Have you ever watched the show Naked and Afraid? It’s some terrible reality show where people intentionally wander around in their birthday suits in harsh environments for some stupid prize. Have you ever read Into the Wild? It’s a book about that kid who decided to wander off into Alaska without the slightest idea of what he was doing with hopes of surviving off the land, and, spoiler alert, he died.
Well… outside of Healy there’s an area called Stampede. Quite a few people live out there, but the deeper one goes the further he travels from houses and eventually, he reaches the Magic Bus where that kid died. Now here’s what annoyed me about him… he had no idea what he was doing. He was some rich brat with an egocentric death wish. I’m the biggest supporter of finding yourself, but for Christ’s sake: do it within the realm of your capabilities. Push the boundaries, but not the limits like he did. His error cost him his life, and there’s nothing inspirational about a life lost in ignorance. And two: where he chose to do this. He crossed a glacial river when it was at bone level. The thing with glacial rivers is that they flood exponentially with no predictability and the banks are an obvious indicator that it happens and that it happens often. Aaand, he died just a few miles beyond a frequently traveled ATV tour trail, but he couldn’t get to that tour route because he camped on the far side of the now swift and flooded river, leaving him to insert his foot in his mouth roughly six miles from an easy rescue as he slowly died. It was dumb. Absolutely dumb. Now the Magic Bus is a frequent destination for his fans. It’s a two day trip, with a night to pay homage to his idiocracy at the Magic Bus. That being said, it’s definitely a harsh world in Stampede, but it’s well traveled. And I hate to disrespect the dead, but he shouldn’t have died.
So end that rant. I met a guy by the name of Wheeler… it’s doubtful that I’ll ever know his real name, but Wheeler is fitting. Wheeler was the kind of guy to share a smile and he was well versed in things that have engines and that crawl. Turns out I had somewhat met him in the Yukon, at least my Jeep met him. Wheeler recognized my Jeep when he found me on a 4×4 trail by Dry Creek, and introduced himself, “hey, what happened to the weirdo I originally met with the Jeep? You’re the real owner?” “Oh DJ? The troopers ran him out. He’s a dick. And a lunatic.” “Yeah… I got that vibe. Wanna join me some time?” He earned immediate respect in my book for that introduction.
So I met up with him later and he brought his RZR… which is the coolest toy ever. It’s a beastly side by side ATV with a cage and immense power. It sported a new dent after he had rolled it at high speeds a few weeks earlier. And we took it toward Stampede after we took my Jeep to an incredible lookout… the Jeep was too heavy to make it through the Bog after the recent rains, but the RZR was nimble and light to churn through the sticky swamp.
As I mentioned earlier, Stampede sports several well traveled ATV tour trails. So we darted through that, charged the Bobblehead mud pit (where guides like to let their adventurous guests stick Jeeps for the thrill), passed through a few creeks, and stared at the end of the “tour” where guests never go: the Bog. The Bog was a massive swamp with surprise sink holes, quick sand, and impassable foliage if you turn wrong. There’s few spots to stop for risk of sinking your vehicle when the Bog was as critically flooded as it had been in the wet summer. So you have to pick your line and charge it, aiming for the cranberry bushes for a break and chance to reroute. The good news though, the end of the Bog is clearly marked by a line of black spruce, so the light is clearly visible at the end of the tunnel. And no, you can’t drive around it, only through it.
I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard. The Bog was incredible and Wheeler maneuvered his craft with expert precision. It was amazing. And to boot, the Bog was the proclaimed biggest challenge. Wheeler crushed it and we were well on our way to the Magic Bus.
The next challenge was the Beaver Dam, though Wheeler assured me it was not as bad as the Bog… it was only challenging because the beavers were constantly building new things and changing the flow of water, as beavers do, so finding the line required scouting. The road was quickly swallowed by glass water ahead. But we thought, “why not?” and we drove slowly into the water… and submerged ourselves. Still waters run deep… and cold. Wheeler threw the RZR in reverse and backed it up, trying to keep us dry, but what he failed to think was the eddy behind it, and the water surged over our laps, soaking us. I laughed. It was unfortunate, but we’d survive. After some rerouting, he drove over the bank and passed the dam, leaving us with a clear path down the creek bed below the dam.
He was doubtful at the depth of the water. But for me, well versed in reading the river, could see where the path was through the waves and told him where to go. “It’s nice, he said, “having a river guide to tell me this!” He laughed, “I tell the rookie [ATV] guides to avoid the river guides after hours… cause you guys are crazy and get into so much trouble.” “This is true.” I laughed. But suddenly Wheeler saw what he thought was the original trail and veered towards the left river bank. Big mistake.
He crashed into an old portion of the beaver dam, well concealed under thick reeds. The wood cracked, the mud collapsed, and the RZR had enough momentum to spin sideways in the mud on impact. He hit the gas, hoping to grab traction on a rock in front of him. His tire grabbed, but mine spun, sending a plume of icy water and mud crashing on my head. We both froze. Not an ounce of the slop had fallen on him. He had the guilty face that read “I’m trying not to laugh and I’m so sorry.” All I could do was laugh. A repeat of the same strategy yielded the same results with the added plight that something cracked, sending wisps of smoke from beneath the RZR. It growled and hissed and sputtered dead. Again, all I could do was laugh. And Wheeler had to ask if I was aware of our imminent danger because I was a giggling goon. “Yup. But a sour attitude won’t make it any better.” He smiled widely beneath his muddied beard and thanked me for my attitude. We crawled on the bank and the cage to stay warm, rather than standing in waist deep cold water, and plotted. Some tinkering started the RZR with a flashing warning, and we alternated gassing and pushing. An hour later, we freed it. Time to head back. No magic Bus for us.
But life is a fickle creature, and if you make a career chasing trouble you’ll find it. About 50 feet from our rescue efforts, we found a patch of swamp, skidded out the rear tires, hit a tree, and sank the RZR. Thus began the desperate plea to free our steed. We tried to gain traction with no positive results. The swamp was thick, cold, sticky, deep, and full of mosquitoes… we didn’t want to be in it. But we were out of luck, and quickly we found ourselves on our guts scooping slop from under the vehicle, trying to secure it on the solid permafrost below, and shoving branches and rocks in strategic places. We were sinking on our knees and bellies to dig the craft out.
Five hours later… we had to give up. Night was falling. We were hungry, cold, and faced with a serious decision. First, let’s open the beer we brought and make the best of this. If we stayed there, we needed fire. We were very cold and very wet. If we chose to hike back, we had 13 miles of swamp ahead of us: the same swamp that killed that kid.
We chose to hike.
So… do you understand the reference earlier with Naked and Afraid? Well, I left out a few details… Immediately, I noticed my clothing was too heavy and so cold that it was doing more harm than good. Dammit dammit dammit… my Wilderness First Responder class was being put to use on my own stupid mistakes: remove wet clothing from patients at risk for hypothermia. Yes, that meant the next 13 miles were to be hiked in our underwear. We enjoyed a beer and stared at each other without any idea what to say.
“Um,” Wheeler broke the silence, “I feel creepy walking behind you so I’ll walk in front.” At least he was a gentleman about it.
Oh it was cold, but if you walked quickly enough you’d burn enough calories to stay warm… good thing we had beer for calories. We knew that our decision would leave us in some state of distress, but we’d make it to safety rather than beat hypothermia and stay the night. So we moved forward, laughing.
And there it was, the morbid sloth slowly sinking in its own filth: the Bog, full of sharp cranberries to slash our naked skin. And suddenly, I was gone. My beer stuck dumbly from a pool of quicksand. Wheeler was rightfully worried, I was sinking before him, but “it’s ok dude, I got this. I saved my beer.” There was a moment in my head that seeped through my face, catching my dumb shock perfectly, where I thought, “this is happening. This is my life and this is actually happening.” I laughed again. Fortunately, I had fallen on my Pelican box for my camera and it made an excellent source for weight distribution, small as it was. I put half my weight on it and pulled my legs free, army crawling through the quicksand… but don’t forget the most important detail: in my underwear.
Free from the threat, the mud made an excellent mosquito repellent. But one still managed to bite me in my eye, bruising it and immediately swelling it shut. The cranberries tore our skin, and there were still icy creeks to cross ahead. We looked like hell as we fought to escape alive. By the time the sun set, were had traveled maybe three quarters of the way. I was getting dangerously cold and I felt my stomach growl, I had no calories left to burn… it was go time or die time. To our surprise, there were headlights in our direction. We were ecstatic. Search and Rescue drove to meet us on the trail.
“We found them! Get them!” We could hear them yelling. But we were confused, we had not called out and we hadn’t been missing long enough for our friends to call on our behalf.
“Uh… we didn’t call you.”
“But aren’t you so and so?”
“No.” They were looking for hikers that made a wrong turn.
“Well, we’ll take you back.”
“Naaaw, we’re fine.” I said, confidently.
They looked at me in horror, “what do you mean you’re fine???” I realized how deathly we looked. “Naw, we’ll make it back on our own.” I reassured. They were silent and baffled. I looked like Wheeler had beat me and tried to kill me. Wheeler didn’t look much better. But there we stood, haggard as we were and claiming to be fine. We walked away with an awkward farewell.
Around midnight or 1 am, I was hypothermic and needed help. One can gauge the depth of hypothermia by the shivers and then some. If you’re lightly shivering, it’s a normal cold response. After some time your core temperature begins to drop and the little shivers get a little worse. Then the deep shivers set in, and they’re so violent they hurt. It’s your body’s last effort to generate heat. Then… your body gives up and you stop shivering. You start to get cold. It progresses as your organs struggle with the decreasing core temperature, and your brain is the first affected, causing increasing delirium. Finally, coma and death claim the soul after a situational amount of time. I had long stopped shivering and had since begun to struggle mentally. Wheeler pushed me forward, talking to me to keep me focused as I slurred and staggered. He promised there was a camp nearby with reception, where one of the tours operated their lunch post and built a primitive cabin. I was fading fast. Wheeler ran to the guide who in turn directed me to a fire, where I passed out for about 20 minutes. I was pulling out of hypothermia. I woke to find dry clothes and reassurance that a text had been sent to Nick and to Wheeler’s friend, more or less reading, “we’re not ok, but we’re not in serious trouble. We are cold. Send help to the Stampede trail head.”
At 3 am we reached the trail head to find no one. It was crushing. I knew the remaining numerous miles home were dry, but I had no energy left, rather, I lost hope for a moment. But as I was re-instilling that hope – the will to survive drives incredible feats – an engine roared and an old pick up bounced down the hill. Wheeler’s friend came through and drove us home, or at least to my Jeep.
The deep shivers of hypothermia returned, and I knew pushing my body like this would have consequences. I was shivering so badly I almost couldn’t hold the steering wheel of my Jeep on final stretch home to Mantown, but as the heater warmed up my problems faded to only a minor life threat.
3:30 am: home at Mantown and I found Nick had warmed blankets for me. I didn’t bother to wash the mud off, and begged for his help to stay warm as I gobbled whatever snacks I could find. Sleep came when true exhaustion beat the pain of shivering. I was sick and I could feel it, and I’m sure I had to defrost a few organs or so. But all in all, it was one of the most memorable adventures of my life.
So I uploaded the picture of me in my underwear in the quicksand to Facebook because no one would believe that kind of story without proof. Friends squawked and pleaded, thankful I ws alive and well. My girlfriends all said the same thing, “you’re my favorite badass.” My guy friends all said the same thing, “why are you wearing granny panties?”
My bad guys, I don’t hike in lingerie.