Here’s the situation: You and your friends have just spent a couple of hours battling your way 20 miles down a muddy four-wheeler trail on your way to a hunting camp still deeper into remote country off Alaska’s Glenn Highway when you encounter another hunter lost for days.
He’s not in great shape, but he’s not in bad shape either. He’s certainly no Chris McCandless of Into the Wild infamy. He’s hungry, but he’s not starving. There’s a lot of mud and water between him and the highway, but no potentially dangerous river fords.
He’s with his dog, so at least he’s got companionship. But he’s out of food and water. He’s lost his gun. His feet are sore. He’s wet. It’s early fall in the north. The weather isn’t yet deadly, but it’s pretty uncomfortable.
He tells you what has happened: His four-wheeler broke down. He got it going again. Then he got it impossibly stuck. He decided to hike out to the highway. He got lost. He’s been wandering around for two days. He talked to his girlfriend on a marginal cellphone connection to inform her of his predicament. He’s pretty sure a search for him is underway because he’s seen the search helicopters flying around, though he has been unable to flag one down.
And he asks for a ride to the highway.
What do you do?
But before this story gets to what one hunting party did, it needs to go back to the beginning.
Lost and alone
Thirty-five-year-old Kevin Knoll from Big Lake was on the lost side of this situation. He was in a predicament, he freely admits, fully of his own making.
In a hurry when he left Eureka, a scattering of houses and big parking lots near the Eureka Lodge at Mile 128 on the Glenn, he started into the wild without his rifle. He believes now that he must have left it sitting on the trailer off which he drove his side-by-side, all-terrain vehicle as he scurried to leave the last vestiges of civilization behind late on an early September day.
All alone, he headed off into a maze of trails that radiate from Eureka out into the foothills of the Talkeetna Mountains to the north and west, and the Copper River basin to the north and east. Knoll planned to hunt caribou there in an area he had never before hunted.
“I really didn’t know what I was getting into,” he said in a telephone interview. “I’d always hunted off the Denali Highway before.”
The Denali is a thin ribbon of gravel far to the north of the Glenn that cuts through the heart of the state to connect the Richardson and George Parks highways. Most of the trails that leave the Denali run perpendicular to the roadbed as they head south into the Talkeetnas or north into the Alaska Range.
The situation is radically different in what is now commonly referred to as the Nelchina Basin or what geologists used to call the Copper River Plateau.
“Those trails back there go everywhere,” Knoll said.”I really didn’t know what I was getting into. I drove into the night.”
Eventually, he came to a peaceful gravel bar along a creek somewhere to the west of Lake Louise. It looked the perfect place to camp. Knoll stopped, started unpacking and immediately realized he was short one key piece of equipment for any sort of hunt – a gun.
“I must have left it on my trailer,” he said, because it was hard to believe he would have so casually thrown it in the ATV that it would bounce out.
Dejected, the caribou hunt clearly over before it began, Knoll went to bed for the night. He awoke the next day to start a new hunt, this one for his rifle. There was, he figured, always an outside chance that he might have packed it and it might have fallen out of the ATV.
“So I’m backtracking,” Knoll said. “It’s raining. I’m looking around. Pretty soon, I’m wondering, ‘Where am I?’ And then it got worse and worse and worse.”
First he hit something hidden in a mud hole that bent the steering on his ATV. Then he hitting something hidden in a mud hole that broke an axle. He kept going, though, nursing the vehicle south back toward the Glenn.
“I started walking out in front through every mud hole” to make sure there weren’t any more objects to hit, he said. He was making progress that way until he encountered a large and deep mudhole across which the broken-axle ATV couldn’t power its way.
It ended up stuck in the middle. Knoll had a 20-foot tow strap with him with which to yank the vehicle out, but there was nothing within 20 feet to which to hook the strap.
Frustrated, the would-be hunter said, “I just started walking.”
He doesn’t know how far he was from the highway at the time. He’d put 40 or 50 miles on the ATV, but that wasn’t a direct-line distance. A search for Knoll soon to be underway would focus on Horsepasture Pass, some 20 to 30 miles northwest of Eureka toward the Talkeetnas. He was probably about the same distance from Eureka more directly to the north.
The long walk
The walking wasn’t good.
“It was mud hole after mud hole after mud hole,” Knoll said.
He texted his girlfriend to tell her he had a bit of a problem.
“The girlfriend called and said, ‘What’s going on,” Knoll said. He explained his ATV had broken down and that he was going to walk out to the highway. The navigation wasn’t hard. Ahead, Knoll could see a big glacier he knew to be south of the pavement. All he had to do was keep walking in that direction.
He told his girlfriend he thought it was the Matanuska Glacier. That was a mistake which might have helped screw up a subsequent search, he added, because the the glacier was really the Nelchina, some 15 miles east of the Matanuska.
Knoll didn’t think he was in much trouble at first. He began to change his mind as nightfall approached on his second day out. But then he stumbled into an empty hunting camp.
His phone was now dying, but he had a backup battery charger he’d never used. He plugged it in when the phone battery was at 3 percent. A message came up telling him his phone was inoperable.
“That little phone charger failed me,” he said.
With a now useless phone, he lost not only communications but access to the phone’s electronic compass and GPS, but he wasn’t in serious trouble.
There was a tarp set up for shelter at the camp, he said. There were chairs to sit in. A supply of firewood had been cut and stacked. Knoll started a fire and settled in. He figured a search was underway, which it was, and thought a bonfire would make him easy to spot.
He was wrong.
“I had my flashlights going,” he said. “I saw the (Alaska State) Trooper helicopter fly over me. I had a big bonfire. I had sticks on the ground spelling out H-E-L-P. One helicopter flew almost right over the top of me.
Knoll was never spotted. It was the same the next day. Knoll said he twice saw a trooper helicopter, plus what he believed to be an Alaska National Guard airplane and two airplanes.
“I had my orange rain pants out,” Knoll said. “Every time a plane went by I was waving them.”
No one ever saw him, though searchers did find his ATV near the Little Nelchina River north of Eureka.
Now on his third day in the wild and seemingly invisible to searchers, Knoll was starting to get a little worried.
“If I’d had an emergency locator beacon, I would have pushed the button,” he said. “I was getting scared out there. I was getting a little emotional. It was a scary experience. But I knew I had to go south” to find the highway.
Eventually, Knoll found himself on what he later learned was the “Old Man Lake Trail” east of Eureka. That trail runs pretty much south toward the highway just west of Lake Louise.
“It was really swampy,” he said, but it was going the right direction.
And it was there he finally ran into some other hunters.
“They were nice,” Knoll said. He explained the situation and asked if they could give him a ride back to the road.
“They hemmed and hawed,” Knoll said. “They were going another 30 miles, and it was only noon. They told me it was only 20 miles to the parking lot. What’s another 20 miles?
“I offered them a lot of money.”
The other hunters turned it down and pushed onto the north. Knoll resumed his march south.
“They gave me food. They gave me water,” he said. “They told me there were a couple of people behind me.
Knoll’s wet feet, which were pretty beat up by then, weren’t quite as understanding, but Knoll trudged on.
Eventually, he got lucky. Another hunting party, this one headed out to the Glenn, finally came along. Mike Welge from Chugach was in that bunch. Welge was immediately sympathetic.
“I’ve been bailed out a couple times,” he said, “(and) we’d pretty much seen this guys tracks all the way out.” He expected to eventually run into the man and the dog hiking the Old Man Lake Trail far beyond the point at which most people on foot give up.
“Fortunately,” Welge said, “we had an open seat.”
But it’s clear he would have hauled Knoll out to the road even if that hadn’t been the case. The lost hunter, in Welge’s view, was in more trouble than he let on. The latter, Welge added, might have played a role in the decision the first group make to abandon Knoll.
“I don’t know how well that (decision) sits with me,” Welge said, “but (Knoll) was an easy-going guy. He was really laid back about it all.”
Not until Knoll was in Welge’s ATV on the ride back to the Glenn did Welge get Knoll’s full account of how long he’d been out and how worried the man had become about his situation.
“Once I heard the whole story, I sort of went ‘whoa,'” Welge said. “I’m glad for him that it all worked out. We talked about a few things. One of the mistakes he made was that he’d never been in there before. Then he went by himself.
“And he was blown away by how nasty that trail can be.”
There was more. The lost gun. A paper map that turned to mush in the rain. A tow rope too short and no deadman with which to create an anchor in a mud hole.
Knoll is pretty much embarrassed by it all. He couldn’t quite believe the size of the search that had been organized to look for him. Family had come down from Fairbanks to join in. Friends had converged on Eureka. The girlfriend was worried.
“If I ever go back,” he said, “I’m going to bring several people with me and a map and a GPS.”
He also plans to invest in an emergency locator beacon.
As for the unidentified hunters who fed, watered and then left Knoll to his own devices, let the debate begin.