Racing The Tide

The day the Turnagain Arm clay nearly claimed me, I was about 10 years old. Our family was visiting some friends at their cabin at Indian, possibly the first named settlement along the Seward Highway past Rabbit Creek out of Anchorage. In the 50s there was only a foot path up to the cabin sites, so cars were parked beside the highway above the railroad tracks that ran along the Arm. We crossed the highway and hiked the half mile up to the cabin, lugging picnic supplies, books, any cabin materials, and extra clothing.

After lunch on this particular day, we kids climbed the mountain behind the cabin, above the tree line, scrambling up the rocks, not looking back. When it was time to return, we ran down the steep mountainside, hopping over and between the rocks, gravity pulling us faster and faster, arms outstretched, reveling in the exhilarating rush of wind through our hair, the feeling of free abandonment.

Turnagain Arm, Mud Flats. USGS Photo Library.

Suddenly, over a rise, a stand of birch trees appeared in front of us like solid sentinels, barring the way.

“What do I do now!?” I gasped, realizing I couldn’t possibly slow down before I reached them. Maybe I can use the trees to help me, I thought. My heart pounded in fear as I stretched out my right arm to the nearest, rapidly approaching tree, letting it slide past and slowing me slightly. I repeated the move a little less fearfully with my left arm, slowing a little more.

Giddy with relief that it seemed to be working, I repeated the process, reaching out with one arm and then the other to the now welcome trees. I gradually slowed myself until I felt under control and heaved a sigh of relief. To this day, I’ll never know how I missed smacking into one of those trees or pulling my arm out of a socket.

At the end of the day, I found myself one of the first ones back at the car along the highway. As the oldest child from both families, I was surprised and pleased to note that I had no younger children to watch. I gazed out across the four-mile wide, mesmerizing expanse of grey under a cloudless sky.

Turnagain Arm has the largest tidal range in the United States and the fourth highest in the world with an average of 30 feet during its 12 and a half hour tidal cycle. It is also known for its abundance of silt, much of which is exposed during a low tide. This silty clay exhibits quicksand-like qualities and the mudflats can be dangerous to walk on.

Today the tide was exceptionally far out. As I had done many times before, I slid down the embankment, crossed the railroad tracks, and walked out onto the now solid tide flats, glad I had worn my boots. We had been warned often about the clay being like quicksand, so I kept moving.

The sky was a clear blue, the sun warm and bright, and the patterns left in the clay by the receding tide fascinating. Reveling in my solitude, I walked farther than I had before. I lost track of time as I stood and looked around my feet and beyond at the little pools and swirls. Occasionally I raised my eyes to look down the Arm toward Girdwood, soaking in the vast magnificence.

Loud, excited voices in the distance snapped me out of my reverie. The highway seemed more than a city block away when I turned toward the noise. Mom, Dad, Dick, Grace, and all of the children stood by the cars shouting and scissoring their arms back and forth above their heads. Bonnie and little Lori were jumping up and down. Everyone was yelling.

“What is going on?” I thought. From that distance, I couldn’t understand them. They were looking at me, though, so I thought they were anxious to begin the drive home. Was I in trouble for making them wait? Time to head back to the car, I decided.

Before the interruption, I had been watching the water accumulate in a low spot in front of me. Suddenly, I noticed it was coming in on all sides of my feet. I pulled at my right foot. It didn’t move. It was stuck in the clay. I tried my left foot. Same thing – stuck.

OH NO! Clay like quicksand! We had only been told not to stand in one place on the tide flats because it would pull us down into itself. No one had ever said what to do if that should happen!

I grabbed the top of my right boot and pulled. It wouldn’t budge. The water was now streaming around my feet. I could feel a pressure around my ankles as I was drawn further into the clay. What do I do? Visions of cartoon characters sinking out of sight in quicksand flashed before my eyes. They weren’t funny now as I saw myself being sucked into the floor of Turnagain Arm.

My rising panic was offset by determination to find a way out. I tugged again at my boot. It still wouldn’t budge. Maybe I could slip my foot out of my boot, I thought. I jerked my foot upward. The pressure was tight around my ankle and it stayed in the boot. On the second jerk, fueled by increasing alarm, my foot came free, my boot still in the mud, and I landed on my rear in the rising muddy water. Sitting in the clay relieved the downward pressure on my left foot and I pulled it out of its boot more easily.

Eager to not cause any more bother than I already had, I stood up, yanked my boots from the mud, and ran back to shore in my stocking feet, jumping across the growing streams along the way, then across the tracks, and up the embankment to the car, carrying my boots and covered in Inlet clay.

Certain I was in trouble for making people wait for me, I rattled off my explanation while Dick, who worked for the Anchorage Times, produced a healthy pile of newspapers to cover the car’s rear seat where I rode back to town. No one ever spoke of it, then or to this day. For my part at the time, I was relieved that no one yelled at me for making them wait.

Reflecting on it now, the adults, at least, had probably seen the whole thing and needed no explanation, knowing the danger I was in with the fast-moving incoming tide. Their fear for me held them mute. At that time, in my family, we didn’t talk about any feelings, much less strong feelings like terror. As my awareness grew and I learned the real danger I faced, I vowed to change that pattern with my own children.

MaryJo Comins lived in Anchorage from 1951 until 1995, graduated from AHS in 1961, attended the University of Montana, married and began raising a family before completing her BA in English with a sociology minor from the University of Alaska Anchorage in 1974. 

She taught writing and creativity classes in Anchorage and Eugene, Oregon.  Among her writing credits are the Anchorage Times, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Magazine, Cruising World Magazine, and Alyeska Pipeline’s in-house magazine.  MaryJo received writing awards from Alaska Press Women and an honorable mention from Writers Digest.  She enjoys acting with community theater groups in Anchorage and now Eugene.

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