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But we’re so close. That’s what I thought as the frigid water knocked me off balance, and I—along with my 60-pound pack—fell fully into the McKinley River. Behind me, my two hiking partners struggled to stay on their feet as well. My next thought—after I surfaced, gasping, and began retreating back to shore—was, Thank god I remembered to close my drybag. In big wilderness, you take comfort wherever you can get it.
I came to the Alaska Range for a three-week trek thinking I knew everything about the wild. Years spent backpacking in the Northeast and honing my mountaineering skills in the Cascades had built up my confidence. And so far, everything had gone to plan. I never strayed from my gear checks, reinforced each morning with the same ritual: rolling the top of my Sea to Summit Lightweight Dry Sacks three times to seal my clothes, sleeping bag, and electronics in a watertight embrace.
Now, with the impassable McKinley River standing between us and the final day’s hike to civilization, we were stuck. My confidence at the outset of our trip now felt like overconfidence. We were low on food and exhausted after three weeks of rough, off-trail hiking. And, with night approaching, we were something even worse: cold and wet.
Huddled on a gravel embankment under gray skies, surrounded by braids of water, we regrouped. Thankfully, we’d prepared our gear for this: We unrolled the sacks and got out our dry sleeping bags and slipped on dry parkas, then pulled out dry maps to find another way out.
It took us two days to reroute and navigate our way across the river. I emerged a bit hungry and with a recalibrated sense of confidence, but also with a valuable new outlook on adventuring in the wilderness: Sometimes nature lets the door hit you on the way out, and the difference between a good story and a dangerous accident can be as simple as three rolls of a drybag.