[Updated August 2021] You’ve found your way to post #4 of my series of articles on the Urban Alaskan, written for my non-Alaska friends, where I talk about how my day to day experience is exactly like yours, mostly, except for the moose and timezone. If you want to catch up, you can see post #3 here.
August marks the anniversary of when my brother-in-law went missing, more than 20 years ago as I write this. It was a beautiful sunny day, and for Seward, AK, that’s a rare thing. Actually, the whole summer had been a nice. I think that was the same summer it hit 90 in downtown Seward and the pavement buckled, something not repeated until the summer of 2019. Stewart, my wife’s twin, decided to go to Bear Lake for a spin around on a jet-ski on his day off. I no longer recall if he was a deck-hand on a fishing boat or was doing guiding over in Bristol Bay at that point. Anyhow, somewhere in there things took a tragic turn. Nobody knows what actually happened. He had a couple of friends with him, but they were otherwise occupied or out of sight when the incident occurred. At this point it’s all rather irrelevant.
Alaskan Lakes are mostly very, exceptionally, cold. Typically, the temperature of an Alaskan lake isn’t a great deal higher than freezing. With water that cold, hypothermia happens so quickly you might only have a couple of minutes. Yes, you can survive for a surprising amount of time in some of these lakes, but as a rule, you’d better be wearing a life preserver. In the vast majority of circumstances, if you fall into the water, you’re not going to have the strength to swim to shore if you’re any distance in at all. There are exceptions to this, especially around Anchorage, but I can also tell you that swimming for me as a child meant wading into your knees and completely losing feeling for a few minutes. This also made my boy scout swimming test absolute hell because I was so terrified of the cold water, I couldn’t jump in for the swim, even though the water was cold but not deadly. At this point, folks from the lower-48 might conclude that I’m exaggerating and it doesn’t happen that fast, but it does. Falling into a lake without a life preserver, even for an excellent swimmer can be a death sentence. Add physical injury to that and your odds of survival are about as good as jumping from a very high place. Because of the icy water, everything sinks too. So, not only did he go missing, he stayed missing for days before they were able to find him at the bottom of that unforgiving lake.
I know these sorts of accidents happen everywhere. It’s the nature of being human – shit happens and sometimes we pay for it with our lives. However, nearly everyone who has lived up here for any significant amount of time knows someone who has died attempting to enjoy the outdoors (or at the very least has a 1-off). Sometimes it’s an accident that could’ve happened anywhere – jet ski accident or the like. Other times it’s a rare accident. For example, I knew a guy from high-school who died in an avalanche a few years after we graduated. Deadly bear maulings, even very close to Anchorage, aren’t unheard of. There’s also the classic story of the person who got stuck in the mud in Turnagain arm and drowned from fast moving tides. The real story comes from north of Anchorage involving a soldier and his friends. On top of that, there are plenty of stories with people going off on what we all trick ourselves into believing is an easy day-hike alone only to suffer an injury and subsequently die of exposure. In 2021 a woman went missing not far from Palmer after being charged by a bear. They searched two days and didn’t find her. In her case, she made her way to a main road and survived. However, this illustrates that even close to population, you can go missing badly enough that teams of searchers may never find you.
Now, I’ve said all of this but I don’t think the exotic ways people die up here is actually particularly unique. After all, nobody was ever eaten by a gator up here or taken up in a tornado. What is unique is the ultra-low population densities. So, when something does happen. It can take days or weeks before someone happens across you, even when they’re looking for you. What’s more, when this sort of thing happens, odds are that your extended family is very far away indeed, so pulling together in that family way is difficult to impossible. I think this is really what gives urban Alaskans the sense of remoteness that we probably don’t deserve. After all, if I can go have lunch at a Subway sandwich shop and in twenty minutes, ON FOOT, be so remote that even after years of searching nobody could find my mangled body at the bottom of that ravine, it can set up some pretty confusing dichotomies. On one hand, wilderness, on the other, city life. It’s weird and dangerous.