Gary Green flew his silver 1953 Cessna – an old beer can with wings, really – to a tiny airstrip on a mountain meadow. It’s comfortable traveling with Green, who has 40 years of experience flying in the Wrangell Mountains and perfectly fits my image of an Alaskan bush pilot with his graying beard, mustache and shoulder-length hair, his flannel jacket and cowboy hat.
Out the window, the grandeur of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest national park in the United States, was stunning. To Green’s left, the massive Rohn and Regal glaciers butted into Nizina Glacier, which melts into a fast, braided river of the same name. Ahead, Mount Frederika stands 10,000 feet high, practically a stub in a park that boasts nine of the 16 largest peaks in the country.
That comfort was about to end, however.
Landing on a dirt strip like it’s made of butter, Green left me alone in a valley dwarfed by rocky ridges and huge swaths of ice. Rain lightly fell, and the skies threatened to pour, but I was all excitement as I started a backcountry adventure I had spent almost a year planning.
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I shouldered a backpack containing a week’s worth of food, a tent and other supplies so I could hike an old miner’s trail 20 miles to the Chitistone River. There, I would blow up a 5-pound raft, connect a two-piece paddle and float 10 miles to a road near the tiny town of McCarthy, the closest thing to civilization from where I’d been dropped off.
That was the plan, at least, on this late August day.
Located in southeast Alaska and an eight-hour drive from Anchorage, Wrangell-St. Elias is typical of the state’s eight national parks in that it offers few maintained trails, roads or other convenient ways of exploring. Instead, the Alaskan national parks provide something much different than the parks of the Lower 48: vast and unique landscapes that remain largely wild.
Traveling the Alaska backcountry is not for the weak of heart. It requires fitness, planning, physical skills and, as I would learn on this trip, judgment. About 70,000 people visited Wrangell-St. Elias in 2013, making it one of the least visited national parks, and the vast majority never went beyond the few trails and exhibits around McCarthy, said Evan Olson, the park’s lead backcountry ranger.
“Wrangell-St. Elias is a different kind of place. It’s often hard to explain that,” he said. “People dramatically underestimate the size and scale of the land and the power of the land and the rivers.”
Planning the adventure
A hiking buddy proposed the trip. Though he backed out, I was too enamored with the idea to give it up. Backpacking alone enriches the soul and builds character. But it’s also risky because no one is there if you get hurt.
I took steps to ensure a safe and fun journey. The first was easy for me as a reporter: research. I studied guidebooks, the National Park Service website about Wrangell-St. Elias, blogs by Alaska backcountry adventurers and topographic maps of the park, trying to figure out an exciting, beautiful yet manageable route. “Goat Trail,” not much of trail at all, was the closest thing to an identified path through the mountains, glaciers and rivers I wanted to see.
This kind of planning helps a traveler determine whether he has the skills and gear needed for a backcountry trip, said Chris Brauneis, senior instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyo. He advises backcountry travelers to write a detailed itinerary, including the dates they expect to arrive at various points, and giving it to someone they trust. The itinerary will help rescuers locate a lost or injured hiker.
I went over my plans at great length with Olson, who discouraged me from taking a longer route because I would be so far from rescue crews. He was also concerned that I planned to raft without a dry suit because the park’s glacier-fed rivers are near freezing.
Otherwise, he seemed confident I would complete the trip, including a section referred to by one guidebook as “the Gully of Death,” a steep ravine covered with loose rock called scree. Loss of footing here could have fatal consequences.
The year before, Olson recovered a backpack on that section of the trail, left by a man who jettisoned it when he slipped on scree. The man didn’t think he could get back on the trail without removing the pack, Olson said.
Nevertheless, Olson concluded that I could manage the scree slopes based on my experience with similar terrain in the Sierra Nevada, including the 220-mile John Muir Trail.
Just in case, I brought a ResQLink, a personal locator beacon the size of a cellphone. Press a button and authorities are notified of your location. I had a can of pepper spray attached to my backpack in case of grizzly attack.
And Green’s assistant at McCarthy Air added another layer of insurance: He asked when I wanted Green to start searching for me if I didn’t show up in McCarthy on time.
Handling the unexpected
After getting a good look at a couple of glaciers in Skolai Pass, I made my way toward Chitistone Pass in good spirits – even though the wind and rain had picked up – and pleased that the Goat Trail was well worn and easy to follow for the first couple of miles.
Then the going got a bit dicier. Looking at my GPS unit, I could tell I needed to head up an embankment but didn’t see a path. I walked back and forth looking for a turnoff, to no avail. I started feeling a chill from the rain and frustration from not knowing how to proceed. A deer scurried up one ridge and zigzagged up another – where I needed to be, so I followed its tracks.
By late afternoon, the skies were slate gray and it was pouring. I was slipping a bit on grass and a lot on rock. The terrain was steep and uneven, and I needed to find a campsite. Eventually I found a modest ledge overlooking Skolai Pass for my tiny tent.
The storm continued through the night, battering my tent with wind and rain until about 4 a.m., waking me repeatedly. Sunshine greeted me when I poked my head out of the tent a few hours later, and I resumed hiking.
I didn’t make it far before realizing that I was walking toward storm clouds and being trailed by more of the same. I was having problems with slippery terrain and approaching the “Gully of Death.”
The previous storm lasted nearly 24 hours and more was coming, meaning the Chitistone River would be faster and rougher than expected. In 2002, a 28-year-old man drowned trying to cross the river, taking the same route I had planned. While I could use my raft instead of walking like he did, I was still troubled by what Olson had said about the frigid waters and the potential for death by hypothermia.
I had a decision to make.
Adventure travelers often make the mistake of pressing forward when signs indicate they should back off, experts say.
“One of the biggest variables in a backcountry trip is weather, especially in a place like Alaska, where it can change in a minute,” said Brauneis.
“In risk management theory,” he added, “one of the biggest elements is the human factor. That is, social pressure, self-imposed factors, fatigue. (They) all play a role. This is how a lot of accidents start happening.”
As a classic example of ignoring warning signs, Brauneis points to the 1996 expedition of Mount Everest that ended in the death of eight climbers, a story captured memorably in Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.”
Alex Kossoff, an outdoor leadership expert who has served as consultant to the Sierra Club and many other organizations, says that kind of blind compulsion can overtake anyone.
“People put a lot of pressure on themselves because of money, time and ego invested into a trip,” he said. “You need to look objectively at the situation and list the potential outcomes.”
My decision was to turn around. The risks were too high and the need to finish not so great. I’d like to think it’s because I’m a level-headed person who can assess risk with common sense. But I probably would have made a different decision if I had not been alone. I would have been embarrassed to back out.
It wasn’t an easy decision. Not only did I want to complete a trip I’d planned for so long, but the exit option wasn’t simple, either. The only way to walk to McCarthy was the route I’d just abandoned. Going back meant I’d have to flag a plane from the ground. I could use my ResQLink, but I was determined to initiate a rescue effort only if I ran out of food.
Reaching the airstrip at Skolai Pass, I raised my tent and waited, my eyes and ears tuned to the skies. Every couple of hours I’d hear or see a plane and use my paddles to wave. If anyone in the planes saw me, they didn’t indicate it. As the hours passed, an idea crossed my mind, perhaps inspired by watching too much “Gilligan’s Island” as a child: Drag pieces of deadwood to the edge of the airstrip, writing a message in 8-foot-long letters.
I wasn’t miserable or especially worried. I was in a place unlike any other I’ve seen. Many of the visitors to Skolai Pass do nothing more than spend a night or two, going out for some short hikes. Skolai Pass is stunning. By the time a plane showed up, less than 24 hours into my wait, I almost didn’t want to climb aboard.
The pilot said he mistook my “help” sign for a hole in the ground and thought I was waving my paddles to stop him from landing in it. Luckily he was dropping off three men who were going to camp there a few nights.
Back in the air, the pilot offered to land on a gravel bar along another river so I could salvage some of my trip by floating back to McCarthy. But when he learned I didn’t have a dry suit, he wouldn’t land. He said he had taken four Russians without dry suits to the same location. When they capsized, they barely made it out of the water and had to be rescued by helicopter, he said.
Going with guides
The talk of wilderness danger made me apprehensive but not defeated. Back in McCarthy, I decided to take two short trips with wilderness guides, a great option in the Alaska backcountry. Not only do guides provide a safer option for the uninitiated, they can teach needed skills.
In the end, my trip did not want for fun challenges.
I spent a day on Root Glacier ice-climbing with Brian of St. Elias Alpine Guides, scaling walls of ice with the aid of crampons and ice picks. I wasn’t nervous when Brian lowered me into a huge crevice with a rope attached to a harness around my waist. I was dangling 40 feet above rushing water, thrilled with the aqua-blue world surrounding me.
Spencer of Kennicott Wilderness Guides also made me feel at ease rafting the rapids of the Kennicott River. He helped me with my paddling technique so I could move through the water with style and confidence. Most important, he taught me what to do when I capsize, showing me how to stop my boat from floating away and save myself.
Even using one of his dry suits, the sensation of dropping into the glacial waters still shocked my senses and made my teeth gnash.
The experience didn’t deter me in the least: When I got home to Sacramento, I bought a dry suit, which I plan to wear when I return to Alaska this summer.
Call The Bee’s Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter
Planning well is the first step to a safe visit to Alaska’s wilder areas. Here are some resources to help you get a start.
▪ National Park Service, nps.gov/state/ak/
▪ Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, nps.gov/wrst/
▪ St. Elias Alpine Guides, steliasguides.com
▪ Kennicott Wilderness Guides, kennicottguides.com