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This episode contains graphic content that may not be suitable for all listeners.
A pair of hunters lose their way on the vast Alaskan tundra. Without shelter or food, they wander for six nights as their camouflage prevents them from catching the attention of rescuers.
Host: The following episode contains graphic content that might not be suitable for all listeners.
Some emergencies are apparent in an instant. A bone is broken, a person is unconscious, a storm is raging overhead. In those situations, we know that we need to find help and fast. But when dangerous events unravel slowly, that urgency might be lacking. You were sure just 10 minutes ago you were on the trail, so it can’t be that far, and you keep walking.
Your hiking partner is acting strange, but it might be the altitude or exhaustion. These events can seem like obvious foreshadowing in retrospect, but when you’re in the moment, they’re a lot trickier in real time. The danger, of course, is that what started out as an innocuous assumption that you can still get things back on track, can cascade until you find yourself in a situation that feels completely out of your control.
Today’s story is about one of those cascades. In this tale, our guest made a handful of mistakes. Mistakes that might seem like obvious missteps to listeners at home, but that just illustrates just how difficult it is to make sound decisions when you’re cold, hungry, and fearful for your life. It’s one of the weirdest things about backcountry survival. Precisely when you need sound judgment the most, the conditions and your brain conspire to cloud that judgment.
It might be easy to make the right call from the comfort of your home, but survival decisions don’t tend to arise when you’re well-rested and well-fed. They didn’t for today’s guest, but in the end, his determination and ingenuity saved his life.
Rob: I am 33 years old. I used to be in the military.
Host: This is Rob. Only, his name is not actually Rob. The names in this story have been changed to protect the identity of our storyteller.
Rob: I was stationed in Anchorage, Alaska, and I had a truck that I was in the process of selling, and I put it on the market. An outfitter reached out to me and said, “Hey, I’d love to buy the truck, and then I’ll give you a reduced price, but then I’ll give you a trip for two people to go and hunt trophy bull caribou way up north.” And I said, “Okay, that sounds—let’s do that. That sounds great.” I’ve been hunting with my family probably since I was six years old, so I’ve been hunting for quite a while at this point. We were super excited about it. We’ve hunted a lot of other game across the U.S. and in Alaska, black bear hunting, just a lot of different things, so we felt really confident about the trip.
Host: It was late August and the trip was supposed to be six nights and seven days. The outfitter would drop Rob and his friend off by bush plane with all of their gear and then return on the seventh day to pick them up.
Rob: My friend and I drove up the roughly 18 hours north, up through Anchorage and up through Hall Road and so we were about 50 miles shy of Dead Horse. Before we actually went to his camp, we went up to Dead Horse and checked out the whole place there. Not a lot to see. It’s pretty barren. We met with him and hopped in the plane, and then we flew 11 miles over to the east where he dropped us off on his float plane.
Host: Located on Alaska’s Northern Shore near the Arctic Ocean, the unincorporated community of Dead Horse and the surrounding area are remote.
Any infrastructure exists mainly to support nearby oiling operations with the occasional hunting outfitter. One of the northernmost communities in the U.S., Dead Horse sits above the Arctic Circle where the sun doesn’t set all summer, and even in August, temperatures rarely break 50 degrees. Herds of caribou and musk oxen are commonly found on the open tundra as well as the occasional grizzly and polar bear.
We set up camp there that night. We had put a little white flag outside of our tent because some people say that it can attract caribou. We’d never hunted caribou before. I was like, “Hey, let’s try that.” So we woke up the next morning, unzipped the tent, and sure enough we look over and there’s a really nice caribou about 300 yards away.
We feel like, “Well, hey, let’s try to get that one.” 300 yards isn’t a crazy far distance to shoot. We’re used to shooting in the flatlands pretty far. There was a lot of vegetation in the way, so we’re like, “You know what? Let’s get closer and get a better shot on this thing,” and stuff like that. I threw on some rain gear, I grabbed my rifle, my pistol, and then I had binoculars, and then my friend brought his pistol and his binoculars as well. We just throw on some quick rain gear, and then go ahead and try to walk closer toward the curb. We were sneaking up on it. We only planned on walking 150 yards from the tent.
That’s really not a big deal. It moved around a little bit and so I went ahead and I tried to shoot it. It just picked its head up and looked around and then went back to feeding. I was like, “What on earth is wrong with my gun?” And so I shot again, and I totally missed again. I look down at my gun, and I’m just frustrated. I jerked my gun down and looked at it, and I watched my whole scope just turn in its rings.
And for people that don’t know what that means, basically your gun is completely useless. That scope is no longer functioning whatsoever. It was a really great start to a seven-day hunting trip. It just meanders off, goes over a hill. We go over the hill to look and make sure that it’s safe, and it was totally fine.
It didn’t have any wounds or anything. We see another herd that’s probably about 800 yards away that my friend was like, “Hey, I’m gonna just go and try to sneak up on one of these and shoot those.” And I said, “Okay, sounds good. I’m gonna sit here and contemplate life now that my gun is completely useless.” I watched him go over there and I watched the herd stir, and the wind’s picking up pretty good.
At this point, I’m just watching him through my binoculars, and he flags me down. I go over there and he’s like, “Hey man, I set down my binoculars. Can you help me find them?” And one of the best ways to get lost is to stare at the ground and walk around in circles. That’s what we did looking for these binoculars. We look for a while and can’t really seem to find them anywhere. We’re like, “You know what? Let’s just go back for breakfast and then we’ll just get set up properly.” We proceed to head back to the tent, and the fog is starting to move in pretty well. We’re like, “Let’s hurry back to the tent.”
We look around and look around, and in hindsight everybody knows that you should just stay put until the weather clears so that you can get your bearings a little bit better when the fog lifts. We really felt that we had never walked really that far away from the tent. Probably no more than 500 yards, and it’s just a rolling landscape.
Host: While humans like to think we have a decent sense of direction, we’re actually pretty bad at finding our way without the help of landmarks. When there’s no visibility, people have difficulty judging straight ahead and a tendency to walk in circles instead of straight lines. This is why it’s best to stay put if you find yourself lost.
For probably the first couple hours, it was really maddening just because it’s right here. This is so ridiculous. I just wanna get back and just get the stuff set up and just get ready for the day and just go do this trip. We have a chance to hunt for two trophy bull caribou for each of us.
It was just gonna be a super awesome trip. Really a trip of a lifetime for both of us, so it was really frustrating that we couldn’t get started.
Host: The two hunters searched until they became exhausted and the realization that they were lost settled in. They hoped that the fog would break the next day and that they would find their way after they got some rest.
Rob: Then we found a cut bank along the side of a dry riverbed, so we slept in there and just shivered our way through the night trying to sleep there.
That was fairly worrisome just trying to figure out, there is a lot of miles that we could get lost in up here.
Host: On Alaska’s Northern Slope, towns are few and far between with millions of acres of tundra between human populations. Where communities do exist, infrastructure is sparse. While Dead Horse sat somewhere 11 miles away, if Rob and his friend wandered in the wrong direction, they could search for weeks and never see civilization again.
Rob: And the farther we go from the tent, the longer it’s gonna take for them to find us. I found out that I make a way better little spoon because my teeth chatter too loud, I’m told. Anyway, so we just went back and forth with that and tried to stay warm throughout the night and woke up the next morning.
It was probably that second day where we were just like, “Man, this is such a vast area that if we do keep walking, we can just end up in the middle of nowhere and just never ever be found.” Probably several hours where we’re like, “We should just sit here.” But then how far have we already walked from the tent, and how long is it before they’re gonna find us?
And then it’s like, well, the tent can’t be that far away. Fog was pretty heavy still, but we had probably visibility of about 200 yards or so. We would walk to the edge of the fog line without ever losing sight of each other. Then just really just trying to find our bright orange tent. It really shouldn’t be that hard to find. Back at our tent, I mean we have GPS, we have SAT phones, we have five different kinds of water purifiers just because we wanted to try different ones that we hadn’t tried before. We had two weeks worth of food, just all the stuff, and we never found it again, ever.
Host: Exasperated, the hunters gave up hope of finding their tent and turned their attention instead to finding their way out of the vast and unforgiving landscapes surrounding them.
They knew the outfitter’s cabin was a relatively straight shot, 11 miles west from where they started, so they decided to try and make it back to the outfitter for help.
Rob: And so we’re just, we get to the point we’re just taking a break and just kinda sitting there and pretty hungry at this point. Pretty thirsty.
There’s water everywhere. There’s little puddles and big ponds and stuff like that, but there’s also little white swimming things and we figured that was probably a really efficient way to get dehydrated. We just stayed away from that water for the time.
Host: While it’s true that contaminated water can make you sick, survival experts recommend drinking any water you can find if you’re in trouble.
Dehydration can be fatal in just a few days. Waterborne illnesses can take weeks to settle in. The immediate reward of fending off dehydration is usually worth the risk of illness later on.
Rob: We’re just kinda sitting there and looking around, and then my buddy points over and he is like, “Hey, look, check out that rainbow over there.”
I was like, “That’s not a rainbow. That’s really interesting.” It’s shaped like a big arch, like a rainbow, but there was no color in it. It was like a cloud, just this really solid cloud. I was like, that is so weird, but I don’t think that’s a rainbow. We didn’t have a lot else going on at the time, so we decided to go over and check it out.
Host: We can’t be exactly sure what Rob and his friends saw that day, but there are several meteorological explanations for what they saw. Both sun dogs and sun pillars are refractions and reflections of the sun’s light that occur when ice crystals in the air are present and the sun is low on the horizon.
Rob: And I was like, “Hey, do you think we should?” And he’s like, “Yeah, I think we should end.” For whatever reason we concluded, we decided to follow this thing.
Host: It’s worth saying that following any type of unknown natural phenomenon is unlikely to lead you to salvation when you’re lost in the backcountry. In fact, it’s likely to get you more lost, but cold and disoriented, Rob and his friend’s judgment was compromised by their circumstances.
Rob: Man, this reminds me of a story that I listened to a long time ago, the Bible story of the Israelites, when they actually followed this cloud pillar, which I just thought that was, I don’t know, the whole thing was really weird. I just felt like we should follow it.
We just felt like this thing would just take us west, which is pretty much what we needed to do. We figured in theory it should loosely be a pretty straight shot back to the outfitter’s cabin.
Host: The terrain that Rob and his friend would have to navigate back to the outfitter was primarily made up of tundra and muskeg.
Muskeg is a colloquial term for a peat bog. They’re dense wetlands that form in areas with high rainfall and poor drainage. Some muskegs can be deceptively deep and are filled with thick organic matter. Animals and hikers have drowned in muskeg after becoming stuck in the sediment, unable to make their way back through the vegetation-covered surface.
Rob: Just having to walk around a bunch of ponds, we came across a creek that we walked up and down as far as we could without thinking it was ridiculous and there’s just no end to it. It was probably about 10 feet wide, and so we eventually had to strip down and swim across. There’s still definitely wind, and it’s foggy and just very cold. Once we got out of the creek and put our clothes back on, it was just really cold.
You can’t really dry off super well, so that made our socks fairly damp and that made the insoles of our boots wet. They stayed wet for the rest of the trip.
Host: Even though it was summer, the temperature still hovered around freezing.
Rob: So we keep walking and we walk and across a lot of these lakes, vegetation pretty much grows across the entire face of the lake, and we didn’t really know that at the time.
You’re just walking across what you think is tundra, and then all of a sudden you’ll just see this ripple across the ground and then you’ll punch through. I punched through one time that was pretty frustrating. I went up to my armpits and then my friend spider webbed his way out on top of the vegetation and pulled me out.
I would hate to go all the way down through one of those. I would imagine that the sediment and the weeds are pretty thick and it would be pretty difficult to swim back out of. At that point I’m really wet.
Host: Rob and his friend followed the sun dog for the better part of the day. With no other plan or landmarks, they used the cloud to maintain their bearings, hoping they were heading west.
Rob: It started to dissipate and it probably went away in probably the course of 20, 30 minutes. Sure enough, when the sun came out, we’re like, “Wow, this is really great,” because the sun was pretty hard on our left. When you’re that far up, the sun doesn’t go above you, it goes around you.
We had it predominantly on our left, we felt really confident that we were heading pretty much perfectly west this entire time and such just totally felt like a God thing that he gave us, that pillar that we followed. We just try to keep the sun mostly on our left. After a while, we saw this little tiny silver flash of something.
We looked through my binoculars since we never found his again. We’re like, “Oh, hey, that’s the pump station,” or a pump station that we just knew that the silver spec was a sign of humans. We started walking toward that and we walked for quite a while longer. At that point there was a plane that flew overhead, probably like 300 feet.
He jumped up and down and waved our arms at him and he waved back just like any other bush pilot would. To what he thinks, they’re just hunters that are just being friendly that morning. After we realized that we were just hidden in plain sight, that was a bit unnerving because no one realized that we were in distress.
We just were like, “Let’s just head for that silver spec, and it seems like it’s roughly in the right direction that we want.”
Host: Rob knew the pump stations they were seeing were part of the Trans-Alaskan pipeline, which runs adjacent to the same hall road the outfitter’s cabin was located on. This was confirmation that they were heading in the right direction.
Rob: And so we’re following that, and then as we’re going along, we start to see these little red berries. My friend’s like, “Do you think we should try these?” And I was like, “No. That sounds like a terrible idea, right?” Red berries just seem like they wouldn’t be that great for you. Eventually he eats one, and he’s like, “Yeah, I’m just gonna try one.”
It didn’t seem to bother him at all. We hike for probably another half hour, and then he just really starts to eat these things.
Host: There are over 50 varieties of edible berries in Alaska, but there are poison varieties too, like the baneberry, which is very bitter and can cause cardiac arrest.
If you find yourself in a survival situation, humans can survive up to three weeks without food, so you should be extremely cautious before consuming any unidentified vegetation.
Rob: He’s like, “They’re great. They’re just fine.” I was like, “Man, this is crazy.” And so probably another two hours go by as we’re just still walking towards this spec. It was a small silver spec. It was very small. The sun just happened to catch it just right for a while. There were times when the clouds would come in place.
We couldn’t see the silver spec, but we just tried to look at other brush to help us keep our bearings. There were definitely long periods where we just were just walking. We would figure out what direction we were going and we’d just walk for a long time after we found that cloud. We definitely talked about our faith, talked about God, just talked about what was important to us and things like that because we did talk also about how bleak the situation could get. The farther we get away from our tent because we’re just in such a vast area and there are just countless miles up there of tundra that they could be looking for us in.
Host: For those of us who live in the Lower 48, it can be easy to forget just how massive Alaska is. The state’s missing persons rate roughly doubles the national average.
When there’s that much open land, it’s easy to disappear.
Rob: Then at a different point it would be like, favorite foods. It went from favorite foods to last meal, and it went from last meal to “when we get rescued, what is the first meal that we are having as soon as we get back to civilization?” which is horrible.
But that actually was each buying a box of 12 soft shell tacos from Taco Bell. We just kept walking and walking, and eventually I tried to throw one of the berries in my mouth. I split it in half with my teeth and put it behind my lip to see if it would tingle or whatever. Just like any, roughly speaking poisonous berry, if you could remember ever reading about, to see if it was poisonous or not.
And it tingled like crazy, so I was like, “Oh, this is terrible. We’re totally gonna get poisoned by these berries.” Nothing ever happened to those. I think I ended up eating two, but I didn’t really wanna risk it.
Host: As the sun began to dip, the pump station came more clearly into view and their spirits rose.
Rob: We’re like, “Man, this is awesome.” We start really diligently making our way toward it, and then all of a sudden we hit the river, and it was awesome. We knew we had made it at that point because the thing that separated the outfitter’s cabin from our side of the land where we were hunting is the Sag River.
Host: After two full days of wandering, the hunters had finally made it to a landmark. They recognized, they imagined they’d be headed home soon, warm and dry with a box of tacos.
Rob: We knew that we just needed to walk up along the river and we’d eventually find his trailer and we’d be good to go. When we first got to that river, we were so thankful to finally be there. The water seemed like it was rushing enough, we just drank up as much as we could. We just created these little offshoot pools so there wasn’t so much silt going into it, but we just drank up that water like crazy because it had been quite a long time since we had drank any water at that point. We started walking up the river, and we could see the little Alaskan flag and little American flag, and we’re like, “Okay, awesome. That’s his trailer.”
So we get to where we’re directly across the river from him, but it’s still probably 200 yards, maybe a little bit less between us and his cabin because the river’s braided quite a bit. My friend’s like, “All right dude, let’s just swim across.”
Host: But Rob hesitated, remembering a story his friend had told him about a pair of collegiate swimmers who had tried to cross the Sag and drowned. The Sag originates from the Brooks mountain range and flows into the Beaufort Sea. Even in summer, the water temperature can be as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit, making it potentially deadly to swim across.
Rob: And search and rescue only found one body. I guess the river’s just so cold that it just shunts all of your blood flow. I knew I wasn’t a collegiate swimmer, for one, and so we’re just like, “You should probably just be on this side, try to get their attention and have them come over and rescue us. Just fly across the river and just land in one of the hundreds of ponds on our side.” We just kinda waited until we saw him come out of the trailer with our binoculars, and then I fired off three shots with my pistol to try to signal him. He didn’t give any indication that he heard anything. He’s probably just deaf, so hopefully one of the guys that worked with him has a little better hearing.
Then over the course of the next few hours, the two other guys came out at different times. We fired off three shots with each of those. Luckily I had a Glock and it holds 15, and none of them made any indication that they heard us at all. There was no way for us to be able to get ahold of him. We didn’t have any way of trying to start a fire.
We tried doing a bow string thing with the hoodie, the string from my hoodie, and that really didn’t do much. There was a lot of damp wood, not really any way to get a spark. We tried using the binoculars to try to get some sunlight through those. There’s a protective coating on them, it turns out so that you don’t leave them in the dash of your truck and burn them to the ground, I guess.
So we’re just like, “Man, what should we do? We’re wearing camouflage.” We didn’t have any orange or anything like that. We didn’t have any of our signal mirrors. We didn’t have any way of signaling people. We had our camouflage pattern rain gear on, so we blended in really well with the surrounding, and so we didn’t, we couldn’t take it off because we would’ve just had gotten hypothermia, so we were right along the riverbank there. We took a bunch of rocks and brush and stuff and made a 6×8 foot SOS on the side of the bank.
Just these nice round, perfect letters, which we found out later were actually a terrible idea. You want to actually make the letters very blocky to be able to clearly from nature, for future reference. We just made a little makeshift shelter and some bushes alongside there and fell asleep for the night.
So we spent the night there. We woke up the next morning. We’re just figuring out, man, what are we gonna do to be able to get seen, get rescued.
Host: Feeling that they’d exhausted their options and trying to signal the outfitter, the hunters decided on another plan. They’d walk along the river toward the town of Dead Horse.
They knew it was 50 miles to true civilization, but that there was some cell signal outside of town. With a day or maybe two of walking, they’d be able to call for help.
Rob: The outfitter’s cabin was 50 yards from the road, from the Haul Road. We could see cars going up and down it throughout the entire day, semis and motorcycle riders and things like that. It was a really weird feeling being lost so close to everyone. Like, everyone was going about their lives, and yet you’re just completely stranded and it messes with your head a little bit after a point. Throughout those past couple days, we had probably had four or five planes that flew over us, just bush planes looking for game to hunt. Every time they would just wave back, or they would just not notice us at all, whatever the case was. We were trying to think even if they do find us and they’re flying right over us, they still might not see us. If they’re working a grid and they know they already flew over this area and didn’t see us, they’re probably not gonna come back to this spot. That’s another thing that caused us to continue to just walk so that we would walk into a new grid area. It was all just complete guesswork.
We had no idea. We were just trying to do what we could. We decided to pack up all of our stuff that was on our back. We just started making our way headed north to Dead Horse. We get about probably about 15 miles north. It’s funny because we can actually just read the road markers. Next to us because we can see them clearly on the roadway there.
We saw this big hill, so we peeled off back to the east a little bit to see what we could see, and then sure enough, the river cut away from the Haul Road, and it dumped out into the ocean before it would’ve ever gotten us close enough to be able to get to the Dead Horse signal range. We just slept there through the night and woke up.
Pretty hungry, really hungry at that point. We hadn’t seen any berries since that, I guess second day that we were walking around. We were just praying about it and just being like, “God, we really could use something to eat.”
Host: Rob and his friend had now been lost and wandering countless miles over rough terrain for four days.
Rob: Our insoles just still had not dried out the entire time, and so we tried to wring them out and when the sun would come out, we’d pull them out and try to set them on logs to try to dry them out a little bit, but they never got dry. Our feet were starting to get in pretty rough shape at this point.
The skin was starting to separate and there was just a pink film. They were, yeah, just in rough shape. It really didn’t feel great.
Host: Having exhausted all other options. The two decided they had no choice but to return to their post across from the outfitter and hope they could get their attention by another means.
Robs: We started to make our way back down, and then we actually find a musk ox. At this point we hadn’t eaten in several days, and we were just incredibly hungry and we had walked a really long distance. At this point, we’re not really sure exactly how far, but we know it was 11 miles for the outfitter to fly us straight out to our campsite, and we definitely had some pretty exaggerated zig-zags back and forth to get back to the outfitter’s cabin from where we were at. We were pretty tired, pretty worn out.
Host: What happens next is the result of another lapse in judgment caused by the desperation of Rob and his friend’s situation. While a person can survive weeks without food, extreme hunger can lead one to making rash decisions.
Rob: We just felt like this muskox was provided to us. That was not something that we wanted to do, but it had been a long time without food and we were incredibly hungry, so we snuck up on it. We were like, “Man, we just gotta get really close because this gun does not work very well at all.” And he just has this pistol. We shot it, and it kept running and we shot it again and finally spined it, and then it fell over.
We ran over to it super quickly, and we just basically cut the hide back and just cut a piece out of the shoulder and both just took a big bite. It was not that great, and you bite into this chunk of meat and the blood flowing down your chin and yeah, the nerves just getting stuck in your teeth so it feels like you have a mouth full of these bloody worms.
Then it was just, you tried to choke it down and then just got in my head super fast.
Host: In this case, the risks of eating raw meat outweigh the benefits of satisfying hunger pangs, uncooked game can carry bacteria and parasites that might make a person sick.
Rob: I was just made acutely aware of the smell and the taste and the blood and the nerves in your teeth that are like worms and it was just the culmination of all those things because I’ve cleaned countless animals. That part isn’t a big deal, but it was just that trifecta of those immediate things that really just culminated. I definitely threw up all the river water that I had, I tried to force myself to eat it three or four times. I just couldn’t do it. It was really frustrating actually. My friend is busy just carving away and having a feast. His stomach is a lot stronger than mine, I guess. We skinned out the musk ox, piled on as much meat as we could carry and just put it on two logs. We threw all that on there and litter carried it for as far as we could.
Host: If you’re not a hunter, this might sound strange, but hunting across the U.S. is diligently regulated in order to manage wildlife resources, and in Alaska, they don’t mess around.
Rob and his friend were out hunting caribou. They weren’t permitted to hunt musk ox on this trip. Alaska Fish and Game does have a provision in their regulations that states you may kill wildlife for food to save your own life. It also says, “You must salvage all meat and surrender what is left to the state after your rescue.” Rob and his friend hoped they could deliver the meat to the proper authorities after they returned to the outfitters.
Rob: We probably carried it for about 4 or 5 miles. The terrain is just really uneven. You’re either walking in the sand, which really makes your legs tired after a while, or you’re walking over large rocks that just roll your ankles in those rubber boots. Or you can be walking through fairly deep water that’s just pulled around there.
So the terrain really wasn’t super easy to traverse. I’m not sure how much weight it was, but it was quite a bit. Plus, we haven’t had any food in a while, pretty exhausted. We just kinda set up along the riverbank. There was a slight cut bank, so we laid out the musk ox hide, and then from our chest up was able to cover underneath the cutbank, and then just folded ourselves up like a taco inside of the musk ox hide and then fell asleep.
Host: They dragged the musk ox carcass a few hundred yards from where they’d be sleeping. They hoped if a bear came, it would be more interested in the ox meat than them. With temperatures dropping, they felt they had no choice but to use the ox hide to shield themselves from the cold.
Rob: And later, I regained consciousness and thought it was pitch black and I couldn’t hear anything and I felt like I couldn’t move at all.
I was like, “I don’t think this is heaven, but I don’t think I’m dead either.” So I was just really disoriented, and I was like, “What on earth is going on?” But I felt like I just couldn’t move at all. I was just like, “Are you awake?” And he’s like, “What? What?” I was like, “Can you move at all?” And he’s like, “No.”
And I was like, “Oh my gosh.” I can hear him start to move. Then we hear this really loud snap, and we both pause. I was like, “Are you okay?” He’s like, “I think I’m fine.” So we just both just start thrashing and then there starts to be more cracking and more cracking, and then it’s super bright.
And what had happened was it had actually sleeted. We had just become like encased inside of this musk ox hide, and if you’ve ever slept on a musk ox hide, I swear it will rival any queen mattress ever. Now they are really soft to lay on. We’ve been sleeping on rocks and bushes and whatever else the entire time prior to that.
So yeah, it was like a cloud. I think we would’ve totally froze to death that night if we hadn’t had that musk ox hide. We were super warm because it just provided insulation.
Host: With some effort, Rob and his friend broke out of their frozen cocoon.
Rob: Wasn’t a massive amount of ice, but it was enough to wake up and realize that last night you would’ve died if you hadn’t had this musk ox hide. Really big highs and lows that really bring you back to reality and realize just how fragile this whole situation is.
At that point, we were awake and until we figured we’d probably just keep heading; it was fairly light out at that point that the hide was pretty much useless. It was just soaked on the bottom and it weighed just a ton. The rest of it was just solid ice. It was really frustrating that we had to leave that behind, but it was just, it was pretty much useless for us at that point.
The meat had started to turn, which I was really surprised about because it had gotten really cold that night, but it was pretty warm the day before, after we had shot it. I didn’t trust myself to smell it because I just thought that the smell had turned me off, but he felt that the meat was pretty disgusting at that point too, so anyway, it was super frustrating to think that we had to leave that behind.
So we started heading down more and more. We’re just gonna get back to the shelter and go from there. The fog was fairly thick, but we were just right on the River’s Edge trail. We know that our shelter’s right next to it. The SOS is right next to that. With that being said, we weren’t really thinking very clearly. We really had not had much to eat at this time. We just kept walking and walking and walking, and one of us would be like, “We should probably stop.” The other one’s like, “No, let’s keep going.” Probably an hour later we would swap, and one would say, “Yeah, you’re right, we should stop.” The other one’s like, “No, you’re right. We should probably keep going. Just keep doing this.” We walked, and we walked forever, and the fog was starting to lift. I was like, “Man, I don’t recognize any of this.” We start looking around with the binoculars, and then we look back, and we see the pump station behind us probably a half-mile away.
We were both pretty agitated with each other, but it was what it was. Anyway, we now had our bearings and so we walked back up to the outfitter’s cabin and sat across from that. We spent the remainder of the day just sitting there and just trying to just figure out a solution, trying to just look and see what there were for logs or sticks or things like that to be able to use for a raft.
Host: On day five, Rob was lying on his back, resting, when his friend spotted a caribou and told him to shoot it.
And so I lean over, and I grab his pistol, and I’m still laying on my back and I pull the trigger to shoot the caribou. He goes over there, and I’m just trying to figure out, all right, I have to eat this thing.
It has been way too long and God only knows when we’re gonna eat again. I have got to figure out a way to eat this thing. I cut out thin strips, laid him on the rocks, just tried to make it into more of a chip thing, and just did it in really thin strands. It was just basically like little shoestrings.
That worked well. I just started eating that. The taste was whatever. I’ve eaten tons of wild game, but I think the nerves between the teeth got to me the first time, so I made sure that wasn’t gonna be the case. We shredded up the caribou. Anyway, just eating that little by little and we were very thankful for that.
We were just sitting there and we’re like, “Man, we really need to figure out how to get out of here.” It gave us more clarity of thinking and we’re like, “We really need to try more with that binoculars to try to see if we can start a fire.” We took a rock and smashed my nice binoculars to pieces, pulled out the lens from the inside, and then tried to light it.
Sure enough, we had smoke. It was just the thinnest plume. Since then I definitely have worked to practice my fire craft a little bit more to become more efficient at starting fires. At that point, I really had not practiced much at all, trying to start fires with more unconventional methods.
He’s like, “Well, let’s try to use gunpowder from one of the bullets to try to get it going.” And I was like, “Okay.” And so I was trying to dig this projectile out with my knife for at least five minutes, and he’s like, “No.” And so he took the bullet and laid it on his side and then took the knife and then just started smashing it with a hammer.
And I was like,”That’s gonna blow up in our faces.” But anyway, it didn’t, and he made it through. I got through the brass, and then we just poured the gunpowder into the thing and then, yeah, we had fire and ignited and it was awesome. The wind blew it out, it is fine. It was slightly demoralizing.
But then we had, luckily I was shooting at 375 Weatherbee and it holds an awful lot of powder inside that casing. We were able to get a fire going. We were girling caribou. We set up some sticks to make a teepee shape for the caribou hides so it could dry out and maybe use it as a blanket. We were ecstatic.
It was a really great point in life. We put rocks up next to it and then kept the fire going. The rocks worked really well because you can lay them, once the rocks are really warm, you can put them up against your kidneys and then it kind of works as a radiator and makes your whole body a lot warmer.
That was incredibly helpful. We fell asleep and it did start to rain. Not a ton, but enough to where it did rehydrate, the caribou hide. It was just slimy and just slid all over and it was not that great, but we kept that fire going. That was definitely the most crucial thing for us. The next morning we woke up and were like, all right, we need to start a fire that literally just everyone can see.
So we just rounded up every piece of driftwood that we could find everywhere. Just started getting it together, and then we just started building this fire and we just tried to build it as big as we could. We went and got some wet grass from the riverbank and then just started doing smoke signals, little cloud puff things.
We were doing that and at probably at the highest point, we had probably five or six cars stopped across the river from us and they were parked and they were looking at us through their binoculars and we were looking at them through our monocle. Now we’re just walking around the SOS, we’re jumping up and down, and we did this probably 45 minutes. Anything to attract the most attention to us as we possibly can. Over the course of an hour, they all drove away because our fire burned down to nothing. That was pretty demoralizing because we didn’t know what we were gonna do at that point. We just put all of our bets on one thing and that thing didn’t work out.
That was the biggest mental game; they can see us, and they still don’t know that anything’s wrong. Having that day after day was definitely a challenge mentally. The sun was starting to sink a little bit lower and we were trying to figure out what we were gonna do from there on out because we thought for sure that was gonna be our best bet.
We actually hear a plane fire up across the river, and it’s the outfitter. He had told us on day six that he was going to be flying out a new group of guys to go hunting, and then he’d be picking us up the next day. We did at least start knowing that, “Hey, you know what? After day seven they should start looking for us hopefully.” Now, we were absolutely nowhere near where we were originally at, so we thought that would probably take some time. We were hoping that at some point we would be found. We just sat there and we tried to get his attention as he flew by and just didn’t notice anything. We just went back to sitting on the beach for a while.
And then, and probably, I don’t know, sometime later, the plane flew back by and I ripped off my shirt, swinging over my head, trying to get their attention. At this point I almost just sat there, but I just got to the point where this doesn’t do anything.
But anyway, he tipped his wings to signal me or to wave or whatever, and I didn’t wave back then. I just put my arms in an X and just crossed my arms against my chest and just pointed at the ground and just ran around the SOS to attract attention to it. Then the plane went back and landed. I was like, “Gosh, man,” because he has floats on.
So I’m thinking in my head, he can just land literally on our side, make sure we’re okay, and go about his day. For some reason, he didn’t see it the way I did. Anyway, he flies back to his trailer, and some time goes by, and I’m just like, “Man, I just don’t know what we’re gonna do.” Then probably an hour goes by, and then the plane fires up again, and it flies a half circle around us, and then it drops something out of the plane right next to us.
We race over to it, and it says that the troopers have been notified. We’re gonna be rescued. This is great, but it’s starting to get fairly—it’s getting darker outside, I should say. I can’t say as though it ever got really fully dark, but we were probably asleep during that time, but it got pretty dark.
But, they still may not start up until—what if they’re out looking for somebody else? They don’t have a lot of manning at those stations. I think there are one or two troopers at each station. It’s pretty minimally manned. Those are several hours away from this location. We’re just sitting there and then all of a sudden out of nowhere, this guy on a hovercraft just buzzes up right on the beach next to us.
“Hey, you guys need a ride?” And we’re like, “Yes.” All I could say was yes, because brain fog was pretty aggressive at this point, and hopped in the hovercraft with him, with all of our stuff, caribou and a gun and made our way across. As we were going across the pond, there were already two planes that were circling right over our area.
And so we got across, we were met by the troopers and had a conversation with them. Then we were pretty good to go. We went back to the outfitter’s cabin, and probably 10 minutes later we hear the plane land again. He was actually awesome. He just flew right back out. Because of course he GPS’ed where we had dropped us off at before and he picked up our whole tent, all of our belongings, everything.
And so we actually ended up with all of our gear, which was really awesome. We never found it again, but he did. That was super cool. We went back down, drove all the way back to Anchorage. I met with my wife and she was very surprised because we got back perfectly in time, but I had lost 28 pounds. I’m not a very big person as it is.
I’m six foot three, and at that point I weighed 183 pounds, and so I had lost 28 pounds from there. It was pretty noticeable. I was pretty skinny, but I’m really glad that my wife didn’t know during that entire ordeal because she was pregnant with our first son Remington. That was something that really tried to get me focused and like, “Alright, I will be a terrible person if I die out here and leave my wife with our newborn child.”
A lot of the stuff that I do now for a living and different things, I get a lot of opportunities to be able to help people out on a daily basis. I don’t know, I just think that God maybe kept me alive, saved me for things like that so that I can just help others with things. It was for a fact that God saved us.
We would’ve totally been dead otherwise, there’s no doubt about it in my mind. There’s countless times where we could have never found the musk ox, or we could have never seen that pillar cloud thing, or we could have never, if the sun hadn’t been clear enough and bright enough, maybe we wouldn’t have seen that little silver speck of pump station too, or just a bunch of different things.
I definitely have a lighter with me at all times when, whenever I’m hunting—not, not in normal everyday life. I did get better at my fire craft quite a bit in general. The conclusion that I’ve come to from my fire craft is that you should just bring a lighter with you at all times, and it’s just a better situation.
I have it in a Ziploc bag. I guess that’s probably just really the biggest change that I’ve made. It’s only recently, probably in the past year or two, that I have felt good about the idea of maybe going to try that trip again, just to be more prepared about it. It’s just, it was Alaska. Shoot you up and spit you out pretty hard.
Host: This episode of Out Alive was produced and written by me, Louisa Albanese, along with writing and editing by Zoe Gates. Scoring and sound design was by Jason Patton. Thank you to Rob for sharing your story with us. Thanks for listening to Out Alive and if you have a backcountry survival story you’re interested in sharing, you can email me at email@example.com. This season of Out Alive is made possible by the members of Outside Plus. You can get 30% off for a Gaia GPS premium for a limited time with your membership, including offline access, snow safety features, and snow depth reports. Find out more at outsideonline.com/podplus.