The thuk, thuk, thuk of a Sitka Coast Guard chopper broke the quiet, and soon it swooped in from overland. At least a dozen more kids ran down the ramp, chasing the action and happily snagging life jackets, rescue whistles and signal mirrors.
The chopper hovered 150 yards from the dock, out of the tidal stream still ripping seaward past Angoon. The door slid open, and a rescue swimmer tossed out the Coasties' version of a crash-test dummy. The rotor wash pushed the dummy away from the chopper, and then a rescue swimmer appeared in the door, waved and jumped. In a minute or less, the swimmer retrieved the dummy and both were hoisted back to the orange and white chopper before flying away. It was a five-minute demo that would make anyone happy to be a U.S. taxpayer.
"You want to be rescued?" Folkerts called to Auxiliary crewman Dan Logan, one of the Jet Ski captains. The kids all retreated in protesting squeals thinking they were about to be dunked. Logan double-checked his life jacket and the watertight zippers of his drysuit.
"Sure," he said, not so enthusiastically and slid into the water carefully, keeping his head dry. The tide was slack now, and he paddled an easy baseball toss away.
"What would happen if you jumped in to rescue Mr. Logan?" Folkerts asked his silent students. "You'd get yourself in just as much trouble as the victim, wouldn't you?"
The kids all nodded and Folkerts crooked his finger at one young girl.
"You want to rescue him? I'll show you how." And Folkerts handed her a throwable life jacket with a rope attached.
With surprising accuracy, she threw the float to him and then all the kids grabbed the line and tugged him in. The practice was repeated over and over again.
(Only a few weeks after the mission, two boys capsized their canoe several yards from the dock. One wore a life jacket and the other without one clung to him, while rescuers pulled the boys safely ashore.)
Kake, Alaska, was the next fishing village on Folkerts' mission route. It took an entire unusually sunny afternoon to travel 150 nautical miles and make port around 7 p.m. The sun shone down like 2 p.m. in Iowa. Steering clear of a departing ferry, the Jet Skis ran in ahead of the Noreen Kay to scout out the fuel dock and arrange berths. Ashore, Folkerts called an impromptu meeting to recap the day and streamline the safety-school procedures.
The next morning, at Kake's seaplane dock, two boys leaned far over the 20-foot-high ferry dock nearby, teasing Dolly Varden with fishing lines. I watched them at a distance and called them softly. Any surprise could result in a misstep and possible tragedy. It was far more than a five-minute swim to shore from beneath the end of the ferry dock.
"Why don't you boys walk down to the seaplane dock? They'll give you life jackets so your mom won't worry so much," I said. Silently, they scampered down the ramp to the Auxiliary crew. Minutes later, vests buckled firmly in place, they returned to angling.
At least 30 kids and their parents scurried down to the dock for free life jackets, rescue whistles and rescue training. After the Coast Guard chopper left, Dan Logan agreed again to be hauled in by any kid with arm enough to sling a PFD across the chilly water.
With the last mission stop behind them, Folkerts' crew headed toward Pybus Bay, where they'd reserved frail and rustic wilderness cabins. The discussion of bears came up once again.
Mark Powers of Whalers Cove had asked Mike Folkerts to deliver a message to the owner of Pybus Point Lodge, so the Noreen Kay and other Jet Skis drifted offshore waiting for Folkerts to make his delivery. A short distance beyond the lodge, across the deep bay, a 175-foot yacht was at anchor. Lodge owner Alan Veys ran to greet Folkerts, who rode in on a Jet Ski. After a few moments of discussion, Folkerts zipped back out to the Noreen Kay.
"He insists we join him at the lodge tonight," Folkerts said in a tone that said he was touched by the generosity. "He says he has dinner guests from only that yacht out there, and since the chef is cooking, he'd like a full table."
The bears would go hungry again as we slept in comfort and showered with hot water.
The hospitality of Alaskans is often the only buffer against Alaska's sometimes inviting, often inhospitable and incredible wilderness beauty. The Auxiliary mission, like most Alaskans and Alaskan visitors, was glad to accept the risk, and though in return they gave only free advice and a box of life jackets, both offered the ultimate gift: an extra chance at life in a tight spot, and a way to beat the Five-Minute Rule.