From the March 2013 edition of The People's Paper, a Wasilla/Anchorage area publication
A Life Changing Experience
By Vic Kohring, March 8, 2013
My parents have been the guiding light in my life, those with the greatest and most positive influence. Despite
their guidance, there were times as a young man I needed to strike out on my own and learn from experience - from life's ups and downs. One of those times occurred in November 1976 when I was 18 and right out of high school.
I was told a big game guide was looking for someone with the fortitude to spend a winter at his remote hunting camp
at the foot of the Wrangell Mountains, 120 miles northeast of Cordova. In exchange for tending his dozen horses, a flight to/from the site, basic rations, a cabin to live in and use of traps to run a trapline would be provided. After a month of pestering
the guide with long-distance calls from a pay phone and burning up a lot of quarters, he finally relented and flew me out.
Lure of Alaska's Wilderness
As a naive teenager, I got it in my head that roughing it in Alaska's wilds would be a great adventure, so I jumped at the chance but without thoroughly thinking it through. I envisioned the place as an outdoors fantasia where I could
live the life of an adventuresome trapper and woodsman much like Daniel Boone or explorers Lewis and Clark, all of whom I admired in my youth. As a kid, I used to romp in the woods near our Anchorage home pretending to be them, but was always home for
supper and slept in a comfortable bed in a big house. Life in a true wilderness setting would prove far different.
The element of danger in the Wrangell's made it even more enticing. Despite being fairly seasoned in the outdoors as a moose hunter and experiencing some of the roughest conditions Alaska's backcountry can dish out,
I failed to take into account how seriously dangerous wilderness living alone in the dead of winter can be with no one to rely on except myself. And it proved nearly fatal. But I managed to survive the ordeal and emerged a better, stronger, more mature individual, ready
for life as an adult.
I was ill prepared for my venture into the
wilds, not to mention having a chronic back condition from a sports injury suffered earlier that year. (I delayed entering my freshman year in college to pursue my basketball interests to give myself a full year to recover.) I had no real survival equipment
or ability to contact anyone in an emergency. It was the pre-cell and satellite phone era, so outside communications were non-existent unless smoke signals count.
The closest civilization was the tiny village of McCarthy, a former mining town known for the world's richest copper ore deposit and located about 50 miles west of my campsite, down the Chitina River and across a formidable
mountain pass. McCarthy also made national headlines six years later as the site of a massacre where six of its 22 residents were shot to death, a tragedy showcased on the Discovery Channel program "Frozen Terror."
Threat of Attack
I had no heavy weapon to protect myself should I encounter bears (I was talked out of borrowing one and convinced I'd be safe,
being told "They'll be in hibernation, so forget it"). I was in serious grizzly country too. It turns out, during my first several days at camp, two large grizzlies, not yet hibernated (surprise!), were in the vicinity and behaved aggressively toward me including
circling my cabin within a hundred feet one evening in an apparent search for food. I was being held hostage inside by the beasts, trying to stay safe and avoid a confrontation. I first discovered them a half hour after my arrival on Day 1 when walking down
to nearby Clear Stream to draw water for a pot of coffee. I was stunned to discover two sets of fresh grizzly tracks in the snow, moving in and out of the creek.
The tracks were only minutes old, soft to the touch and all sloppy and wet from the creek water despite the freezing conditions, so I knew the
bears were very close. It was too dangerous to spend time looking around, especially without a bear gun for protection, so I instead made a quick beeline back to the cabin. I couldn't see much anyway as my vision was poor and I wore no glasses. I wouldn't
doubt the grizzlies were within 50, 75 yards and in an ornery mood with winter settling in and food scarce. I was probably looking right at them, thinking the dark images were large tree stumps. My calm demeanor likely kept the bears attack instincts in check,
because had I began to run and looked like panicked prey, they may have pounced.
The camp had a history of bear break-ins, with one big griz destroying the animal feed shack twelve feet from my cabin two years before. It was later shot dead on the airstrip. Bags of grain used to feed the horses
were now stored in the cabin where I slept, creating a serious danger for me as it likely attracted more bears. The situation was ripe for a catastrophe. My .22 Ruger semi-automatic pistol was nothing more than a pea shooter should I be attacked, so I
planned to blast a bear point blank in a hail of bullets if one broke in, hoping to get lucky and hit a soft spot. Fortunately, the danger passed after several nerve-wracking days and sleeping with the gun under my pillow, so no shots were fired. A couple
weeks later, I observed a large set of wolf tracks on the opposite side of the airstrip, but never felt threatened.
Making matters worse was that the pilot and owner of the hunting camp and someone I barely knew, was in an angry, caustic mood over a silly miscommunication
on when to rendezvous with him that morning for the flight out. I was instructed by his wife to meet him at his airplane hanger at a time certain after he spent the morning flying around spotting caribou with Fish & Game Department biologists. When I arrived
(precisely on time), he was furious, insisting I was late. He proceeded to clam up and refused to speak a word during the 60 minute trip by air from Tolsona Lake near Glennallen, giving me an extreme cold shoulder. When we landed, the pilot remained silent without eye contact other than to bark, "Don't burn down my cabin." He then hopped in his Super Cub and off he went. Not a word about when he might return, leaving me wondering when I would see him
again. Would it be in a month, maybe two or at the end of winter the following year?
I had maybe a six week food supply, so what then? The man didn't offer encouragement either or advice on how to stay safe or survive an unexpected crisis. He even failed to take a quick minute to look in and outside the cabin to make
sure basic supplies were intact and everything was in proper working order before leaving. And worse, I was left without any medical supplies just in case. Not even a bandage. The guy seemed deliberately derelict in his responsibilities as if punishing me
for my alleged tardiness that morning. Very juvenile. Upon my arrival, it didn't take long for Mother Nature to come calling, only to discover there wasn't even an outhouse - just a big hole in the ground. Why was I not surprised? The sting of dropping one's
drawers in below zero weather is an experience you never forget.
Fending for Myself
Forced to fend for myself and anticipate possible hazards, I put aside some basic supplies and equipment as a precaution. There was a rudimentary cash consisting of a large wooden aviation gas crate placed among several twisting birch
trees about 16 feet up, intended to be out of reach of bears. When I climbed the rickety homemade ladder and pried open the box, it was no surprise (par for the course) to discover virtually nothing that would help me survive a calamity such as a burned down
cabin, other than a damp mummy bag and a little old food. So inside I placed some basics - a tarp, a fresh sleeping bag, a hand saw and hatchet, matches, a week's worth of freeze-dried food and a pot to boil water and cook food. At least it would give me a
fighting chance in an emergency.
I was a teenage
kid who never should have been left alone in the middle of nowhere. It was borderline cruel. I stood in shock as the plane lifted above the end of the runway, questioning why I chose to put myself in such a precarious position. I remember saying out loud,
"Why have you done this? This is insane!" It wouldn't have been so bad if it wasn't for my pilot's sour attitude which caused me to wonder if the guy had it in for me. Had he been pleasant, my experience probably would have been much more positive. I could
hear the drone of his plane's engine fade off in the distance as cold engulfed me and darkness descended, despite being only four o'clock in the afternoon. The sudden quiet left me sickened and feeling the loneliest ever in my short life. In a near panic,
I called out to God.
the 1997 movie "The Edge," Anthony Hopkins played a billionaire struggling to survive after a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness. While facing an extreme mental test of his ability to endure (like me), he noted how most people in these predicaments die
of shame, asking themselves, "What did I do wrong? How could I have gotten myself into this?" Hopkins went on... "And so they sit there and they die, because they didn't do the one thing that would save their lives - thinking." In other words, they feel sorry
for themselves and simply give up without a fight. I found myself in a similar dilemma requiring that I calm down, keep my wits about me and use my intellect to stay alive. Fortunately, I did all three.
of a grand outdoor experience turned into a bad dream as most of my time was spent literally trying to survive, avoid cracking under pressure and maintaining my composure. My cabin was a poorly constructed, wood frame shack with thin walls, little insulation
and no electricity. A small cast iron wood stove barely kept it warm enough during the 15 below weather. And it wasn't until years later that I understood the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning. I'm sure the constant use of my stove and propane appliances
inside a small, confined cabin I had made airtight to repel the cold produced ample CO exposure. I had no idea at the time of the danger and could have easily perished in my sleep.
Fighting the Elements
Thank God it didn't get colder, which that area is easily capable of. Minus 40 would not be uncommon and I doubt I would have survived 30 or 40 below. An open section of creek (strangely unfrozen despite the cold) was a stone's throw
from my cabin door and provided ample drinking water, although Beaver Fever was a potential peril. Not to mention sharing the creek water with a bunch of horses and the manure that goes with it along with bear scat. A single propane light hung from the ceiling
with a crumbling wick that produced little light.
The majority of my time was spent struggling to stay warm. I located a stand of dead trees from an old flooded area toward the river, many of which I felled with a handsaw. I harnessed
a horse and used it to drag the logs back to the cabin. I then cut, split and stacked the firewood that was fed into the stove which I stoked every three hours during the night to keep from freezing, waking myself up with my wind up alarm clock.
I also used a horse, "Whitey," to pull a large ahkio weighed down with spruce logs up and down the airstrip to compact the snow so my pilot wouldn't bog his plane down and crash should he return. The work helped keep my mind off
my woes. Additionally, I drew strength from reading my pocket Bible from light flickering off cracks around the door of the stove with darkness surrounding me. The 23rd Psalm provided the most comfort. To pass the time during the long evening hours (it was
close to Winter Solstice, so daylight was scarce), I also read adventure books and played lots of Solitaire. The previous occupant left behind pornography, which I burned in the stove upon discovering.
To stay warm enough at night while sleeping, I placed one military
mummy bag inside another and then covered myself with a large tarp to help retain body heat. I also assembled a bunk bed and slept on top, remembering that heat rises and the temperature would be warmer six feet off the floor, and placed the bed as close to
my wood stove as safely as possible. And I slept with my clothes on including my winter coat and hat. Despite all of this, I was still a little chilled, unless I laid perfectly still. It was frightening to think what would have happened if the temperature
Horse feeding time was a wild experience in itself - and dangerous. The horses were used for a few months during the fall hunting season to ride, pack gear and haul meat. The rest
of the year they ran loose, so essentially they were wild animals. When feeding them, I took great care to first herd them into a secure corral and then pour the grain into a trough opposite a stout log fence, otherwise I could have been bludgeoned by their
hooves from a powerful kick. When hungry, the animals were vicious, biting and kicking each other as they fought for position at the trough. It was scary to watch. They often became so hungry, they would peer in the windows of my cabin as if demanding food.
When I stepped outside, they'd go berserk as they watched with anticipation while I manhandled a 50 pound sack of grain to the trough.
A Defining Moment
A week into my adventure, I was so stressed that I was forced to arrive at a crossroads,
a defining moment where I basically had to choose between life or death. It was either get tough and convince myself I could survive - or give up in a panic and die. I seriously considered abandoning my camp and hiking back to civilization, which could
have been fatal in my fragile state of mind.
I concluded that if the pilot failed to return during a reasonable time frame and my food stock became depleted, I would venture out on my own with three horses and make a solo
trek to McCarthy with my topographical map as a guide. One horse would be to ride, one to pack my gear and one to shoot and eat if necessary. I said that right - shoot and eat! I remembered reading about eskimos surviving extreme cold while hunting caribou
by climbing inside a gutted caribou's body cavity to stay warm. I was prepared to do the same if I could fit inside a horse. Assuming my trek went well, it would be several days through deep snow and bitter cold, wrought with risk in conditions potentially
well below zero. It would only be a last resort though. As a matter of survival, I was ready to try anything.
On Day 10 while out hunting squirrels for use as trapping bait, I could hear a plane heading in my direction. It was faint at first and I wondered if I was imagining things. But a plane came into view and I was thrilled to see it was my pilot! He made a quick pass over the campsite at about 100 feet, flying so close I could see the expression -
an angry one - on his face. As he flew over, I put on a big SOS performance to signal distress to make sure he landed. But to my surprise, he blew me off and kept going. In less than a minute he had come and gone, it all happened so fast. So bizarre and so
disappointing as I thought I was rescued. It was as if being stabbed in the heart. For a moment I thought maybe I was hallucinating, the incident was so quick.
I realized later my pilot was
probably only checking to make sure I wasn't dead. Nothing more. I'm also guessing he was aware of the grizzlies in the area, had probably seen them the day he dropped me off and was concerned I'd be mauled by the creatures. If he was indeed aware, he never
should have left me behind. At a minimum, he had a duty to inform me so I could take measures to protect myself. So it became an ethical issue as well. Regardless, you would think one who made a two-hour round trip
flight and burned up a lot of Avgas would at least make a brief landing. Or simply drop off a gun for my protection. But no.
After facing the choice of living or dying, I chose to get tough and live. Once I put myself in the right frame of mind that I would get through my ordeal, I was instantly at ease and no longer struggled with anxiety, wondering if
I would emerge with my life intact. It was as if I crossed a threshold as part of a transformation. An instantaneous metamorphosis. Immediately, an eerie sense of calm came over me and I was finally in control of my emotions. And my stress dropped like
Aside from a harrowing experience breaking through lake ice when on my trapline in zero degree weather and risking fatal hypothermia while racing back to the warmth of my cabin a half mile away in stiffened clothes solid with
ice, I was fine. I actually began to enjoy checking my traps daily and appreciate the beauty of my wilderness surroundings. I still wanted out though. Yet another issue was my declining energy level, as if my plate wasn't already full. Due to my poor diet
which was almost entirely heavily processed food with little nutritional value (i.e. white bread and lots of Uncle Ben's Minute Rice), a sluggishness and fatigue crept in, turning me into a walking zombie by my third week of "incarceration." The pilot needed
to provide me with better quality food than the cheap stuff he supplied to save a few bucks. And I should have thought to bring vitamin/mineral supplements.
By Christmas eve 1976, I was resigned to being alone in my wilderness bastille, convinced the pilot was in no hurry to pick me up, and frankly, cared little about my well-being. But I was OK and was prepared to gut-out the entire winter
if necessary, even though my food supply was nearly exhausted. There were rabbits and spruce hen in the vicinity to shoot and eat - and plenty of squirrels and muskrats if I could stomach rodents as well as possible trout in the open creek. Even moose and
bison (a small bison herd roamed the Chitina River flats at the time) if I was lucky to knock one off with my .22. And there was always the horse option. All that would be required would be lots of salt to get the meat down!
Then suddenly, I heard the sound of a plane's engine far in the distance. It grew louder until a Super Cub came into view. It was my pilot again. This time he landed - what a surprise I said to myself sarcastically, wondering if maybe
he had a heart after all. After his plane touched down on the tiny airstrip tucked between the evergreens, as before, very few words were spoken. But this time, it was me who refused to say anything. I was asked a single question - "Did you see any bears?"
It confirmed that my pilot was aware of their presence, but didn't fill me in and leaving me vulnerable.
All I wanted was
to get the heck out. I had my fill of loneliness, hungry grizzlies and dangerous wilderness living. It took me all of three minutes to stuff my sleeping bag and possessions in a duffel bag and toss it into the plane's cargo bay. I was not about to
let the man leave without me. I watched him like a hawk to make sure I was not left behind this time. I would have fought him if necessary.
Reunited With Family
When I arrived home in Anchorage late that night twelve hours later, I was so happy to be back with family that it was as if I was dreaming. A surreal feeling. I didn't turn off my light at bed time out of fear I would fall asleep,
only to awaken and find myself stuck back in the Wrangell's in my world of dark, dangerous solitude.
The following day - Christmas - was indeed real and being reunited with my family proved to be one of the most special, memorable holidays ever. My time away caused me to greatly appreciate them. More important, it drew me closer to
God. It was a tough lesson to learn, but as I look back, I realize how crucial the experience was to my maturity as a person. It was way worse than military boot camp - perhaps on par with a prisoner of war - as my life was on the line and I was forced to
grow up in a hurry and rely on my sixth sense to survive.
As the years passed, I was able to draw on what I learned from my struggles and the mental toughness acquired by literally facing down death as a young man. It has served me well
when encountering situations where I must turn to my instincts and reach deep down for strength to combat adversity, particularly in the political arena as a state legislator and the ugly legal problems I eventually encountered. So as traumatic as my experience
was in the Wrangell Mountains decades ago, in hindsight, it was well worth the struggle.
Author's note (11/28/15): In recent years, the main channel of nearby Chitina River changed course and swept away the hunting camp that is the subject of this story. A Google Earth search of the area confirms a total
wipeout - no cabin, no airstrip and no Clear Stream where I drew my water and encountered bears. The only thing left are memories.