This article appeared in the August 2017 issue of Alaska Sporting Journal
In July, my first set of friends from California will come up and get their week-long slice of Alaska. It’s been fun to see how far we’ve altered the threshold of adventure for a few of them since they first visited.
“I’m really excited to come up, I don’t even care if we fish,” said Brian a high school teacher and softball coach before he was shown the ways of taking terminal salmon with a snagging hook.
Fast forward five years and he’s the one checking the tides and recommending we get up at 3:30 a.m. to get on the road and make sure we get to the snagging grounds on time.
His sense of wild has changed. His perception of the amount of adventure he can handle has changed. He craves the outdoors – as long as it’s for about a week, in summer and under my supervision.
It’s normal to get hooked by the idea of being bolder. Not in that teenage rebellious type way, but in that, me-in-nature sort of way.
I’m reading Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. Rather than a, “So there they were…” collection of outdoor stories, it attempts to answer the, “Why would someone do that?” question that we, the rational, logical reader, existing outside the context of emergency or adventure, ask.
According to Gonzales and his exhaustive research into survival phenomenon, we function in outdoor or adventure systems created by experience, but often times those systems are flawed. However, as long as the system works, we have faith in it…because it’s worked. But at some point, the flaw in the system will be revealed and since we’ve been conditioned to believe that if we make decisions that satisfy requirements within our system we’ll be okay, when it doesn’t happen, we fail to act properly. In those moments, we can only hope then that the consequences aren’t dire. And since all these routines and systems are executed by humans, accidents are always going to happen, no matter how much better safety technology gets.
Pushing the limits
Gonzales quoted an engineer after the space shuttle Columbia disaster. The engineer spoke about the expectation and understanding of astronauts when it comes to the inherent danger and potential totality of a disaster – a state of mind the general public doesn’t share.
The engineer concludes:
“S- happens, and if we just want to restrict ourselves to things where s- can’t happen…we’re not going to do anything very interesting.”
Alaskans don’t live the lives of astronauts, but the heartiest do put themselves in situations where they might feel like they are on the moon – isolated, maybe even from rescue.
I live a pretty docile life compared to the ice road truckers, commercial divers, fisherman, bush pilots etc. I go on overnight solo hunts into the alpine and skiff trips to troll or to access more secluded rivers for steelhead. My risk is acceptable, comfortable and minimal in comparison to some thanks to my threshold.
It’s hard to simultaneously embrace “Be Bold” to live a life worth sharing and “When in doubt, don’t” as a way to preserve it, especially in the context of recreation.
We don’t have to hike before the snow melts, we don’t have to troll for kings when it’s blowing 20, we don’t have to hike mountains alone. We get to. It’s a reward for living in a time in which all the generations before us worked and innovated to advance us to a point in American history when we can seek risk for recreation, while someone else lives their life through Netflix characters.
I’m not sure which is more dangerous.
My buddy Jesse is an extremely prepared and competent hunter. He doesn’t skimp on equipment, especially things like crampons for foot stability in the alpine. Still, a fall almost killed him. He was totally ready, didn’t do anything wrong. Still, something happened. His common sense and knowledge of how to act in an emergency provided him enough clarity to get himself help.
That doesn’t always happen. We’ve read about, or maybe even know experienced hunters or guides who make fateful decisions. Read Into Thin Air if you haven’t.
Preparedness can be funny though.
In May, a girl in Florida escaped the grasp of an alligator because she calmly executed what she was told to do in the case of an attack. Impossibly poised in the face of what would have been absolute terror for almost all of us. However, she had been told what to do, so in those crucial moments, there was a file in her brain for such an incident. The principle of fire drills in schools is to help kids know what to do in the event of a fire, even though the vast majority don’t take the drill seriously.
A few years ago, a lady in Juneau punched a black bear that was taking off with her dog. Totally irrational. Totally not what you’re trained to do. Totally worked.
So if being prepared doesn’t prevent accidents, preparation and experience don’t necessarily improve situations and totally irrational things work, where does that leave us?
For many, home, to watch and read about boldness rather than live it.
Life in bubble wrap
For the outdoor crowd, most of our preparedness is reactionary and tech-based – last lines of defense to get us out incase our plan crumbles. We don’t run through the specifics because we can’t plan for specific what-ifs. If an alligator bites you, do this.
You can’t be that specific on a fishing trip to a remote river, far too many variables. What do you have, where are you at, what’s the weather, what’s the temperature, all that before we talk about animals. So you deal with general things and hope if specifics are needed, you’ll make the right call, or the people you’re with will.
It’s really not something you talk about. If you’re headed on the trip of a lifetime to Alaska for Etolin elk, Brooks Range sheep, Kodiak bear, etc. there are passing thoughts and maybe a safety briefing, but the assumption is, understandably, that you’re coming back. You plan more on where the hide will fit on the wall or who will be over for the feast once you return home. Alaskans aren’t immune to this.
Spending a lot of time outside here is inherently dangerous. But yeah, I hear you, what’s the alternative? Maybe the bigger problem isn’t just how to safely be bold, but to be bold period.
A study released in June found that teenagers are as sedentary as 60-year olds.
It shouldn’t be too surprising. To be unapologetic in our pursuit of an inherently dangerous lifestyle, isn’t really understood by the urban society that often deems it archaic, if not barbaric, in an attempt to eliminate our preferred type of boldness.
There’s a great irony with the anti-GMO and pro-free range supporters who are also anti-hunting. “Get it yourself” seems like the perfect slogan for that crowd. When we do, it’s inhumane. It breaks hearts when the animal is in the back of a truck going down the highway but not when it’s neatly wrapped at the grocery store?
So don’t hunt because it’s mean. Don’t do things that are dangerous, because they are dangerous. Accountability and implied risk are being replaced with blame and the need to post signs telling people that you shouldn’t pet the bears or bison. Duh. Nature is not a zoo.
We have commercials of families taking kayaks on the city bus to find an urban lake to remind ourselves that the world isn’t just strip malls, corner coffee shops and man-buns. We have to convince kids to go outside and play as if being outside and running around is the new “eat your vegetables.”
The demand to insulate us from potential danger through technological advances or governmental regulations is only separating us from the boldness that made us survivors and innovators in the first place.
We’re making cars that require less skill to operate. Strange huh? We are so bad at driving, that the new advancements will allow us to be worse. Maybe I have this all backward. Maybe the truly bold survivors are the ones who brave freeways filled with distracted drivers.
Sleeping in a tent on a mountain during a storm?
Piece of cake.