June 15, 2012

File under: Legendary Rowers

Meet my friend Pat Quesnel, the first person to row solo across the Pacific . . .

I was looking around for photos for a project using these terms: man and boat, man and row boat, small boat and man, arctic row boat, Faroes row boat, falling row boat, row boat tiny, row boat at sea, row boat ocean, rowing archive, rowing museum, Faroes metal boats tiny Ocean, skiff, skiff and man, high-walled skiff, and Faroes skiff. This photo turned up on ebay and I thought “Well, maybe. It’s a newspaper photo, rights should be reasonable,” and so I saved a copy in my project folder. I rejected the photo for the job but bothered to read the caption before I tossed it and, fuck a Roosevelt Elk, it’s my old friend Pat Quesnel from Kodiak, the first person to row solo across the Pacific. I have not contacted him in years but I still miss his company.

I knew Pat for a summer and a few weeks when he was working at Kodiak and Port Bailey, AK as an engine mechanic on a WWI-era salmon/halibut tender. He was three times larger and twenty plus years older than he is in this newspaper photo. I can’t remember how we met, probably moving fish around Port Bailey or on a flight to Kodiak, but we became instant friends and spent much of the summer together. Pat had awesome outdoor skills along the lines of: “Hey, look, those are wet bear paw prints”; “It’s not bad if you pass the whirlpools before dark”; “No, there’s no map but it’s toward the center of the second valley”; and “We can probably get past those rocks if we swim to shore in our survival suits. Try not drop the anchor line or we’ll lose the boat.” We hiked and boated around Kodiak together, talked non-stop, and took a few notable trips to find the grave sites of a couple of 18th-century Russian Orthodox monks on a small island near Afognak island.

When the fishing season was over that summer, Pat said, “Oh, hell, I’ve got a few days, I’ll just walk home.” Home in this case was 40 to 60 miles across land that no one tangles with in the summer. He showed up almost a week late. (No one was too worried but a bush pilot friend flew over his planned path just in case he had put out a distress signal.) When he did show up, he was skinnier, torn up by brush and frost burn/bite, and ready to drink beer. He apologized for being late by a week and went on to say that two days in, a couple of bears ran him up a tree and he lost his gear and food. He said, “Ah, that was all fine. I didn’t really need food. I just stayed in the tree a few days until the bears left. It was a little tricky–big guy, small tree, pissed bears, and no sleep. However, swimming across the leech-filled swampy areas almost killed me. That and no shoes. I lost those with that first group of bears. It did get kinda cold in the snowy areas without a coat. I ate a lot of lichen. Kinda good if you cook them but without fire, they are too crunchy.”

He talked about his epic rowing trips a few times. He said the secret to his success was beer fasting. “That’s one reason you want to row solo. It’s a weird thing to be drinking beer, just beer, for water and calories, and rowing until you sleep and then rowing and drinking beer. That’s better to do by yourself.”

He also mentioned whales met while rowing a few times: “I got used to whales. You know, there are still some whales outside of the major shipping routes. Whales sometimes follow you, sometimes just at the edge of your vision, for days. Whales circled the boat a lot and sometimes dived under me like they wanted to play. I talked to them. They seemed to respond, though I’m not sure the larger ones heard, or even saw, me. One time a whale followed me for a week. We used to sleep at the same time, like the whale would pull up his bed to my boat at night, maybe fifty feet away. Smelled bad. One night I woke up and noticed he was touching the boat very gently so I looked over the side and his eye was right there. He was expecting me; he didn’t flinch when I started talking to him. That eye was larger than my head and so we looked at each other all evening. I watched his eye looking me and the boat and he responded when I looked at him by moving his eye. We talked. It was strange, looking into one big eye for an evening but now I know that whales are intelligent creatures, watching us as much as we watch them. I read to him for a while. I chose the Bible because, well, I didn’t think Moby Dick would translate well.”

Pat donated the boat in the photo to the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, OR.

The caption reads: SXPO80602-8/6/72 San Francisco American to row across Pacific: Pat Quesnel, 23, Seattle, who hopes to be the first American to row across the Pacific from the mainland to Hawaii, stands in his 22-foot-long boat, “Hawaii Ki.” Quesnel originally set out from La Push, Wash., 6/18, on what he hoped would be a non-stop trip to Honolulu, but was forced to accept a tow into San Francisco when his rowing partner got an infected knee. He is now waiting to see if he can sign on another friend, currently trying to get on the Olympic rowing team. UPI (LOCALS OUT) jgd/X


  1. Sheila Ryan on June 15th, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    “I just stayed in the tree a few days until the bears left.”

  2. SC on June 15th, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    If you look at a satellite image on google maps of the area between Afognak and the town of Kodiak, you’ll see miles and miles of rock, swamp, mountains, and scrub brush. Pat said he was lucky to make it to the one tree in the area before the bears got him. He had to hit the bears in the nose a few times to keep them from biting his butt and legs. He also mentioned that as the days wore on, the tree started sagging under his weight. There was no way to tie himself in so he tried to sleep, while holding on, while the bears slept. He lost his bag and his coat a day or so on when the bears grabbed the straps. I can’t remember exactly how he lost his shoes. It was another bear story, something along the lines of “When the bears woke me up, I climbed up on the rocks without my boots and the bears ate my boots. I guess I should have worn them to sleep.”

    Going into bear territory with Pat was disturbing. He was too calm. More than a few times, almost under his breath, he would say some of the more upsetting words in English: “Hey, look, wet bear tracks.” Once, when he said that, we were standing in a tiny stream, surrounded by salmon, and unable to see over the grass in the area. When we made it up stream a bit, we turned around noted, oh, a dozen bears milling around the stream we just walked through. Pat said “Oh, don’t worry. We can walk back the same way we came. The bears don’t care.”

  3. SC on June 21st, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    Sheila, thank you for cleaning up. There are a few stray blumpgraphstakes in the body of the post but I’ll let those go.

    I’m of half a mind to look up Pat and see if he’d be interested in an interview. Apparently, he still lives outside of Portland.

    Pretty much every day that summer with Pat generated a story. “Hey, is that an abandoned paddle boat from one of the turn of the century mining camps?” “Look carefully straight down and you’ll see the shadow of the sunken ship as we pass over it.” And so on.

  4. Sheila Ryan on June 21st, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    SC, you must. Or ought.

    I had never heard of Pat but am glad I know of him now.

  5. Sheila Ryan on June 21st, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    I wish I’d stopped by the maritime museum on my day trip to Astoria with my Portland friend Geoff a couple of years ago.