Four months have passed since Chuck Baird went into the wild to the not-so-remote islands in Alaska's Prince William Sound. The goat is dead. The dog is sick. Baird has lost 35 pounds. But the Internet is working great. And Baird now has more than 5,825 "likes,'' with the number increasing daily, on Facebook, where people check in his almost-daily jottings on living the pioneer life.
Well, sort of, if the pioneers had been equipped with lasers, night-vision optics, motion-sensing cameras, solar cells, wind turbines, battery banks, computers, iPhones, DVDs, Kindles, video cameras, telephoto lenses, chainsaws, plywood and more. Baird confessed in an August video that the “Alaska Pioneer” name of his adventure "is probably a misnomer,'' but added that "it's close enough to what I'm doing.'' He says his sojourn is a re-enactment of the pioneer days.
"I've got some modern technology,'' he said, "some modern conveniences, but I'm doing without a lot."
Alone on Latouche Island
His cabin has no plumbing, no running water, no television. There are no roads, let alone stores, on 30-square-mile Latouche Island. He is five miles from the nearest permanent settlement, which is across the often-storm-tossed waters of Latouche Passage. The island does get visitors, but no one else lives there year round. There were no carpenters or roofers to call for repairs when fall winds damaged the cabin Baird built. There were no electricians to summon when he needed help sorting out a problem with his wind turbine.
"It's fun,'' he said in a video on his Facebook page. "It's interesting. I guess I'd say it's interesting more than fun. It's exhausting and very uncomfortable.''
The Facebook page for Alaskan Pioneer is, in fact, largely what one might call a running blog of the drudgery of living the primitive lifestyle. There are the romantic moments. Baird has taken some spectacular photos of the starry night sky in a place where the world is free from the pollution of artificial light, and he talks about the joys of discovery as he explores his new world on foot.
Largely, though, he writes about cutting trees and hauling firewood:
"My first day off since June. My arm and shoulder are pretty sore from moving firewood. I don't think I'm injured but pretty sore. Back to work today,'' he posted in late October.
About fixing his cabin:
"I hate getting up on the roof all together but better get it over with. It's just going to get worse (if it isn't fixed).''
About dealing with the lack of running water:
"The lemonade I made has probably more than the recommended levels of pine needles in it since I didn't filter the water."
About maintaining his power supply:
"Each morning I carry my mobile solar gear up to a hill where the sun still reaches. My yard is now dark almost continually. I can get a solar charge from around 11:30-4:30 now. Days keep getting shorter."
On fretting about the oncoming winter:
"Just another 40 days or so and the days will begin to lengthen. We'll keep getting colder for another three months. Then, perhaps, some spring weather."
And on worrying about the wildlife:
"Whoever said all we have to fear is fear itself probably never lived in bear country.
"I try to wrap up work outside by sunset due to the bears. Science Fun Fact: Bears are a lot like zombies...they tend to come out at night, they like to eat brains, and they live in dens in the ground. (Don't quote me on that last one. I'm not really an expert on zombies.)"
"After a year off, I hope to return to society like a newborn baby. And by that I mean, refreshed, hopeful and ready to take on the world. Not naked, screaming and covered in blood -- though with all the bear out here it could go either way.''
Four months, four critters
Baird appears to suffer from an ailment common to those new to life in the Alaska wilderness: Bearanoia. Though he appears to worry a lot about bears, he confessed in an answer to a question on his Facebook page that "as far as land mammals go I've only seen four animals in four months. One deer, two bear and a mouse. The bear did not bother me. One walked by without paying attention. The other came when I was standing in a pool of blood from a kill. He came out to see what was up but the dog chased him off. I'm more worried about the mice in the winter, but no problems so far."
Bears, especially grizzly bears, are a very real danger in Alaska. Two men have been killed and eaten by bears in the state this year -- one in Denali National Park and Preserve and another near Sitka in Southeast Alaska. But the overall risks of being attacked by a bear are extremely low. According to data from the Wildlife Research Institute, when it comes to fatal bear attacks, you are 45 times more likely to be killed by a dog, 120 times more likely to be killed by bees, and a whopping 250 times more likely to be killed by lightning.
(Editor's note: The author of this story has had considerable experience with Alaska bears. He has had hundreds of encounters with the animals and was once forced to shoot a grizzly bear off his leg. He has the scars from that attack to remind him bears can be dangerous, but says they are not nearly as deadly as Alaska highways, which killed 72 people last year.
He's no Treadwell
That Baird, a native of Florida, would be especially fearful of bear attacks is not unusual given that the state is famous for bear attacks and probably most famous for a bear attack on another man with a passion for going into the wild. The late Timothy Treadwell, a would-be actor from California made a habit of trekking to the 49th state for 13 summers to live among the massive brown bears along the gulf coast of Katmai National Park and Preserve. He became semi-famous as a "bear whisperer'' after telling late-night TV talk-show host David Letterman that bears weren't dangerous, they were just big "party animals."
Treadwell got very close to the bears. He touched, petted and kissed some -- and it was all fine until it wasn't. He and girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed and eaten by one of Treadwell's big "party animals'' on Oct. 6, 2003. The macabre deaths of Treadwell and Huguenard became a big national story and the subject for a movie, "Grizzly Man" in which director Werner Herzog used a clip of Letterman's show that had Treadwell protesting that there was no chance he would be eaten by a bear.
In that regard, Baird is sort of an anti-Treadwell. In one of Baird's videos, he notes grizzly bears are rare on Latouche, but he arms himself because of black bears, which are far less of a danger to people. A woman in Juneau, the state capital, punched one in the nose in the fall of 2011 to make it cough up her dachshund. The bear was intending to make a meal of the dog. Brooke Collins was not the first in Alaska to drive off a black bear with fists or a stout stick.
Last black bear fatality: 1992
A black bear, in fact, hasn't killed anyone in the 49th state in more than 20 years. The last to die was Darcy Staver, who was forced off the roof of a cabin in the Interior in July of 1992. She and her husband had taken refuge there after a bear invaded the dwelling. When the husband left to get help, the bear forced Staver, a small woman, off the roof.
Baird, a good-sized man, wouldn't appear to be in much risk, and he appears to have no death wish -- though that is one of the easiest ways to become famous in the Alaska wild.
That Baird hopes to become famous, or at least marketable, is obvious. He is filming his adventure and hoping to make it into some sort of documentary or reality TV show. The latter genre is popular at the moment with at least a half-dozen Alaska-based productions already on TV or headed there. Whether anyone would be interested in a story about the simple struggles of trying to live without the conveniences of modern life remains to be seen.
The failures of foolish romantics often sell better. The sad fate of 24-year-old Chirs McCandless became the subject for the best-selling book "Into the Wild'' in 1996 and a big-time Hollywood movie a decade later. Both highly romanticized McCandless' death by starvation as some sort of quest for the meaning of life. Baird, for better or worse, is no McCandless.
He went to Latouche with plenty of food and well-equipped to survive if the food ran out. He has already lived in the wild as long as McCandless, and he appears to be still fit and healthy. He has also learned how hard it is to live in the wild.
About this, and most of the other difficulties of living remote, Baird, who attended the U.S. Air Force Academy appears fundamentally and sometimes humorously honest. He confessed that if he had gone to Latouche in pure pioneer style, equipped mainly with primitive tools and hopes of figuring out a way to live of the land, he probably wouldn't have made it. Building a log cabin is a lot of work even with a chainsaw. Then, if you need to build your own hearth inside to provide a place for a fire to keep the place warm, there is another set of skills required.
"I think there are a lot of skills there I just don't have,'' Baird said.
No more conveniences
Though Baird spent years living in Alaska before this adventure began, most of his time was spent in Anchorage, the urban core of the 49th state. Anchorage is surrounded by wilderness. It is on the doorstep of the half-million-acre Chugach State Park, one of the largest state parks in the nation, where grizzly bears, wolves and wolverines still roam.
But Anchorage itself has all the conveniences off any modern city. And Baird's Facebook postings, after months on Latouche Island, are all about life without them:
Oct. 2: "Last night I harvested and processed some seaweed. Made fresh sushi for dinner. Not bad but too much effort. Back down 38 pounds from my initial weight. A new low, but not a problem. Fired up my woodburning stove last night for the first time. Looks OK but probably smaller than desired. I'll be fine.
Oct. 9: "Carried eight loads of firewood up from the beach on my back, caulked the windows, bolted down the roof and milled wheat into a delicious onion-flavored flat bread."
Oct. 27: "Actually took yesterday off and did no work. My first day off since June. My arm and shoulder are pretty sore from moving firewood. I don't think I'm injured but pretty sore. Back to work today. Been thinking of some more interesting photography techniques I may try when I have some time. Temperatures dropped to 22 F again this morning but I'm getting used to it. It's amazing how quickly the body adjusts."
Nov. 7: "Irony: Being strong enough to carry logs on your shoulders all day and splitting them with a heavy maul, but then being too weak to open my coffee thermos or reach to a high shelf. Ugh, I need a vacation."
He also, clearly, needs the social interaction with people the Internet provides. Baird does have a dog, Wilson (guess where that name came from?) for companionship, but his companion goat, Thor, is now gone. Thor, escaped to the big goat-pen-in-the-sky sometime early in October.
"Some have asked about Thor," Baird posted. "I'm afraid he was eaten a few weeks ago. Wilson found his horns two days ago.''
A Facebook lashing
The Alaskan Pioneer promptly took a Facebook lashing. Sixty-eight people posted comments about Thor. Most offered Baird condolences, but a fair number of them took the man to task for failing to protect the goat and this quickly turned into a Facebook debate.
"There are people who have left comments who care deeply for animals, and that includes goats,'' one woman wrote. "That includes Thor, who we all have gotten to know through the postings here on Facebook. Although Thor's role may have been one of a food source, to make light of people’s comments and feelings, well that’s not only rude but insensitive. It amazes me the lack of compassion and respect some people have for animals. Whether or not an animal is being raised for food, or companionship, every animal deserves to be treated humanely and with respect. Thor wasn't that stupid to not have felt the fear, terror and pain as his life was being mauled and snuffed out by a bear. He relied on a human to take care of him and to keep him safe -- a human who failed him. What a damn shame."
Baird largely ignored the back and forth, but did respond days later to a poster worried he might be left depressed and ready to give up his wilderness odyssey because of all the negative feedback.
"Thanks Maxine, that's kind,'' he wrote. "I don't plan to quit unless I have a serious injury or the cabin burns down. I'm tired and sore but thrilled! The only annoyance is people telling me to work harder and get more firewood. But that's OK. I'm really humbled that people would spend their attention on following my existence."
That thousands do seems a little weird to many Alaskans. There are lots of people living in the boonies in Alaska. Usually they are paid no attention. Baird, on the other hand, is living wild in plain sight. It's a little like the late Dick Proenneke, author of an Alaska classic titled "One Man's Wilderness'' gone live and viral. Except, of course, that Proenneke did live truly remote in what is now Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in a tiny log cabin he built himself. But times were different then.
Proenneke's move from civilization to Twin Lakes in 1962 was, in most ways, a smaller step than Baird's move from Anchorage urbana back to the country in 2012. And, of course, though Proenneke recorded almost all of his daily activities, there was no Internet.
It was in 1964 that Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher of communication theory, observed that "the medium is the message.'' McLuhan was at the time writing about how television had changed the way people saw the world. He did not live to see the next step on how electronic communications can change the way people see the world. Baird is living that step.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com