Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 9:01 PM on Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Near-disasters give appreciation for Alaska wilderness experience


Michael Armstrong

In writing stories, to better understand the people I interview, I try to see how my own experience relates to theirs. How can I empathize with them? What have I gone through that will give me some insight to their story?

For a story I wrote a few weeks ago about Diane and Brent Petersen surviving an icy plunge into Tustumena Lake, I didn't have to empathize much. When it comes to surviving near-fatal disasters in Alaska, I've had plenty. Breaking through ice? Rolling a kayak? Getting lost? Been there, done that, had the hypothermia.

Oddly enough, when I lived in Florida before moving to Alaska I didn't have adventures. The worst ordeal was camping out in a drippy tent when Chris Miller, George Dame and I decided to bike from Tampa to Dunedin Beach, Fla.

Within a month of arriving in Alaska I got stuck on a lonely road in the Chugach National Forest, spent the night and had to be rescued by a Young Adult Conservation Corps crew — the famous Christmas tree story I like to tell. New Alaskans, unless you stay in downtown Anchorage, at some point you're likely to have a brush too close with the wilderness.

Heck, even if you do stay in Anchorage, that can happen. The scariest moose encounter I ever had was with a big bull in my back yard in south Anchorage.

Adventures can be found more easily the further out one travels. Add a recreational activity like hiking, skiing, mountain climbing, boating, flying and dog mushing into the mix, and you're almost guaranteed to have some excitement.

For about 10 years I ran sled dogs while I lived in Anchorage. Heading out onto the Tozier Track trails off Tudor Road I regularly had close calls. I lost a team once, lost my leaders another time and ran into moose too many times.

My worst adventures, and the scariest, came when I ran dogs near Big Lake. I had a cabin I shared with friends at Never Never Lake, a little lake off the west end of Big Lake. One time my wife Jenny and I ran our dogs on the Big Lake Trails. We missed the cutoff back to the parking lot on Big Lake Road and promptly got lost. After running around in circles and with daylight fading, we wound up on the Iditarod Trail. Yes, the one that goes to Nome. Eventually we wound up at the Knik Bar. Jenny hitched a ride with some guys back to our truck on Big Lake Trail and then came and rescued me and the team.

Another winter we decided to spend New Year's Eve at the Never Never Lake cabin. The plan was to park on Big Lake and mush two teams to the cabin. My sister, brother-in-law, young nieces and my mom would ski in behind us.

That didn't work out.

At the edge of Big Lake near a trail that went through the woods to Never Never Lake, Jenny's team ran into overflow, with my team right behind her. We went through water up to our knees and the dogs started swimming. Somehow we got the dogs to dry land, but there we were, soaking wet and cold, and another patch of overflow to get through before we made it to the cabin. Meanwhile, my mom skied with my young nieces out on the lake. As Clint Eastwood said, "A good man has to know his limitations." We turned the dogs around, back through the overflow and to the truck. We rounded everyone up, changed into dry clothes and spent New Year's back home.

I got the full-immersion-into-cold-water experience here in Homer. After living here a few years, like any good Kachemak Bay boy, I bought a boat, a used expedition kayak. One Memorial Day weekend I took my kayak out for a spin on Mud Bay with my friend Jim and brother-in-law Charlie. Not really used to it, I leaned a bit too far to starboard and caught a wave to port. Over I went.

Later I'd learn how to do a proper wet exit, but in my panic then I ripped my spray skirt off and got free. Gasping in the sudden cold, I remember my first thought was, "Oh my gosh, I'm going to drown." My second thought was, "Hey, this personal floatation device actually works." My third thought was, "Dang, this water is cold."

Short of a dry suit in a warm pool, I can think of no better place to roll a kayak than Mud Bay with two friends along. Jim and Charlie came to my rescue. We got my kayak righted and I got back into the kayak. A half hour in the steam room at the Bay Club and I rediscovered feeling in my toes.

In my years here I've skied in the backcountry, flown in the Bush, and sailed through the Chugach Passage and around Gore Point. I've been in places and situations where with a little bit of bad luck I could have died. I've faced grizzly bears and drunks. (I'll take a bear over a drunk, by the way.) That's just the way it is in Alaska. It's cold. It's wild. It's remote. Things happen.

Fortunately, most of us survive the adventures we create. I know plenty of Alaskans who've gone through much worse, and who push the envelope a lot harder. I like what Diane Petersen told me about their adventure.

"If you want to live in Alaska, to live to the fullest, you're going to go out there and do these things," she said. "I'd rather be doing these things in my life than playing Facebook. ... I'd rather experience life."

I came to Alaska to experience life. And you know what? I have, icy cold water and all.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.