Managing the Far North

Andrew Skurka taking questions at National Geographic.

Andrew Skurka visited Washington, DC and he presented at National Geographic’s headquarters last night. He talked about his 2010 Alaska-Yukon loop, that put him in the same category of great explorers as some of his heroes, like John Muir Ed Viesturs and numerous, reputable others.  

While Skurka has completed several long hikes in the past decade, including the Appalachian Trail, a sea-to-sea hike, and an enourmous western loop where he combined the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail he had already hiked about 16,900 miles mostly on maintained trails. These were just the warm up for his latest self challenge.

On March 14, 2010 — a year ago yesterday — Skurka set out to cover 4,679 more miles in a self-created loop across Alaska and the Yukon Territory. This expedition was different than his other hikes mainly for two reasons: 1) Very, very little of it was on maintained trails or roads; and 2) Hiking cross country in the far north is a very different challenge from hiking in the lower 48 states and the lower part of Canada.

To do this hike, he applied himself to learn to ski, use a pack boat and navigate off trail in the backcountry — all of which were a necessity for success on this route. This was in addition to the hallmark of successful long hikes: Good, solid planning. As he put it, there are couple different kinds of people in the world, and he happens to be one that believes all of the world’s problems can be solved with Excel! Skurka shared examples of his spreadsheets representing terrain, distances and checkpoints. It allowed him make reasonable estimates for supplies and distances.

Skurka appears to be a rather fit and durable athlete. Part of his durability, or the appearance of it, may stem from the fact that he is risk adverse. A few people in the audience gawked at that comment. But I agreed with him. While he maintains a high level of fitness, he also avoids situations where the risk is not manageable. His problem solving skills and new knowledge of backcountry navigation proves this point: At one point he came to a raging river flowing into the Gulf of Alaska. Instead of taking his packboat into the Gulf or stringing a rope, he evaluated his map and determined the least risky path was to follow the source of the river to the head of the glacier that fed it, blow up the pack boat and paddle across. In this way, his expedition has the appearance of looking easy.

The other reason Skurka deserves historic company with Muir is because of his sense of wilderness. I’ll talk about this a little more later, but I will say that his isolation from civilization brought him closer to the land and the wildlife. Humbling is probably the best single word to describe it.

He completed the loop where he started, in Kotzbue, Alaska on September 5, 2010 around 10:00 p.m. without fanfare.

Well, thanks again for visiting.  If you enjoyed this post, you can following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or on Twitter (@SuburbanMtnr). There you’ll get more information and news as I come across it.


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