call or radio anyone because we didn’t have the correct equipment.

Three hours passed; we weren’t sure what to do. Finally, a small boat came into the channel. The entire group went near the water line and started waving our arms. The boat passed by; it was disappointing. About 10 minutes later, another boat passed by, and this time it came near shore. It was the forest service! They couldn’t get to the shore due to the strong waves, but told us to bushwhack through the forest for about a quarter of a mile to get to a better landing point for their boat. They had food and shelter. It was a very challenging hike over to the other beach, but we made it and the forest service workers quickly set up a large tent for us to dry out in, and started boiling water for hot tea and cocoa. In the end, everyone was very cold and wet, but no one was injured or had hypothermia.

Dealing with a situation in which you are not sure when (or if) you will get rescued and have no way of communicating is very frightening. It makes you draw on your personal strength and rely on your team. Leveraging the strength of your fellow volunteers is key. Six months later, I can look back on that experience and feel proud of myself for being adventurous and getting outside my comfort zone. Digging a new privy and clearing trails were why we went there, but our group found camaraderie and learned a lot about our physical and emotional strength in a very challenging situation.