A Self-Rescue at Roque Bluffs
By David Van Wie
Roque Bluffs State Park is rugged country, with an unusual sand beach, bedrock outcrops showing glacial scouring, and many small islands in the shallow bay. As a professional geologist, Todd Coffin found the remote terrain around the park to be fascinating and beautiful. He was staying at a rented house near the park while working on a job assignment further down the coast in the Town of Cutler. On a lovely May evening a few years ago, he decided to enjoy the fresh air and solitude with an easy training run along a loop of woods roads, beach/shore, and paved roads through the Park back to his house.
Todd grew up in Bath and has enjoyed a long successful running career with later stints coaching cross country and track & field, first at University of Southern Maine and then at his alma mater, Colby College. A past national champion in the steeplechase event, Todd Coffin was more than comfortable jumping over barriers and splashing through puddles. Few people are more sure-footed while running along at a good clip. Todd- an elite competitor- knew success comes only with the ability to push through pain, as he did while earning a 47th place finish in the Boston Marathon.
Todd exited the woods, scrambled down to the shore, and ran along the water’s edge enjoying the variety of textures under foot: cobbles, sand, seaweed and rocky outcrops. He slowed several times to marvel at the view and peacefulness. In the distance, Libby Island Light guarded Englishman Bay and Machias Bay, warning mariners of the dangers of the Bold Coast. But it did nothing to warn Todd of the danger that lay just ahead.
A Traumatic Moment
He was about two-thirds of the way back to the Park when he scurried across a patch of seaweed-covered rocks, then on to a moderately sloping outcrop of coarsely fractured ledge.
As Todd tells it, he had only managed a few strides along the ledge when “I slipped and felt a strange tug at my ankle. I braced for the fall with my hands, while twisting to free my right foot which had jammed into a narrow crevasse. My stomach turned when I looked down to see my foot pointed unnaturally 90 degrees to the right. I felt like I was looking at someone else’s foot dangling loosely. My leg above shook uncontrollably from the shock.”
Instinctively, he reached down to wrench the foot back into its normal position. His ankle immediately ballooned to twice its normal size.
This Is Not Good
“This is not good,” Todd thought, certain his ankle was broken. He was still a half mile from the State Park and two or three miles from his rented house. It was growing dark and no one else was in sight so he decided he had to keep himself moving toward the Park, hoping to find help soon.
With a swarm of mosquitos keeping him company, Todd hopped to the woods edge to find a stick for support, then hobbled in the direction of the park. Seeing a clearing ahead, he was hopeful he had found a house, but in a few more steps realized it was just an opening to the bay on the other side of a peninsula.
“I saw that I had to navigate down a steep 15-foot drop from the woods’ edge,” he told me. “I prayed the tiny fir trees would hold as I lowered myself down the bank. Fortunately, I managed the descent with only a few scrapes and a gallon of nervous sweat.”
Once he was back on the shore, Todd spotted a partially secluded cottage across a small tidal inlet a quarter mile across. Three lobster boats were moored there, and three skiffs were tied out closer to shore across the inlet. He started wading toward the skiffs, but the cold, deepening water sent him quickly back to shore.
Todd tried calling for help, but his voice was lost in the wind. There were no boat lights or house lights in sight, save for some cottages more than a mile across the bay. He decided quickly that his only option was, in fact, to swim to the skiffs.
Taking A Chance
“I hopped deeper and deeper until the cold water began to take my breath away, then lunged forward and swam as hard as I could, never looking back. I thought that if I went into shock, cramped up, or just plain got tired, I’d be a goner. As I swam I imagined the headlines: Runner Found Washed Up on Roque Bluff Beach.”
With the competitive force that pushed him over Boston’s Heartbreak Hill in the Marathon, Todd made it to the first of the three skiffs. He pulled himself painfully into the boat and flopped on to the wooden seat, foot throbbing, heart pounding, and wishing he were home with his family. After ten minutes of fumbling with numb fingers, he managed to untie the knot on the mooring, only to find that the pull cord on the motor wouldn’t budge.
He paddled over to the second skiff only to find another impossible knotted mess worse than the first. So on to skiff number three. He was relieved when he quickly untied that knot and was even more encouraged when the outboard started up. “Sorry to steal your boat!” he said to nobody, then turned toward the beach as the sun disappeared over the horizon.
Headed For Home
It was nearly dark, and somehow Todd found the shorefront house where he was staying. He hobbled carefully across the rocks and seaweed and pulled the boat up as high as he could manage on one leg.
“I barely remember climbing the steep wooden stairs from the rocky beach, but I do vividly recall stumbling into the living room, making straight for the phone, and the tears running down my cheek when I heard my wife Lorena’s voice answer ‘Hello?’”
An ambulance took Todd to the Machias hospital where they stabilized his ankle with a temporary splint. Lorena picked him up the next day, and he had surgery the next week to install a plate in his leg. After a long recovery, he eventually made it back to running, still faster than almost everyone his age and many who are years younger.
Todd’s experience in Roque Bluff State Park was frightening. He is lucky he found a way out, despite the risk of swimming in the cold water of the bay. His story is a reminder of the misfortune that lurks just around the corner during any outdoor activity, whether it is hunting, hiking, biking or fishing.
If venturing out alone, always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back. That simple rule can save much heartache and agony, and possibly your life.
Many thanks to Todd Coffin for sharing his story. This article reprinted from The Maine Sportsman, Danger In The Outdoors, March 2016 © 2016