It’s officially springtime in Southcentral Alaska. As I sit in my office during the workday, pondering the outdoors compared to the bottomless appetite of my inbox, I’m thinking about summer and all the adventuring I want to do.
And there’s this nagging thing in the back of my mind reminding me of lessons learned from summers past.
My top two takeaways? No. 1: Alaska is our backyard, but it’s still Alaska. No. 2: Plan carefully, and pick your partners wisely.
I have this horrifying memory from my first full summer in Alaska. This was almost 11 years ago to the day. I was fresh off the plane and excited to make new friends. I happened upon a crew of summer-long volunteers who took me in. I tagged along with them on a Memorial Day camping trip.
We went to Eagle River to camp near Echo Bend along the Crow Pass Trail. This seemed innocuous enough on its surface — Eagle River is a bedroom community of Anchorage, after all. Basically a suburb like any other, right?
Sure, except for the bears.
We treated the trip like a car camping trip, except with 2 miles of hiking to access the campground. It’s actually amazing, looking back, to think about our dedication to hauling in coolers full of hot dogs and growlers of beer, plus full-sized camp chairs. Yes, multiple coolers.
That first night we stayed up roasting marshmallows and making s’mores until the sun was finally as low as it was going to get. Since we needed to consume as much beer as possible so we wouldn’t have to haul it out (we were young and cheap; the growlers were a significant investment and we weren’t going to waste any beer!), we went to bed feeling warm and tipsy.
I woke up in my tent sometime in that silent late night/early morning sunshine that can be so confusing in Alaska in the summer. It was probably 5 a.m.
The first thing I noticed was that there was sticky marshmallow and chocolate residue on my hand that I hadn’t noticed before going to bed.
The second thing I noticed was that I’d been awakened by loud snuffling and grunting noises right outside my tent.
I was suddenly wide awake with my heart pounding. I looked over at the new friend with whom I was sharing the tent. I briefly considered whether to wake her up to alert her that we might die. I decided it was kinder to let her sleep.
The snuffling noises gradually faded, but my heart raced for a solid 30 minutes longer. I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been to go to bed with food residue on me, in the heart of bear country.
But what did I do with my new insight? Too scared to unzip my tent, and somehow also feeling sleepy again, I turned over and went back to sleep.
I’m telling you: horrifying.
Eleven years later, I am much more diligent about safety but still fallible. Because I am a human zipping around in my car surrounded by familiar features of Anyplace, USA (Fred Meyer, gas stations, homes with two-car garages, etc.), I have a tendency to forget how extremely wild this place is.
The bears and moose were here long before we were. I am the visitor here.
Maybe in the Lower 48, where state parks are bounded by roads and cell service is covered even at the top of the mountain, an escape hatch is easier. I could imagine being more lackadaisical in my planning. Not advisable, but the safety net is usually relatively wide.
Compare this to Alaska, where even our “casually accessible” backyard is vaster than the kind of wilderness many people experience in a lifetime. Do I get used to it? Yes. Should I? No, not really.
That leads me to my next takeaway from summers past, which is to plan carefully and pick adventure partners wisely.
The kind of planning I’m referring to includes but goes beyond the usual gear-and-route checklist. This is about evaluating my own skill level, and having candid and sometimes uncomfortable conversations with adventure buddies about their skill and comfort level.
Backcountry skiers are trained in these conversations as a part of avalanche training. It’s easy to lapse into groupthink, especially when you don’t want to let your group down or appear lame.
But evaluating and adhering to agreements around reducing risk is critically important, especially as continued positive experiences start to reinforce the idea that you’ll be fine. (“I didn’t die that time so it must have been OK” really sinks in after a while and can lead to poor decisions.)
So, to drive the point home: In retrospect, 11 years ago on my inaugural Alaska camping trip, I would have planned to pack food in bear-proof containers, and I would have found myself a wet wipe to get the chocolate off my hands before heading to bed.
And I should have had the uncomfortable conversation with my new friends. I have to admit that even now I cringe at that idea. Who wants to be that person?
I do. I’d rather be that person than a bear s’more.
Get out there and enjoy the summer, Alaskans. And let’s remember how wild this place we live is, and be careful and proactive about how we access it.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.