I had taken a small plane with my husband out into the Alaskan bush to spend Thanksgiving with my parents, and my niece and nephew, who lived with them. Dad carved the bird while Mom passed the gravy and stuffing. Our plates full, we said the blessing. Then Dad told us to dig in and he’d tell us what he was most thankful for that year. Over the next few days he added to his story. I listened hard and committed it to memory. Before Dad died last year, I promised him his story would live on.
—Wendy Kleker, Trego, Montana
The peak of mount McKinley glowed pink as the late-morning sun struggled up behind it. Your typical Alaskan winter dawn didn’t break until well after 10:00 a.m. I’d been up and about for hours chopping wood and stoking the fire. But today I had to venture from the home front—we needed supplies from town. Twenty miles to the nearest paved road was too far to go in this bitter cold. I’d do some exploring and find a shortcut to the highway across Trappers Lake. The buzzing motor of my snowmobile propelled me over the frozen tundra and lake. Out here in the wilderness, cut off from telephones and close neighbors, a man gets used to going it alone. “God helps those who help themselves” had always been my motto. But what I meant was: “Take care of things yourself and you won’t need God’s help.”
Boy, did I get set straight.
I guided the snowmobile along the thick ice covering one of the smaller inlets that fed into Trappers Lake. Hey, there’s my shortcut. Before I had a chance to congratulate myself, the snowmobile jerked beneath me and the back end dipped down with a lurch. I grabbed the handlebars and turned just in time to see water slosh over the taillight. I’d hit a soft spot in the ice. A loud crack sounded on my left side. Then another on my right. I tried to get off the machine, but it was too late. The snowmobile dropped straight down, taking me with it. I wiggled off the seat into water so cold it hit me like a blow to the face. My lungs seemed to freeze up. I couldn’t breathe. Black water churned around me, rushing in my ears. I couldn’t see. I was underwater! I could no longer feel the snowmobile beneath me. It was probably already somewhere near the bottom, eight feet down. The current pulled at me. I couldn’t let it drag me away from the hole I’d fallen through. That was the only way out. Get to the surface! I kicked my legs hard, pumped my arms and gasped when my face hit the air. I dog-paddled for all I was worth. My gloved hands scrabbled at the jagged ice at the edge of the hole, but pieces snapped off under my weight. Down I went again, swallowed by the cold, icy water. My energy was waning.
Somehow I managed to get my face above water. I was on the downstream edge of the hole. The current had me in its grip. One more inch and I would be swept away from the hole, my only escape from the frozen trap that awaited. Bracing my elbows on the ice, I tried to heave my body out of the water. I didn’t have the strength. I couldn’t fight anymore. Pain shot up my arms. Down my legs. I was utterly helpless. There was nothing I could do to save myself.
I slipped into the water. God, I prayed as darkness swirled around me, please help me get out of this! Please.
Somebody grabbed me. Somebody strong. I felt myself being lifted up out of the water and laid face down on the ice. I crawled to the snowy bank and collapsed. I’d rest here for a while. But before I could close my eyes I heard an urgent whisper in my ear: “Get up! Go!”
God helps those who help themselves, I reminded myself. You have to try. I pressed myself up on my hands and knees, and a strange strength filled my muscles. I managed to stand and take a few shaky steps. I turned and scanned the barren terrain for my mysterious rescuer. I was totally alone. But something told me I could walk the two miles home in below-freezing weather, even in my wet clothes. After all, didn’t I have an angel looking out for me?
But that wasn’t the end of Dad’s story. The day after Thanksgiving, Dad and Jim, my husband, hiked down to the hole in the ice with some equipment to search for the snowmobile. “No need to trouble God with this,” Dad said. “We can handle it on our own.”
The hole had already frozen over, so Jim drilled through it. Dad lowered a long pole into several spots, expecting to hit the top of the machine. Nothing. “Just have to drill in different spots until we find it,” Jim said and set up the auger. They spent the afternoon searching, but came home empty-handed.
That night at dinner he asked us all to bow our heads over our turkey leftovers. “Lord, it looks like I can’t find the snowmobile on my own,” Dad said. “I’m trying to get used to asking for help.”
We were all taken aback, even the children. No one was used to hearing Dad admit defeat so easily. Little Doug, six, sat quietly for a moment, then lifted his head. “You’ll find the snowmobile tomorrow, Grandpa,” he announced.
“How do you know?” Jim asked with a laugh, skeptical after all those hours they’d spent hunting with no luck.
“I know because an angel told me so,” Doug said.
Early next morning Jim and Dad set out to find the sunken machine. “Let’s try farther downstream this time,” Jim said. They drilled hole after hole.
“Maybe that snowmobile’s gone for good,” Dad said as he pulled the pole out of the water once again. And yet he couldn’t dismiss his grandson’s prediction. He knew what an angel could do.
“I think . . .” Jim hesitated. “I think maybe I need to ask for God’s help.”
Dad’s eyebrows shot up. His son-in-law wanted to pray for help?
“I was sure we’d be able to find that snowmobile on our own,” he confessed. It might have been the cold, but Dad thought Jim’s cheeks looked a little pink. He didn’t find it any easier to admit needing help than Dad did.
Jim and Dad bowed their heads, and each said his own silent prayer. Then Jim looked up. “I know where to drill,” he said confidently. Dad followed him 20 yards downstream and let him drill where he wanted. Then Dad sank the pole into the water where it hit the snowmobile with a resounding thud. “I guess we can conclude that prayer makes all the difference,” Jim said.
Dad just nodded. He knew what prayer could do. But there were some lessons a man just had to learn for himself.