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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

I tried to tell myself that my upset stomach and quivering nerves were the result of the bumpy, 90-minute flight north from Port Alsworth. Twice the passenger door had popped open when Glen dipped the wing on my side to point out herds of caribou. Twice I'd cinched the seat belt tighter and wondered what I'd gotten myself into.

Thirty minutes on the ground eliminated any lingering doubts-I was, indeed, in a pretty precarious situation. Wading through a maze of willow thickets and abandoned beaver dams, I spooked a moose, tripped over the bleached bones of a caribou, stumbled across two sets of day-old grizzly tracks, and discovered what looked like a shrunken wolf skull but was really the shriveled head of a massive king salmon. Animals owned this place, and I didn't know whether the dense cover was hiding them or me.

When I finally emerged onto open lakeshore, I sat down in front of my video camera to tape a diary entry. Relief, worry, and awe mingled with breathless excitement, but also with the morbid realization that I wasn't merely taping a diary entry. I'd brought the video camera on a lark, but now I was using it to create evidence. This is how my family would piece together what had happened.

Five days of hiking took me from Lake Telaquana south to Turquoise Lake, my route skirting a jumble of jagged peaks fronted by 8,020-foot Telaquana Mountain. One full morning and another afternoon were spent thrashing through brush bordering the lakes; the remainder involved relatively easy cross-country hiking. The weather, typical for Lake Clark in early June, wasn't terrific. Rain came intermittently in sheets and drizzles, interrupted by one warm, sunny day. Constant strong winds had me battening down my raingear and tent hatches. Snow fell almost daily above 3,500 feet; on day four, I trekked across 7 miles of largely featureless terrain in a snowstorm that reduced visibility to 100 yards or less.

Despite the weather, there was much to marvel at, from four-lane caribou highways worn 6 inches deep into the pebbly turf, to clusters of tiny yellow and pink flowers, to horizons cluttered with snow-clad giants and endless waves of rolling green tundra.

Known for its active volcanoes (Mt. Redoubt last erupted in 1990, spewing ash as far as Anchorage) and plentiful glaciers, the park offers a dramatic landscape that testifies to the powers of fire and ice. But despite the ferocity of the landscape, wildlife thrives here. Bears, wolves, Dall sheep, caribou, delicate nesting birds that seem out of place in this hardscrabble environment-there are more varieties of animals than you can shake a trekking pole at. All in all, Lake Clark is a classic hiking destination with everything you could want and no competition for campsites.

Unfortunately, I was too busy looking over my shoulder to pay attention to geological formations and pretty birds. I'd hiked solo before, traipsing all over New England in summer and winter, good weather and bad. I'd also spent considerable time in bear country out West. But this wasn't New Hampshire or Montana, and the range of real and perceived threats was almost paralyzing. There were grizzlies, snowfields, loose rock, stream crossings, and threatening weather. But most of all there was the isolation, and with it the knowledge that one careless step, one surprise attack, and the critters hereabouts would hear a huge sucking sound as the land swallowed me whole.

The result was that I spent the entire trip, every waking moment, on full alert. I watched where I stepped and gingerly tested the depth of each snowfield. I took circuitous detours around sketchy talus slopes. I shouted myself horse yelling "Hey, bear!" every 20 seconds. The nervous energy expended left me mentally and physically exhausted at the end of each day. Unable to relax, I counted the hours until the flight home.

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Reader Rating: -


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Aug 15, 2010

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

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.

Sep 25, 2008

a posthumous publishing might be more interesting

Aug 30, 2008

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

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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