TWENTYMILE RIVER – Fear lives, sometimes inexplicably, in the human mind.
Dropping down the overgrown trail from Berry Pass at the top of Winner Creek over the weekend, the discussion turned to a group of backpacking rafters “rescued” in July from the banks of the river 1,700 feet below, and what would lead them to radio for a helicopter to come save them.
If they’d found the river too high and too fast to paddle, one of the crew observed, “why wouldn’t they just hike back?”
One of the rescued had already answered that on Facebook to which the group turned to explain their harrowing adventure, and how no one should paddle the Twentymile because the water was too high and dangerous.
Too high and too dangerous are relative terms. There are packrafters now paddling water that would make the Twentymile at its worst look tame.
As for the trail, that too is relative. The group that called for rescue – apparently never considering that when they did that they were subjecting rescuers to risks that range from tiny to great – explained the trail was hard to find.
For someone familiar with the well-marked trails of the near-road wilderness of the 49th state, that was arguable true. For those experienced in following wildlife trails through the state’s vast wilderness, it was a joke.
The latter would have little trouble finding the Berry Pass to Twentymile trail in the dark. In the spruce and hemlock forest, it is obviously obvious, and where it is grown over in the open with grass, nettles, blueberry bushes and other fast-growing vegetation encroaching, you could find it with your feet.
The trail is the only easily walkable surface beneath everything, and you know it as soon as you step off it. It was hard to imagine anyone thinking it too difficult to hike the 11.5 miles back to Girdwood.
Then again, it was harder to imagine anyone calling Alaska State Troopers for rescue in this situation, and harder still to believe they would post their story on Facebook after troopers were kind enough to keep it out of the news.
There was a time in Alaska that getting rescued was embarrassing enough that if it happened, you didn’t want anyone to know. In an earlier life as the outdoor editor of the Anchorage Daily News in a time when newspapers mattered, the rule in our house was that I was not missing until 48 hours beyond the designated contact date without contact.
In this case, well, let the trooper account say it all:
“July 25, 2020 at approximately 2001 hours (8:01 p.m.), Alaska State Troopers received a report of three overdue hikers. The complainant advised three friends left to hike Winner Creek Trail to Berry Pass and were planning to packraft out 20 Mile River. Girdwood Fire Department was unable to launch a boat that night, and Helo 3 began the search in the morning. At approximately 1011 hours, Helo 3 located the three missing individuals. They needed assistance getting out of the field but did not need medical attention.”
For those unfamiliar with Alaska, there is not much night in the Anchorage area in July. On the 25th, the sun doesn’t set until almost 11 p.m., and civil midnight lasts until after 12 with civil twilight starting again at just after 4 a.m.
That leaves about four hours of legally defined night, but in reality the time of real darkness is even less than that.
From the river to where the trail becomes impossible to miss below Berry Pass is only three or four miles. Even a slow-moving party should have been able to make the pass before sunset, bivouc there, and hike the very obvious trail back to Girdwood in the morning.
Coming down from the pass while contemplating the question of “why wouldn’t they just hike back,” it was impossible to ignore how much experience changes one perception of danger.
The pack on my back contained a packraft, a paddle, a PFD, a drysuit and a layer of dry clothes to put on beneath it before it was pulled on, a couple energy bars, a collapsible water bottle with a purifying filter, and the waterproof survival kit that has been hung around my neck for years.
That was it.
The survival kits contained a good knife, matches and fire starting materials because fire, along with water, is one of those things that can become vital to survival. You can go weeks without food (been there; done that; no fun), but only days without water with your physiological capabilities fading hourly as you dehydrate.
There was a time when a more expansive survival kit was carried, mainly in case something happened to someone else, along with more clothes. But as the comfort with travel and the ability to improvise solutions to almost all problems increased, the gear kept diminishing.
“You pack your insecurities,” Roman Dail, a professor at Alaska Pacific University and a noted Alaska adventurer once observed, and he was right. Experience minimizes the insecurities for better or worse.
There are a lot of dead pilots in this state whose obituaries underline the danger of the worst. Fear exists for a reason. It protects people when it doesn’t disable them, and there is no doubt it can do either.
Fear is in the air across the country now thanks to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It is hard to avoid it given its dominance of the news cycle.
The fear of the virus and the disease it causes – COVID-19 – is reported to be driving a significant number of people nuts while others appear fearless in there willingness to ignore the risks the pathogen presents.
Somewhere between those two, a happy medium has to be found. A society weighed down by fear cannot function. It fails when the rescuers can no longer support the load of all those wanting rescue.
And we have become a society wherein people on many levels now expect rescue. One can only wonder how this will end.
I came back from the Twentymile River to witness a woman at the Huffman Carrs supermarket screaming at a man about his face-covering failing to cover his nose.
God knows, the use of face coverings in the public fails to meet even the minimum standard for maintenance of a sterile environment. But how much difference it makes is debatable.
As this was written, Our World in Data (a website maintained by the respected University of Oxford) was reporting a daily death rate in the widely-masked U.S. at 2.7 per million with the rate in little-masked Sweden at 0.01 per million.
Sweden has been much criticized for its approach to the pandemic. It asked Swedes to practice social distancing and refrain from large gatherings, especially indoors, but tried to maintain life as normal as much as possible.
The result was a daily eath rate that peaked at almost 10 people per million in mid-April. The U.S. rate peaked at 8.2 per million days later. Both then began falling.
The daily death rate in Sweden is still falling. The U.S. rate fell through early June and then began tracking upward.
The latest hope is that a vaccine can be developed to protect people. It is a wonderful hope, but it is increasingly looking like the world might be forced to live with this new virus as it has learned to live with the HIV virus that causes AIDS and others pathogens before that.
Where we find our comfort level between fear and some sort of acceptance of the new norm that it can’t kill us all only time will tell.