Nome gold miners rescued from drifting sea ice
On March 10 Alaska State Troopers in Nome received a report that three men on an ice floe were drifting out to sea. One of the three was Phillip Rode, a Nome man and former miner who told the tale of the wandering shore ice and eventual helicopter rescue.
On that day Rode was at the Nome Rec Center when somebody asked him about mining equipment off East Beach that was threatened by the sea ice going out. Rode went home, got his phone and took a look at the photos. He recognized his friend John Culp’s snow machine. Rode had mined with Culp and James Gibson. He’d been mining with them but quit because he has a family and needed to do other things to make money.
“I called John to make sure that he was OK, that his stuff was alright, because it looked like his,” said Rode. Culp replied that they were digging out the Zodiac skiff so they could rescue their mining equipment, which was worth around $20,000 total. There was a dive compressor, a Toyotomi hot water on demand heater, two motors and pumps, fuel, tools, two sets of sluice boxes, a shack to keep it all in, wetsuits, augers, tuuqs and shovels.
“The ice broke off and our stuff is floating away right now,” said Culp. He asked Rode what he was doing and Rode replied, “Coming over to help you dig out your boat.”
“Having worked with them, knowing them, plus you’ve got a guy’s livelihood there,” said Rode.
Culp and Gibson had gone to work gold mining under the ice that morning, looked at everything, and deemed it safe. Their equipment was on the ice close to the jetty and they thought it wouldn’t break off. “Cool, we can go to work,” they said. They made a fuel run which took half an hour and when they got back the ice had broken off and was starting to drift. So they headed for the Zodiac so they could rescue the equipment. “I ended up volunteering to go out and help,” said Rode. “I’ve been around Nome long enough to know ‘This one’s for the books.’”
When they started their retrieval operation the ice was still close to shore. The mission seemed simple enough. “We’re going to go out there and shove the stuff into the boat and bring it back. Go try and get everything. So we get out there and it’s already kind of broken apart. We didn’t have very far to go. The first trip James stayed with the boat,” said Rode.
Rode and Culp were on the ice packing things up. “Things weren’t moving too bad because we weren’t past the jetty yet,” said Rode. But the wind was blowing. Culp made a trip to the boat with some gear and when he returned he said that Gibson, in the boat, was pushing the ice floes together so they wouldn’t spread out too much. “We were just concentrating on what we were doing, not worrying about what has happening back there,” said Rode. But soon the ice started to rock a little more. They had passed the end of the jetty and were now in the open sea. The wind and current grew stronger. The two men kept working and paid no attention to their increasingly hazardous predicament. “It was getting rough and choppy and the next thing you know there’s a helicopter flying overhead and we said ‘I wonder what these guys are doing?’ We thought they were just checking us out and we turned around to go back and I grabbed the generator and he grabbed the auger and the weight belt we started out and it was really far. Ice was coming in from the East side and so James kept moving the boat back. When it came time for us to go the boat was really far away.”
About halfway to the boat Rode realized it was too far. The ice floes were starting to break up. He set the generator down and headed back to the shack for another load. By now they’d been working for a couple of hours and the boat was running low on gas. On the piece of ice the shack was on he had earlier noticed what appeared to be a pencil line running across it. He knew that was a crack. When he arrived at the shack the ice had broken along that line. The sluice box was gone, sunk to the bottom. He grabbed a DeWalt bag with $1,000 worth of tools in it and the diving mask, which with communications was worth $900. “I grabbed that stuff and headed back. I didn’t realize we’d drifted a long way.”
As he headed back toward the boat he could hear his two buddies yelling at him but couldn’t make out what they were saying. The pencil lines were now everywhere. “Sometimes I’d have to sit on a piece of ice and wait for it to get close to the next piece. Some are floating away, some are coming together.” He realized the pieces were moving more apart than together and said to himself, “This is it. I’m not going to make it back to the boat.”
He threw the DeWalt bag to the next piece of ice and made a mighty leap, tearing his pants in the effort. He made it. His friends were trying to pull the boat up onto the ice to prevent it from being crushed so he helped them.
“They’re going to come back with the helicopter and pick us up,” said one of his friends. “That’s why we picked this piece of ice. It’s big enough to land the helicopter on.” The helicopter was buzzing around waiting for Rode and as soon as the three were together they set the helicopter down and the pilot came out and said “Throw all that stuff in the boat, you can’t take it with you.” One of the pilots stayed behind with Culp. They made two trips. “I’d been in ice jams before, I’ve been around it enough. Despite the circumstances I thought we were going to make it,” said Rode.
Asked if at any point he worried the end might be near, that he wasn’t going to survive this, Rode responded: “There were a couple points where I was. There was one point where I looked at my phone and had three percent left on the battery. I texted my honey: Love you. That was right where the pieces were breaking up.”
He said he has heard enough Alaska survival stories to know that one just has got to tough it out. There’s no time for panicking or worrying. “I just pictured myself like a guy from the 1800s stuck in ice floes and had to abandon their ships and start packing their bags for shore. Men leaving with what they could carry having to truck across miles of ice. It’s happened before. I’m not the first person that’s had to do this. If those old bastards could do it I could, too,” Rode said.
“You guys don’t know how lucky you are,” said one of the helicopter pilots. The rescue ship was a Robinson R-44 from Bering Air. “At three in the morning the adrenaline kicked in,” said Rode. “That was my first helicopter ride. I never thought I’d end up in a search and rescue situation. If I did I figured I’d be saving somebody else, not getting myself in a perilous situation. They say in 120 years of recorded history this has never happened.” He referred to the sea ice at Nome, breaking up in March.
Much credit goes to an unnamed man parked at the top of the jetty who watched the trio through binoculars. He alerted Nome Search and Rescue and apprised them of the situation.
“Alaska’s going to thaw,” said Rode. “I think this world is in for a little bit of a ride.”