Listen To The Interview: Andrew Skurka

Get the Flash Player to see hear the audio.

For six months in 2010 Andrew Skurka circumnavigated the state of Alaska by foot, ski, and raft. His story is told in the March 2011 issue of National Geographic Magazine. Photo of Mr. Skurka by Michael Christopher Brown, National Geographic, used with permission.

Kurt Repanshek's picture

For most of us, Alaska is a somewhat mythical place, one wild and raw, a landscape of rugged mountains and expansive valleys, of muskeg bogs and rivers raging with snowmelt.

The state can seem to be a throwback to a time when self-reliance really was the only way you could survive. Indeed, in many areas of Alaska that’s still the case. That was certainly the case for Andrew Skurka, a young man who spent half of last year walking, skiing, and rafting completely around Alaska. Over the course of nearly 180 days he traveled 4,679 miles by foot, skis, and raft on an odyssey that took him through six U.S. national parks and two Canadian parks.

He endured rain storms and snowstorms, icy straits and rotten snowfields, and survived
encounters with bears and mosquitoes. It was a six-month-long walk into the wilderness that challenged Andrew physically as well as mentally.

Mr. Skurka's trek is profiled in the March 2011 issue of National Geographic. Recently we chatted with Mr. Skurka about his adventure.

Transcript

NPT:

What motivates you to go on these long-distance hikes?

Mr. Skurka:

“Starting with the obvious but most difficult question. I think for me it’s a mix of things. I’d say overall it boils down to the experience of it. And that experience consists of some of the aesthetics like the natural beauty that I get exposed to, probably cultural and both in terms of sort of seeing different regions and going into towns I never would have gone into, but also meeting just pretty exceptional individuals along the way. Not necessarily within the hiking community, not necessarily other hikers, sometimes that's the case. But mostly people I meet in town. I walk by their house, they put me up for the night.

“In fact, I got an email a couple of days ago from a guy, actually a father who I had first met spring of 2005. He lives way up in northern Idaho, probably 10 miles from the Canadian border, and he’s got this beautiful family, I think they have five kids. It’s a Mennonite family, and he picked up the issue of National Geographic and was just beside himself that the first time he met me I was this young wet-behind the ears college kid and here I was in National Geographic, so he emailed me.

“Those relationships are priceless. They really enhance the experience. So that’s part of it. I’d say for me personally I really get excited about the challenge that these trips present, both in terms of the physical challenge, but I’d say particularly recently even more so the mental challenge.

“The Alaska trip was exceptional. The physical challenge, it was physically difficult, but mentally it was much more difficult than anything I had ever done before. And the ratio between mental and physical challenge on the Alaska trip was different, too, than on other previous trips. I think other previous trips have been a little bit more physical vs. mental, and then, I’d say the last thing that I’d point to would be sort of the sense of feeling like I’m doing something with my life. When I’m out there and taking it all in, I feel like I’m taking advantage of the 70, 80 years that I’ve got on the planet, and I can’t say I necessarily feel that way as regularly when I’m living a more civilian life.”

NPT:

You mentioned the mental challenge, and I’m kind of curious about that. During these long treks, particularly the Alaskan adventure, do you long for some companionship along the way, someone to share the days with, the sights,the experiences, someone to talk with?

Mr. Skurka:

“No, that’s actually not it at all. I’ve spent a lot of time out there solo. Being alone out there is not a problem, I don’t get lonely. I think the challenge, the biggest mental challenge that I had on the Alaska trip was always feeling uncomfortable in my surroundings. Because it wasn’t -- the nature up there is exponentially bigger, and the consequences of messing up are much higher. So I never felt like I could just relax and let my guard down. And come across something spectacular and give a few 'whaa-hoos' and move on. It was more, I was just much more vigilant and just much more really sort of cautious and borderline, usually, sometimes, scared. And feeling like that for such an extended period of time was definitely, wore me thin.

“My mom thought there was a legitimate shot that I would have some sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome from this trip, because she could tell when I would call I had just been so unnerved by the experience I was having out there.”

NPT:

You mentioned always having to be alert to your surroundings, the threats that they presented I guess. Did you ever worry about being injured, whether it was a fall and breaking an ankle or an arm, or encounters with bears or wolves?

Mr. Skurka:

“I’ve spent a lot of time out there, and those injuries are very unlikely. Particularly if you make good decisions. I’m not, the likelihood of falling and breaking an arm or a leg or something like that are really low. If I were doing something a little bit more dangerous I could see that, but that doesn’t concern me too much. I think, and as far as the wildlife things go, I had plenty of bear encounters out there, and most of them were actually inspired confidence because they would go down exactly as you’d hope in that they’d see you, or they smell you, and they identify you as a human, and they get out there as quick as they possibly can.

“Which is a different experience than some of the bears of the lower 48, which are a little bit more, I don’t want to say domesticated, but definitely more accustomed to humans.

“And I think the thing that worried me most, there were probably two things. One is just doing something, just doing something dumb or accidental and it having, making my life really uncomfortable, or having big consequences. So, like even like walking, particularly up in the Brooks Range, I would walk along gravel river bars for you know like 20 miles at a time. And if I were to kick a rock and like severely stub my toe, there was a stretch where I went 657 miles without crossing a road. Stubbing a toe badly is not grounds to call in a helicopter or a flight, but it would just make my life really uncomfortable for a very long
period of time.

“And then other things, like if I, like with my pack raft, if I wasn’t always careful about my pack raft when it was blowing up, if that thing were ever to blow away on me, which they definitely have a tendency of doing (distortion) I’d be toast. I’d be on the edge of a glacial fjord without a raft. What do you do? So it was sort of those things that concerned me more.”

NPT:

The story mentions that you passed through, I think, eight national parks in Alaska?

Mr. Skurka:

"I think it was six, and then two in Canada."

NPT:

Did you notice when you were moving from park to park?

Mr. Skurka:

"No."

NPT:

I wouldn’t think so. So you can’t necessarily say that Denali was much more scenic than say Glacier Bay or...

Mr. Skurka:

"They’re totally different. The parks were Denali, Wrangell-St Elias, Glacier Bay, Gold Rush, Gates of the Arctic. That’s six. And then the two in Canada were Vuntutt and Ivvavik. “I’d notice when I was entering or leaving a park because there’s usually the park boundary enclosed an entire sort of mountain range or an entire ecosystem, so in that respect I knew. But it wasn’t like I would walk past a visitors’ center or something."

NPT:

You mentioned Gold Rush, I’m a little fuzzy, is that where Chilkoot Pass is?

Mr. Skurka:

"Correct"

NPT:

And did you go up the pass?

Mr. Skurka:

"Yes"

NPT:

Does the history kind of leap out at you when you’re going on such a fabled or famous trail?

Mr. Skurka:

"Yeah, you bet. I thought there were three really cool, actually maybe four, four really cool historical legs of the trip. One was the Iditarod Trail, which, most famous for the serum run back in, I think 1918, but that, like Rainy Pass and that whole Chilkoot Trail, that was actually more important as a transportation corridor to penetrate the interior, particularly like the gold fields, the Ophir gold fields than it was for anything else. So that was one of the cool historical parts.

"The second historical leg was my route through Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, which is a non-technical route through the park, to get from Nabesna-McCarthy and both of those towns are old gold rush towns, not gold rush, old mining towns. One is a gold town, the other is copper. Kennicott. So then the Nabesna is the gold mine, and Nabesna is on the northern side, and the route that I took is actually the old mail route, which is, if you go back there you’d be beside yourself that some technically, a mail man, this is how he delivers the mail up to the Nabesna mine. And the land has changed a lot since that was happening. A lot of the glaciers have shifted, some of the lateral moraines that used to be really good for travel are starting to get washed out. So I think it was an easier route back then, but even so, the idea that you’d deliver mail that way is kind of crazy. And then the Chilkoot Trail and that sort of combined with the Yukon River, which does have certainly has a lot of gold rush history to it, but again even through up until the 1950s, I think there were still ferry boats running regularly on the Yukon.”

NPT:

How did you pick your course? How did you decide to go where you went?

Mr. Skurka:

“On a broad scale I wanted to do a trip up in Alaska where I connected the Alaska Range and the Brooks Range. Then I saw that I could connect, on the west side I could connect those two ranges with the Iditarod Trail, but the Iditarod Trail is only doable in the winter time, 'cuz otherwise most of it is just a big marshy swamp and a lot of muskeg, like really tough travel. It might be possible to do during three-season conditions, but it certainly wouldn’t be very friendly. And then on the west side, I was able to stitch together a route using the Yukon and the Peale rivers, and the Richardson Mountains, so I was kind of able to piece together that, and then when I, I figured out based on some projected mileage, a projected pace, that I could add that southern sort of bulb down into the Lost Coast and like up through the Chugach and that sort of thing, and then, that’s on a broad scale, and then on a very specific scale, the terrain sort of dictates where I went. Like it’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, I’m going to traverse the Alaska Range,’ and it’s a very different thing to actually put together a viable route to do that.

“So, there aren’t many guide books for Alaska, but a lot of the routes that I did had been done before, either, mostly just in segments, so like if I could find the right individual I could get some local information. About like, ‘Hey, is there a game trail running up this valley, or how thick is the vegetation here?,’ that sort of thing."

NPT:

Did you do this 178 days straight, or did you take breaks at all?

Mr. Skurka:

"It was 176, and I took seven days off, four of them in town and three of them because I was stuck in the field."

NPT:

Stuck by...

Mr. Skurka:

"Mostly weather. First, like the first time I had to take a day off in the field was due to a snowstorm that came in and visibility went down to nil and the avalanche danger spiked and I had two big passes to go up and over, second time was in the Brooks Range, it was a cold wet rain storm, that didn’t really make any sense to leave the shelter, and then the third day, was actually my second to last day, I got stuck on the east side of Kobuk Lake, which is about 4 miles across, and I had to cross it in my pack raft, and a rain storm had moved in with big winds, and there was no chance that I was going to be able to cross it in my pack raft, there were two-to-three foot high waves.”

NPT:

What was the biggest obstacle to completing the trip? Or was there?

Mr. Skurka:

“Um, hmm, I wouldn’t point to one specific challenge, because I think there were a lot of things that enabled me to do it. Like maintaining a high pace certainly was critical to it because otherwise I would run out of, I would have been trying to finish as winter was closing in. Which would have made life either really difficult, or just would have shut me down completely. So that was one big challenge. And then along the way there were a number of sort of smaller challenges, like getting across the Alaska Range in the springtime was particularly difficult because all of the, like in Park City, you can relate to this, during the spring our snow settles here. April, May, June it just starts to sink on itself, by June you can walk all over it.

“Whereas in Alaska, particularly in the interior, they don’t get that much snow, and it’s also extremely cold, so you have a huge temperate gradient, and you basically just end up with a couple of feet of faceted snow. And then in the springtime it starts melting so quickly because the days start getting so long that it just rots.

“And you just posthole. I was dealing with that on a regular basis for about three weeks. So, that was a challenge, and then when I was along the coast there were two big bay crossings, there’s Icy Bay and Yakutat Bay, Icy Bay is about six miles across, Yakutat Bay is about 8 miles across, both of them are open-ocean bays, and I lucked out when pulled up at both locations, that the weather was cooperative.

“So all of those things either did or could have hampered my progress. But I’d say the biggest overall challenge was just not messing up ever. On a trip like this there are just abundant opportunities to screw up. Like I was saying before, my pack raft could have blown away, I could have stubbed a toe, I could have chosen a bad campsite and a bear confronts me in the middle of the night, I could have chosen some really bad routes instead of adjusting to the conditions that I was finding on the ground. That was one of the things, like, I hadn’t been to most of these places, so I’m picking a route based on what other people had told me or based on what I’m seeing on topographical maps and satellite images, and sometimes you get there and you’re like, ‘Actually what I was planning on doing would be awful.’ So, sort of being flexible when conditions dictated, I would say that was the biggest one..being out there for 176 days in the hardest environment and not messing up.

NPT:

What about food drops? Obviously the Appalachian Trail, it’s easy to plan your food drops because there’s nearby towns or cities that you can go into. How did you manage that?

Mr. Skurka:

“The route that I chose definitely incorporated that logistical, or made considerations for the logistics. It ended up, for the first 800 miles I was probably in a town like every two or three days, two or three times a week because I was following snow machine trails and snow machine trails are just point-to-point routes between villages. And then after that it ended up being once every week.

“So I had, there were two locations in, near or in Denali National Park where I had to have food drops. And both of those were convenient because the caches were already being sent out for other people, so like there was a race, like a human-powered race that goes across the Alaska range called the “Iditasport,” so they just carried my cache in with all their supplies. And then there’s a guy who shuttles out drops to McGonagall Pass for climbers who are going up to the Muldrow Glacier, to the top of the Mount McKinley, so he just brought in a box of food for me. And then the big cache, though, was out in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where I was about two weeks from a road in either direction, and that one I had to, that was a cache specifically for me, and they’re not cheap. Heh, heh, heh."

NPT:

So a bush pilot had to fly it in and leave it there?

Mr. Skurka:

"A bush pilot flew it in, dropped a barrel for me, and went back later and picked it up."

NPT:

And you hoped it was there when you got there.

Mr. Skurka:

"Yeah, yeah, and it was, and no bears had gotten to it. And, what was crazy was just after I had picked it up, there was like a big flood, a big rainstorm, and the barrel apparently was, where he had left it, and after I had emptied it I put it in the same place, it apparently, the whole gravel bar that he put it on was so flooded and there was only, there was water apparently 2 or 3 feet away from the barrel."

NPT:

Wow, wow, that could have been a problem.

Mr. Skurka:

"Yeah, that could have been a problem."

NPT:

Did you figure out how many days this was going to take you? Where you right on schedule?

Mr. Skurka:

"Yeah, pretty close. I ended up being, I finished a week early, which given all the variables on this trip, I thought was pretty remarkable."

NPT:

Now some believe that, taking a long walk in the woods, whatever, obviously leaves you plenty of time to think and plenty of time for introspection. Did you learn anything about yourself during these journeys?

Mr. Skurka:

“This wasn’t my first time at the rodeo, so it wasn’t like I was making a big life change to do this trip. I think it confirms a lot of things that I already knew, like I knew that I was pretty ambitious and I like a good challenge. Maybe the biggest thing that, the biggest evolution that I went through, was this idea of using finesse more than force, and I think on other trips I’ve been able to sort of wake up in the morning and say, ‘Today I am going to hike 35 miles.’ And I would just go do it. And nature wasn’t that big on these other trips, at least relatively speaking. And I also had this very consistent man-made trail that sort of made me immune to any sort of like the natural features of the landscape, so I never had to walk through thick forest, and I never had to walk through briars, and I never had to like try to walk across a swamp or anything like that because there were always trails or boardwalks to get me through that stuff.

“Where as on this trip nature was a lot bigger and I was always, my travel, like my rate of travel was very much dependent on how good the hiking surface was or how good the water was, so I just learned to become more flexible with that. And if nature was going to let me, like I’d wake up in the morning and instead of saying I’m going to hike 35 miles today, I’d say, ‘Well, I’d like to hike 25 today.’ And sometimes that would happen and other times nature had other ideas.”

NPT:

Did you have any “Into The Wild” moments, so to speak.

Mr. Skurka:

"What does that mean?"

NPT:

The movie "Into the Wild," I forget the guy’s name...

Mr. Skurka:

"Christopher McCandless"

NPT:

Right, well, when he said, 'Ok I’ve had enough, I’m going to go back,' and he discovered that the river he had to cross was at flood stage and there was no way he was going to do it, so did you run into any of those encounters that forced you to alter your plans?

Mr. Skurka:

"Like ‘oh shit’ moments?"

NPT:

Yeah.

Mr. Skurka:

"Yeah, there were definitely a couple of those, mostly related to the pack raft. So, like the Icy Straits, so really close to Glacier Bay National Park, the tides there are really enormous and really powerful, and I got out my pack raft late in the day once, and the tides were working in my favor, but the winds were huge and there were big swells coming in and I said, ‘You know what, I’m not supposed to be out here right now.’ And pulled in. I got caught in some big floods up in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where like I’d have to walk along the west side of the river for 20 miles because I couldn’t ford the river until then. So moments like that, but I don’t think, the reason that he encountered an 'oh shit' moment was because he didn’t plan well. And I knew going into this trip that if I wanted to be successful that it was imperative that I planned as best as I possibly could.

“And its kind of counter-intuitive to try to plan for an adventure, but I find that if I can plan say like 85 or 90 percent of what I’m going to do out there, then the remaining 10 or 15 percent I can figure out when I get there. But ideally if I do my homework and plan well, then I shouldn’t encounter any unexpected scenarios.”

NPT:

We live in a nation that seemingly is shrinking. Certainly it’s shrunk from 200 years ago, but more and more we’ve got urban sprawl, we’ve got development, even technology is even kind of shrinking the country. Do you fear for places like the Alaskan outback, that today’s society doesn’t fully appreciate what can be found in wilderness and in nature?

Mr. Skurka:

“I almost think it’s the other way around. Because Alaska is, particularly northern Alaska, is so wild still. I was, as an example, I followed, there were a couple of historical accounts I was able to go back to and compare them to my own experiences, and when I was hiking my Sea-to-Sea trip, I was sort of following the path of Lewis and Clark, and they had gone through literally 200 years before, and that landscape had changed fairly dramatically since then. There were no Indians there any more, no bison, there are a lot of the rivers are dammed up or diverted or used for irrigation, there are barb-wire fences that run everywhere all over the land, it’s all privately owned now, so a pretty major shift in that
landscape.

“Whereas, in like Gates of the Arctic National Park one of the resources that I used to plan my route was Bob Marshall’s book, Alaskan Wilderness, which he wrote based on his experiences up there in the early 1930s. And Bob Marshall’s observations are like almost identical to what I came across, like the rivers were still running the same way that they used to, seeing a lot of wildlife, the natives up there, their lives have certainly changed, but they’re still up there, they’re still primarily based on subsistence living, at least for the bulk of their food stores, and the landscape up there hasn’t changed that much.

“And I think one of the big shifts for me, coming from these Lower 48 locales and being accustomed to these congressionally designated wilderness areas, quote unquote wilderness areas, was going up there and finding true wilderness. These were not just areas that hadn’t been developed, and sort of had been put aside, these were areas that still function like a completely wild place, and they were so much bigger than anything I encountered down here. I think the contrast was much bigger, was much bigger now than it probably would have been even 50 or 75 years ago in the Lower 48.

“Consider that the most remote point in the lower 48 is 22 miles from the closest road it’s just outside of Yellowstone National Park. The southeastern boundary.

“Up there, I was, there was, when I crossed back into the U.S. from Canada up in the Brooks Range, I was, I just did it the other day, I figured that I was 96 or 97 miles away from the closest road or town. That’s, there’s a lot of stuff that’s that way....

"There’s also a lot more that stands in the way of me and those towns to the point where it’s probably not really even viable to think that I could walk out to those towns.”

NPT:

So what’s your next big adventure?

Mr. Skurka:

“That’s a good question. Do you have any ideas?”