After spending his twenties and early thirties as a firefighter and paramedic in Wyoming and, later, for the National Park Service in the Grand Canyon, Becker moved to Eagle – a town with a population of 86 – in 2008 to lead dog-sledding trips in the backcountry with Bush Alaska Expeditions. Here, he shares his survival rules.
Clearly, some of them are more appropriate to extreme, icy conditions – just like the ones you’re likely to encounter on a bad weekend in the Berg…
Always take a sleeping bag. You never know when you’ll get stuck out and have to spend the night or just need a quick warm-up. And I bring a preassembled emergency pack. Right on top is a pair of warm mitts in a ziplock bag. History is riddled with stories of people who didn’t survive because their hands froze. You can walk a thousand miles on frozen feet, but you can’t survive six hours with frozen hands.
Also in my pack are blankets, hand warmers, a big survival knife, signalling devices, fire-starting equipment – you can’t have enough fire starter. One thing I absolutely won’t be without is a Leatherman. I carry two. And then there’s a fur ruff, which lines the hood of your parka. Even the stiffest wind has a hard time penetrating a ruff. Just make sure it’s real fur.
The easiest travel is on frozen rivers and creeks, because the land is usually choked with brush and trees. But remember that the ice is dangerous. You have to know the difference between good ice and bad. Clear is bad. You want cloudy. And you want cracks. Once ice gets thick, the water expands as it freezes. It has to give somewhere, so the ice cracks. When you see cracks in cloudy ice, it’s almost always safe.
SETTING UP CAMP
For me the number one priority is easy water. You can almost always find enough firewood. But it takes a lot of time and energy to melt enough snow into water for 20 dogs. To find the water, just listen for it. When I get to a spot that looks like it might have water, I’ll put my ear down and listen. If I can hear the water, I can get to it. If I can’t hear it – because it’s under a couple of metres of snow and another layer of ice – I move on.
If it’s a true emergency, don’t worry about trying to build the shelters you see in survival books. You would never have time to build most of them. As long as you’ve got a sleeping bag, the best and the quickest shelter you could make would be to sandwich yourself with your sleeping bag inside a tarp, kinda like a burrito, and then figure out some way to cover yourself with snow for insulation. When it’s 50 below and the snow temperature is only minus 30, that 20 degrees makes a difference.
If you can, set traps every half a kilometre to a kilometre. In Alaska, a lot of us catch marten using small leg-hold traps, which are those spring-loaded metal jaws. To set the trap up, first find a 3-metre, small-diameter tree, preferably a dead one. Then tie it to a big tree at a 45-degree angle from the ground. On the end of that pole you hang bait or a lure or both. A lot of times we’ll use a visual attractor like a feather or something shiny. Bait can be guts from other animals or even a piece of hide. Once you secure the trap to the spruce tree just in front of the bait, open it. The idea is to get the little bird to climb the pole and step in the trap.
Don’t work up a sweat. If I find myself exerting a lot of energy, the first things off are my hat and neck gaiter to promote cooling. It is far better to stay a little chilly (knowing I can put clothes back on to warm up) than to let yourself perspire. Moisture lessens the insulating value of your gear, and even the best moisture-wicking fabric in the world won’t eliminate sweat. Once you get wet, you stay wet until you get to the cabin or tent at night to dry out.
I always carry high-visibility material in neon orange or green. This comes from my days working on a helicopter crew as a paramedic. It’s easy to miss someone from the air, so you want to make yourself as visible as possible. That means movement and contrast. A signal flare works, obviously. But neon material called flagging can be tied to a tree. Then, if a pilot flies over, he can see you and which way the wind is blowing. That helps him if he’s going to come in and land to get you out.
– as told to Peter Martin