Escape from Ransom Island

I t was one of those kisses that’re two parts kiss and one part dance; a moment’s hesitation of wavering hands looking for a good place to grab to allow for the still unfamiliar and ever-changing midriff that contained their child – and if he was anything like me, his midriff was growing too. The assembled crowd whooped and applauded, and the newlyweds beamed and kissed again.

I’d never been to a wedding on a helicopter pad before.

Several of the people had open liquor (and hey, when in Rome), and some were even smoking. Most wore rubber boots, including the very pregnant bride and the minister. A mongrel dog with one blue eye decided that he and I were soul mates and stuck his forehead to my leg and gazed desperately at me.

I was back on Porcher Island, at Platinum Member Vince Haller’s excellent fishing camp near the Alaskan Panhandle – The Oona River Retreat. We were here to shoot some test footage for Vince’s red-hot idea for a TV show; “Escape from Ransom Island”, and while the population of Porcher is about 10 people year-round, it’s very friendly, and we were invited to attend the wedding.

A few week’s previous,

Vince and his buddy Shannon were treating me to a nice steak on their way through Spruce Grove, and I used the occasion to give Vince his overdue Christmas present; a drawing of his boat The Active Pass.

“So what’s happening with your TV show?” Vince asked.

“Well, the network loves it. The sponsors love it. The sponsors don’t love the network, so it looks like we’re taking it elsewhere” I took a bitter draught of beverage.

“You ever watch that ‘Mantracker’ show?” Vince asked.

“Meh. It’s okay, but is he tracking the dudes or the 5 pc camera crew through the brush? It seems pretty fake to me.”

“Plus they don’t catch them…they just find him. Slick rides into a clearing and says ‘gotcha’. Well ya didn’t catch me! I’d shoot the sumbitch!” (Vince gets excited.)

“I got an idea for a show,”

Vince said, leaning in.

Wow did he ever! He went over it and we put our heads together and tightened up the idea.

“So? Whayaya think? Will your TV people go for it?” Vince asked.

“I’ll make the call, but they’re going to want to see some kind of footage. Can we get together out at Oona over the next little bit?”

“Hell ya!”

“I’ll be in Vancouver on the 15th, so I could fly up and we could do it then, if that works.” I offered.

“Let’s do the sumbitch!” Vince roared, clapping me on the back so hard I nearly fell out of my chair.

I called Rolfe, who’s the Product Integration chap who lines up the sponsors.

Rolfe’s an excellent bloke who has a demeanor that somehow combines ‘compassionate psychiatrist’ and ‘J. Jonah Jameson’.

“I have an idea for a show!” I said.

“Let’s stay focused on the one you’re already in” he said, reaching to hang up.

“Wait! This isn’t about me; I’m just in on the brainstorming.” Rolfe sighed and I could tell he was rubbing his eyes under his glasses. “Lay it on me. Quickly.”

“You’ve been kidnapped and taken to an island 60 miles of the coast of Alaska. It’s mistaken identity but you’ve been told that Mr. Big is coming to the island in 48 hrs and if the ransom isn’t paid, you’re to be eliminated…congratulations: You’ve got 48 hours to Escape From Ransom Island…”

“I’m listening…”

“It’s like a real-life video game! Contestants have to escape the island while being hunted by two-man tracking teams and there’re sentries posted around the island. You’ve got no food, no water and you have to deal with the heat, cold, wet, bugs, poison plants, and wildlife. If you manage to escape you win $100,000!”

“That sounds promising – I need footage. Wait – when you say ‘eliminate’…”

“We’re thinking paintball guns, or those wax bullets the military uses,” I said. “and, the island really exists.”

“Good! Get me some footage!” Rolfe ordered and hung up. In almost four years I don’t think I’ve ever had more than a 3-minute phone call with him.

But when I told The Colonel about the expedition, she freaked!

“So the third week in June you think you’re going to be out fishing and playing paintball? You said you’d be back from Vancouver on the 16th!”

She was livid. I could tell that she was livid because my knees shook and my palms were wet and I was having palpitations. She had her jaw stuck out sideways and her hands were on her hips and she was squinting. In a flash I got it…

“Awww, you’re worried that I won’t make it home for father’s day- that’s sweet! I don’t mind honey; you can take me out for dinner a day or so later, I’m okay with that.”

Then a low rumbling began and I noticed that I could see my breath. The floor began to shake, dishes rattled on the counter, cracks appeared in the drywall, my ears popped, and little bits of things started falling from the ceiling…

She spoke in a low measured tone.

“Father’s Day? Father’s Day!? I’m referring to the fact that you want to go fishing on my 40th birthday.”

Uh oh. I’ve done some boneheaded things in my life – I let my Grandma give me a perm in the 70’s, I forgot to pay my income taxes from 1992-94, and I once tried to make ham gravy – but this was a new high.

Space limitations and an in-house publication ban prevent me from detailing how I escaped with little more damage than ringing ears and singed hair, but suffice to say that I’m on the hook for a trip to Paris in the not-too-distant future.

Back up at Oona…

After the vows, we stepped across the dirt road to the 102-year-old schoolhouse for the reception, which was local venison and halibut, and it was very good. After the meal, everyone went back outside to stand around three roaring bonfires, complete with soundtrack delivered from someone’s truck stereo. As I’m not 40 anymore, and since I’d been up since 5 am to catch the flight up from Vancouver, I gave my congratulations and slid back to Vince’s, much to the chagrin of the dog.

We all thought it’d be rash not to fish for a day before we got to work shooting the video, so the next morning found us up so early that the ravens were still wiping sleep out of their eyes, and as we chugged around the end of the weir a mink popped out of the water with a small breakfast crab in its mouth.

We boated down to Kitkatla to pick up Marv, a friend of Vince’s whom he hires to guide at the camp. Marv is part of the Tsimshian First Nations, a tribe that used to war with the Haida and has been living at Kitkatla for over 12,000 years. Marv was the one who guided us through impenetrable fog last year by listening to the echoes of our engines coming off the mountains.

Vince, Corinne (Vince’s better half), Marv and I spent the calm, sunny day puttering around the channels between countless islands, cavorting with seals and porpoises, and fishing.

The salmon seemed to be on strike or something but the rock cod couldn’t wait to get caught.

After I’d brought up my third or fourth rock cod (they aren’t a real cod; they look like a bass mixed with a frog), Marv unhooked it and instead of releasing it, he stomped on its head and tossed it overboard.

“Um…okay…” I said.

“Wait…”

A whistling shriek pierced the air and a huge bald eagle angled towards us. The raptor glided inches off the surface, snatched the stomped cod without making a ripple and arced up towards the giant cedars crowding the shore.

We looked around and over a dozen bald eagles had come in and were waiting their turn.

“We’re gonna need some more fish…” I said.

Chubsey the Eagle going for one more…

By the end we’d caught so many cod that the eagles were getting too full to bother. In fact the last one was so stuffed he sort of plummeted out of the tree and barely managed to pull up. He ignored the fish and with a wide-eyed, gasping, pot-bellied panickyness managed to scramble to a low hanging branch.

On the way home we hauled and re-baited Vince’s crab pots for up-coming feasting and after dinner we got out the paintball guns, the masks, and protective gear and told Marv of our plan.

“It’s a reality show where a chap is taken hostage by other chaps and tries to escape the island. Everybody’s got paintball guns and if you’re shot, you’re out, and if the hostage escapes he wins a big cash prize!” I said.

Marv reached for a paint gun. “I want this one,” he said, and his voice had a certain…whatchacallit in it.

Vince said, “The guns work off of CO2 and shoot these 50-caliber balls of washable paint at about 300 feet per second. They sting when you get hit and they leave a bruise, but it’s damn fun!” He guffawed then yelped and leapt three feet straight up and landed with a large paint splotch on his stomach.

“Sorry…” Marv said.

It was a weird evening. Marv kept walking over to the gun, picking it up, cycling the action, and snapping it to his shoulder; I was surprised he didn’t end up taking it to bed. He kept looking at some imaginary spot on the horizon…obviously, he had something on his mind.

“You’d better watch yourself buddy!” Vince laughed to me, “It looks like Marv’s getting serious about this!”

Suddenly a paintball traveling at 300 fps took the cigarette neatly from Vince’s fingers in an explosion of sparks and sharp language.

“Sorry…” Marv said.

This led to another round of safety training, including keeping the gun unloaded, the action clear and using the barrel plug. Marv sat patiently through the talk then said “So don’t do this?” and fired a quick hip shot that took the Zippo lighter cleanly out of Vince’s hand.

“Sorry…” Marv said to Corinne about the paint splat on the window.

As we were prepping to leave next the morning, I stepped out of the lodge and saw Marv slap his gun under his arm to free his hands so he could glove them. I’d swear he didn’t touch the trigger but the gun phutted and got Vince, who had been bent over putting on his boots and was now bellowing and tippy-toeing in the butt-tucked-in manner of fellas who’ve been shot precisely in the center of the right arse cheek.

“Sorry…” Marv said.

We drove out into the woods and the first scene called for Vince and Marv to track me through the forest and they went down the trail while Corinne and I set up the camera. The stillness was cut by a slight thup, a smart “whap” a hoarse “Ouch!” and a deadpan “Sorry…”

When we took a break Vince stepped away to answer nature’s call. As we chatted, Marv casually slung his rifle over his shoulder and a phut sputtered from the barrel and a paintball arced up and into the overhead foliage. A second later a thunk sounded followed by a string of language that was vaguely biblical in its tone and Vince came down the trail with yellow paint spatter running down his mask.

“Sorry…”

Vince pulled me aside. His brow was wet and his eyes were feverish. “Look buddy, I wouldn’t give Marv any kind of opportunity; he’ll plug you at the firs-whap- Youch!”

“Sorry…”

Vince had a point; Marv was turning out to be a menace. Several of the scenes were of me being pinned down under heavy gunfire, and in light of how Vince’s day was shaping up I was a little worried … but Marv hardly shot me at all.

On a high stream bank, I broke through a carpet of moss into a hole that’d eroded beneath the roots of a huge cedar. I fell through blackness to land sprawling on a tangle of ancient roots and rock in a moss-covered hole over 10 feet deep – I half expected to see the Cheshire Cat. Nothing broken, just an unending stream of pulls, bruises, scrapes, contusions, and curses.

“Hey! Whatcha doin’ down there?” Vince laughed. Then Marv shot him.

“Sorry…”

Next we did a few scenes at the dock and Vince was beginning to show the strain; he’d developed a tremor and an eye twitch, and it’s easy to see why. Marv laid his gun across the truck’s hood, and when Vince stepped around front the gun barked and caught Vince right on the funny bone, which caused him to drop his own gun, which promptly let him have another one point-blank in the fleshy bit of the inner thigh.

Vince roared and danced a few steps. Marv said “Sorry…”

Back at the lodge we gorged on steaks and crabs and limped out to the hot tub for a soak. It took Vince a few false starts to remove his shirt and his back looked like toad skin with painful blacky-purpley spots. We all “hoo-ed” and “haa-ed” into the hot tub and began to drink far more beer than was prudent.

Vince, Owen, and the fiend Marv

I can’t understand why Vince – who epitomizes ‘two-fisted oilman’ and while golden-hearted also has a volcanic temper – didn’t come unglued and go completely ape-poopy on Marv. It wasn’t like getting shot all day didn’t bother him; I thought he was going to have a stroke at the dock, but he didn’t snap a single piece off of Marv…maybe he took a course…

Filming went extremely well, considering none of us knew what the hell we were doing.

It’s also a lot more work than you’d think. We only had one camera so we had to shoot things several times, and vaulting over fallen logs and sprinting down a dock under a hail of gunfire left me pooped and occasionally looking like a gorilla with an inner ear infection. It didn’t help that the only coveralls that fit me in the torso had the crotch hanging down almost to my knees, making running twice as difficult.

Owen taking a pop at Vince

The next day I caught the water taxi back to Prince Rupert, a prop plane to Vancouver and the Delta where the Flex was stabled. A 14-hour drive back over the Rockies found me back home for Father’s Day.

Will anything ever come out of this footage? Not bloody likely, It’s been several years and not a peep, but it was a helluva lotta fun!

Dig the footage below!

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Owen with John Rich from Lonestar and Big & Rich

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