In 2011, German traveler Gabriel Gersch took a trip into the heart of Alaska and did what any backcountry adventurer does in the Last Frontier: took a picture in front of the bus where Chris McCandless -- of "Into the Wild" fame -- spent his last days.
It's the equivalent of a tourist trap for those willing to hike the less than 15 miles into Denali National Park, but after that, Gersch was all business, trekking and rafting around the Interior in some hardcore backcountry adventuring. And in 2012, he came back for more.
Gersch dialed it up a notch, hiking from the Dalton Highway -- also known as the haul road -- to the Arctic village of Kaktovik in August. Next, Gersch was set for a nearly two-week journey through Alaska's Eastern Range.
The first few days of Gersch's trip went more-or-less according to plan, as he reports on his blog. He hitchhiked and hiked until arriving at the headwaters of Eureka Creek, where he inflated his packraft and began paddling. Then, he was camped at the entrance to a narrow canyon, rumored to be full of rough water and typically sees rafting parties pull up and hike overland to get past the worst rapids.
Gersch, however, opted to go for it, alone. It wasn't long before he was regretting it.
As Gersch reports on his blog:
Rafting the canyon was stupid because of several reasons.
1. I was alone. You should “actually” never go rafting alone.
2. I didn’t know this stretch of whitewater. People who portaged it and looked into the canyon from 100 m above described it as class V water and “beyond packrafting level”.
3. Even groups of experienced packrafters, who could have secured each other, did not raft it.
4. I had all my gear attached to the boat which made navigation harder and the boat less flexible. To re-enter the boat or to pull it out in case of a flip can be very hard with the heavy pack on it.
On a solo trip, when I’m responsible for nobody else than myself, I’m often taking higher risks than in a group. But there is a fine line between taking as risk and being stupid – usually my decisions are well considered, but not so much this time.
Fortunately, Gersch survived his misadventure, which could have easily ended up much worse. He did, however, lose a grip on his paddle, the only means of controlling his raft. Gersch recounted his harrowing experience after overturning in the rough water.
The rapids "twisted my body as if it was a little toy," he wrote. "I didn’t know what’s up and what’s down. My boat was gone and I just had the paddle in my hand; seconds later I let it go, too. Somehow I managed to escape the rapid, found air to breathe and instantly fell into the next rapid, which kept turning and rattling me like the first one. This happened a few times, I barely found enough air to breathe, instead I swallowed a lot of water and hit the rocks with all parts of my body."
Disheartened by the early end to his journey, Gersch hiked the 25-or-so miles back to the road.
Our Alaska takes a look at the people, places, activities and wildlife that make Alaska great. There's the Alaska that many people know from reality television, and then there's Our Alaska. If you have a video that puts the spotlight on the positive, educational or unique aspects of Alaska and its people, send links or submissions to ben(at)alaskadispatch.com.