Retrospective: Backpacking in Alaska with NOLS


“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” -Edward Abbey

Extended backpacking trips can pose a logistical challenge. Not just packing enough food or setting up re-ration points, but also running shuttles to points of entry and exit, communication, fitness, gear, and getting enough time off work and away from responsibilities. It’s also tough to find people with the interest, skill set, availability, and funds to go with you. Going with an organization like NOLS can eliminate some of the issues as they handle the logistics and you will be provided guides and coursemates. It’s only a vacation if you like your vacations to be a challenge, but you will come out of it stronger, fitter, more adaptable, with a new appreciation for the wilderness, and with lifelong friends.

View from the top of an approximately 6,000 foot peak in the Alaska Range.

NOLS and similar organizations such as Outward Bound offer a variety of different types of trips to all sorts of far flung locations. The NOLS Alaska Branch offers trips ranging from 8 to 75 days. Backpacking is one option, but there are also Mountaineering and Sea Kayaking courses, as well as courses that offer a combination of activities. My trip was 30 days into the Alaska Range. I chose Alaska simply because I wanted to see it and I chose backpacking because I already knew I liked it, though Mountaineering and Sea Kayaking have their own appeal.

Alaska is without question the wildest place I have ever been. A serious injury would have posed major logistical challenges to an evacuation to definitive care, which is why our guides carried satellite phones. Even then, it was important that we avoid unnecessary risks. Alaska is grizzly county, the trips are remote, and the wilderness is a great magnifier. A broken ankle in a city means a short drive to an ER, but in the backcountry you’ll be hoping your guides or a coursemate have Wilderness First Responder (WFR) training so they know how to get you to definitive care safely. You’ll also hope they like you as packing out an injured person is a seriously laborious task. Thankfully NOLS guides do all have this certification, but it’s best to respect nature and do your best to avoid bears and cross streams safely.

An example of a safe stream crossing. However, some streams are too strong for this method requiring you to hike upstream to a safer point.

If you are completely new to backpacking, the sort of weight you’ll need to carry for a long distance trip such as this will feel substantial. If possible, try to go on some hikes with a weighted pack to prep. If this is not possible, try to at least up your fitness program and maybe take some long walks. NOLS sends in re-ration planes to supply your group with supplies and you have to be at the right place at the right time to meet those planes. Expect some long and difficult days, but also expect them to be worth it. The scenery is spectacular and the sense of accomplishment is worth every step, blister, mosquito bite, and sweat stain.

So, let’s talk about that. In particular, let’s talk about the mosquitoes. I grew up in northern West Virginia where we had slow, lazy, easy to spot mosquitoes that would occasionally land a meal, but overall weren’t too troublesome to avoid. I don’t know what species reside in Alaska, but they are small, fast, aggressive, numerous, and accustomed to feeding on caribou. They are awful. You will live in your mosquito headnet. You will hike in full raingear on hot sunny days and they will still manage to bite through it. If you make the mistake I made and bring ineffective natural bug “repellent” they will laugh at you while they suck you dry. You will grow to love the tundra, where they are less numerous. The river beds aren’t so bad either, but the buggy hell that is the taiga will be your nemesis and mortal enemy. Bring a high percentage DEET. Do so despite health concerns. Maybe never use it again after that if it makes you feel better, but use it in Alaska.

I’m the one hiding behind the mosquito headnet. We all had them. My coursemate was bravely risking exsanguination.

Raingear is essential. Be prepared for large amounts of rain and cold, even in the summer. There’s a reason the packs you borrow from NOLS are so big. It’s not just the food, tents, sleeping pads, fuel, sleeping bags, and other basic accoutrements of backpacking, it’s the variety of clothes you need to pack to be ready for all of the weather conditions you will encounter. You will come out of this trip in great shape and then you will have the best shower of your life. You will also never be more excited to see fresh food. NOLS provisions you well, but it’s the sort of provisions you can carry in the backcountry, which means lots of powders and freeze dried veggies and beans. Some courses fish, though mine wasn’t one. We did make salads from bluebells and soy sauce because when you are in the backcountry for a month, your standards of what is acceptable change in a big way. I’m pretty sure that I could have bartered an apple or a Snickers to get someone to carry my pack for an entire day.

July 4, 2002 – Independence Day in the wilds and the first and to date only earthquake I’ve ever experienced.

Lest this all sound horribly miserable, I can assure you that wrapped in all of the struggle with the soggy hypothermia inducing days, the mosquitoes, and the exhaustion, were some of the most beautiful and rewarding times I have every experienced. I saw a glacier for the first time, experienced my first earthquake, saw a Grizzly (from a safe vantage across a raging river) as well as moose, caribou, porcupines, and a wide variety of bird species. I experienced wilderness in a way that most of us never do, carrying my world on my back in a far flung wilderness with my struggles simplified to survival. My daily focus was reduced to food, water, shelter, avoiding dangerous wildlife, and the route. In a world as complicated as ours, I cannot stress enough how pleasant it is to allow your mind to focus on the basics in the way an extended backpacking trip can.

This was in 2002 and my crappy old camera does not do justice to the Alaskan scenery. I assure you that it is stunning.

If any of this appeals to you at all, I implore you to save up your funds, step away from real life, and head out your door for the sort of escape only the wilderness can provide.

Categories: Adventure, Backpacking, Retrospectives, TravelTags: , , , , ,

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