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How I Survived Five Days, And One Bear, In The Freezing Alaskan Wilderness

By Brad Parsk

Alaska is a beautifully rugged land of wilderness, wildlife and wintery weather. Largely untouched by man, it’s a place with still so much to explore, and a place where you could walk for a hundred miles without seeing another soul. It’s harsh, isolated and beautiful all at the same time. And it’s where my tale begins.

Originally from Leeds, I moved to Alaska in 2010 with my then-wife Diana. We’d enjoyed living in this beautiful part of the USA for a few years when we decided that we wanted to see a lot more of it, and booked a nice break: a weekend stay in a remote cabin about 30 miles outside the town of Juneau. We’d never been before and the cabin itself was supposed to be a good ten miles or so from the nearest road. A road which was seldom driven down at that time of year.

Day 1

On a beautiful spring morning with about 40kg of gear in our backpacks each, Diana and I started the hike from the Juneau outskirts and through a wood, which took us on a winding path up around a mountainside. Though both seasoned hikers and physically fit, we recognised early we had made the mistake of overpacking, the extra weight on our backs feeling heavy and cumbersome.

We worked our way around the side of a wooded mountain, to find the opposite side thick with snowfall from earlier in the month, something we hadn’t anticipated. Soon enough, the snow was so thick it was almost impossible to make out our trail. We resorted to our map, compass and intuition to guide us to this fabled cabin – far from the trappings of civilisation and, reportedly, a great place for a romantic getaway.

Courtesy of the author

Now we were wading in snow above our knees. Each wade seemed to land me in a spot off the hidden track, my leg plummeting into the hardened snow almost up to my waist. It was painful, if slightly amusing at first. After the tenth and then twentieth time, the novelty wore off.

Two hours into our hike, the going became intensely slow. We stopped to drink, eat, and replenish our energies, but the clouds overhead had darkened considerably and a blizzard was soon upon us. In the space of an hour, the temperature dropped from about 3ºC to -20ºC – Alaskan weather turns in a heartbeat. Although we checked the weather reports before setting off, they had obviously got it all wrong. Feeling it would be easier to keep going, we pushed on.

Diana was looking exhausted but slightly better for wear than I – fall after fall, my knees were cut up and elbows were heavily bruised. Soon enough, the blizzard was so intense that we could barely see more than 10 feet in front of us. The snow was coming down sideways and stung like gravel on any exposed skin.

We began to doubt ourselves. “Surely this has been more than 10 miles?” “This has been the longest 10 miles of my life.” “Did we go the wrong way?” ”“Didn’t we already pass this tree stump a mile back?” “We are moving so slow, we might die out here.” “Should we call for a helicopter evacuation?”

All the above ran through our minds, some of those thoughts even came out of our mouths as the minus 20-degree wind tightened its grip on our chilled bodies.

We spent the night huddled together fighting to stay alive in a -20ºC snowstorm. I didn’t think we would make it to see the morning.

My right knee was in a bad way – I could barely flex it or put weight on it. Then, I fell into another icy hole. The only way I could haul myself out was by ditching half the stuff in my pack. Then Diana told me that she had lost all feeling in her feet. The first signs of frostbite.

The snow and wind tormented as we rapidly lost daylight. I looked at my watch. It had been seven hours. Our brains had slowed, and we weren’t thinking straight due to borderline hypothermia.

We decided to make a hasty shelter. Even through my gloves, my fingers had become numb but we collected downed branches and made what we called a “debris hut” in the army: a simple framework of branches covered in greenery. If you are quick and resources are available, you can get one up in an hour or so. Wet, injured, freezing and exhausted, it took us many more.

Diana crawled into the little debris hut and covered herself with anything she could find to retain heat. Meanwhile I tried to get a fire going. In the howling wind, it was impossible. Nothing stayed put, tinder blew everywhere and any sparks were immediately extinguished.

We spent the night huddled together fighting to stay alive in a -20ºC snowstorm. I didn’t think we would make it to see the morning.

Somehow, we did.

Courtesy of the author

Day 2

The next morning, everything felt very surreal. Dehydrated and frozen to the bone, we decided that we desperately needed to reach the cabin before getting caught in another blizzard. Hours of trudging through waist-high snow and we finally pushed our way out of the forest and into a vast open clearing.

Through the now light snowfall, we could make out the outline of a tiny little hut, perched on the edge of a frozen lake with precipitous mountains all around.

By the time we had reached the cabin, it was dusk and whatever supplies we had left had been exhausted. We literally fell in through the front door. Then… blackness. We had collapsed. All was silent.

I awoke about two hours later to Diana trying to get a fire going – nothing in the cabin seemed to work. There was barely anything inside with which to survive, other than a few small pieces of wood. A log book lay in the corner, with a story from each person who had visited – mainly nice stories of people who had come in the summer, and who’d had fun. I knew our trip wasn’t going to be among those pleasant entries.

We needed to find a water source, but I could barely walk on my injured leg…

We managed to ignite some tinder and get a fire going, throwing on whatever logs we had to get some warmth into the place. We now had shelter, and we had fire. Our next priority was water.

We decided it might be wise to search for water before we went to sleep. We needed to find a water source, but I could barely walk on my injured leg. Diana, with my survival kit and battery-powered torch, went. I wish I could have gone with her, and staying in the cabin while she ventured out seemed to drain all the manhood and morale from me. But I couldn’t risk further injury.

She came back half an hour later looking pale and weak – no water.

Our water supplies were out, but luckily our food wasn’t. We had packed enough for three days – all ‘boil-in-the-bag’ type food contained in sachets not dissimilar to Army rations.

We slept.

Courtesy of the author

Day 3

The next morning, the blizzard was largely over, but it was still exceedingly cold. This was Alaska after all.

With no other choice, and my leg feeling slightly better after the night’s rest, we decided to cut wood from surrounding trees and boil snow for water.

The surrounding snow was filthy and covered in debris from the trees. The cleanest snow looked to be over the top of the frozen lake. Standing on the iced-over lake would have been a foolhardy idea, so I edged myself across the surface, laying flat on my belly, crawling and scooping.

That night the weather calmed to an almost serene stillness. Frozen breath lingered in the air as we spoke, as if it would stay there for an eternity, and the moon shone down its approval on us. Across the lake, we heard the howling of wolves.

For the first time in three days, we began to feel like we might actually have a chance at making it out.

Day 4

And then it happened. The sound of glass breaking. A hairy paw with claws like daggers. Fur. Wintery breath. Bash! Another thump, this time near the door frame. Expletives. A scream of utter terror from Diana. Adrenaline. Me reaching for the shotgun.

It was a bear. A massive, hulking grizzly bear. And it could smell the food in our cabin.

“Quick, into the attic!” I yelled. As for our gear and our food – frankly, let him have it. Rather the food than us.

We dragged ourselves up the shaking, makeshift steps as the bear came hurtling through the cabin door with the ferocity of a demon. The huge creature smashed its way around the kitchen area, plates and pots flying everywhere, our backpacks grabbed and hurled across the room like they were tiny sardines, the bear grunting and moaning, huffing and crashing about.

The sound echoed across the mountains, my ears ringing from the intensity of the gun blasts.

In horror, we peered through the hole in the attic and watched it, less than nine feet below us causing utter chaos. I remember saying we had survived this far through strength, determination and ingenuity, and no bear was going to outsmart us now. I certainly wasn’t ready to die in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.

Slowly, I lowered the powerful 12-gauge pump-action shotgun through the hole in the attic and took aim. The bear had found the food rations and was trying to chew through the foil packaging.

He grumbled and chomped as my palms were sweaty and my heart thumped hard.

Squeezing the trigger, I aimed not for the bear itself but the huge hole in the doorframe he’d created with his dramatic entrance. My preferred option was to scare the living hell out of it so that it would leave and not come back. If it didn’t leave, I would have had no choice but to kill it – even though that would risk other animals descending.

I squeezed the trigger five times. Five shells in rapid succession, ear piercingly loud, and the bear scarpered in rapid fashion. Reloading, I dropped down into the cabin to follow him outside. Out on the deck, I could see a massive furry mass running off through thick snow. I offloaded another two for good measure. The sound echoed across the mountains, my ears ringing from the intensity of the gun blasts.

Courtesy of Brad Parsk

“Is it gone?” Diana said.

“Yep. Let’s hope it doesn’t come back.”

Thanks to our visitor, we had no sustenance to keep us going. Water was rationed. Dry wood was scarce. Our energy was exceedingly low. We discussed the possibility of an escape plan the following day and agreed that if the weather wasn’t too hazardous we would make an attempt to get back.

As night fell, we slept with one eye open in a very cold cabin, with wind now blowing in through a gaping hole in the wall.

Day 5

We awoke on our fifth day to the sound of birds chirping through a smashed cabin window. Another day in paradise.

Diana and I gathered together what little gear we had left, did a stock take of our equipment and decided that the time was now to make a break for it. Although the temperatures were still in the minus figures, the weather seemed stable enough.

And with no contact to the outside world, getting an emergency signal out or even obtaining a weather report was impossible, so we had to take our chances. We knew the trek back would be blisteringly painstaking. But compared to what we had over the previous four days, it did not seem as bad.

There was no blizzard on the return journey. Just the bitter cold and the waist-deep snow, eventually thinning out to bare soil the closer we got to the road. Before we knew it, the greenery on the trees appeared vibrant and the sun was out shining, as if to tell us what a joyous day it was to be alive.

Halfway down the trail, the snowy section ended and the path was visible once more. Relief set in, followed by disbelief, followed by elation. We were getting there. Slowly but surely, we were getting there.

We were going to be okay.

Brad Parsk is an award-winning explorer and survivalist. To learn more about Brad, visit
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