Point Baker resident survives 24 hours on rock after boating accident

Her partner, Arne Dahl, missing and presumed dead

After a boating accident near Point Baker last week, former Wrangell resident Kelsey Leak spent 24 hours on West Rock before being rescued by a fishing boat. Her boyfriend, 27-year-old Arne Dahl has not been found and is presumed dead.

The morning of Nov. 27 was bright and clear. Leak and Dahl set out from their Point Baker homestead at 11 a.m. to collect firewood aboard Dahl's old wooden fishing vessel, the Randi Jo. The pair had been living off-grid at Point Baker, where Dahl was raised, since October, when Leak left her job as a physical therapist at Wrangell Medical Center to join him.

Leak brought her golden retriever, Mili, and her pet Caique parrot, Petrie, along for the ride. After purchasing Petrie from a bird store in Oklahoma seven years ago, Leak and her bird were rarely apart. She named the parrot after "Panicky Petrie," the anxiety-ridden pterandon from Universal's "The Land Before Time" series. Unlike her namesake, Petrie was an outgoing, sociable creature, who liked to make nests out of strangers' hair and observe the world from the comfort of Leak's shirt pocket.

After finishing their errand, Leak, Dahl and their pets headed home around 2 p.m. Leak ate a burrito she had packed for the trip and curled up to take a nap. "I was full and happy and we were just cruising," she said.

The next thing she knew, she was slammed face-first onto the deck. "I busted my nose and my lip," she said. "I was bleeding everywhere."

When Dahl came over to comfort her, she asked him what had happened. He explained that the boat had hit the reef, but everything would probably be fine. "He was kind of nonchalant about it," Leak recalled.

However, Dahl's confidence left him when the engine wouldn't turn over. "We lifted up the (hatch) and it was already knee-deep in water down there," she said. The couple decided to evacuate to the skiff that they were towing behind the Randi Jo. Leak brought Millie and a bag of survival gear onto the skiff while Petrie rode on her jacket. She and Dahl ran the skiff to the front of the boat and saw a massive gash in the wooden vessel. The collision "split the bow," Leak said.

Before pulling away, Dahl decided to return to the Randi Jo to get some paperwork - "all of his receipts and everything," she recalled. While he was inside, Leak pulled the skiff up alongside the Randi Jo, but it got stuck under the lip of the larger boat's railing. "(The skiff) started taking on water before Arne could get back on," she said. "It just sank right underneath us."

Leak, Dahl the survival gear and the couple's entire livelihood were submerged under the cold water. Leak abandoned the raincoat where Petrie had been perched because it was weighing her down. "When I was under the water, that's when Petrie drowned," she said.

Leak swam for West Rock, a small craggy stone protrusion with a cement block and navigational aid on top, a "couple hundred yards" north of Joe Mace Island, according to Sgt. Cody Lister of the Alaska State Troopers.

Behind her, Dahl struggled against the currents. The tide had peaked around the estimated time of the accident. The pair made it to the rock and sat side by side, shaking, for "I don't know how long," said Leak. "A few minutes." Mili, who had beat them to the rock, survived, but Petrie was gone.

The sun was beginning to set. Looking out over the water, Dahl could see no sign of his boat. The Randi Jo and everything in it had disappeared in a matter of minutes and he was seized with a sudden urge to do something. "He looked over at Joe Mace Island," Leak said. "It looked so close. It looked doable."

Dahl suggested that they swim to safety and Leak prepared to follow him into the water. Before she could get in, he stopped her. "'Don't get in,'" Leak remembered him telling her. "'You stay, I'll get help. You stay. You stay, stay, stay."

As she watched him swim away, she "felt like there was an anchor through my gut holding me to that rock." She called after him, telling him to swim hard.

Dahl set out just before sunset, around 3:30 p.m. Leak watched the current pull him farther and farther along the shore until he was obscured by the glare of the setting sun. She couldn't tell whether he reached the island or not.

Temperatures dropped swiftly, reaching a low of 27 degrees by 9 p.m., according to Wrangell weather data. She was grateful for her analog watch, which was still functioning after her swim. It chimed every hour on the hour.

She was grateful for her dog, who intimidated the sea lions circling the rock, trying to reclaim their territory. The rock was cold and rough and smelled strongly of sea lion urine. She was grateful for these discomforts, too, since they helped her stay awake. Wilderness first-responder training had taught her that falling asleep might mean succumbing to the cold.

"When you're living moment to moment, every little sound means something," Leak recalled. "When the tide changes, when the wind changes." Planes flew overhead and boats cruised by in the dark. She tried not to get discouraged when they passed. "That's what it's going to feel like to get rescued," she'd tell herself. "So we've got to hold on to that."

As the hours crawled by and the northern lights flickered overhead, she thought about food, about her family and about the surprising variety of expressive sounds a sea lion can make, from a hiss to a burp to a growl. She thought of her community in Wrangell, which had felt "more like home than Kansas ever did in the 30 years I was there." She thought about Dahl and what an amazing boyfriend he was.

She was on the rock for 24 hours.

On Monday afternoon around 2 p.m. on Nov. 28, Port Protection resident Breanna Miethe, her boyfriend, Oliver Johnson, and his friend Devon Harding headed home after a deer hunting trip. As their fishing vessel, the Dell II, passed West Rock, Johnson noticed a lone figure frantically waving at the boat. Harding took a skiff out to investigate and brought Leak aboard.

The hunting party heated up soup, cocoa and grilled cheese for Leak and started making radio calls to boats in the area. The Point Baker community rallied about 10 boats to assist in the search.

The state troopers were notified of the accident at 2:15 p.m. that day. The U.S. Coast Guard mobilized two helicopters and searched the area from 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., when "it was determined that the search efforts were saturated and exhausted," said Petty Officer Ian Grey. The Wrangell Fire Department also sent a plane to the area, but could not find any sign of Dahl. Almost two tide cycles had passed since his disappearance and weather conditions had worsened since Leak's night on the rock.

"U.S. Coast Guard models show that Dahl could not have survived this length of time given the current environment," trooper spokesperson Tim DeSpain told an Anchorage TV station. "He is presumed deceased."

Leak spent the days after the accident grieving Dahl alongside their friends and loved ones in the Point Baker community. "It's truly incredible how many lives he touched in his 27 years," she said. "I'm so grateful for the time I got with him. He was truly one of a kind."

 

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