This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.
Every week, it seems I run into another friend or acquaintance who wants to try winter camping. So many people had expressed interest, in fact, that ADN reporter Devin Kelly and I decided to round up a group for an easy backpacking trip over the MLK Day weekend.
One by one, our friends dropped out. Some couldn't get off work. Others were concerned about rain. A few had succumbed to injuries or the nasty illness currently circulating around Anchorage.
At the trailhead, it was just me and Devin. We hiked in the dark to Hanging Valley near Eagle and Symphony Lakes and set up our tent in the snow. With mild weather and too much food (let's call it "Snackpacking: Winter Edition"), we were happy.
Ours was a rare mishap-free trip that would've been perfect for winter camping newbies. To those friends who missed out, well, you know my track record. It might never be that good again.
Since I've started writing this column chronicling outdoor lessons learned the hard way, readers have chimed in with their own stories of misadventure. While our trip last weekend went off without a hitch, not every outing is as tranquil. Here's a round of reader tales (lightly edited for style and space) that could best be described as rude awakenings.
Have a story to share? Post a comment online or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and your story may be spotlighted in the next roundup.
"Once, a friend and I were on our then-annual kayaking trip somewhere in (Prince William Sound). We had chartered out of Whittier and were dropped off at our chosen destination to camp, along with our two-person hard-shell kayak. Armed with the tide book, we carefully chose a tent site and also strung up our waterbeds with our clothing and gear in trees for protection against bears. I woke up in the middle of the night with the sensation that I was floating. I put my hands out to the side of my sleeping bag and Thermarest pad and felt water, but not the bottom of the tent. I woke up my kayaking partner/tent mate and told her we were flooded. We got out of our sleeping bags quickly, stood up and there was water up to our knees. Very cold water. We quickly dragged our bags out of the tent which was, fortunately, staked down, then unstaked the tent, and hauled all of the stuff up hill. Fortunately it was June and light out. Also fortunately it was not raining. We got out dry clothes from the hanging dry bags and then spread all the wet stuff around. We fired up our unflooded stove for some tea, and wrapped ourselves in reflective blankets until the sun got warm, and then so did we. Later that day, we were out kayaking and came across a couple in another two-person kayak that we began chatting to and shared our experience. Incredibly, they said the same thing had happened to them previously. We all determined we had camped on an isthmus that the water soaked up from below during high tide. While we all felt stupid, at the same time we realized we were lucky to be alive and not suffering from hypothermia. It was just one of many lessons to learn over the years."
— C.J. in response to "Summit beatdowns: When the best decision you can make is the most disappointing"
Cuddling among quills
"The bear 'cuddle' story reminded me of a tale from my father. On a Kenai Peninsula campout, he awoke to find himself cuddled up to a porcupine. Fortunately, he preferred an open lean-to tarp instead of a tent, which allowed him the space to roll away from the apparently comfortable and contented critter!"
— F.B. in response to "Sleeping with bears? More tales and tips from outdoorsy readers"
"I remember going down to Deep Creek/Whisky Gulch fishing years ago, got there around midnight, had a few drinks and set up camp in the dark, and of course it was raining. Couldn't figure out why my sleeping bag was so uncomfortable. Next morning I moved the tent to a better spot and found I had been sleeping on rocks of an old campfire pit on the beach. One too many drinks, I guess. Rock and roll! Friends in camp had big laugh and still rag on me about that one."
— K.C.J. reminding me of a night spent sleeping in Stivers Gully
"Slept in my open air inflatable kayak one night only to find a bear had walked down and hovered over me while I was fast asleep. Prints all around my head the next morning."
— R.C. in response to "Sleeping with bears? More tales and tips from outdoorsy readers"
Opening the floodgates
"Hiking over Crow Pass years ago: After a late start and short of the pass, came across the only flat spot around, full of soft sand, the ideal place to pitch my tent, perfect slumber guaranteed. Late that night, a storm rolled in and the rain fell hard. Rolling over in my sleeping bag, I noticed I was effectively sleeping on a water bed. Curiously, I unzipped the tent door and was immediately flooded by a foot of water. I'd pitched my tent smack in the middle of a natural catchment pool in an otherwise dry stream bed. I immediately understood why the spot was so flat and sandy and I was thoroughly immersed in the liquid reason."
— C.F. in response to "Want to sleep fearlessly in camp? Choose the right tent site."
Vicky Ho is the night homepage editor at the Anchorage Daily News. An avid hiker and skier, she's also a mediocre runner, terrible biker and part-time employee at a local outdoor retailer. Contact her at email@example.com, on Twitter @hovicky or Instagram @hovcky.