Just about every ATV owner in Kodiak has taken his vehicle on the narrow trail that extends from the American River near the Chiniak Highway to Saltery Cove.
Dale Stratton, owner of Can’t Get Enough ATV River Fishing, is one of the first to drive the Saltery trail in the spring when there, in most cases, is still a lot of snow on the road.
When the weather warms up, heavy rains can make the rivers impassable.
There have been times when Stratton and his clients had to turn around and go home because a sudden down-pour threatened to flood everything.
In some cases Stratton stayed overnight at a lodge because he didn’t want to risk ruining or losing his ATV while crossing a swollen stream or getting his client hurt.
Ironically Stratton’s most nightmarish trip had nothing to do with avalanches or rain storms.
It was a perfectly beautiful summer day. He had dropped off a couple at the river where the man fished and the woman photographed flowers.
At about 3 pm, when Stratton was on his way to pick them up, he came upon a lady, in a state of shock, sitting in the middle of the trail. Her husband and son were with her. As Stratton later learned, she had been riding double with her husband when he rolled his four-wheeler. She was in trauma.
Stratton and the son went to make a satellite phone call at a nearby lodge. The call didn’t go through, so they went to another lodge to get a better signal. Stratton successfully notified the Coast Guard about the accident. He was assured that a helicopter would be on its way.
He and the boy returned to the scene. Because the road was blocked, ATVs piled up on both sides of the woman.
As Stratton and others tended to the lady, someone shot off a flare to signal the Coast Guard chopper where to land. The flare ignited a brush fire.
Smoke rose 50 feet, Stratton said. People were able to extinguish the fire with water they hauled in boots and hip waders from a nearby creek.
Once the chopper landed, medics and volunteers, including Stratton, carried the victim to the aircraft.
By now it was about 4:20 in the afternoon. Stratton picked up his clients.
As they reached the pass they came upon a man whose girlfriend had gotten injured after going over the bank in her four-wheeler.
Once they were able to contact the Coast Guard for help, Stratton and his clients continued on their way. Upon reaching the American River they were hailed down by a young man whose riding partner had been seriously injured. A branch had been driven into his left arm after he had rammed his four-wheeler against a tree.
That was the third accident in one day.
“I’ve seen some serious motorcycle wrecks on the trail,” Stratton said.
Winter travelers on the Saltery trail deal with other challenges.
Back in the early 1980s, Daryl Horning and his colleagues at the Coast Guard Air Station took their land cruisers to go deer hunting at Saltery in early January. It was a bitterly cold winter.
Daryl and his friends got into Saltery without incident, but they faced all sorts of maladies on their way out.
Coming up the pass, they hit a road block. A truck, driven by a guy named Dennis (not his real name,) had slid off the road.
“The front end of his truck had the road pretty much blocked.”
One rig got past him, but as the second vehicle squeezed by, his door handle was torn off.
Two rigs pulled the truck out of there.
The drivers got through the pass okay, but by the time they reached the last creek, it had frozen because of plummeting temperatures.
“We spent all night trying to get through that creek,” Daryl said. “Every time you’d plow through it, you’d have all of this ice in front of you.”
It was so cold that the steering and brakes began to freeze. The drivers crawled beneath their vehicles and beat on the brake drums with a hatchet in order to get the ice off.
Because of the steepness of the hill, the rig was not able to gain enough momentum to reach the other side.
Looking for other ways to cross the stream, Daryl chained his high-lift jack to a tree. But the jack broke under pressure.
Dennis, who carried a three-wheeler in his truck, offered to drive to the nearby Rendezvous to get help.
He roused Sandy Munro, whose mother owned the restaurant, out of bed at three in the morning.
Sandy had been recuperating from gunshot wounds he had sustained just days before while confronting a gunman at the Village Bar.
Needless to say, when he showed up at the frozen creek in his truck, he didn’t have a smile on his face. But he successfully pulled the leader cruiser across the river.
“Then we pulled the rest through,” said Daryl. “We got back (to the Coast Guard base) just in time to change clothes and go to work.”
Perhaps Norm Sutliff had the best mode of transportation in getting to Saltery.
On a winter afternoon he rode a horse from his friend, Tom Felton’s ranch at Middle Bay, to the end of the Saltery Road to visit his friend, Ron Hurst.
As it began to get dark, Norm noticed that snow was falling in big flakes. He declined Ron’s offer to spend the night, got on his horse and headed up the trail.
Because of the darkness and the heavy snow, he had no idea where he was going. But the confident, sure-footed horse knew the way.
Sometime early that morning, the horse brought Norm to the Felton ranch where a dry barn and warm bed awaited them.