Jul 14 2008

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On Disappearing

Posted at 7:52 am under Blog Post

Every once in a while, someone comes at me with the dramatic tale of some starry-eyed pilgrim dying in the Alaskan wilderness. Few things upset me more.

In 1992, a bush pilot dropped me on a gravel airstrip near the Endicott River Wilderness, about forty miles northwest of Juneau. I set up camp next to the river and stayed there for two weeks, completely cut off from the rest of humanity, learning the hard way what it takes to keep body and soul together in a truly wild place. It was the best two weeks of my life.  It was a truly life-changing experience.  But it left me with a profound intolerance for the kind of stupidity that so often passes for backcountry adventure.

Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild is a prime example of that kind of stupidity. In that book, Krakauer writes about a young man named McCandless who wandered into the Alaskan wilderness and died there. Many people are fascinated by the story. Some find the affair tragically romantic; others get a big kick out of survival dramas regardless of the hero’s fate. Others, I suspect, use such tales to justify their own risk-taking or lack thereof. When I read Krakauer’s book, I saw only a woefully unprepared backcountry traveler with no real plan.

I spent a year and a half preparing for my venture into the Alaskan wild. I had skills. I had 125 pounds of food, clothing and equipment. I was as careful as anyone can be while I was out there and still came close to becoming food for the ravens.  The wilderness is a dangerous place.

Right before I went into the wild, I read in the Juneau newspaper about some guy who had disappeared up Eagle Creek two weeks earlier. Only the remains of his camp were found. When I asked several native Alaskans what they thought of this, I got the same response: “People disappear in the bush all the time.” And that’s that. There’s a steady stream of starry-eyed pilgrims coming up from the Lower Forty-Eight.  They slip into the Alaskan backcountry and some of them are never heard from again.

Lord knows I’ve taken more than my share of risks. I’ve been traveling alone into deep woods for decades. I’ve had many close calls. As a result, I’ve learned to treat the wild with great respect. First and foremost, I carry with me the tools I need to get out there and back in one piece.  And I know how to use them.

I can’t with good conscience recommend going it alone, but with a track record like mine, I can’t discourage it, either. All I can say is this: Be as prepared as you can possibly be before stepping into backcountry by yourself. Use your head. Don’t disappear. There’s nothing the least bit romantic about a premature and unnecessary death.  The bush is littered with the carcasses of fools.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “On Disappearing”

  1. Pete Yates, Tucsonon 19 Jul 2008 at 2:05 pm 1

    Oh people of Tucson, AZ!
    “Arguing with the Wind” is available at Antigone Books and Mostly Books.
    This narrative will NOT disappoint…this narrative will take you to inner and outer wildernesses you’ve only supposed existed.
    Support this unique, skilled, uncompromising author, who has been honing his artistry for over 30 years.
    McLaughlin is the real deal!
    And by the way, each edition is autographed.

  2. estphanon 17 Apr 2009 at 10:22 pm 2

    Dear Walt,
    I am jumping through hoops and over hurdles in order to hike alone (me and a pack and a gps) through portions of Belarus’ section of the only remaining primordial forest in Europe. The Belaveskaya Pushcha. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Białowieża_Forest

    It’s flora and fauna are similar as it was 5000 years ago. Wolves, wild boar, Bison, elk, wild horses, etc. A complete set of mythological creatures. (BUT no big cats thank goodness.)

    I have a moderate amount of camping and hiking experience, basic gear, am in strong physical health, and expect to make 2-3 overnight forays into the forest in order to make photographs in regions that may have not been visited since the partisans and nazis battled in WWII. I am hunting around the web for advice, especially considering that I may have to contend with wolves and wild boars, no paths or roads, a tens of thousands marked and unmarked war graves. It will be an adventure, to say the least.

    As you may imagine, I am looking for guidance concerning a gear list, common sense, WISDOM, and other practical training/preparations I ought to have in order for such a length of hiking, camping. You seem to know your way around the woods, have had some “close calls” and I’d love to have a conversation.

    Drop me a line when you have a chance.

    Most cordially,

    Stephan Jacobs
    Boston, MA