Andrew Skurka

Human-powered circumnavigation of Alaska

Mar 4, 2011
Outside Magazine

Andrew Skurka didn't have many "wahoo moments," as he calls them, while skiing, hiking, and packrafting solo across 4,680 miles of Alaska and the Yukon for 176 days last March to September. "I was basically scared for six months straight," says the Colorado-based endurance athlete.

Petrified, yes, but not unprepared. After graduating from Duke with an economics degree in 2004, Skurka, now 30, eschewed the Wall Street track but remained loyal to risk management, embarking on a full-time career of long-distance epics like the 7,775-mile sea-to-sea trek from Quebec to Washington that he finished in 2005. "I'd consider myself the antithesis of Chris McCandless," he says. "The spreadsheets I use to plan my trips are beautiful things."

Most of Skurka's National Geographic–funded Alaska–Yukon loop had been previously explored, but never in one push. The route was a logistical monster: beginning in the tiny Arctic town of Kotzebue, he skied the Iditarod Trail and the Alaska Range until the spring snowmelt, then hiked and floated through national parks, the Yukon River, and the Brooks Range back to point A. The route was 45 percent off-trail, yet Skurka averaged 27 miles per day, despite skiing in whiteout conditions, bushwhacking in sandstorms, and paddling across wind-whipped fjords. He was joined for part of the trip by photographer Michael Christopher Brown.

During a 24-day stretch in the Yukon Arctic without seeing a road or another human being, Skurka ran smack into the migration corridor of the famed Porcupine caribou herd. "It looked like a highway across the tundra," he said. "I felt primal, like how we must have felt 10,000 years ago when we were just another mammal." That's not to say his motivation for the trip was ecological; Skurka wasn't out to save polar bears or raise awareness about the shrinking ice caps. "I'm a Massachusetts-born guy who lives in Boulder," Skurka says. "Who am I to show up in Alaska and say they shouldn't be drilling in ANWR?" Instead, he was driven by what he describes as "unabashed self-interest." He wanted to push the limits of bigger, faster, lighter—quite simply, "to feel alive."