In the words of an old Alaskan local: “Alaska is beautiful, but it can kill you.” You’ve heard the stories, maybe seen the movie Into the Wild. The folklore here runs deep with tales of people walking into the woods, never to be seen again. Most of us have friends that have perished in small-plane crashes. It has certainly caught the attention of the reality tv circuit. Separating truth from myth, or tv hype, may offer some reassurance but it’s no A Walk in the Woods (Thoreau).
The weather here is notoriously harsh and difficult to predict. In many places the coastal climate with big mountains is compounded by relatively few NOAA weather forecasting offices. All the inlets and glaciers cause confusing katabatic and anabatic winds. Good luck accurately predicting tomorrow’s weather, let alone what will happen a week from now! Anyone that has spent time here knows to pack for multiple weather scenarios, regardless of the time of year. Sun often turns to rain and then to snow as you climb from the foothills to the valley and then up the mountain. Leaving for an extended hike or camping trip always involves some sort of protective wear and should never be limited to just a t-shirt.
Our summers are short with the snow melting in May, or June/July in the mountains. Snow starts again in August if you are in the Brooks Range. Spring season is marked by thin ice, punchy snow, and slick mud. This is followed by “breakup” when the rivers start losing their ice. I have seen rivers rise by inches in just a few minutes from the meltwater in June; it almost took my packraft away. Crossing rivers at this time can be very different from the later summer and some popular hikes that involve river crossings are best held until water levels subside. Summer is often nice, marked by rapidly growing brush that can become disorienting as the trail diminishes from well-worn to game trail to alder thicket.
Don’t get me started on the mosquitoes. The interior of Alaska will drive you bonkers, even with proper protection. The wildlife loses a significant proportion of their blood volume to these suckers. I’m getting itchy just thinking about them...
Alaska’s larger wildlife can be a bit of a nuisance at times as well. Grizzly bears and black bears strike the most fear in our imagination. Kids are taught from a young age how to deal with them. Packing necessary bear protection is essential, and required by the Park Service when entering the National Parks. Moose can be aggressive as well, especially during the rutting season.
Most notorious, however, is our remoteness. Let me run some numbers by you. We are twice the size of Texas and have the 3rd lowest population of any state. Alaska has the 4 largest National Parks, the largest is 13 million (!) acres. Did you hear about our forest fire? I doubt it but we had just over 3 million acres burn in 2022, our 7th largest year; no smoke over Anchorage though. And my favorite statistic is that the most remote place in the lower 48 is 21.7 miles from a road; compare that to Alaska which sports many places 100+ miles from roads or settlements. Here, we travel into the bush prepared, with multiple backups of food, clothing, and emergency communication. Weather may prevent rescue for days.
The most common mistake I see people make is to assume a normal rainy or wintery day, or even a sunny summer day, is just like any other in the lower-48. These folks usually end up cold and hungry, dissatisfied with the trip. The distances here are deceptively big and the consequences match the risk. If you come prepared for the worst, your pack may be heavier but at least you will be comfortable. You can pare down non-essentials next time.