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Backpacker Magazine – February 1999

Solo Hiking Alaska: Fear Walked With Me

A once-in-a-lifetime solo hike through Lake Clark National Park, where the midnight sun shines like candlelight on the mountains.

by: Jonathan Dorn


Last June I spent a week in Lake Clark National Park, backpacking across a breathtaking landscape of glacier-capped mountains, turquoise lakes, and caribou-nibbled tundra. Rarely have I felt so alive. Rarely have I been so miserable.

This is a story of fear and loneliness, and how I bit off more solitude, more wilderness, and more risk than I ultimately cared to chew.

It all started about three years ago when I was planning a trip to Denali National Park. A return trip, to be exact, because I had unfinished business there. Ten days of rain, snow, bushwhacking, and bears the previous summer had chased my wife and me from the park. Denali slapped us silly, and I wanted satisfaction. I wanted to see the mountain on a clear, cloudless day. I wanted blue skies instead of soggy ground. I wanted the picture-book Alaska I expected to find the first time.

But something else, something more powerful, was also driving me to return: I wanted the kind of wilderness experience that turns amateurs into experts, a wild, challenging, solo trip through some of the most remote land in the world. Like most hikers who've plied well-worn trails, I'd fantasized about leaving partners and passersby behind and reveling in utter solitude and total self-reliance. I'd read about the intrepid adventurers who single-handedly blazed trails to the ends of the Earth. Now it was my turn -- two weeks, alone, in untracked, bear-infested tundra. This would be my breakthrough adventure.

Three days before my scheduled departure I canceled the trip. It was a wise, rational decision, I told myself, made for all the right reasons. A 14-day solo hike was too ambitious, and the terrain required more advanced route-finding and survival skills than I possessed. Besides, the boss wanted me in the office, and my wife and two-month-old daughter needed me at home.

Truth be told, I chickened out. Increasingly vivid daydreams of grizzlies, twisted ankles, and route-finding mistakes tied my innards in knots. Then there was the prospect of spending too much time alone, which made me so nervous I couldn't concentrate on such simple tasks as washing dishes. Would I come back in a dozen gnawed pieces? Would I turn into a big bowl of Fruit Loops out there on the high tundra?

Relieved, and a bit ashamed, I sat at home, burped my daughter, and wondered when&3151;and if—I'd return to Alaska.

Standing on the gravel bar where I'd landed a half mile upstream of Lake Telaquana, the sheer stupidity of my situation became obvious. Behind me lay hundreds of miles of uninhabited, mountainous terrain. Before me spread the vast, one-false-step-and-you're-dead wilderness of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. I wanted to face the land unarmed, so I wasn't carrying a gun, bear spray, a radio, or signal flares. Only a pound of first-aid supplies, 12 pounds of food, and 45 pounds of camping gear stood between me and extinction.

A new job at Backpacker had given me the opportunity to return to Alaska, but with it came additional self-imposed pressure to earn my solo stripes. Now there was no turning back. My only link to civilization had already buzzed over the hills and wouldn't return for a week. Sitting tight on Lake Telaquana wasn't an option either, because my pick-up point lay several drainages and many miles of bushwhacking to the south.

Solitude suddenly seemed much more menacing than I'd imagined from my leather armchair back home. As far as I knew, there were no other backpackers in the park and preserve's 4 million total acres. The nearest humans were two Russian biologists studying shorebirds on a lake about 20 brushy miles away. I remembered what Glen Alsworth, my affable, 50-something bush pilot, had said: "In an emergency, you could hike over to their camp. They probably have a radio, and you could use it to raise the Park Service, if the weather's good." It had been rainy and overcast for weeks.




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READERS COMMENTS

john
Nov 22, 2012

great read,everyone gets lost in some way when doing things for the first time.then after a while youre no longer called dumbass.

Mark
Aug 15, 2012

How sad that a man who works for backpacker magazine is petrified of the outdoors. No wonder I'd cancelled by subscription 15 years ago.

brownspot
Nov 04, 2011

A comment on the crital comments: I love the article for its honesty and art. That's the point of such an article--someone sharing their life, flawed or not. Suppose you read a non-fictional novel on recovering from addiction. I would guess that you would slam the book down and yell, "drugs are stupid, don't you know that? I never did drugs! I'm better than this guy." I think you're missing the point. Its not an opportunity to share your superiority. Or at least, if you have something to teach the author, do so humbly and respectfully. I even agree with the comments that I am critizing, such as taking a gun. I just don't like the arrogance behind them.

The Reverend
Jun 07, 2011

Mr. Dorn chose to hike in bear and wolf infested habitat unarmed, then proceeds to whine and cry about how afraid he was. It's like going outside in the rain without a raincoat then complaining that you're getting wet. Survival is about being as prepared as possible and using your intelligence to make good decisions. The exhilaration of overcoming hardship is the reward for your courage and effort, not a validation of your manhood.

Wolfgang
Jun 02, 2011

@JoAnn: Alone and out on the wilderness IS indeed a test for manhood (or womanhood), it's a test to realize what is out there, how little you are and how to overcome obstacles, whether environmental or mental. It's a test.

@Tom: Fear IS rational, is what keeps you alive. Excess is what is irrational, excess of confidence, of fear...


That said, Jonathan, I've had my own opportunities of solo hiking (albeit, on different circumstances and places) Being from one of the largest cities in the world (20 million and counting) I seldom find myself alone, but I've felt that going out is such a great mind and body test that you need to experience many time through life. I love it and loved your story.

I agree with @Dewkyckhurst, don't overcook it, take a gun or something that will give you peace of mind with megafauna. You still have the risks of getting hurt by other means and have to sustain yourself for days, let the physical side be the test, not only the mental side of it.

Live Wild
Jun 02, 2011

Good article. As an ex wilderness ranger who's worked in multiple areas of the west for 10 years including Alaska, I would say that anyone who has actually spent some time in the wilds, off trail, in Alaska or even some of the more remote areas of the west and hasn't experienced some of the same fears you spoke of is either mentally unstable or carries too much testosterone and that will get him in trouble sooner or later.

Tom in Idaho
Jun 02, 2011

Thank you for a fine article. It's not only your experience in Alaska that is praiseworthy, but also your ability to articulate a fear that many have and few will admit. I enjoy hiking alone in remote wilderness because it lets me connect with the world in a way that's not possible for me when hiking with someone else. But a little fear creeps in from time to time. It's hard to have fun when you're afraid, but the fear is generally irrational and usually passes in a short time.

If I were you, I'd focus less on testing yourself and more on having a good time in the outdoors. Pack some bear spray and a PLB next time, as well as whatever else will give you a little peace of mind. Please accept this as a very humble suggestion only and not as criticism of any kind. Thanks again for a great read.

Aaron
Jun 02, 2011

Really enjoyed the article and brutal honesty therein. I also do a lot of solo hiking and have been in a few scenarios where the "what if" factor runs pretty high. That being said, those are usually the most gratifying trips I've had and allow me to be better prepared and resilient for future endeavors.

Jo Ann
Jun 02, 2011

I've tackled arctic and high-mountain areas where rescue was strictly do-it-yourself. We all vary in our tolerance for risk and isolation. The risk you faced was real and exaggerated by your failure to carry a firearm or bear spray. Do everything you can to manage the risk, including taking a partner if that makes you feel better. Then RELAX! Wilderness should not be used as a test of manhood. It's there to remind us of who and what we are.

ttnewton
Jan 11, 2011

Great article! Thanks! I was born & raised Alaskan, and solo trek often in the back country. I carry both a .44 Magnum AND bear spray, and am always alert. Can't imagine solo hiking unarmed.

Jake
Aug 15, 2010

Funny all of the negative comments. Jealousy perhaps? This was a great read...

Will
Jun 25, 2010

You don't sound like any near mentally capable to be venturing in Alaska let alone lake clark haha get with it. I wonder how you even slept with all those 5 year old jitters running wild.

mit
Sep 25, 2008

a posthumous publishing might be more interesting

paul
Aug 30, 2008

I fished lake telaquana back in 1974 the pike lake trout and grayling fishing was excellent

Dewyckhurst
Apr 21, 2008

Having grown up in Alaska, all I can say is, take it easy man. Sure Alaska is the biggest baddest land of them all, but trees are trees, snow is snow, bears are bears, and plenty of dumbasses get lost for weeks in parks in the 48 and are often found dead within miles of a highway or ranger station. Being in any wilderness setting presents the same threats anywhere you go. You just have to relax and enjoy what is in front of you instead of being afraid of what is behind you. I am just sorry to say that I cannot relate to the fear and tension in your article because it took place in the backyard I used to play in as a kid.

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