National Geographic Article is published and available Online.
“Nobody had ever done it before: Hike, ski, and raft 4,679 miles through eight national parks, dozens of mountain ranges, and the length of the Yukon territory. Then along came Andrew Skurka.”
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On Saturday, March 13, a small plane will land early morning in Kotzebue, Alaska. Andy Skurka will get off the airplane, put on his headlamp in the pre-dawn darkness, pull on some clothes in the zero degree temperature, and start skiing. He would ski for 12 hours straight, and do at least that every day for the next month and a half. Then he’ll hike and packraft 16 hours every day for the next 5 months.
He’s circumnavigating the entire state, crossing the entire Alaska Range, Brooks Range, and parts of the Yukon. An estimated 4,720 miles, in hopefully 6 1/2 months. Almost all off-trail. Plenty of bears, brush, snow, raging rivers, glaciers (and mosquitos).
Before some big trips, we might say, “The route has never been done before”, but that begs the point in this case … no one has even considered doing this before.
Andy Skurka walked into Kotzebue, Alaska last Sunday, Sept 5, 4,600 miles and 175 days after he walked out in March.
Remarkably, the Alaska Yukon Expedition took less time than expected. Equally remarkably, in a message he sent a week before finishing, he lamented the end of the trip, and sort of wished it would keep going. Huh?
Over 1,000 miles on skis, glacier crossings, packrafting across fjords, crossing streams during spring thaw, mosquitos, bears … others might have been glad it was done. Of course, others wouldn’t have done it period.
I asked Andy a few questions:
Your trip went quicker than expected? I knew there would choices of longer and easier or shorter and harder routes. The conditions were generally good, so I usually took the shorter route. Hiking across the tussocks was a pain, but it wasn’t worth trying to hike around it for example. And everywhere else we’ve ever been, roads take the easy route, so the hikers route is up high, often above timberline. Where I just was, there are no roads. So while bushwacking across vast wilderness, I would nonetheless be able to choose the most efficient route.
Was it really hard? Not as physical as I thought. Mostly for the above reason – the route has less up and down, more of it follows drainages.
Did the long daylight equal long hiking days? Occasionally, but my system is pretty well set. I was getting the miles I needed in 13-15 hr days. But because of the day length, every town where I picked up supplies I spent the night, instead of grab and go. And sometimes I’d wake up in the pouring rain, or have a very difficult river to cross, and instead of having to get on it I could wait until the conditions improved and still get 13 hrs for the day.
Did you really consider extending the trip? I did. But you look at the map, and the route is very clean, logical. To make it bigger I’d have to go out of my way, just for the sake of making it longer, and that didn’t make sense. Plus, I got done before the first winter storm; conditions were good.
How was it having National Geographic drop in on you? It was OK; I enjoyed the company. They enlisted Roman Dial and Forest McCarthy, who are great, and the photographer Michael was solid. And a good photographer; they have good images.
Book? Magazine? I’m hopin’ so. The material is there. National Geographic is planning a 16 – 24 page article for next year, but nothing is set yet.
Hardest part? Until you’ve been there, you can’t believe how big, how wild this is; there is nothing like it. Sometimes you start to think: what if something happened? In the Yukon Arctic, I was 3-4 hours from the nearest settlement … by helicopter. I went 650 miles without seeing another person. Just a slip, and you could stub your toe on a rock, and not be able to walk. I was super vigilant, super cautious. It was nerve-wracking really.
I was more scared than all my previous trips combined. Crossing Icy Bay in the packraft, navigating trailless backcountry, crossing glaciers, all in extreme remoteness … it was really stressful. Not sure if I liked it. So I asked Roman. He said,
“Look, this is how big wilderness feels. It’s not like the lower 48. All those thoughts and concepts are gone. Here, you’re just another creature, like a Caribou, just trying to survive until tomorrow.”
Dr Jeremy Rodgers of Boulder accidentally paddles past Andy on the Yukon River!
What are the chances: a doctor from Boulder that Andy saw last year for one of his various overuse injuries was paddling the same stretch of water on the same day he was in the middle of Yukon 500 miles from ANYTHING?!
I pulled into the historic gold rush town of Dawson, which marks the end of my 450-mile float on the Yukon River (starting in Whitehorse) and the beginning of my final leg through the wilds of northern Yukon and northern Alaska back to Kotzebue. I had been somewhat dreading this section since I enjoy traveling via my feet, not via my arms while sitting on my butt, but it was a surprisingly enjoyable week.
A snippet from Andy’s National Geographic Adventure Blog:
The Alaskan wilderness has brought me to tears twice on this trip, both times while talking on the phone with my mother from a “safe” location where being emotional has no serious consequences.
My first tears were shed in Unalakleet, Mi 281, after enduring continuously for two weeks the brutal combination of coastal wind and Arctic cold, and the associated stress of always being just one mistake away from death. I was recently brought to tears again, on the porch of a Glenn Highway convenience store, Mi 1402, my emotions rubbed raw and thin after skiing 600 miles across the Alaska Range in the peak of variable springtime conditions.
Everyday for the last four weeks I have woken up with at least some amount of anxiety, nervousness, and dread about the exact conditions I’ll encounter that day.
Andy is doing it. Brrr. Here’s his first post upon arrival in Alaska on March 13:
Just landed in kotz. -25 below; ouch. Intimidating landscape – snow and ice covered tundra, flat and windswept, no lights beyond village …
Motel tonight. Plan 34 mi push tomorrow to cabin. High to be 15 below; low, -25. Tough start: last wk, 75 deg in Mass. Confident I can do this.
Glad he was confident.
Here he is, after a few weeks into it:
Mi 707 McGrath. Taking Fri off, yipee: need to regain strength, weight, after flu; have cache in Nikolai, 50 mi away. Changing landscape as I move east. Started in barren tundra, moved into textbook taiga & now among large spruces.
And finally, he’s now started “Leg Two” of the route, and this is what he posted last night:
Full on AK Range mtneering experience: whiteout, 50mph winds, crevasses. epic day. trip just got real
Go here for an overview of the trip, including how to subscribe to Facebook feeds and an excellent route map with a link to his “Last Reported Position”:
Here is his National Geographic Blog, containing in-depth descriptions and advice:
Go Andy. And be safe.