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

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.

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.

"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.

Expedition Planner:

Lake Clark National Park And Preserve

Trails: There are no designated trails, but long river drainages and miles of open tundra offer limitless opportunities to forge your own route. I hiked from Lake Telaquana to Turquoise Lake; many hikers follow the same route or a variant including nearby Twin Lakes, or Two Lakes. There's also the historic Telaquana Trail, an unmarked and brushy 50-mile route between Dena'ina Athabaskan village sites on Telaquana Lake and Lake Clark. Other areas to explore: Bonanza Hills and Gladiator Basin above Kontrashibuna Lake.

Season: Late May to September, with optimal hiking June and July. Early in the season you'll find snow cover at upper elevations. Pack warm clothes and good raingear because cool, rainy weather and high winds are common.

Walk Softly: Resist the urge to make a souvenir from one of the many caribou skeletons dotting the landscape. The bones are an important source of minerals for other animals.

Maps: USGS topos: Lake Clark and Lime Hills series. For a basic map and description of the Telaquana Trail, contact the park (see "Contacts," below).

Special hazards: Stream and river crossings are dangerous year-round because of fast, cold water; some crossings are impossible during spring melt. Bushwhacking is unavoidable and requires both practice and patience.

Contacts: For general information and brochures: Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, 4230 University Dr., Suite 311, Anchorage, AK 99508; (907) 271-3751. For up-to-date backcountry information, speak to rangers at the field office in Port Alsworth: (907) 781-2218.

-J. Dorn