Accidental Adventures: Alaska – True Tales of Ordinary People Facing Danger in the Wilderness
By Chris Lundgren. Lyons Press, 2020. 223 pages. $18.95.
Every Alaskan knows that the Alaska wilderness is unforgiving. We have heard the stories — the woman stuck in Cook Inlet mud who drowns, the climbers fallen to their deaths, the many bear maulings, the disappeared who are never found. Most of us with any longevity in the state will know some of these individuals and their tragic stories directly. Our bookshelves bulge with dramatic, heart-rending accounts.
Chris Lundgren, an Eagle River resident and outdoorswoman herself, has put together a fresh and remarkable book of misadventures — fresh and remarkable because, in every case, when so much went wrong, enough went right that no one involved died. The result is a collection that will, first, put readers on the edges of their seats with surging adrenaline and then ease them into relief and appreciation for the clear-headed thinking, training and heroism that made for safe outcomes.
The 20 chapters here are wide-ranging and well-balanced, with stories covering boat sinkings, plane crashes, wildlife encounters, hypothermia, falls through ice, avalanches, glacial surges and various examples of being lost and endangered. These are not all even in wilderness — with one involving a dog falling into a pit and another of a woman and child being nearly run down in a suburban backyard by two moose and the bear chasing them.
Lundgren must be a skilled researcher and interviewer to have collected this cache of stories and convinced those involved to speak honestly and in such detail with her. All but one chapter are told from survivors’ points of view, as the individuals recall the events and their states of mind at the time. It likely took some coaxing to help those who lived through near-death experiences admit errors made in preparation or judgment and then to relive trauma by describing it and having it released in print to the world. The featured people are Alaskans, not naive tourists, and the names are real.
Lundgren is also an excellent storyteller, with an instinct for knowing where to begin each telling (often at a critical decision point, and then circling back to earlier moments) and how to pace events for dramatic effect.
The writing is also clear and informative, as when the author describes the equipment and technique used to free a dipnetter’s trapped legs from the greasy mud holding them. “Jack returned with the mud rescue tool, a six-foot-long, close-tip piercing nozzle with a fire hose attached at the top. . . . They had learned in training that rocking a victim back and forth could create spaces in the mud and break the vacuum around the person’s legs.”
Many of the stories include epilogues that inform readers about subsequent events. The backcountry skier buried by an avalanche fought off her fear by donning skis again the next day; she later became an avalanche safety instructor. The pilot who made a dead-stick landing after losing power later learned about the wrong gasket sent by the manufacturer and made sure that both the manufacturer and Alaska mechanics knew to avoid a repeat performance. The commercial fisherman who lost his boat and nearly his life bought a new boat and kept fishing.
There are many helpful takeaways here for anyone heading into the outdoors. Be prepared. Start early. Respect the weather and terrain. If you like risk-taking, calculate your own and what you might impose on others. Make sure others know your route and when to expect you back. Know when you need help and how to get it. Always keep calm.
Most crises of any kind result not from one bad choice or unforeseen circumstance but from compounded errors and failures. In one easily relatable story, a hiker took off late in the day, wore inadequate clothing, separated from her companion, tried a “short-cut,” lost her way, expected to rely on her phone, and crossed a river that divided her from rescuers. After she went face-to-face with a bear cub, she removed the safety from a can of bear spray, fell and sprayed herself. Ouch!
Perhaps most impressive throughout are the examples of goodwill, competence, sacrifice and heroism of so many fellow adventurers, good Samaritans and professional and volunteer rescuers. In all the stories, there appears only a single person who comes across as a mean jerk. We should all feel grateful to those who head out into storms, wild seas and other dangerous conditions to help others. Two stories here involve Alaska state ferries diverting course, one to respond to two men who spent five hours immersed in a frigid, rough sea and the other to save an overturned, hypothermic kayaker.
As increasing numbers of people test themselves in Alaska’s wild places, including by taking part in challenges like the Wilderness Classic and the White Mountains 100-Mile Ultra Race near Fairbanks (both featured in this volume), it pays to learn from the close encounters of others. Readers of “Accidental Adventures: Alaska” might feel the pull to head out on their own adventures — or they might be quite content to sit before a warm fire and shake their heads at the discomfort and danger that others willingly or accidentally endure.
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