Recalling the stories of elders and heeding their own sea sense, the Sugaks prepared for unforeseen delays: they took plenty of food and fresh water, dry clothes, extra fuel and a rifle. They called Kodiak to let their son, Nickolas, know that they would be in town by evening, weather permitting and the Good Lord willing, of course. They also informed a lodge owner in Port Lions that they might need a place to bunk in case of weather.
With help from the villagers, they loaded their four-wheeler, fuel barrels and other freight into their 22-foot open skiff powered by a 75-horse Yamaha with back-up kickers. They remembered stories about the days when people rowed dories and skiffs between Karluk, Afognak and Kodiak. Although marine technology had come up in the world, the ancient principles still applied: be prepared, respect the sea and weather, and trust God for a safe journey.
The Sugaks left the Karluk about noon, following the coast of rugged, precipitous mountains, browned by the late October cold.
The invigorating skiff ride and breathtaking scenery reminded them why they look forward to spending the summer in the village.
About 15 minutes into the trip, Emil spotted red and silver salmon jumpers.
“We didn’t want to leave,” Tonya said. “But we had to keep going.”
In the village of Larsen Bay, people helped them load another drum of gas.
As the Sugaks traveled between Harvester Island and Chief Cove, playful porpoises swam beside them.
Emil said, that, according to the Elders, porpoises were a sign of luck and safe travel.
But even a good omen can be laced with misfortune.
As the Sugaks headed northeast toward their destination, they looked for a green blinking light that would signal Kupreanof Strait, which would take them to Whale Pass.
When they saw the shores of Afognak Island, they knew they had overshot Kupreanof.
“We were coming into open ocean,” Emil said. “The rollers were getting big.”
It was getting dark, and the Sugaks knew that they must find a protected place where they could spend the night. They crept into the head of a narrow bay, praying that they’d miss the rocks and find a good place to anchor.
They set anchor, taking bearings on a big rock on the beach which would be their point of reference.
Once they settled down, they decided to call Nickolas on the cell phone to let him know they were okay.
Because of their remote location, they were not able to make contact with anyone.
In the bow of the skiff, they made a tent out of a tarp and laid a sleeping bag inside.
When they got out of their rain gear, Emil noticed that his feet were wet.
Tonya took off his shoes and socks, helped him into a pair of dry socks and put garbage bags over them.
The rain continued throughout the night, but, mercifully, it stopped when the Sugaks had to leave the shelter of their tent.
“It happened that quick,” Emil said. “It was pretty neat.
“We felt the presence of the Lord with us,” Tonya said. “Where we were, there was no reason we shouldn’t have hit a rock. We were in a dangerous spot.” They were also on the verge of hypothermia. It took days to shake off the penetrating chill, Tonya said.
“We acknowledged the Lord’s goodness,” Tonya said.
“As dark, cold and wet as it was, I didn’t feel scared,” Emil said.
Emil knew that they had 10 hours until daylight. “But the hours seemed to whiz by,” he said.
Once there was sufficient light, the Sugaks continued on their journey.
By the time they reached the head of the bay, a heavy blanket of fog was moving in from the Shelikof Strait to their right. They knew that, in order to skirt the fog, they would have to backtrack to the south.
Tonya admitted that she was having some fears.
They were comforted to see a cluster of buildings on the beach. A sign posted by the buildings revealed their location — the Terror Bay property of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Miraculously, it seemed, the encroaching fog had shifted to the left, and now the Sugaks would be able to travel into Veikoda Bay, which would take them to Kupreanof.
“There was a little sliver of a path,” Emil said. “I was thinking, ‘the Lord is showing us the way.’“
And so were His agents.
As the Sugaks entered Whale Pass, a Coast Guard helicopter circled above them.
Tonya gave the low-flying aircraft a thumbs-up to indicate that they were alright.
When the Sugaks came around Buoy Four in the rolling waves of Ouzinkie Narrows, they saw Dean Andrews’ 206.
“He was making sure that our outboard was okay and that we were okay,” Tonya said.
When they got into town, Emil dropped Tonya off on a beach near Spruce Cape, so she could go to their house to call family members and get the boat trailer.
As Emil headed toward St. Paul Harbor, his engine alarm sounded off. “My power pack started going out. I had to go slow the whole way to St. Paul harbor.”
Before the day was over, the Sugaks discovered the community had gone to great lengths to make sure that they were okay.
Tonya’s brother, Fred Zharoff, Jr., who lives in Ninilchik, kept in touch with Nickolas, and called the Coast Guard the night before. Tonya’s mom, Faith Braswell, who also lives in Ninilchik, started the prayer chain that reached Kodiak. “They had people pray every hour.”
People in Ouzinkie and Port Lions stayed up all night, trying to reach the Sugaks on the VHF. Fishermen started organizing a search party.
“We live in a community that responds to each other,” Tonya said, thanking those who came to their aid. “We would really like to thank our Coast Guard. We pray for the Lord’s blessing on all those people ... who put their lives on the line. We want to thank our community for looking out for us.
“The Coast Guard and the community showed that they care,” Emil said. “The world will stop for two people.”
At least it works that way on Kodiak Island.