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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.

“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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