North Country Hazards

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1995

North Country Hazards
By Tom Kizzia

You already know about keeping food away from camp and pumping drinking water through a filter. Here are a few other precautions to take in the Alaska backcountry.

River crossings: Glacial rivers are thick with silt and full of rolling rocks; many are so cold that more than 30 seconds in the water can be life-threatening. Study the river's braids and cross where a channel is wide and shallow, preferably in teams of two or three, with the strongest upstream to break the current. Wear boots or sneakers, hold on to each other, take short steps at a downstream angle, and keep your hipbelt unbuckled so you can shed your pack if you're swept away. Remember that this is glacial melt, and a stream that's uncrossable in the afternoon could be only knee-deep after a cold night.

Sea kayaking: Stay at least a quarter-mile back from calving glaciers, and beware of icebergs--they roll without warning. Don't paddle too close to sea lion rookeries; if you do, you're likely to be greeted by a crew of thugs bigger than your kayak. Look for protected landings and consult tide tables when setting up camp: The tidal range can be 30 feet.

Hiking: Don't judge distances by Lower 48 standards. Allow extra time for hiking on tussocks, crossing rivers, sitting out foul weather. It's not smart to hike alone. Bring extra clothes in case you get lost or the weather changes. Gravel bars often provide the best hiking, but many injuries can be caused by walking on loose rock. Glaciers are another danger zone; rope up if there's any risk.

Bears: You decide whether or not to carry a gun--though firearms are permitted in most of Alaska's parks, many backpackers rely on good bear sense alone. Either way, sing and holler when hiking through thick brush, don't camp beside streams full of spawning salmon, and keep the toothpaste out of your tent.

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