This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.
"We've all done it."
I find myself saying that more and more as others tell me their stories of outdoor woe. While the circumstances may be different each time, the "it" speaks to something universal: making a mistake.
A reader told me about hiking up Flattop at night to photograph the northern lights, only to realize he had forgotten to bring a memory card for his camera. A friend got socked in along the Chugach front range and wound up hiking in a circle, and unknowingly set up camp close to where they started. Another took a step on a rock covered in glassy ice — and down he went, into a frigid creek in winter.
I embrace my mistakes because they're how I learn. Out here, there's no shortage of lessons for nature to teach us. Some are just more painful than others.
So in that spirit, here's another round of tales and tips from readers (lightly edited for style and space). Post a comment online or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and your story may be spotlighted in the next roundup.
Snuggling for warmth, bear edition
"If you want fearlessness, you oughta try what I did back when I was 10 years old. Went to sleep with my family in a tent up near Tok one night in early July. Everybody lined their sleeping bags up side by side and I got the outside edge. I kind of woke up in the night and thought, 'Man, I'm so warm and cozy!' and went back to sleep. Next morning Dad went out and started the fire and put the coffee pot on. Stuck his head in the tent flap and said, 'Say, did you know a grizzly was bedded down up against the tent last night?' Well, I WAS fearless! My grandkids get a kick out of it when I tell them about the time I slept with a grizzly bear."
— B.C., in response to "Want to sleep fearlessly in camp? Choose the right tent site."
Shrinkage and leakage
"I have used the very hot Nalgene sleeping bag heater many times. I toss one in the bottom of the sleeping bag a few minutes before climbing in. The result is a nice warm bag, a great foot warmer for most the night and a short heat cycle for coffee in the morning. However, it is worth noting that if you over tighten your bottle at night to prevent leakage it may be almost impossible to open in the morning as the plastic lid shrinks more than the bottle. Been there, done that, not the end of the world but kind of annoying. P.S. remember to check the seal on your bottle a little bit after you put in the hot water as the lid can expand enough to cause leakage. Been there done that too."
— I.D.K. in response to "As Alaska trail temperatures plummet, remember: You can't drink ice through a straw"
In appreciation of Fairbanks
"My first impression of Fairbanks in May of 1990 was 'What a dump. I bet I end up living here.' I ended up living here. It is decidedly not a dump. After several years in Denali (where I met my now wife) we settled in Fairbanks for better job prospects. Initially I wasn't sure about the place but as I came to learn the extensive trail system the mountain biker in me went nuts. I also found plenty of things to get involved in because Fairbanks residents have to create their own good times. People here are doers. When you meet someone questions don't revolve around jobs, we ask where have you hiked/biked/hunted/fished/climbed/etc. In other words, how have you taken advantage of this place and what it offers? You can go to a party and find a millionaire swapping trail tales with a plumber and they've known each other for years and you can't tell which is which from the looks of them. As for suggestions, visit in March. There is no finer place on Earth than Fairbanks, Alaska, in March."
— D.J. in response to "My Fairbanks-hating friends have it all wrong"
Contending with the cold
"Because of frost-nipping myself on feet and hands over the years, I've developed a mild case of Raynaud's disease, which as you probably know is a heightened sensitivity to cold at the extremities. I used to be too 'proud' to use chemical warmers, but rely on them quite a bit these days. And you're right, they don't always work. For feet, I buy my winter hiking and ski boots about a size too large so I can use three sock layers — first a thin polypropylene inner sock, medium sock and then a heavier sock. … And if it's REALLY cold, I'll insert the toe chemical warmers too. … In addition to your 'Seinfeld' (Elaine)-type weird dancing, food is most important as you know. Heat from within — fatty foods. On your next cold journey, try taking along some smoked or cooked salmon if you can get it. In extreme cold the buddy system is recommended. You can flash freeze the nose without even knowing it, but a friend will quickly point out your white nose is the opposite of Rudolph's."