This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.
"How the hell did I end up here?"
Let me start off with some reassurances. When I said these words to myself, I wasn't lost.
This was back in July 2015 on my first solo backpacking trip, an out-and-back along the Crow Pass Trail from Girdwood to the Eagle River crossing.
Knowing I'd be in a bear hot spot, I rented a bear-proof food canister and carrying case. The guy behind the shop counter asked me if I'd used either of them before. I said no.
"Just make sure you take the canister out of the case before you stash it. Otherwise, if you leave it in the case, the bear can just grab it by the strap."
The mental image of a bear lumbering away, hauling my food with the strap in its mouth, was comical — and it stuck. I followed the clerk's instructions for storing my food accordingly.
If I thought I was bearanoid before the hike, being on the trail didn't help much. A relative newcomer to Alaska, I hadn't ever seen anyone hiking with a firearm for protection in bear country. On my way to the campsite that day, I counted five.
People thought I was crazy for hiking by myself, much less hiking by myself without a gun. Eventually, I started to doubt my sanity too.
"How the hell did I end up here?" was what I asked myself that night while staring at the ceiling of my tent. Certain that every rustling sound was a bear searching for a more substantive meal than freeze-dried beef stroganoff, I had a couple of wide-eyed hours to contemplate the life choices that led me to being in a tent, alone, miles from anywhere I might be able to call for help.
Since I first started hiking by myself here, much has changed. One constant, though, is the need to manage my own fear.
Bears are only part of the equation. When I'm alone, I have zero margin for error, and that includes gear, injury, routefinding, trip planning, terrain management, the works. Those are all important aspects of backcountry preparation that I've written about before. But when someone asks me about hiking or backpacking solo, one point I'll emphasize — aside from spot-on preparation — is that you have to have the right mindset going in. Think vigilant, not paranoid; cautious, not skittish; dogged, but not reckless.
Truth be told, solo backpacking doesn't suit everyone. If you're a social person who thrives on conversation with others, you might find the experience overwhelmingly boring. If you're prone to moments of panic or paranoia, solo camping may not be a great idea.
If you're uneasy about being alone, I'll admit: There's added safety in having someone else there who can help you out of a sticky situation, assist in routefinding, administer first aid and offer gear.
So why do I hike alone?
It started because I had a work schedule at odds with my friends'. Now, I hike by myself to figure out what kind of person I am. When it's just me in the mountains, I have to answer for everything I do.
What kind of decisions do I make on my own? Which route do I choose, and how well did I prepare? How do I manage fear and risk? At what point do I call it quits? How do I test my assumptions and learn from my mistakes?
Having to hold myself accountable in that way makes me value those lessons learned on a solo backcountry trip. Honestly, I wouldn't be who I am today if I hadn't started hiking by myself.
If you're looking for stats on the safety of solo hiking vs. group hiking, I don't have them. I'm not an expert. To those who urge others to never hike alone, I understand where that's coming from — especially this summer, when we've seen several people out alone in the Alaska backcountry perish.
The fear that arises after events like that, I carry with me. It informs my decision-making and causes me to reconsider my tolerance for risk. Like most people, I don't want to do anything that makes my family miss me for years to come.
But at the end of the day, that fear — like any fear — is only one piece of the puzzle I'm putting together when I venture onto the trails, or off.
Someone told me I was developing "quite the reputation" through this column, which could be taken one of two ways. I would counter that I don't necessarily make more mistakes than the average hiker. I just happen to write about them for the newspaper.
But if you'd like to hear some cautionary tales in person, I'll be joining other storytellers at a Trail Tales event hosted by Alaska Trails and the Chugach Park Fund at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 21, at 49th State Brewing Co. in downtown Anchorage. Tickets are $15, and you can find more information at alaska-trails.org/trailtales.html.