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.