The tourist season has started in Alaska, and that means the cruise ship passengers are up to their usual yearly antics. Namely, wearing white sneakers and then acting surprised to find mud on the Alaskan rain forest trails! This annual performance of visitors to the Alaskan wilderness always reminds me of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild (Goodreads Link), a case study into the death of a young man who tramped into Alaska’s wilds over-confident, unprepared, and inexperienced. Four months later his body was found by a hunter in an abandoned bus-turned hunting shelter. Strangely, and in my mind, morbidly, so many tourists have attempted to follow the footsteps of the unfortunate “Supertramp” to the bus where his body was found that the Forest Service has had to move the bus to a safer, more easily accessible location! While this is a literary inspired location blog, just this once, I wish to discourage you from attempting a visit to a literary inspired location! The bus made famous by Krakauer’s book. At least, not alone, not without local knowledge, and not without the know-how. However, as the inexperienced continue to come to Alaska and try their mettle against the great outdoors, please let me give you some pointers that might just save you from becoming Krakauer’s next subject.
Take the boots.
Upon your arrival, I can guarantee that the first local to which you divulge your desire to tramp out into the Alaskan wilderness will either hand you a pair of Xtratuf boots, or direct you to the nearest store where you should acquire a pair. They may not be the most stylish boots in the world, but they will keep you warm, dry, and comfortable. Chris McCandless believed himself to be on a journey to find himself by throwing off the oppression of society which included rejecting material items including maps, money, and any helpful outdoor gear. He was offered a pair of boots by a local man who picked up the boy hitchhiker. McCandless chose to leave the boots behind. And let me tell you, anybody who does that will quickly be condemned by long-term Alaskans as mentally unstable. (Not a glorified hero such as “Alexander Supertramp” styled himself. I’ve been told the film adaptation of the book portrays him as a hero, however I refuse to watch it, so if you think otherwise, let me know in the comments below!) There’s a reason that Alaskan house entryways tend to look like this:
We have a saying here in Southeast Alaska: “If you aren’t having fun, you’re dressed wrong.” It rains here…a lot. (It’s a rain forest after all.) But if you’re wearing the right clothing, you can enjoy yourself despite the weather. The first lesson Alaskan school children learn is, “Cotton Kills.” If you remember just one thing from this article, I hope it is this. When cotton clothing gets wet, it will keep you cold and wet and can lead to hypothermia.
Rather than cotton, I favor clothing fabric that’s going to be wind-proof, water-proof, water-wicking, and quick-drying. These fabrics include Polar fleece, Smartwool, and Polypropylene. My go-to outdoor activity clothes consist of Smartwool Socks, quick-dry shirts that wick sweat to the outside, polar fleece pants and jackets, and an outer rain shell. (Nobody in Alaska carries an umbrella. Just don’t do it. Wear the raincoat.)
Also, always dress in layers. You’ll warm up as you move and cool off when resting, so you will want the ability to take off or put on layers.
ALWAYS pack and plan for a possible overnight.
In Alaska it’s understood that even if your plan is to go for a day hike, you ALWAYS pack and plan for a possible overnight outing because you just never know what might happen. Pack extra water, a flashlight/headlamp in case you find yourself still on the trail at dark, a first-aid kit, and extra socks and a shirt. You should be planning for possible outcomes of becoming dirty and/or soaked, losing the trail, or simply finding someone else on the trail who hasn’t packed correctly. They’ll certainly be thankful you did!
Oh, and one more thing, bug spray. Official information will tell you the Alaska state bird is a ptarmigan, but any local will tell you they’re lying. It’s the mosquito. Trust me, you’ll want the bug spray.
So now you’re dressed and all packed and ready to head into the Alaskan wilderness, right?
Not quite. Always hike with a buddy and let someone know where you’re going. Also, take a GPS and an iPhone (and extra batteries… I learned this one the hard way. Whooops!) and maps! Don’t be like McCandless and throw your maps away! You may need to know where streams are that might provide extra water. Or you might find yourself in need of the closest civilization if you need aid. And if you meet a bear, just make sure you can run faster than your buddy. Just kidding! Keep reading to find out what to do in the case of a bear encounter- that doesn’t involve feeding your friends to the bears!
So now you’re lost.
You probably should have gotten to know the plants and animals you may encounter before you left. It is important to know which plants are edible and which ones might kill you. Berries look similar, but some are edible while others are poisonous. Unfortunately McCandless had not taken the time to learn to identify one plant from another, and this lack of knowledge was his last fatal error.
Also, it might be helpful to know that black bears and brown bears respond to people differently. Black bears are afraid of people, so if you group together, wave your arms, and make a lot of noise, making yourself look bigger than the bear if possible, it will in all usual circumstances, run away. Unless you’re between a mum and its cubs. They’re about as pleased to find you between them as you would be to find them between you and your child. So if you see a cub, your best bet is to keep moving, mom isn’t far behind. Brown bears, however, just want to eat you. Should you meet one of these bears, fall to your knees in a ball, cover your neck with your hands, and play dead. Hopefully the brown bear will not be hungry enough to play with already seemingly dead food.
Southeast Alaska is the kind of place where people show up and stay forever, or leave as fast as humanly possible. However, with these tips, you might just find yourself not only surviving, but extending your stay for longer than you intended!
Have you read the book or seen the movie Into the Wild? Would you be prepared to face the wilds of Alaska? Are you interested in visiting if you had a guide? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below! And if you are planning a visit, I am more than happy to provide further tips!
Where can you find all the necessary clothes, gear, and knowledge?
My favorite source for outdoor clothes & gear is REI & Sportees
And finally, there are so many books on the flora & fauna of Alaska on Amazon that you’ll have to just pick one and see where it takes you!