Surviving The Unforgiving Alaskan Wilderness

The following appears in the April issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

BY PAUL D. ATKINS 

I’ve been in all kinds of survival situations – actually, more than I like to remember. There was the time I went through the ice on my snowmachine, stopping only as the cowling started to go under the slush. And the time I was hunting moose and slipped and fell, tearing my MCL on the first day. I was in extreme pain and hobbled back to camp using my bow as a crutch. Another time, when I was hunting muskox at minus 40 degrees, my snowmachine wouldn’t start – and I was 90 miles from the nearest shelter.

One of the most serious situations revolved around a fly-out, do-it-yourself caribou hunt here in the Arctic. The hunt started on a Friday and I was scheduled for pickup by the transporter the following Thursday. The weather forecast was iffy that week – rain and fog were on the menu – but it was great to be out and September meant the bulls would likely be cruising across the tundra.

The first day was fine and on the second we were lucky enough to take a nice bull. After a couple of packing trips we had it all back to camp, and that was when it happened. I knew I didn’t feel well; I was sick to my stomach, and with a severe pain in my side I went to bed early thinking, What could this be? I thought maybe the water we filtered from the small pool we found might have been the culprit. “Beaver fever,” or giardia, is not to be messed with, but I also knew it usually takes a few days to kick in.

At 2:30 a.m., I was in so much pain I couldn’t stand it. I crawled out of the tent and began vomiting uncontrollably. My hunting partner, Marcus, was awake too and crawled outside with me. I told him this was serious and to get on the satellite phone and call somebody immediately. I dug my phone out of the pack and he found the list of numbers and instructions that I always keep with it.

Marcus unsuccessfully tried several times but was finally able to reach the Alaska State Troopers stationed in Kotzebue. I also had my GPS, another life-saving device that allowed Marcus to tell the troopers our position. They said they would be there, but it would have to wait until morning. The fog had rolled in and they couldn’t leave until daylight, or at least until they could see.

It was a long night of extreme pain, so much so that it got to the point where I couldn’t walk. I was flat down in the tent trying not to move and prayed for the sound of a Super Cub overhead. Finally, at 6 a.m. we heard an approaching plane, which landed gracefully next to our camp. Marcus and the trooper ushered me to the plane, and in minutes we were off to town. Once we got to the tarmac an ambulance was there and I was in the hospital before I knew it.

The diagnosis was kidney stones and dehydration that actually had started long before the hunt. After a couple of days in the hospital I was back to normal. The trooper told me later that I was so lucky to have had a sat phone. No communication meant I would have spent another five days on the tundra. It saved my life.

There are many situations like this where having the right equipment and following a certain set of rules will save your life if you happen to need them. Let’s first start with these variables:

Survival tools.

SURVIVING THE EXTREME 

The most important aspect of any survival situation is to use common sense. Never lose your head; think things through if the situation calls for it. Before leaving the house the first and foremost thing to do is tell someone where you’re going or planning to hunt. Here in the far north, where I do most of my hunting, letting someone know where I plan to be is a ritual.

I actually have a laminated map on the back of our door that I mark each and every time I go out. I mark the map to let my wife and at least a couple of hunting buddies know exactly where I’ll be. I also let them know the time to expect me back, and if I’m not back, give or take a few hours or a day, to then start searching. It’s not something I do; it’s something I live by. Alaska is big and very unforgiving, and if possible I never go alone. I know this isn’t always the case, and for some of us going solo is what the experience is all about, but in the Arctic having a second set of hands, eyes and brains can and will save your life.

I’ve had a ton of situations where trouble arose and I’ve had to go from hunting mode to survival mode in an instant. I would not have survived if wasn’t for my gear and the survival kit that never leaves my pack.

CARIBOU AND MOOSE HUNTS 

Let’s start with a caribou/moose scenario. I hunt these species of big game each and every year in Alaska. These hunts are usually a week to 10 days deep in the bush surrounded by miles and miles of tundra without people or any sign of civilization. Being able to take care of yourself and camp is a constant; you never know when an accident may occur or a grizzly might show up. You must be prepared and always ready for any situation that might occur.

With the advance of technology, many would say that having a satellite phone and a GPS is must, and I would agree. These two items are always in my pack, although even with these devices you are still not safe from the many forms of disaster that can come your way.

Weather is the biggest killer here in Alaska and a phone can only do so much. On fly-in drop hunts you are totally dependent on the pilot being able to fly and the GPS serves only as a marker where you might be in case someone needs to get to you. Weather can prevent any type of rescue.

My survival kit for caribou includes not only the phone and GPS but also more practical gear that will keep me alive. Weight isn’t usually a problem on a caribou hunt and your kit can contain a few more necessities versus a backpack hunt in the mountains. Besides the sat phone and GPS here’s a list of what I take in order to survive:

Water purifier and bottle. I use the pump-type purifier on these hunts versus the tablets, only because I have the room and they weigh very little. I also prefer a bottle to a bladder, only because a bottle won’t break and or leak due to a hole that sometimes can happen with a bladder.

Headlamp or small flashlight with extra batteries. Nothing worse than roaming around in the dark in bear country without a light.

Fire starter. When it’s cold you need a fire, even more so if you get wet, either from rain and snow or, in a worst-case scenario, you fall into a river or creek. I pack matches in a double ziplock bag and also carry butane lighters of some kind, usually two or three. They also sell different fire starters in many forms. Those bonded sawdust cakes soaked in lighter fluid are some of my favorites.

Duct tape. Duct tape is a cure-all and can be used in a lot of different situations. I was once skinning a moose that we took right at dark. My knife slipped and I nearly cut my middle finger off. With a little care, I was able to apply duct tape to my index finger and injured finger so I could finish the hunt. The bleeding stopped and the tape formed a somewhat crude splint. Duct tape can also be used to stabilize a broken leg or busted knee. Simply cut a couple of willow branches and form a splint. Securely tape them to the leg and you’re good to go; if not, get back to camp and call for help.

Plastic tarp. I carry along a small 8-by-10-foot tarp all the time. They are small, light and can keep you warm. If you get caught in the dark far from camp or need to get warm fast, a tarp makes a great lean-to or can serve as a blanket.

Rope. I carry along 100 feet of parachute cord, as rope can serve so many purposes, from making slings to tying splints to helping secure your make shift shelter.

Food. I always carry enough to survive for three days. My food cache includes meat sticks, energy bars and gorp (a nut, raisin, candy mix). These are high in energy, with lots of protein and carbohydrates and take up little room in your pack. I also pack a few of the emergency drink mixes that you can buy over the counter. These powder mixes can be combined with water and provide you with the extra electrolytes that are needed in case of a survival situation.

Protection. If I’m bowhunting, I always carry my pistol for bear protection. There have been many instances where I have had to fire at a grizzly from close range. If I’m rifle hunting, well, I’m rifle hunting and the pistol isn’t needed, but I do take extra ammo for both. Bear spray would be useful, but not so much on tundra hunts.

First-aid kit. I carry a small kit with the basic necessities, usually containing a small amount of painkiller, tape and bandages. I also add a tourniquet just in case.

Multi-tool or army knife complete with knife, saw and tweezers. I also carry a small folding saw.

Extra pair of socks and gloves. Mine are usually wool.

Last, but not least, toilet paper. You don’t need a whole roll, just enough in a ziplock to get the job done.

As far as packing these items, I usually haul them to camp in a waterproof bag and then each day carefully take out what I’ll need in case I don’t make it back to camp for a few days. I pack these items in a large plastic ziplock bag; that way they stay dry in case it rains, or worse.

If I were caribou/moose hunting, I would list these as the top five survival priorities:

* Being able to purify water with either a pump or tablets.

* I would have a space blanket or a tarp for protection from the elements.

* Fire starter.

* Energy bars.

* Satellite phone.

Finding water sources is critical to help improve your chances of survival.

MOUNTAIN HUNTS 

If I’m heading to the mountains to hunt sheep or goats, the items in my kit may not differ from the caribou/moose kit, but they will be much smaller and lighter. As most mountain hunters know, being as light as possible is what it’s all about, but remember that being safe and surviving has no weight restriction.

My typical mountain survival kit holds water tablets (iodine) instead of a pump and a bladder instead of bottles. Again, the reasoning is that tablets are small and light and will give me a little more room in my pack. Plus, most expedition-type packs have a very reliable H20 compartment, and since you have all your gear on your back anyway it’s much easier to just carry it in a bladder.

Moleskin is another item that I always pack. Even most well-worn hunting boots can and will form blisters on your feet. When your feet are done, the hunt is over.

I would include a small first-aid kit, space blanket, protein bars, a knife and extra socks. Duct tape would be included as well for cuts and sprains. And even though they are not a part of a survival kit, two good trekking poles can be used for not only walking but in case of a break they can be combined with the tape to form a splint.

I also pack a signal flare or two. Unlike hunting on the tundra, where you usually can get from point A to point B, if you are stuck on the side of a mountain and need rescue, being able to precisely pinpoint your location is a great help to rescuers.

If I had to choose three must-haves, again it would be a way to purify water, food for energy and something for shelter in case you’re stuck on the slopes of a mountain. I usually stuff my kit in a plastic trash bag and place it at the very top of my backpack for easy access.

HUNTER SAFETY COURSE 

Everyone who hunts or ventures into the backcountry should take a hunter’s safety course. Most of us have, but it may have been many years ago. A good refresher, no matter your age or how much you think you know, should be a priority if you plan to go on any excursion.

One of the first things you learn in the class is that it all starts with physical and mental conditioning, since hunters must know their limits and their capabilities. Depending on the amount of exertion required for a particular outing, you need to prepare for it, whether that means regular exercise and getting into shape to eating the right foods to preparing your mind for what looms ahead.

Other reminders are proper clothing choices and knowing how to dress for success. There is nothing worse than being cold and wet and not being able to do anything about it. When it comes to clothes, remember this: Cotton is bad and synthetic is good.

Safety courses also remind us of how to build a shelter, start a fire or find water from what you have or see around you. Look for natural shelters, build a lean-to and always make sure you have matches or other fire-starting material on your person. These will all save your life.

The biggest points, however, go back to what I first mentioned: Don’t panic, and use your senses. ASJ

Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on big game hunting and fishing throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a monthly contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal. 

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