In the August 2016 issue of American Survival Guide, I provided a partial list of the gear I intended to take with me while hiking in Alaska on a five-week trip that culminated with a three-week expeditionary float trip down the Sagavanirktok River. My friend, Mark Knapp, of Mark Knapp Custom Knives, wanted to see the current state of the river since he was last there close to 20 years ago.
Along the way, we hunted caribou, wolf and ptarmigan and fished for grayling, trout and char. We also tested out Mark’s knives, including a prototype survival ulu/axe and applied the survival skill sets we both have.
We were prepared for any number of failures in our plan. There were many times we had to resort to “plan B.” Thanks to the gear we carried, we navigated close to 100 miles of the river deep within the Arctic Circle and accomplished most of what we set out to do.
Additional gear and information not presented in the August article about Alaskan readiness is what follows here.
HIKING IN ALASKA ESSENTIALS: COMMUNICATION
Anyone hiking in Alaska should have the means to communicate with the developed world outside the frozen tundra. In the past, this meant costly cell phones with exorbitant rates.
Prior to departure, Mark set up his DeLorme inReach Explorer so messages could be sent to his wife back in Fairbanks. The inReach is a satellite communicator working with 160-character texts and built-in navigation that allows anyone with the right computer program to track your progress. The inReach can be synced via Wi-Fi to a standard phone to make texting even easier than using the device’s rocker switch.
In addition to reaching out to his wife, Mark had the ability to trigger an SOS signal with 24/7 monitoring. Luckily, we only needed to convey basic information, and we didn’t have to call for help.
CLOTHING AS SHELTER
Comfort and safety for hiking in Alaska were due, in large part, to the clothing Mark and I wore.
Anyone floating a river such as this should prepare to wear the same clothing for weeks at a time. Both Mark and I dressed in layers, and we were well prepared for everything Mother Nature could throw at us—from sunny, 60-degree days to those when she snowed us into our tent.
Wool reigned supreme on this trip, and personally, I found my merino wool thermals from Coldpruf, Buffalo/Merino socks from the Buffalo Wool Company and accessories (a hat, gloves and kerchief) essential for warmth. Merino wool also kept odors to a minimum, because most of my hunting apparel was worn for 14 days straight.
Comfort and safety on this float trip were due, in large part, to the clothing Mark and I wore.
I wore the wool kerchief from NxN daily and found many uses for it while afield. This oversized “Swiss Army knife” of neckwear was used to protect my neck from drafts while sleeping; I also draped it over my head to keep the mosquitos and flies out of my ears, wore it over my eyes as a blindfold when there was no darkness, used it as a pot holder to get cookware off the fire—and so much more. Multi-use items such as this kerchief helped keep the overall weight of my gear from tipping the scales when everything was initially weighed at the bush plane.
I wore Buffalo Wool Company Advantage Trekker socks daily and carried a total of four pairs. I always kept at least one pair dry (or near dry) to sleep in for warmth at night. I also wore a Buffalo Wool Company wool cap and gloves at night; they also helped fight off the cold. These wool products remained warm, even when wet, and dried out quickly in the sunlight and wind during the entirety we spent hiking in Alaska.
In addition to my Simms G3 Waders and boots, I carried two extra sets of footwear with me. I packed a set of light hikers that were great for trekking the dry sections of the tundra, but they were inadequate for all the river crossings we did while hiking in Alaska. I eventually switched to hiking in my waders and boots to stay dry and changed into my camp shoes (Merrell Capra Sport Gore-Tex shoes) at the end of each day. I abandoned my light hikers and switched back and forth between my waders and camp shoes.
Each night, Mark and I collected the dried willow branches found washed up during higher water along the riverbanks. In the Brooks Range, there really aren’t many options for firewood while hiking in Alaska at this time. Nevertheless, some willow branches were easily picked up, while others required cutting from the sandy and rocky soil.
My RMJ Tactical Pathfinder Tomahawk was indispensable to fire making when hiking in Alaska, especially at this time. I was able to cut wrist-sized trunks with ease, and the tomahawk helped make sure we had larger fuel to cook with, keep us warm and provide some emotional comfort at the end of a long day. That tomahawk was something I made sure to fit into my weight allotment for this trip.
When it was available, we used natural tinder such as the Eskimo cotton plant to get our fires started; when that was too damp, good old petroleum cotton balls were sparked. They burned long enough to dry out the damp wood. Fire making was not a problem. However, sustaining a fire with quick-burning wood meant repeated trips to gather more.
My RMJ Tactical Pathfinder tomahawk
was indispensable for fire making.
PSYCHOLOGY AND MORALE
As a writer, I’m always looking for pens to jot down my thoughts. The luminous material of my Dogwood Custom Knives pen made it easy to find any time of day, especially inside the tent during the early-morning hours on overcast days, to chronicle my experience of hiking in Alaska. A pen might not sound like something important in light of all the other gear carried, but when I was confined to the tent for long hours, it was psychologically important to journal, write down the details of the trip and occupy my mind.
Weather happens, and one must be ready to entertain oneself for long hours or days at a time. After finishing Louis L’Amour’s book, The Last of the Breed, a pen and paper occupied my mind when the tent walls could not.
My Sayoc Kali instructor, Tuhon Tom Kier, had given me a Streamlight TLR-1-HL that found its way onto my SIG P220 10mm pistol. I originally didn’t plan on bringing a lot of high-output light, but this lightweight option provided reassurance on nights we camped in dangerous game country.
After finding our raft attacked by a bear while we were in spike camp, we checked on it regularly throughout each night that followed. Whenever I left the tent at night, I always made sure to have that light attached to my pistol during the rest of my time hiking in Alaska. Also, as the days passed, we lost approximately eight minutes of daylight. When I left Fairbanks, the sun never set. Three weeks later, there was much more darkness during night hours. Having illumination at my fingertips was reassuring because there were many legitimate “bumps in the night” worth investigating.
FOOD AND WATER
The Sag River provided all the water Mark and I needed for the trip while hiking in Alaska. Mark has been in the state for more than 30 years, so he drank directly from the running water.
As someone from the lower 48, I treated my water with Aquamira drops— seven drops each of part A and part B. After five minutes, I’d add the solution to my canteen and wait. Thirty minutes later, my water was safe to drink. While I probably could have drunk the water untreated like Mark, I wasn’t going to chance anything on this trip. I’ve had food poisoning before and have suffered the effects of drinking bad water abroad. North of the Arctic Circle is no place for stomach problems that could easily slow down a trip.
The other way we treated water on this trip was by boiling it. Mountain House was sponsoring us, so with each meal, we would boil a couple quarts of water for the food and various drink mixes. Any water not consumed was used to fill my canteen.
Mountain House foods were absolutely vital to the success of this trip. We quickly learned which meals were the three-serving dishes we would each eat on high-output days. We would often supplement the meals with what we could take from the land. Even with two or three freeze-dried meals per day, Mark lost approximately 5 pounds, and I lost close to 10.
HUNTING AND FISHING
After the bush plane landed on Upper Sag Lake, Mark and I organized our gear and took some time to sight-in our rifles.
When I first sighted-in my Remington 700 rifle, I wasn’t confident in the fit of the rifle and the subsequent accuracy resulting from it. Because it had been transported in multiple vehicles in a soft case, I wasn’t going to trust the zero, which could have shifted.
Previously, when I used the rifle, I put too much muscular input into establishing a good cheek weld, which, in turn, created an inconsistent placement that caused my rifle to move when aimed at my target. The solution I found came in the form of the Bradley Adjustable Kydex Cheek Rest. With a better fit to my rifle, my groups tightened up and I could trust it to take down large game.
As a nonresident hiking in Alaska, I could not harvest a female caribou, and unfortunately, we never saw a bull in our travels.
The Little Things
This two-part article about gearing out for Alaska primarily focused on the larger, more exciting items one can carry into the Arctic.
This is not to say that smaller, everyday items had no value. In fact, while on the river, Mark and I kept track of the items that made life better and those we would have been lost without.
Duct tape: After a bear plundered our gear stash and ripped apart the seat of our boat, we used a generous amount of duct tape to repair the seat, patch my dry bags and keep our kit together.
Salt: Fresh fish tastes great—but it tastes even better with seasoning salt. Salt doesn’t spoil and should always be carried.
Foam earplugs: Hearing protection is important, not only when sighting-in 300 Win Mag rifles, but also when trying to sleep in the same tent as someone who snores.
Needle and thread: The inner lining of my sleeping bag footbox suffered a large tear. Using the needle from the 1911 Combat Survivor knife and a single strand from some braided Kevlar cord, I was able to repair it.
Drink mixes: Tang, cocoa, MiO and Nuun all improved the taste of the water we drank. We both craved vitamin C after going days without anything citrus flavored. It encouraged us to drink more water to avoid dehydration.
Zip-top and plastic bags: We reused zip-top bags to hold raw fillets of fish and our trash as we generated it. Leak-proof bags helped prevent messes in our packs and allowed us to keep certain gear dry.
Chocolate: While on a spike camp hike, Mark pulled out some bite-sized chocolate bars. It wasn’t going to sustain us, but this sweet treat boosted morale. Chocolate goes a long way when Mother Nature is beating you down.
Pack towels and Wet Ones: I didn’t take a proper shower for three weeks, and I didn’t change my thermals for two. I was able to stay “Alaska clean” with baby wipes, my pack towel and some river water.
Group dynamics: Just as important as the above items, group dynamics can make or break a trip such as this. Mark and I never argued along the way, and we both worked hard getting camp tasks accomplished.
Pound for pound, the most important piece of gear carried for food procurement was my Quantum Smoke PT 25 Reel and St. Croix 7-foot Ultra Light Premier Spinning Rod. Spooled with 4-pound fluorocarbon line, this combination caught everything from small grayling to arctic char to a 30-inch, 10-pound lake trout. The Quantum reel was smooth as silk, and the drag could handle the longest and fastest runs the fish gave me.
One piece of gear I would never leave home on a trip such as this would be this rod, because it provided a steady supply of calories and protein. However, while Mark and I were able to catch enough fish to feed us each night, we found more “one-fish holes” than those with abundance.
I pulled a caribou tag in case we spotted one; unfortunately, we did not. Although it would have provided a lot of meat and was our “gold medal,” we weren’t going to turn down the smaller, “silver and bronze” prizes that fed us.
The Kryptek Highlander Hidden Woodsman Rucksack I carried was ideal for storing my rambling gear while on the hunt for ptarmigan, as well as for keeping my fishing tackle within reach. I carried a much larger pack for hiking to and from spike camp, but I used this rucksack daily. The various zippered and sleeved pockets held gun-cleaning gear, bug dope, extra ammo and other necessities. The larger, main compartment stored my rain gear, canteen and binoculars perfectly. The Hidden Woodsman pack was just large enough to hold what I needed it to but not so large it had to be left behind.
Thanks to the gear we carried, we navigated close to 100 miles of the river deep within the arctic circle and accomplished most of what we set out to do.
TRIP OF A LIFETIME
If Mark and I had abandoned our ethics as sportsmen, we could easily have shot ptarmigan out of season and taken both caribou and bear illegally while hiking in Alaska during this season. However, It was more important to preserve the resources for the next time than it was to break the law simply to prove a point. Although there were many elements of risk on this trip, we weren’t going to starve, and we had plenty of fish to keep us fed.
We both consider our float trip an overwhelming success, and we had the trip of a lifetime. (If anyone wants to learn more about it, a webpage with notes from my journal can be found on my website, and I am happy to answer reader questions if they are sent to me.)
I totally understand why people return to Alaska. After five weeks of travel there, I am already contemplating my next trip to the Land of the Midnight Sun.
As a result of a year of preparation, the gear I carried did not fail me. If you are seeking out a similar Alaskan adventure, may your gear perform as well.
Sneak Peek: Mark Knapp Custom Knives Survival Ulu
One of the reasons for this float trip was to test some of the product ideas created by Mark Knapp. His patented design, the 1911 Combat Survivor Bowie, features a specially modified 1911 magazine that holds some basic survival equipment. That knife was used for fire starting, cleaning fish and more. It is a very capable field knife and extremely rugged in its own right.
Based on the feedback from customers and his own interest in a new, complementary design, Mark created a prototype of a new knife specifically for the Alaska trip: This survival ulu would work with the 1911 bowie knife or be perfectly capable on its own.
While out on the Sag River, Mark used the prototype Ulu for many tasks, including firewood prep, trap-building and clearing campsites of low-lying brush.
The Survival Ulu’s handle is the same as that of the 1911 Combat Survivor Bowie, allowing for the survival magazines to be used interchangeably. The handle also features a unique “witness” window cut out of the side of the grip panel that works in conjunction with an axe handle and peg, transforming it into a small hatchet.
• Blade length: 6½ inches
• Blade thickness: 3/16 inch
• Steel: 154CM
• MSRP: $750
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.