Small mistakes can become big issues

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - 19:00

Anyone who has spent any time in Alaska’s outdoors has made mistakes — more than we’d like to admit. It’s a big state and there’s a lot of room for big errors.

I’m not going to dwell here about obvious blunders — like forgetting mosquito repellent, matches, raincoat, not taking enough food, a knife or extra socks. I’ve done all of those things at least once, and some even worse. I’d rather confine this discussion to the more subtle, seemingly benign mistakes that can compound into bigger problems.

On a winter camping trip a few years ago, when temperatures hovered below zero, I forgot to bring along lightweight gloves to wear underneath my mittens. For finger dexterity, I removed the mittens, and before I could get my stove started, my hands became numb, useless stumps. “Circulation isn’t what it used to be,” I thought, recalling a physical constitution 30 years ago that would have tolerated such carelessness.

It took quite a bit of effort, warming my hands in my crotch and under my arms, to get them limber enough to do the fine work necessary for lighting a match. With stove lit, I was in good shape. In the northern story classic, “To Build A Fire,” by Jack London, the character faces a similar predicament, but in much colder temperatures and with much more dire consequences — the loss of his life.

In retrospect, there was plenty of wood around and I should have started a fire immediately after finding a camping spot, while I was still warm from skiing. Through painful experiences like this, I am a much better judge of how long it takes my body, and its extremities, to cool down after rigorous exercise like skiing or hiking. I now perform the important work right away — getting a fire or stove started, maybe even getting the tent erected, before the body cool-down. And I always bring along some lightweight gloves, usually polypropylene, with spares in case they get wet.

Here’s a goof that I’m embarrassed to mention because I did it twice in the same location on the Kenai Peninsula. We were goat hunting in early September and the pilot set us down on a small lake at about 3,000 feet, above Skilak Glacier. On the other side of a 5,000-foot ridge sprawled the Harding Ice Field. My partner Mark and I pitched our sturdy, four-season Sierra Design tent on a grassy clearing, then commenced to prepare a sumptuous camp meal and enjoy the sunset.

The third member of our party, we noticed, was spending an inordinate amount of time erecting a four-foot-high rock wall around his tent. Mark and I invited him over to partake in fine camp cuisine at our portable table, but he graciously declined and continued his prodigious task — stopping only for an occasional drink of water.

The Perfect Storm: About 10 p.m., with bellies full and brimming with thoughts of tomorrow’s hunt, we nestled into our sleeping bags. It was a crystal clear, calm night — like a Schlitz Beer ad when they say “it doesn’t get any better than this.”

Sometime early in the morning — maybe three or four — I awoke with the tent frame ramming into my shoulder and this terrible sound…a screaming roar, as if we were directly behind a 737 jet taxiing at Ted Stevens International. I turned over on my back, holding the tent ridge poles an inch over my face. Our four-season, sturdy Sierra Design tent was still intact, but the wind had flattened it to the ground. I yelled above the wind to Mar. He was also on his back, holding up his side of the tent. The tent’s fly was loose and cracking like a whip.

We thought we’d wait until the wind subsided before going out to secure the tent. After an hour and no sign of a break, we fought our way out to confront the gale, which was blowing horizontal rain and sleet.

Mark was 6-foot-5, 225 lbs., but he could barely stand. I’m much smaller, and was akin to kite material. Our friend, the smart little pig, was sleeping blissfully within the walls of his fortress. We anchored the tent better so that at the very least, it wouldn’t fly away, and crawled back in to wait out the storm.

If you’ve ever heard the term “Venturi effect,” this was the real deal, the Kenai version of the Perfect Storm. A narrow valley between two glaciers, the wind funneled through here like a jet-powered freight train — and didn’t abate until afternoon the next day. Days later on our pickup, the bush pilot said it was the fiercest storm of the year. Down below near Cooper Landing, winds were strong enough to knock down big trees, he said.

They say we learn from our mistakes. Not always. A couple of years later, on another goat hunt in the same area, we pitched our sturdy all-weather tent in what we thought was a sheltered spot behind a small hill — thus foregoing the necessity of building the rock wall. For most of the night and part of the next day, it was déjà vu. The freight train returned in full force.

Suffice it to say that any place I camp in the mountains, I now make sure I’m in a sheltered place, and if not, I erect a good windbreak around my tent. It’s taken quite a lot to turn this camper into a smart little pig.

Here’s one that wasn’t life threatening, but could have cost me some toes. On an overnight winter camping trip near Eklutna Lake, I forgot to wear know, the leggings that attach to your boots and fit snugly just below the knees. The slope became too steep for snowshoes, so I lashed them to my pack and commenced to posthole up the mountain to find a campsite. With no gators, snow got into my Sorrel boots, made the felt liners wet, and by the time I found my campsite my feet were numb. The temperature dropped to about five degrees above zero, not really that cold, but cold if you have wet feet.

I didn’t have replacement boot liners, another major error, and I immediately had to get a fire going to warm my feet. With all the spruce trees around, that was no problem. Had I been higher, with no wood to build a fire, I would have been in big trouble. Once I had warm feet, I quickly made camp, drank some water, ate a couple of candy bars, crawled into the sleeping bag and was fine for the night.

But stiff, frozen Sorrel boots awaited me in the morning, and after walking in them for about 30 minutes, my feet were numb. I had to build another fire and warm my feet again, this time trying to dry the liners as best as I could. No gators, no extra boot liners...stupid mistakes that could have cost me toes.

Experience is, as they say, the best teacher. Here are a few things I’ll never do again: Take a long trip on a snowmachine without a pair of snowshoes, or a companion snowmachiner; take an outboard motorboat anywhere without extra shear pins, a life vest and a can for bailing water; go camping without making sure my tent has been seam-sealed in the not-too-distant past. Other things: I won’t forget to take along sunblock and sun glasses on a summer outing; or forget to bring a hat, summer or winter; and always, always, I won’t forget to pack plenty of water, water containers, and when needed, a filter.

Of course, on any outdoor excursion, there is one thing that should always be left at home: complacency. Those who have been bending bushes in Alaska’s backcountry longer than I will tell you that on every trip there is always something new, totally unexpected and unpredictable.

After all the careful planning, equipment inspections and checklists, physical conditioning and training, there is one critical, irreplaceable tool that will save your life and perhaps, the lives of others: common sense. In Alaska’s backcountry, it’s your most valuable possession.


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. To contact him, send an email to: [email protected]

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