After a gnarly crossing of the Harding Icefield from near the small town of Seward to the remote eastern edge of Skilak Lake on the Kenai Peninsula last week, about the last thing veteran Alaska adventurers Donny Joachim and Ben Nabinger were expecting was a rescue.
The lake was supposed to be where they began the easy part of one of those only-in-Alaska expeditions that started with a bike ride to the Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, a hike up the Exit Glacier Trail onto the icefield, a ski crossing of the ice, a few rappels down walls of ice, some over-water, over-ice packrafting out into the valley of the Skilak River and a hike to the lake, Joachim said Wednesday in a telephone interview.
From there they planned a quick, four-mile crossing of the lake ice to the start of the Hidden Creek Trail and a three-mile hike to the car they left parking at a trailhead along Skilak Loop Road. It was to be a quick drive from there home to Soldotna where the men live.
Only the lake and the weather tossed a curve ball. The men arrived on its shore to find slush and jagged, upended ice blocking the path to the better lake ice beyond.
Suddenly, the well-equipped, well-prepared and highly experienced duo had a problem. But problems are to be solved.
Joachim, 41, and Nabinger, 34, went searching for a solution. Not far beyond the slush and broken ice, they could see good ice on the lake, but getting to it was the problem. A hike along the mile-wide delta of the Skilak River revealed no easy path.
They thought about trying to packraft through the slush, but that wasn’t going to be easy, and getting through the up-ended ice would be a problem, and possibly a very dangerous one.
The other obvious option was to backtrack up river, cross the glacier-fed Skilak still running low in April, battle through the aptly named Confusion Hills to the Russian River Trail, and hike it about 10 miles out to the Sterling Highway.
That was easily doable. The two men had the right gear and plenty of food.
What they didn’t have, however, was time. Joachim, an elementary school teacher in Soldotna, was due back at work on Monday.
So Joachim came up with another option. He got out his InReach satellite communicator and texted a friend with an airplane in Soldotna to come get them. The friend was perfectly willing to do so. The sand bars of the Skilak delta offer a variety of adequate options for an experienced Bush pilot to land an airplane.
The was only one problem.
“Totally illegal,” Joachim’s pilot friend texted back.
The Skilak delta is in the Andrew Simons Wilderness Unit of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and closed to wheel-plane landings. Joachim, who’d crash landed an airplane on the delta in 2014, was aware of this, but didn’t expect it to be a problem.
After the crash, he said, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials had readily issued him a special-use permit to fly back to the airplane to retrieve radios and then to fly in to recover the aircraft with a helicopter.
Joachim messaged his friend to contact the refuge, get a special use permit, and come get them.
“I didn’t think it would be any trouble,” he said. “We had a friend with a (Cessna) 185 fueled up. He was ready to come get us.”
The next thing Joachim knew, however, was that his friend was messaging that Alaska State Troopers were on the way with a helicopter, which caused Joachim and Nabinger a bit of consternation.
“We were worried we might get fined,” Joachim said, “but we didn’t do anything. We were prepared. We were well equipped. We didn’t call and tell the troopers.”
Joachim clearly didn’t have enough experience with Alaska search and rescue to understand the trooper helicopter is sometimes used like a free taxi service. The agency has been known to pick up cold, wet and tired hikers on the outskirts of Anchorage to fly them a mile to their car free of charge.
The agency a few years ago spent more than $900 to do that at McHugh Creek, and afterward said it didn’t want to risk discouraging people from asking for rescue by charging for such pickup costs.
“We don’t want people not calling us,” an agency spokeswoman said. “We err on the side of caution, because we don’t want cries for help to go unanswered and then disaster strikes. Our goal is public safety.”
In this case, however, there was no cry for help. There wasn’t even a safety issue. The safety issues were safely behind.
Coming off the toe of the Skilak Glacier, Joachim said, the two adventurers had to do a 30-foot rappel down a wall of ice into their inflated packrafts flowing on water and ice below. That was a little dicey, he admitted, “but we’re both family men, and we weren’t taking any chances.”
They were ready for anything, he added.
“We were always OK,” he said. “We went expedition weight, not lightweight. It would have been better lightweight. It would have been better two weeks ago. The toe of the glacier was calving. There were a lot of blocks of ice and stuff.”
Two weeks ago, however, Joachim had to work. So the two went when Joachim had time away from school.
Thankful for “rescue”
Joachim had no complaints about the troopers jumping into help either, though he is curious about how the rescue came to pass and planned to ask the refuge what happened.
“Those troopers were OK,” he said. He was glad for the lift.
He wasn’t even too upset to find himself in the news as another of those “rescued” in Alaska when he didn’t really ask to be rescued or need to be rescued. But the internet loves rescue stories from the land of danger.
“Two Soldotna hikers who crossed the Harding Ice Field became stranded when they reached an open river on their way out,” the Associated Press was telling the world Tuesday.
Joachim did get a laugh out of the story.
“We crossed the river several times,” he said. “The water was only six inches deep.”
The Associated Press was, of course, just echoing a government report, which is how a whole lot of news gets covered these days. Government – local, state and federal – is the actual entity doing most of the reporting Americans read in the 21st century and sometimes things get lost in the fog of war.
“On 4/16/18, at 1324 hours, the Alaska State Troopers were notified of two hikers that hiked from Seward across the Harding Ice Fields and had become stranded near the Skilak River Delta,” the troopers reported Tuesday morning. “The hikers were identified as Donald Joachim age 41 and Benjamin Nabinger age 34, both of Soldotna. The hikers were reportedly uninjured, had adequate food, water, and shelter but were ill prepared to cross the Skilak River due to recent thawing. AST mobilized a rescue helicopter to recover the stranded hikers. At 1432 hours the hikers had been recovered by AST Helo 3 and taken to Nearby Soldotna Airport where they were delivered in good health.”
The trooper dispatch probably should have come with a warning:
Do not try to hike from Seward across the Harding Ice Field to Skilak Lake. At a minimum, you will need skis or snowshoes to safely cross the snowbridges over the crevasses in the glacier.
Not to mention that a rope for safe glacier travel along with crevasse rescue training would be a good idea. And it would also be wise to outfit yourself with backpacking or mountaineering gear because the crossing is going to take more than a few days.
It’s a little more than a “hike,” as Joachim and Nabinger can attest.