Nicola here, talking about the unexpected delights of being stranded in a remote community. It’s a familiar and popular trope in books, whether it’s being marooned in the snow with a handsome hero or, in crime novels, stuck in an eerie house with a bunch of suspects, but I’ve always wondered what it would really be like to be stranded somewhere. When I was a small child, we went on a family trip to the Lake District at Christmas time and did get stuck in the snow. We all ended up rattling around in an empty hotel – they opened it up specially for us – and it felt like a great adventure to me but then I didn’t have to work out the logistics of how we were going to get home! I suspect that Wench readers in countries with more extreme weather than the UK are used to that sort of thing!
Last month, on our holiday in Alaska, we got stranded again. Our trip was heavily dependent on
the Alaska Marine Highway, the ferry system that takes you all the way along the coast. We started out in Juneau on the MV Columbia and travelled up to Skagway, Sitka and various other intriguing ports along the coast. It was fabulous – along with admiring the stunning scenery we met and chatted to some very interesting people; locals who used the ferry system for their work, holiday-makers like us, a big family on their way to a wedding, lots of other very interesting people doing very interesting things. We disembarked on Wrangell Island to stay for 5 days with the plan of hopping back on another ferry after that to take us down to Prince Rupert in BC.
However, we’d been only a day in Wrangell when we heard that the ferries were on strike. There was no way we were going to be able to get the ferry out of Wrangell, which, of course, had implications for all of the rest of our trip. We weren’t the only ones by any means. There were stories of towns along the coast where they were putting stranded travellers up in school and church halls because there wasn’t enough accommodation for everyone. Alaska Airways put on a special flight to help a stranded school party get home. We hoped that the wedding guests we’d met along the way had all made it in time for the ceremony even if they couldn’t get home afterwards! For all these villages and towns along the coast, especially those with no road access, the ferry is literally a lifeline, and necessary for food supplies to be delivered and businesses to run and all sorts of other communications.
We were very lucky. We were staying in a lovely float house on the harbour and the owner very kindly told us we could stay as long as we needed. Our neighbours, living on the other boats, generously shared their freshly-caught prawns with us so there was no danger of us starving! The shops and museum in Wrangell provided plenty of things to do and we got to know people far better than we would have done if we’d just been passing through. Meanwhile we tried to find some options that would enable us to stick to our itinerary as best we could. The scheduled flights were all fully booked as there was only one a day and they went in the wrong direction; we realised it would take us four more flights to get back to where we were supposed to be! We couldn’t drive since we were on an island… There weren’t any other boats going south to Prince Rupert. Then one of our new friends came up with a suggestion: The local air charter company could squeeze us in to their schedule as a favour if we were prepared to be flexible in terms of when we could go.
As the ferry company had very kindly refunded us our costs, chartering a light aircraft was possible but then we hit the next problem. The weather was awful and a small plane couldn’t fly in it. We’d have to wait, which didn’t help my “nervous flyer” stress! Finally a clear day arrived. We chartered our very own aeroplane complete with standard-issue hero-style pilot to take us to Prince Rupert. Once I’d got over my nerves I almost enjoyed it. The views were amazing and there was a lot less queuing than on a scheduled flight but for lots of reasons I can’t see it becoming a regular thing!
I guess the lessons we learned from a real-life stranded situation was how friendly, helpful and kind people were and also how interesting it was to have time to get to know a place better than we might have done on a shorter visit. These days, with improved communication links it’s a lot more unlikely people are going to be castaway on an island for years, or stranded in a remote wilderness for months at a time although it is still possible.
In the past it was often poor weather that would maroon our ancestors somewhere isolated. Fog as well as snow was a particular hazard. As early as the 13th century, the government records show concerns over air pollution in London from the burning of sea coal and by the mid 17th century the combination of natural mist and fog in the Thames Valley plus the industrial smoke had given rise to the term “London Particular.” In the Regency the term “pea soup” was coined to describe “a fog as thick and as yellow as the pea-soup of the eating house.” In December 1813 the Prince Regent set out from Hatfield House to visit the Marquis of Salisbury but the fog was too thick for him to proceed. One of his outriders fell in a ditch and he was obliged to turn back. Meanwhile, the Maidenhead coach overturned in the fog and various other carriages drove off the road, ending up down alleyways and in gardens. Coachmen ended up leading their horses.
Have you ever been stranded anywhere, and if so how did you cope? Is it a theme you enjoy reading about in a book?