A Few Things I learned from Alaska: a story of a (maybe) near death experience

A Few Things I learned from Alaska: a story of a (maybe) near death experience

Let me preface this story by stating a few things. Some of you may read this and think that it was stupid, dangerous, and could have easily been avoided - and I 100% agree with all of that. I am in no way a veteran “adventure rider”. If anything, I’d maybe refer to myself as somewhat “seasoned” when it comes to this aspect of riding. I’ve got plenty of camping trips and off-road escapades under my belt, including a nearly two-month cross-country trip throughout the United States and parts of Canada. I’ve encountered terrains from single track trails in the Canadian Rockies to roads like Engineer Pass and the Shafer Switchbacks. Each new trip I embark on teaches me something new and I am constantly learning things as I go. Things like: what I need to pack and what I don’t, what unexpected scenarios I could encounter, smarter camping practices, and even better riding skills. Though I still have so much left to learn and experience as a young (and dumb) rider, I feel comfortable that the level of knowledge I do have can be enough in most situations. However, the following story is one of preparedness, or lack thereof…and some ignorance. It’s somewhat embarrassing and a deeply personal encounter, but I feel it’s important to share. So like I said, for those more experienced riders out there, take this tale with a grain of salt. For everyone else out there, rider or not, maybe you too can learn something from this.

So now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s start from the beginning. 

I recently returned from about a week-long motorcycle trip in Alaska. Don’t worry, I’ll save you from detailed ride log and thousands of photos of my bike in front of different mountains and keep that stuff short. 

If you’ve never been to Alaska, go. It’s incredible. I’m not even going to bother trying to describe it as it would just consist of words like “amazing” and “unreal” over and over again. So, I hope that sells it.  

I had been planning this trip for quite a while with the original intention of riding from Atlanta up to Alaska. However, life had other plans, so unfortunately that wasn’t going to work out. Instead, I found myself with a weeks’ worth of time on my hands and a plane ticket booked to Anchorage. My trip had now taken shape into something much more condensed, but I was still as excited as ever. My plan had now become this:

  • Rent a bike in Anchorage
  • Return bike a week later in Anchorage

    Being that my time in Alaska was now so much shorter, I had to think carefully about how I wanted to spend it - which proved difficult. I ended up not making any firm commitments other than a few plans in different parts of the state. I had no idea where I’d be riding to or sleeping each night, but knowing that I had those two wheels, an open road, and a tent to sleep in - I was going to have an incredible trip (don’t worry, that’s as cliché as it’s going to get). Over the course of the next week I spent my time seeing and exploring Alaska in ways that I never thought I would - in addition to of course experiencing it via motorcycle. 

    From glacier kayaking in Kenai Fjords National Park to seeing whales in Resurrection Bay, I really wanted this trip to include some off-bike activities. In the past, my trips were largely focused around riding and the touring aspect. With visiting Alaska, I knew that I wanted a more visceral way to experience the state, I wanted more adventure - which coincidentally is exactly what I would end up getting. 

    One of my favorite experiences had to be a flight that I took through Denali National Park in a 1961 DHC-3 Otter. This six-seater plane took me through the preserve and over glaciers all while flying through the mountains just barely passing adjacent peaks and summits. The views were unlike anything I had ever seen before. I also strongly recommend taking a Dramamine before flying if you’re thinking of doing something similar. 

    The riding. I can’t even begin to describe how incredible and exhilarating it was. It’s safe to say that there were no dull moments on this trip whatsoever - on and off the bike. Seemingly endless winding roads that ran between towering snow-covered mountains and vast blue lakes were the standard out here. I definitely made sure to allot time for hiking as well. The near 24 hours of daylight worked in my favor as I could spend all day taking in the views. And of course, what adventure would be complete without an ice cold Yoo-Hoo in hand beach side, while watching the sun dip behind the mountains and cast a warm glow over the bay. Oh, and I made the trek to the land of my childhood nostalgia: Blockbuster (before it closed). 

    Out of all of this however, there was one thing in particular that I was most looking forward to - The Denali Highway.

    The Denali Highway is a 135-mile-long road that runs across Alaska’s interior and connects Cantwell to Paxson. Over 100 miles of this highway is poorly maintained dirt and gravel with the only paved sections being on each end. The Denali Highway sees few travelers with very minimal services along the way. During my entire time spent on this road I encountered maybe 3 or 4 other vehicles. All of this made for a very remote and wild sense of traveling. Queue Into The Wild  imagery. Soon to be relevant side note: leading up to this trip, friends of mine kept bringing up the book / film and begged that I “don’t pull a Christopher McCandless”. My response to this was usually something along the lines of “no promises” or “but wouldn’t that make for a great story” - delivered with a deadpan gaze and tone, jokingly of course. Be careful what you wish for…

    There is a fine line between overpacking, being prepared, and under packing - all of which I am still figuring out. I believe this is one of the things that you never have a definite answer to, it’s always in flux - you’re constantly learning new things, developing new techniques, and so on. Being that I had flown to Alaska and was only planning on a weeks’ worth of time, I did my best to pack lightly while of course trying to maintain preparedness. I had planned (and hoped) for an overall smooth trip - no backcountry camping or trail riding, so I really wasn’t expecting to encounter hazardous conditions or other dangers…though I did have bear spray on me at all times. The forecasted weather was even looking promising, maybe a day of light rain but mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the 40s to 60s. Enter the adages “there’s no such thing as being too prepared” and “expect the unexpected”.

    I had decided to take on the Denali Highway on the second day of being in Alaska. Day one comprised of riding North from Anchorage and spending the night camping in Denali National Park. Day two started off great. I spent the early morning riding and exploring the park with my sights set on the highway for later that morning and into the afternoon. After making it to the start of the road and hitting the dirt, I made sure to take a moment and process it all. Weather conditions were near perfect - cold but sunny (45°F). I had a positive mindset and was awestruck by my surroundings. Excitement barely begins to describe what I was feeling, but it’s the only word I can think of currently. 

    It was shortly after this point in my day that things started to take a turn. After about an hour into my trek, I was roughly one-fifth of the way through the highway. Incredible view after incredible view - and it never got old. I took a moment to get off the bike, stretch my legs, and take some photos. It was here when I noticed the heavy rains on the horizon. Having no idea of whether or not this road would lead through the storm, and an adventurous spirit (and light rain gear), I decided to continue onwards. 

    It was not long after this that I ended up hitting the rains that I had witnessed a few miles back. Though I had donned my rain gear at this point, nothing I had was fully waterproof. The weather was somewhat of a mild rain with light winds which was still enough to saturate most of my clothing. My boots were not at all waterproof and majority of what I was wearing under my rain gear was cotton - lesson 1. I kept riding through, hoping that it would soon pass as it seemed to be lessening. The dirt road had become slippery with most of it turning to mud and loose rocks. The entire time I continued to ride, I was gradually climbing in elevation - which meant temperatures were dropping. The views and scenery were continuing to be amazing. That coupled with the sense of adventure that I was experiencing is what helped me persist. 

    After about 45 minutes of riding through the rain I finally caught a break. At this point I had roughly 80 miles remaining. I was soaked to the bone and very cold, but my excitement still outweighed it all…for now. I figured that this would be a good point in the trip to break for “lunch”. I realized that I had not consumed much food or water throughout the day as I was beginning to feel somewhat weak - lesson 2. I took some time to relax and downed a few Cliff bars and hydrated myself. The winds were slowly starting to pick up and I wasn’t getting any dryer. Though already wearing most of what I had brought with, I decided to add on my remaining layers for warmth. I think the total count was 3 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of gloves, 2 pairs of long underwear underneath my pants, and somewhere around 5 or 6 shirts, thermals, and jackets. Now being fully outfitted and nourished, I hopped back on the bike and continued East. 

    I soon began nearing the halfway mark at which point I really started to notice how cold my hands and feet were. Both my boots and gloves were still soaking wet and had already been for over an hour. I remember checking the temperature and it being in the mid 30’s. I’ve ridden in the cold before, but nothing like this - especially not in wet attire. My extremities had started feeling tingly, almost a sharp pain, and soon started going numb. This was an immediate red flag for me. I knew that I still had a decent amount of the highway left and no way of drying off or warming up. The idea of this was definitely concerning to me. Being that this was something I had no control over, I started to become anxious as my health was something I really never thought I’d need to be concerned about - lesson 3.

    I remember it so vividly. I had begun a section of the road that was a steeper climb, bringing me to a higher elevation in a much quicker amount of time. There was a small pull off with a sign that read “Maclaren Summit ELEVATION 4086”. I stopped for a moment to read the sign and enjoy the view - when I then noticed that it had begun to snow. Completely caught off guard by this, my first thought was “wow, it’s snowing!”. In this moment it was like everything had faded away. I had forgotten about getting caught in the rain and that I was fully drenched. I didn’t feel cold nor the numbness in my hands and feet. It was bizarre. I think it was situational, just the culmination of everything I was experiencing. The fact that I was by myself in Alaska riding a motorcycle on this deserted highway and surrounded by wilderness, now joined by the appearance of snow, made it truly an adventure. It was almost like in that moment I had found what I had come for. My immediate next thought was “oh fuck, it’s snowing”.

    Queue mild panic and increase in anxiety, with a side of adrenaline. I remember in this moment thinking back to earlier in the morning when I had checked the weather before taking off. There was nothing about snow in the forecast - and this made me angry. Like actually mad. Of course that type of thinking is irrational, but I definitely wasn’t in a rational state of mind at this point. The anger soon turned back to concern as I quickly became aware again of some pressing issues. Snow was not something I was prepared for, let alone riding in the snow. My health was also becoming more present in my mind. The numbness I was feeling was starting to become more apparent and move up my limbs. I also realized I had been uncontrollably shivering and shaking, which made sense for being stuck in the cold and wet for that amount of time. It was the combination of all of this that put me in a state of fight of flight. In this current situation it was hard to think clearly and logically. I decided to fight it and keep going. I felt helpless and like I didn’t have any other options - which at the time was not true. I had actually passed a small lodge a bit of a ways back down the road. If there was any time in my trip that I could (and should) have turned around, it would’ve been now. However, I didn’t. It’s hard to remember the exact state of mind that I was in, but reasoned thinking was hard to achieve. Looking back, I believe that part of me actually wanted to keep going. I wanted to expose myself and overcome the situation I was in. I wanted this visceral experience, an adventure (flashback to Into The Wild references from friends). I wanted to push my limits - lesson 4.

    29°F That’s what I remember my thermostat reading - which was hard to make out clearly on my dash. Road conditions were worsening, the winds had only gotten stronger, and visibility was low. I kept having to wipe snow off of my helmet to be able to see as it was piling on and freezing over. I could barely see regardless due to my visor fogging on the inside and the cloud of snow I was seemingly riding through. At one point I remember putting my hand near the engine of my bike for some heat. Couldn’t feel a difference. I then touched my gloved hand to the engine to see if that would do anything - nothing. My hands and feet were completely numb at this point. I began hitting my hand against the bike as I rode to try and illicit some sort of feeling. Obviously that wasn’t smart in any realm, but none of this was. I was not getting any reaction or sensation which caused me to only hit my hand harder and harder and harder against the bike. Again, nothing. I actually think I ended up breaking my thumb as a result, but wouldn’t notice this until a few days after. The fact that I could not feel a single thing really elevated my anxiety and really began to freak me out. Thoughts of frostbite and hypothermia were becoming more and more prevalent. In addition to all of this, my biggest feelings were weakness and confusion. I kept seeing parts of the road that I swore I had already passed and the lack of visibility was disorienting. It was safe to say that I had not eaten nor drank enough throughout the day either, so I’m sure there was a bit of dehydration being factored into all of this as well.

    I had stopped seeing mile markers a while back, so I really had no idea how much longer I had left ahead of me. At this point I had already committed to continuing on - that is if I was physically able to do so. I couldn’t stop and take refugee anywhere, I had no means of warmth, and nothing to keep me dry - persisting felt like the only choice. I had been stuck riding in the snow for almost an hour now. I had to keep my speed low due to the circumstances, but I knew I had to be getting close. I was slowly starting to make my way down the other side of the mountain that I had been climbing up earlier. Being that I was decreasing in elevation, I was hoping the snow would soon turn to rain and warm up slightly, even if only 6 or 7 degrees. 

    Seemingly out of nowhere the dirt road had now turned into pavement, which meant I had only about 20 miles left on the Denali Highway. I almost didn’t notice it at first but quickly had to stop and asses. Due to the lack of traffic and cold rain turned snow, the road itself was starting to freeze, if not already frozen in some areas. Because of having no traction in these conditions, the winds I was riding through were so strong that I ended up being pushed across the road and sliding into the opposite lane. It was near impossible to fight against it, I had to take things slow and proceed with extreme caution. Thinking back to it, I believe I may have missed a few shelters around this time due to my concentration being on the road and inability to really see anything beyond the sides of the road. After another 20 minutes of riding the sight of a roadside shelter caught my eye. It was a standard primitive bathroom - a covered a pit toilet with no running water, no power or heat, no anything. However, it provided an opportunity to get out of the snow, which is what I really needed. I parked my bike, grabbed my sleeping bag, and ran into the bathroom. I immediately stripped myself of my wet clothes, leaving on only a few layers. It wasn’t any warmer inside but at least I was out of the snow. Upon removing my boots and gloves did I then notice how red my hands and feet were, all still without sensation. Not being able to process the possible severity of the situation, I threw myself into my sleeping bag and laid on the cold, wet floor of the bathroom. I felt tired. Extremely tired. It almost felt like my body was shutting down. I was shaking and shivering out of my control. I laid in my bag trying to gain warmth and relax, but to no avail. I knew in my mind that closing my eyes and trying to “sleep” would probably be the worst thing I could do, but it was incredibly hard to fight. More than anything did I just want to be out of the cold and snow for good.

    I was going in and out of awareness. I was conscious the entire time, but shifted between moments of clarity and hyper confusion. It felt like time was lapsing and that I did not have mental awareness. During one of those moments of clarity did the thought hit me - “wow, this is actually not good”. The situation that I was in was dangerous and something could actually happen to me. This began to worry me even more, but I was at a point of such weakness I could barely react. The combination of everything I was encountering could have been leading to deadly circumstances. Granted, it’s really hard for me to think back and speak accurately on the actual severity of the circumstances - but the extreme weather, my lack of preparedness, and fading mental / physical state really made it seem like a dire situation.

    I had decided to check my phone to see if I could tell on the map where I was, and to my surprise I had a signal. Knowing this provided me with a semblance of security, but I was still in an unsafe state that I had to get out of. According to the map I had 12 miles left on this route, but just finishing the road didn’t mean I was in the clear. Upon ending, the Denali Highway intersects with the Richardson Highway. From this intersection it was another 15 miles South until the next, well, anything - which happened to be a roadhouse that could provide a place to dry off, warm up, eat, and spend the night. I ended up calling to confirm that they were in fact open and to see what the weather was like. To my dismay I was informed that it was still snowing just as bad as where I currently was. 

    Some sort of an ultimatum was then presented to me. The remaining 12 miles of highway I had left were all downhill. Strong winds were still present and the roads were twisting and still frozen over. I was concerned about the conditions and whether or not I would be able to safely make it the rest of the way. My options were either continuing on or staying where I was and waiting for it to pass. As much as I tried, I could not make the decision. My overall condition was getting worse - my confusion and feelings of weakness were increasing, as was the numbness in my limbs. The weather wasn’t getting any better, nor was I getting any better. At one point I had even pre-dialed 911. I was hit with an overwhelming sense of helplessness and nearly began to panic. I felt foolish, like calling emergency services wasn’t necessary. It seemed like an incredible ordeal for something that may have not actually been serious - lesson 5. Another contributing factor was my will to not give up. I had made it this far, so there was no reason as to why I couldn’t keep going - it would be over before I knew it. It was an opportunity to try and push my limits, which is not at all a good idea in a situation like this. 

    It was shortly after this that I had another moment of clarity hit me. I knew I could make it, so I just had to do it - regardless of whether or not it was the smartest choice. I got out of my sleeping and began jumping around. I did my best to get my blood flowing and regain feelings. I started talking to myself, trying to hype myself up and get in the right mental state. I threw back on all of my wet clothes, packed up my bags, and got on my bike. The weather and road conditions were just as bad as I thought they would be - low visibility and winds were still continuing to slide me across the frozen road. The first few miles were tolerable. I continued talking to myself to make sure I was fully present and focused. Eventually I hit the end of the Denali Highway which meant I only had about 20 minutes more to ride. At this point I was again so weak and back to losing feeling throughout, however I knew I was close.

    I don’t really remember much after arriving at the lodge as my mental state was nearly depleted. The folks working there could clearly see I was in need of some help as I had walked in covered in snow, barely able to communicate, and unable to stop shaking. If you ever find yourself in Alaska and in need of a place to stay near Paxson, I highly recommend the Meiers Lake Roadhouse - they were extremely helpful and kind.

    After getting checked in I threw my clothes in the dryer and took the longest and hottest shower of my life. It might seem obvious, but I still felt so weird. I was still largely in a haze, still very confused. I remember feeling very weak, which I’m sure are all normal symptoms of what I had just encountered. I warmed up and slowly began regaining feeling throughout. I had no apparent permanent damage, but definitely signs of superficial frostbite. I felt feverish and was having cold sweats, which I just chalked up to be a sign of raising my core temperature back up. I was safe but still very shook up, although glad that I could finally get proper rest. It was difficult for me to process everything that had just happened - and even as I’m writing this now, it feels odd looking back at what I had gotten myself into. 

    The next day I felt so much better. I was finally able to relax, had plenty of rest, and got myself back into the swing of my trip. The grounds were still snow covered, but the sky was clear and the sun was out. The forecast looked promising with some warmer weather coming through later that day. Before getting back on the road, I asked the folks from the area whether or not these random snow storms were common for this time of year. “No, not at all” - is what I was told. Nearly a foot of snow fell that day, an uncommon occurrence to say the least. I was thankful to be alive and unscathed as things could have gone much worse. I took off from Paxson later that morning and continued on with my trip - luckily not encountering any more freak snow storms.

    So in a nutshell, that was my trip to Alaska. Though this story is very personal and a little on the embarrassing side, I figured it would be best to tell it - for a few reasons. Other than this (hopefully) being an entertaining anecdote, I learned a few key things from this experience that I feel would be helpful to share - or at least just say out loud so I can remember them for my next trip. As I mentioned earlier I am in no way a veteran rider - I am still learning so many things as I continue to adventure and travel. I thought it might be beneficial to talk through some of these lessons I learned in hopes that they could maybe offer a new perspective to some. 

    Maybe most of these go without saying, but I’m going to say them anyway (in as few words as possible).

    Lesson - Rain gear and proper riding attire, and backups. Pretty obvious, but can completely ruin a trip if neglected. I usually travel with light gear I can throw over my normal riding clothes. I had never got caught in a storm anywhere near comparable to this and was always able to manage otherwise. Instead of a separate jacket and pants, consider a fully weatherproof suit. Having one of these would have kept rain and snow from getting down to my base layers. Having an additional pair of boots would have been great as well, though a fully waterproof pair is something I definitely plan on investing in. Nothing is worse than riding an entire day with wet socks and feet. Also, cotton kills - avoid at all costs. Synthetics, wools, and other moisture wicking materials are ideal for layering and outerwear - and bring a spare or two. 

    Lesson 2 - Hydrate or die-drate. Though it may sound like an extreme turn of phrase, nothing is more important than drinking enough water throughout the day. It’s something I often forget about until it’s too late, I’ll notice signs of dizziness and weakness beginning to come on. Though such a simple solution, not doing so can really have negative consequences. This goes for eating as well. I’m also a big “snacker” while traveling. I like to eat small meals, cliff bars, trail mix, etc. as I find it doesn’t overly fill me up and keeps me energized - though I do need to make sure I am actually consuming enough nutrition throughout the day. I’ll usually save bigger meals for evening time once majority of my riding is done for the day.

    Lesson 3 - Positive attitude. While I admit this sounds cliché, a healthy mental state goes a long way. I definitely can be an anxious person at times, especially if things are happening that are out of my control. Letting unexpected circumstances affect your state of mind will only cause more stress and make situations worse. I find it best to recognize this, focus on what I do have control over, and begin to determine what I am capable of doing in the current situation. 

    Lessons 4 & 5 - Know your limits. And don’t push them (too far). Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Seriously - if you ever feel that you are in need of assistance, ask for it. You know the old saying “better safe than sorry”? It exists for a reason.

    If you’ve made it this far, congratulations - it’s finally over. Thanks for taking the time to read it, I hope you found some of this informative, or at least entertaining. Also, if you’re ever considering going to Alaska, go.