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Don J. Rearden

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Surviving an Alaskan Nightmare
By Don J. Rearden   

Last edited: Monday, April 28, 2008
Posted: Thursday, September 06, 2001

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Imagine if the tent you were sleeping in was blown away during a raging Alaskan storm - this is the story of that very thing happening to me!

Alaska, a land of dreams and nightmares. A place where adventure and death are inseperable bed fellows. Those who reside here are accustomed to the harrowing tales of survival and hardship that go hand in hand with life in such an unforgiving and often inhospitable land. I've heard hundreds of hair raising tales and experienced enough near kisses with death to know that behind postcard Alaska lies a rugged untamed land where anything can and will happen.

As I watched in abject horror and disbelief as my tent quickly sank into the lake in the middle of a raging storm, I knew that I was one mistake away from being another wilderness statistic.

Three hundred miles west of Anchorage sits the Wood Tikchik Park, one of the most pristine and incredible places on the face of the earth. I was setting up a caribou camp for Myron Angstman, a hunting partner of mine, on one of the smaller lakes in the Tikchik drainage. As the floats of the plane slid across the crystal cool blue-green glacier water, I thought to myself that I'd never seen a prettier valley. If someone would have told me that in a few hours a storm would set in and leave me waging a battle for my life I would have laughed in disbelief.

Myron taxied the Cessna 175 to a small spit that jetted out into the head end the lake. We crawled out of the plane and began unloading gear onto the rocky beach. He'd camped on the spit before, partly because of the incredible view of the lake's end which sits beneath a small hanging glacier and a great wall of mountains.

With the gear unloaded, Myron pointed where they had set up the tent before, a 8x12 Weather Port, specially designed to withstand Alaska's often wet and windy conditions. I sat down on the gear and listened to the roar of the floatplane's engine fill the lake valley as the plane lifted off, leaving me alone, if only for the night, when Myron would return with another load of gear and "the Doc," his friend from Sitka.

The wind slowly picked up, but I paid no attention to it as I went about setting up the tent. By the time I'd finished hammering the last tentstakes into the ground the wind was gusting 30 to 40 mph and a slight mist prompted me to stow the rest of the gear inside the tent. We'd landed on the lake around 4:30P.M. and the August Alaskan sun wouldn't be setting until about 10:30P.M, so I slung my 7mm Winchester to my shoulder and headed for a ridge to see if I could spot some game. [In Alaska you can not fly and hunt in the same day but the bears of the Tikchik park are monstrous and I wasn't about to leave my rifle sitting at camp.]

As I sat checking out the surrounding countryside - rocky slopes, alder thickets, and tundra - I took notice that the wind was still increasing and that I'd need to take cover soon. I resisted crawling into the tent just long enough to gorge myself on the delicious marble-sized blueberries that littered the tundra.

It was 7:30P.M. when I rolled out my sleeping bag and stretched out on my bedroll. Outside, a driving rain had joined the menacing wind but I felt comfortable enough to find the sound of the gusts and rain slap at the tent's fabric almost soothing. Why I chose not to strip down to my underwear, like I'd normally do camping, I'll never know, but that unusual decision saved my life.

The last thought that crossed my mind before I fell asleep was how happy I was to be sleeping in such a sturdy tent because from the sound of the weather outside I knew that without a tent a person would be in serious trouble. Several hours later, I awoke to exactly that: serious trouble. At sometime around 10:30 P.M. I heard what I thought was a plane. Bewildered, I sat up and looked at my watch, trying to figure out why Myron would risk flying in so late at night. Then the sound was gone. I lay back down and closed my eyes. Suddenly the darkness of the tent was gone. I jumped up, dazed. The tent had vanished.

Then I saw it as it sailed up, some forty feet in the air out towards the lake, about a hundred feet off shore. I thought, for a split second, about going in after it, but I knew the icy water would swallow me like the tent. In one moment, as the tent disappeared beneath the lake's white-caps, a million thoughts raced through my mind.

"Oh my god," I thought, "I'm going to die out here."

The second gust of wind snapped me from my horror and shock as it sent our two large coolers, filled with food and cooking gear, rolling across the tundra like tumbleweeds towards the lake. I dove for my sleeping bag as the wind ripped it away, as if it too was bent on sinking into the lake.

In the tumult, a sweatshirt and a polar fleece jacket were both quickly lost in the storm. The rain fell in icy sheets horizontally with wind gusts that nearly knocked me to the soaked tundra as I tried to build a small bivy from the tarp used as a ground covering in the floorless tent (Had there been a floor in the tent, I may have well been sinking into the lake too.) and the two coolers.

I had entered into what would be the most intense and perilous survival situation in my twenty-five years in the outdoors. I knew with desperate certainty that one wrong move would cost me my life.

As if on cue, while I frantically attempted to stow my gear and sleeping bag between the two coolers with the blue tarp wrapped around them, the last of the sunlight dipped behind the mountains and darkness was to be my only company in the violent storm.

I crawled beneath the tarp and into my drenched sleeping bag. My clothes were soaked, I was scared, and in complete denial. I couldn't believe that the tent was gone. Myron's $1500 tent was sitting at the bottom of a lake. I wondered if the tent had a floor if I'd have been at the bottom too. I blamed myself for losing such an expensive tent - a tent that claims to withstand up to 90M.P.H. winds.

When the next big wind hit, I nearly lost the tarp, my last means of shelter. I could hear it coming up the valley and when it struck it rolled the 60 lb. coolers and snatched the tarp from my hands. I quickly rebuilt my small bivy in the dark but it offerred little protection from the constant rain and heavy gusts. Shivering, I burrowed into my bag and prayed it would provide enough warmth for me to make it until morning.

All night the storm raged. It showed no signs of letting up. Each gust only seemed to be followed by a stronger more intense wind. My mind raced. I knew storms of this nature could last weeks in this country, where nothing, not even a helicopter, could manage a rescue. I knew that as soon as there was enough light I had to build a shelter. There would be no sleep that night. Between the violent shivers and the winds howling up the canyon, I knew my situation was perilous and rapidly deteriorating. When dawn finally made her appearance hypothermia had already started to slip into my body. My hands felt nearly useless, my jaw was stiff from my teeth chattering all night, and my entire body ached with cold. I desperately needed to build a fire and soon.

I set both coolers on my sleeping bag, took some rope, an emergency saw, and the tarp and headed to the only clump of brush that would offer any shelter from the relentless storm. I was scared to leave my sleeping bag, for fear that the strong winds would blow it away and my only source of warmth would be gone. I dreaded another big wind like the one that took the tent, and that fear was only surpassed by the idea of freezing to death.

Once in the brush I cut alders and stretched the tarp across the top, making an extremely small shelter. The wind and rain tore at the tarp but it held and appeared as though it might keep me out of the rain for a while.

I'd warmed up only slightly in the exertion of building a shelter, but numbness had crept into my hands and I shivered uncontrollably. I packed my gear to the shelter and began the longest fire starting episode in my life. With only dead alders to burn, firewood pickings were slim and all the wood that was available was wet all the way through. With small frozen nubs for fingers, I tried every trick in the book to get a fire going. Nothing seemed as though it would burn. I shaved alder branches with my knife, hoping to get to dry wood. I even took out a can of mosquito spray and held my lighter in the spray, using it like a torch and still the wood refused to burn.

It is still hard for me to admit this, but several times I actually gave up on even trying to get a fire going. The delirium of hypothermia danced at the edge of my consciousness. I pondered crawling into my sleeping bag and just trying to sleep until the shivering stopped. I felt weary. I left the shelter, I needed dry wood. I'd spent nearly two hours trying to light a fire and all I wanted was something to stop the shivering. I headed towards a beaver lodge in the cove near camp. I stood on top of the lodge in the driving wind and rain and dug down into it looking for wood that wasn't soaked all the way through, but it all seemed wet. I took a handful back to my shelter, hoping that the inside of a few sticks might be dry enough to hold a flame. This little foray into the storm only made me colder and my rain gear afforded little protection.

Back in the shelter, I cut into the beaver lodge wood and found a few dry pieces, which I shaved off and began to try and light. Finally, a few small shavings caught and I began to nurse the flames hypnotically, holding my hands just inched from the flames. I don't even really recall the moment when I realized that I had a fire. I was just sitting there huddled in front of it's mesmerizing flame when hope suddenly caught like the fire had.

I snapped out of my delirium and began piling wet wood near the flames to dry it out. I took several flat chunks of slate from the lake shore and lined the fire to create a fire shield to reflect the heat. I stripped off my wet clothes and hung them near the flames. I huddled, naked and shivering, over the fire feeling the stinging burn of my cold extremities finally beginning to warm up.

Four hours later I was still jealously guarding my small fire. The burn, in my now warm hands and toes, was finally wearing off; but the storm showed no sign of letting up.

A small herd of cariobou grazed on the lakeshore near the spot the tent sat the night before, some ten yards from my new home. I considered shooting one just to give myself something to do but I didn't want to leave my fire. I only left the shelter to get more wood from the beaver lodge, and the caribou seemed to care little about me or the storm.

I had no means of contacting anyone. I didn't know how long the storm would last. I was stranded in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, but I had a fire, food, and a small shelter. The fear began to subside. I knew that if I had survived the night before I could survive anything those mountains had to dish out. Ironically, the only thing I began to worry about was the tent. I just didn't know how I was going to break the news to Myron.

Suddenly at around 8:30P.M. I heard something coming down the valley. It sounded like a plane, but then again the wind had been sounding like that all day. The weather looked as though it was letting up. I could now see across the lake. I came out from my cramped shelter and Myron's plane emerged from the bank of clouds at the head end of the lake. Thoughts raced through my mind, and in my post-survival frame of mind I couldn't figure out how to tell Myron that I'd lost his tent.

The blue and white Hawk XP taxied up to the shore. I stood out on the rocky beach ready to catch the floats as they slid into the gravel. Doc stepped out onto the floats, "Where's the tent?" he asked quizzically. I stretched my arm out and pointed out towards the deep blue-green water, "The lake," I muttered, as if I didn't quite believe it myself. Myron crawled out from the plane.

"It's in the lake," the Doc relayed to Myron, responding to the question they had posed as they were landing.

In a flurry we unpacked the plane, making room for me, and we were in the air heading towards Bethel. In less than two hours I was sitting down to a warm meal in a warm house, retelling my story amid laughs and a myriad of questions. Though my muscles still ached from the shivering and cold, the whole experiece was beginning to blur itself into a hellish dream, a nightmare, and now a fond Alaskan memory.

My one night of terror had taught me more than all my years of hunting and fishing in the outdoors had, survival is the strongest of all human instincts and when you are an outdoorsman you never know just when those instincts will be put to the test, especially in a remote place like Alaska.

Epilogue:
A week later I would return to the lake during beautiful weather. Several days of fishing with a very large hook and I snagged a trophy--the tent --nearly pulling the beast out, until the line snapped. Myron would later fly out a diver; who dove down some 65 ft. and tied a rope to it. They drug it from the lake with the floatplane. The tent is still being used today--though we've employed a series of three-foot aviation stakes to keep it from taking any more unexpected dips in the lake.

Web Site: Optic Magazine


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Reviewed by Paul Kyriazi 2/27/2002
A very scary story of survival. I like the writers mentioning "denial" and "worrying about the expensive tent". That fact that he for some reason kept his clothes on before sleeping, which he never did, should be explored. Why did he change his routine. Phemonition? A great story. And I wasn't laughing like the guys he told the story to the next day were. I wonder what month it was. That should be put in the article. Because like Marty Robbins sings," When it's springtime in Alaska, it's 40 below."

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