Andrew Skurka was demoralized, and it was a new feeling. Since 2002, logging more than 25,000 miles on foot, the 29-year-old adventurer had become one of the best traveled and fastest hikers on the planet. But now, sitting in front of the post office in the tiny hamlet of Slana, Alaska, ripping open his resupply packages—filled with everything from the hiking sticks that he would swap for ski poles to precision-portioned bags of dried pasta, potato chips crushed to save space, and carefully weighed M&M's, along with maps marked with intelligence and instructions gathered and collated months earlier—he struggled to recapture his enthusiasm. It was May, and he was less than a third of the way into his 4,679-mile circumnavigation of Alaska by foot, raft, and ski. -- Circling Alaska in 176 Days, National Geographic, March 2011
For many of us, Alaska is a somewhat mythical place, all at once wild and raw, a landscape of rugged mountains and expansive valleys, of muskeg bogs and rivers swollen and fast with snowmelt. Brown bears and wolves, caribou and musk oxen, roam wild here across a landscape that largely has remained unchanged, and untamed, in refreshing comparison to the Lower 48 landscape.
What could possibly inspire someone to circumnavigate this state whose sheer size, let alone wildness, humbles so many others, traveling 4,678.8 miles by foot, ski, and inflatable raft? For Andrew Skurka, the challenge, which he says was actually more mentally taxing than physically challenging, was driven in no small part to be "feeling like I’m doing something with my life."
"When I’m out there and taking it all in, I feel like I’m taking advantage of the 70, 80 years that I’ve got on the planet," says Mr. Skurka, "and I can’t say that I necessarily feel that way as regularly when I’m living a more civilian life."
Over the course of nearly 180 days last year -- from March 14 to September 1 -- the 29-year-old man went off on an odyssey that took him through a showcase of national parks: Gates of the Arctic, Glacier Bay, Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, Kobuk Valley, and Klondike Gold Rush in the United States, Vuntut and Ivvavik in Canada. He endured rain squalls and snowstorms, icy straits and rotten snowfields, survived encounters with bears and mosquitoes, and came back with more than a few stories to tell.
This was not his first extended adventure. Previously he had hiked the Appalachian National Scenic Trail end-to-end, walked the Sea-to-Sea Trail from Canada's Atlantic coast to Washington State's Pacific shores, and did an incredible, nearly 7,000-mile loop that touched some of the West's most iconic national parks.
But why? For most of us even one of those trips would be the highlight of a lifetime, but to rattle them off year after year after year...
"I think for me it’s a mix of things," Mr. Skurka replied when asked why he is drawn to long-distance treks. "I’d say overall it boils down to the experience of it. And that experience consists of some of the aesthetics, like the natural beauty that I get exposed to, probably cultural and both in terms of sort of seeing different regions and going into towns I never would have gone into, but also meeting just pretty exceptional individuals along the way. Not necessarily within the hiking community, not necessarily other hikers, sometimes that's the case. But mostly people I meet in town. I walk by their house, they put me up for the night."
There weren't many houses along his Alaskan sojourn, which was profiled in the March 2011 issue of National Geographic. At one point he was nearly 100 miles from the closest road, at another he went 657 miles without crossing a road.
“The Alaska trip was exceptional. The physical challenge, it was physically difficult, but mentally it was much more difficult than anything I had ever done before. And the ratio between mental and physical challenge on the Alaska trip was different, too, than on other previous trips," he said during a long telephone call from Boulder, Colorado. "I think other previous trips have been a little bit more physical vs. mental."
"When I’m out there and taking it all in, I feel like I’m taking advantage of the 70, 80 years that I’ve got on the planet, and I can’t say I necessarily feel that way as regularly when I’m living a more civilian life.”
While some might struggle with such long solo excursions, Mr. Skurka, who supplements his lifestyle with speaking engagements, guiding, corporate sponsors, and underwriting from organizations such as National Geographic, said he's never been lonely on his trips. But what did continually tug at him during his Alaskan trek was the sheer fact that he was so far off the grid.
"I think the challenge, the biggest mental challenge that I had on the Alaska trip, was always feeling uncomfortable in my surroundings. The nature up there is exponentially bigger, and the consequences of messing up are much higher," he explained. "So I never felt like I could just relax and let my guard down, and come across something spectacular and give a few 'wah-hoos' and move on.
"I was just much more vigilant and just much more really sort of cautious and borderline, usually, sometimes, scared," said Mr. Skurka. "And feeling like that for such an extended period of time ... wore me thin. And there were a couple of occasions when I called home from town and my mom said things to the effect that there was a legitimate shot that I would have some sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome from this trip, because she could tell when I would call I had just been so unnerved by the experience I was having out there.”
While it would seem only natural to be worried about slipping and breaking an ankle or arm far from help, or running into a bear, those issues actually ranked fairly low on the backpacker's scale of concerns, and not only because he had a satellite phone with which he could summon help if he truly required it.
"The likelihood of falling and breaking an arm or a leg or something like that are really low. If I were doing something a little bit more dangerous I could see that, but that doesn’t concern me too much," he said. "And as far as the wildlife things go, I had plenty of bear encounters out there and most of them actually inspired confidence because they would go down exactly as you’d hope in that they’d see you, or they'd smell you, and they identify you as a human, and they get out there as quick as they possibly can."
More of a concern to the hiker were silly things, like severely stubbing a toe on a rock from a misplaced footstep, or a decidedly negative turn of circumstances, such as having his pack-raft blow away on the shore of a river, lake, or bay that needed to be crossed.
“If that thing were ever to blow away on me, which they definitely have a tendency of doing, I’d be toast," he said. "I’d be on the edge of a glacial fjord without a raft. What do you do? So it was sort of those things that concerned me more.”
We are, for large part, a nation of bystanders when it comes to venturing into nature's realm. Oh, there are day trips, weekend campouts, and occasionally multi-day trips for some of us. But to step entirely out of our comfort zone to head out into the wild for days on end, well, that's why there are the Andrew Skurkas of the world whom we can live vicariously through.
Mr. Skurka is working on writing about his Alaskan odyssey, and very likely to creep into those pages is some of the past.
"I thought there were three really cool, actually maybe four, four really cool historical legs of the trip. One was the Iditarod Trail, which, most famous for the serum run back in, I think 1918," he said.
Plus there was the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail in today's Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park that in the early 1900s was tramped by fortune seekers heading to the Yukon's gold fields.
"The second historical leg was my route through Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, which is a non-technical route through the park, to get from Nabesna-McCarthy and both of those towns are old mining towns. One is a gold town, the other is copper," he said. "Nabesna is on the northern side (of the park), and the route that I took is actually the old mail route, which is, if you go back there you’d be beside yourself that a mail man, this is how he delivers the mail up to the Nabesna mine. And the land has changed a lot since that was happening. A lot of the glaciers have shifted, some of the lateral moraines that used to be really good for travel are starting to get washed out. So I think it was an easier route back then, but even so, the idea that you’d deliver mail that way is kind of crazy."
The location of the old mail route through today's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve helped Mr. Skurka plan his route around Alaska.
“On a broad scale I wanted to do a trip up in Alaska where I connected the Alaska Range and the Brooks Range. Then I saw that I could connect, on the west side I could connect those two ranges with the Iditarod Trail, but the Iditarod Trail is only doable in the winter time, because otherwise most of it is just a big marshy swamp and a lot of muskeg," he said. "And then on the west side, I was able to stitch together a route using the Yukon and the Peale rivers, and the Richardson Mountains, so I was kind of able to piece together that, and I figured out based on some projected mileage, a projected pace, that I could add that southern sort of bulb down into the 'Lost Coast' and up through the Chugach (Range).
"That’s on a broad scale, and then on a very specific scale, the terrain sort of dictates where I went," he continued. "Like it’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, I’m going to traverse the Alaska Range,’ and it’s a very different thing to actually put together a viable route to do that. There aren’t many guide books for Alaska, but a lot of the routes that I did had been done before, either, mostly just in segments, so like if I could find the right individual I could get some local information about like, ‘Hey, is there a game trail running up this valley, or how thick is the vegetation here?,’ that sort of thing."
As for resupplying, most of the route took Mr. Skurka near towns two or three times a week, but there was one long stretch of more than 600 miles when he had to schedule a food drop by bush pilot.
"The big cache was out in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where I was about two weeks from a road in either direction," he said. "That was a cache specifically for me, and they’re not cheap. A bush pilot flew it in, dropped a barrel for me, and went back later and picked it up."
Not only was that cache the most expensive to arrange, but it was perhaps only with a little luck that it was waiting for the backpacker when he reached it.
"What was crazy was just after I had picked it up, there was like a big flood, a big rainstorm, and the barrel apparently was -- where he had left it, and after I had emptied it I put it in the same place -- the whole gravel bar that he put it on was so flooded and there was water apparently 2 or 3 feet away from the barrel."
The whims of nature -- heavy snows, rainstorms, high winds -- all at times confronted Mr. Skurka, who more than once realized the day's best strategy was to stay exactly where he was.
"Really close to Glacier Bay National Park, the tides there are really enormous and really powerful, and I got out my pack raft late in the day once, and the tides were working in my favor, but the winds were huge and there were big swells coming in," he recalled. "And I said, ‘You know what, I’m not supposed to be out here right now.’ And so I pulled in. I got caught in some big floods up in the Arctic national Wildlife Refuge, where like I’d have to walk along the west side of the river for 20 miles because I couldn’t ford the river
We live in a nation that seemingly is shrinking. Certainly it’s shrunk from 200 years ago, but more and more we’ve got urban sprawl, we’ve got development, even technology is even kind of shrinking the country. But so far, much of Alaska has been immune to that. It's still a big, wild place where you can go and get lost and truly back to nature.
"In Gates of the Arctic National Park, one of the resources that I used to plan my route was Bob Marshall’s book, Alaskan Wilderness, which he wrote based on his experiences up there in the early 1930s," pointed out Mr. Skurka. "And Bob Marshall’s observations are like almost identical to what I came across. The rivers were still running the same way that they used to, seeing a lot of wildlife, the natives up there, their lives have certainly changed, but they’re still up there, they’re still primarily based on subsistence living, at least for the bulk of their food stores, and the landscape up there hasn’t changed that much.
“And I think one of the big shifts for me, coming from these Lower 48 locales and being accustomed to these congressionally designated wilderness areas, quote unquote, wilderness areas, was going up there and finding true wilderness," he added. "These were not just areas that hadn’t been developed, and sort of had been put aside, these were areas that still function like a completely wild place, and they were so much bigger than anything I encountered down here."
At the time of our talk, the obvious closing question was, "What's your next big adventure?"
“That’s a good question," Mr. Skurka replied. "Do you have any ideas?”