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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


"We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Yeah, right. Ten to one that old FDR never heard a grizzly growling 20 feet away in dense brush. Or stared into a freshly excavated bear den after turning a blind corner in a one-way-out ravine. Or awoke to a chorus of wolves in a forest of 4-foot trees.

And he had several hundred of his best buddies standing close by when he waxed eloquent about fear. There are certain undeniable benefits to having a hiking partner, the least of which is the perception of safety in numbers. Fear, on a solo hike, can become inescapable and overwhelming. When you're with a buddy or two, you can carve up the fear, pass it around, and digest it in manageable slices.

Take away a partner and there's no one to share responsibility, administer first-aid, run for help, or take the point position when bushwhacking starts to eat at your nerves. Take away a partner and you wind up pretty damn lonely. From the get-go, I'd wished my wife had come along. We've hiked thousands of miles together; I've leaned on her, she's leaned on me, and so we've become a crack team. Without her beside me, I had less confidence, less fun.

Lonely, tired, and still cussing myself for bumbling onto that bear den, I descended to Turquoise Lake and my last night's camp just as the sun burst out of the clouds to paint the surrounding peaks. The psychological effect was spectacular: a glowing alpine amphitheater ringing a dreamy blue, glacier-fed lake, with avalanches tumbling down 1,000-foot chutes as sun-warmed snow let loose from high on the shoulders of Telaquana and her sister mountains.

With spirits lifted, I enjoyed my first leisurely meal of the trip and sat back to contemplate the lessons learned. First and foremost, I decided that solo travel in the Alaskan bush produces more anxiety than I can handle. In the Lower 48, I know that help is never too far away. But in Alaska, where rescue may be days or weeks away, I felt for the first time in my life that I was flirting too closely with taking a father away from my daughter, a husband away from my wife, and a son away from my parents. Maybe I'll outgrow my anxieties, but this time out, fear kept me from fully appreciating Lake Clark.

Ironically-this may be difficult to believe-fear is also the reason I'd consider repeating this trip. It put my system on alert like never before. Every step was wary and tentative, but also electric. In five years I'll probably need to try again, because the experience of living for a week on an emotional razor's edge purged my tanks and taught me a lot about who I am-and the kind of man I want to be.

My sun-splashed reverie didn't last long. Within 2 hours, strong winds whipped through the valley, blowing whitecaps across Turquoise Lake and making me wonder if my pilot could land on a 30-yard gravel bar between 40-mile-per-hour gusts.

Then the final ignominy. Around midnight, sensing a momentary lull in the howl, I hopped out of the tent to relieve some pressure that had nothing to do with anxiety. Standing atop a hillock with my back to the wind, I surveyed the magnificent, wind-carved landscape and started to think that I'd actually conquered the place, that next time I'd jump off the bush plane with less apprehension and a lot more confidence. Then a squirrely gust wrapped around me, blowing an unwelcome reminder back in my face that it's good to be humble in a place like Lake Clark.




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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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