Reflecting on more than 50 years of tromping around Alaska, I almost find it easier to note trips in which things went well. I can’t claim that any of the following experiences were life threatening, but as we know, little outdoor mistakes can compound into much bigger problems. Some of the cited incidents might have caused serious injury. Others simply resulted in considerable discomfort.
1. A bold retreat
It was 9 p.m. when I finally summited 7,522-foot Bold Peak in the Chugach Mountains with Dieter, my young standard poodle. June offers plenty of daylight, and my plan was to descend to a sheltered alpine meadow where I’d set up a bivouac camp. But after 10.5 miles of running behind a bicycle on a hot day, two miles of hiking a rugged trail to the base of the mountain, and a strenuous, 6,000-foot ascent over four more miles, my dog was done. He wasn’t going anywhere.
I held my feeble pup close on a short rope leash and slowly coaxed him down the mountain. Near midnight, after painful hours descending 3,000 feet through steep scree slides and rock talus, we both collapsed at the bivouac camp and fell quickly asleep.
The next morning, it took me only a minute to realize Dieter didn’t want to move. But I coaxed him up, and after four hours, creeping slowly down a rock-strewn gully, we reached the East Fork Trail. From there I relay-carried 40-pound Dieter and my gear two miles out to the main Eklutna Lakeside trail, still miles from our car.
We flagged down a four-wheeler rider who drove back to the trailhead to summon help from the Chugach Park ranger. I later told the ranger that I felt bad putting a dog through that terrible experience. He noted that it wasn’t uncommon. “People run dogs behind bicycles and four wheelers for miles and miles and exhaust them. It probably wasn’t the climb that did in your dog. It was the long jog behind the bike.”
2. Three little pigs
We’ve heard the childhood story, but I experienced a version of it. Three of us were goat-hunting on the Kenai Peninsula. While my friend and I luxuriated in eating a sumptuous dinner of spaghetti that included wine, the other team member erected a rock wall around his tent.
About 2 a.m., with a screaming wind flattening the tent to our faces, my friend and I forced our way outside to better secure the ropes. I glanced over at the “smart little pig’s” tent that was encircled by four-foot-high rock walls. Apparently, he was sleeping blissfully. The next morning, he surveyed our battered tent and asked in earnest: “Did you guys have some kind of problem last night?”
3. Soup is not enough
In 1963 at 18 years old, I led an older, out-of-state friend on a sheep hunt in the Chugach Mountains. I’d climbed mountains before, but had absolutely no experience hunting sheep. All I could remember was my father’s advice: “Go high and hunt them from above.”
I found a gradual rockslide that would lead us to a high ridge, where we made a camp. It was late September, and it rained every day we were there. With only a tarp for shelter and down sleeping bags that immediately became soggy, we were continuously cold and wet. Our only fare was powdered soup and pilot bread. On the third day, we missed a full-curl ram and retreated from the mountain, empty handed, starving, and dead tired.
On subsequent outings, I was sure to carry more substantial food, better rain gear, and an all-season tent.
4. Know your snow
My goal on a late-winter day was to build a snow shelter on the side of Gunsight Mountain in the Talkeetna Mountains.
I arrived at my chosen site about 1 p.m. and spent two hours digging the shelter, the temperature hovering at 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Satisfied with the construction, I went skiing to let it harden. I returned around 5 p.m., ate dinner, and burrowed in. But I immediately realized it wasn’t big enough. I kept scraping the ceiling and knocking snow into my face. If I turned on my side, my shoulder would knock down more snow. About 7 p.m., the roof collapsed, and I wallowed frantically in cold snow in the dark, mumbling expletives.
I turned on my headlamp. As I began packing up in defeat, a new plan was already afoot. I had a cabin about 120 miles away near the small town of Talkeetna…
By 1 a.m., I was snuggled into a warm sleeping bag inside my cabin, a roaring pot-bellied wood stove bouncing shadows across the ceiling.
Thinking on my mistakes, I realized I hadn’t built the shelter roof thick enough, based on the temperature and dryness of the snow. Secondly, I hadn’t allowed it to set up long enough. Lastly, I should have made it bigger. In later years, I would opt for a tent, and even better, the comfort of a cabin.
5. Up is easier than down
I’m sure many hikers have made this miscalculation at one time or another. Climbing up a steep section of a mountain is most often much easier and safer than the descent. After several scary situations, my rule became: “Don’t climb up what you don’t think you can climb down.”
6. Little things mean a lot
On camp stoves that use a propane canister, there are different fittings: some have threads and others don’t. On one campout I was really looking forward to a hot meal and coffee when I discovered I had the wrong gas canister.
I won’t use the brand name, but some micro-spikes constructed with rubber are very sensitive to heat, i.e. campfires. Don’t place your feet too close to a fire—the rubber will break. My climbing buddy made a workable repair for himself with carabiners, while I nudged myself down the mountain with only one intact micro-spike.
Adding to my outdoor blunders: forgetting crucial gear like mosquito repellent, toilet paper, sunblock, and bear counter-assault spray;
bringing a headlamp with low batteries;
not wearing gaiters that prevent snow from melting and running down into boots and nearly freezing my feet;
not checking tent poles before heading out and once in the field, learning a critical one is broken.
12. A stick is not a fork
On a camping trip with my two kids, I forgot eating utensils. After we got home, I overheard my daughter tell her mom: “Dad made us eat with sticks.”
13. Skis on ice
On Caribou Creek, accessible from the Glenn Highway 120 miles northeast of Anchorage, the wind seems to consistently scour away the snow, revealing ice. It’s smooth and wind-polished and devilishly defies human verticality.
On this trip we didn’t have micro-spikes, so when we removed our skis, we couldn’t stand. At one point, as I sprawled out on the ice and frantically flailed my arms, my friend held out a ski pole and pulled me to safety from his firm position on a thin section of snow.
So now, one of my rules of thumb is to take micro-spikes everywhere, summer or winter.
I’m not as outdoor savvy as some of this magazine’s contributors. But through trial and error over the years, I’ve learned that with preparation and proper gear, knowledge of the chosen area, common sense, and a good understanding of one’s capabilities, untold adventures await in Alaska’s great outdoors.
And remember. If you have kids, they might be more inclined to go camping with you if you bring along forks and spoons.