What Are the Odds?
In mid-June of 1985, I stepped out of a bush plane and onto the beach of a remote lake in Katmai National Park in Alaska. My climbing partner, Doug, and I had left Anchorage early the previous morning in a passenger jet.
After a brief stop in King Salmon, we hired a floatplane to fly us to Brooks Lodge, where we obtained backcountry permits and attended a mandatory “bear-education” class.
The following day, we were flown into the start of our trek, leaving instructions with the bush pilot to pick us up in 10 days. From there, we hiked up the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes to the base of Mt. Novarupta.
By any measure, we were deep in the Alaskan wilderness.
Novarupta did not exist before 1912 when it was born from the largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century. We were intent on climbing up and into the caldera to see first-hand what unimaginable forces nature is truly capable of.
Upon arriving, we set up a base camp from which to explore the area. However, the fine weather we had enjoyed since disembarking the bush plane was deteriorating quickly.
When the winds picked up and the snow started, we thought it prudent to take shelter in an old Quonset hut. This architectural relic was said to be a former research station for the National Geographic Society.
The area was littered with pumice stones of all sizes. As light as a dry sponge, these rocks can become airborne in high winds, evidenced by the many dents in the rounded metal building.
There was no sense in getting pummeled by flying rocks when there was a vastly better shelter just a short hike away. An hour later, we were settling into the dark and cavernous Quonset hut.
The storm intensified throughout the day. If we opened the door, we risked the fierce winds ripping it right out of our hand.
The following day brought no relief from the storm, so we spent the day drinking tea and reading books left by former visitors. Candles provided only dim light to read by. Still, we had the accommodating eyes of much younger men some 36 years ago.
I found a paperback edition of short stories by Jack London tucked under an old tick mattress – a perfect accompaniment to our current situation.
Around midafternoon there was a loud knocking on the door. Doug and I stared at each other in utter disbelief. Who in the world could possibly be out there in that storm in the middle of the wilderness?
Doug shouted, “Come on in.”
Neither one of us knew what would walk through that door, other than the presumed likelihood of it being human. Brown bears, of which there were plenty, seldom knock before entering.
When the door opened, there stood the most bedraggled hiker either of us had ever seen. At first sight, the poor fellow appeared to be totally enveloped in ice. But after brushing off the heavy snow from his parka, backpack and boots, he let loose with a smile of relief that fairly lit up the gloomy hut.
Water was put on to boil for tea while introductions were made. It turned out that our hiker, Randy, was doing a solo traverse around Mt. Katmai and Novarupta.
Like us, Randy had noticed the notation about the Quonset hut on the Park Service map. But when the storm hit, he was more than a day’s walk away. He told us that he never even tried to erect his tent in the fierce winds of the previous evening but took shelter among some large rocks.
He said it was a miserably cold and long night.
We had the usual conversation of new acquaintances concerning where we hailed from. Randy was from St. Paul, Minnesota, Doug lived in Anchorage, and Ohio was my home at the time. We discussed in some detail what had brought us to this part of Alaska.
Randy made a point of the fact that he had a high-pressure job for a large corporation that didn’t allow for a lot of outdoor time. “So,” he said, “once a year, I do a big solo hike. Last year I did a three-week trek in the Wind River Range of Wyoming.”
As he spoke, he alternated his gaze between Doug and me, pausing on me a bit longer than Doug. The reason was revealed shortly when Randy asked me, “Do I know you from somewhere?”
He wore a fleece-lined aviator’s hat and sported a week-old beard, but he didn’t look familiar to me. I replied that I didn’t think so as I had never been to St. Paul.
“Darn, I feel like I know you,” he said. “Even your voice is familiar.”
I told Randy that there are a lot of homely guys out there with irritating voices.
“No,” he said smiling. “I just know that we have met somewhere along the way.”
We discussed the possibility of having met on some outdoor adventure. But it turned out that none of the potential locales matched.
So, the subject was dropped for the time being.
Particularly so because Randy pulled out a bottle of Russian Vodka from his pack, saying, “I picked this up in Sitka last week. Let’s break the seal.”
For the rest of that dreary day, not one more ounce of tea went into our tin cups. We now had something a hell of a lot better and more appropriate for the outside weather conditions.
We sipped the vodka and talked long into the night while the storm continued unabated.
Upon awakening the next morning, the first thing I noticed was the total absence of the howling wind – it was stone silent.
The storm was now over, and Randy would be heading down the valley while Doug and I would be climbing up the pass that leads to Novarupta.
In the middle of our parting meal of instant coffee and bland oatmeal, Randy suddenly broke into our vodka-induced silent breakfast. He said to me, “Do you teach a course on frostbite and hypothermia?”
I looked up from my coffee, surprised that this new acquaintance should know this piece of information about me, and replied, “I do. How do you know that?”
“I just realized how I know you. I attended one of your lectures in Chicago just a couple of weeks ago,” answered Randy.
Indeed, I had talked on the topic of cold stress in Des Plaines before driving up to Alaska to see Doug.
We all expressed amazement that of all the places on this planet where we could have ended up in the same room again, it happened to be this precise spot.
Randy and I, two relative strangers, had crossed paths twice in a relatively short period. And, beyond that, our second meeting occurred in a remote part of Alaska, in a raging blizzard, and in the only adequate shelter for many miles.
Additionally, Randy had attended my course on hypothermia and frostbite in preparation for going to Alaska, where summer snowstorms are not infrequent. And he encounters me, his instructor, in just such dangerous weather conditions.
What are the odds of that?
Perhaps, those odds are better than you may think.
We could have very easily construed these events as fate. Something beyond chance, something that suggested purpose. Humans seek patterns and meaning in unusual events; in fact, we are hard-wired to do so.
Yet, on the other hand, there are mathematical probability equations that suggest many such experiences are nothing more than chance.
In the next edition of For Your Consideration, we will examine some genuinely astonishing and well-documented coincidences. We’ll consider random events as well as those that suggest something beyond the laws of probability.
Allow me to leave you with the following question:
How many individuals would you have to cram into a high school gym to have a 50/50 chance that two of those people will share a birth date? The answer may surprise you.
And, if you have an astounding coincidence in your life, feel free to share it at my email address.
Until next week,