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Lessons Learned While Overcoming Unexpected Challenges in Alaska

Lost luggage was just the beginning of an Alaska vacation that would ultimately prove to be challenging but rewarding. Here’s what I learned from a trip where seemingly nothing went as planned.


By Scott Shetler, Eagle Creek

When I awoke inside the frigid tent and reached over to unzip the door flap, I had to laugh when I discovered that the zipper was frozen shut. My friend and I had already encountered so many obstacles on this trip that a frozen tent seemed totally appropriate: just one more hurdle to overcome.

Since it thawed quickly, the frozen zipper proved to be the least of our worries. This weeklong trip to Alaska resulted in more unexpected misfortune than I’d ever experienced on a trip. Yet I still think back fondly on the journey a few years later, mostly because of the way we were able to overcome these challenges.

Hopefully these lessons will help you learn from our mistakes so your next trip will go more smoothly than ours. 



Lesson #1: Use teamwork.

The nightmare travel experience for my travel buddy and I started when the airline lost our luggage. No big deal, they told us. The bag probably got bumped to a later flight. Though they promised to deliver the bag to our lodge in Talkeetna by morning, I had my doubts.

My skepticism proved correct when the bag never showed up. So instead of heading directly to Denali National Park to start our Alaska camping adventure, we had to drive an hour back to the nearest town that had adequate supplies.

Short on money and time, but needing to replace all of our camping gear, we decided to split up. We each walked into one of the town’s two department stores, quickly found the selection of tents and sleeping bags, and engaged in a friendly competition to see who could find the best prices in the fastest time.

Normally I’ll spend a little extra to buy top-notch camping packs and equipment, but under the circumstances, speed and price were more important than quality. Our teamwork allowed us to get back on the road in record time to make our Denali backcountry camping check-in appointment.


Lesson #2: Do some research in advance.

The reason our tent froze overnight was because we picked the wrong camping spot. Denali is split into several backcountry units, and campers are required to choose the unit they want to camp in.

We hadn’t done enough research about the park, so we randomly chose our unit based on a two-dimensional map. Unwittingly, we selected a unit in the mountains. Normal summer lows in Alaska should have been around 50° F (10° C.) But the temperature in this part of the park dipped to freezing.

And thus, we got a frozen zipper—not to mention ice crystals on the outside of our tent. We managed to survive in our budget sleeping bags, but it wasn’t the most restful night. Choosing a poor camping location was a completely avoidable error. Since then, I’ve made sure to do more advance research in situations like this.


Lesson #3: Avoid careless mistakes.

After leaving Denali, the trip was going better…until the day we found ourselves locked out of our car and stranded at a remote campground. A miscommunication—I’ll go ahead and blame my travel partner since he’s not here to defend himself—led to us locking our keys in the car way out in the middle of nowhere.

Fortunately, another camper had a metal rod (I didn’t ask why) that allowed us to pry open the window and unlock the vehicle. The damage to the rental car set us back about $100, but that was less than what we would’ve had to pay to get roadside assistance to travel hundreds of miles to our location. We were never that careless with our keys again!


Lesson #4: Focus on the positives.

One night when it rained, our tent leaked, forcing us to sop up the water with a towel every few minutes. This was the emotional low point of the trip, the moment when we were having no fun at all. But I still tried to remind myself that this crazy experience out in the wilderness was more enjoyable than sitting in a cubicle back home.

Although these challenges could’ve easily bummed us out, we refused to allow that to happen. We were in Alaska, after all! A lot of people never make it to Alaska, so we were determined to appreciate being there and to make the most of the visit, regardless of the obstacles that might be thrown in our way. Above all, persistence and staying positive were the keys to shrugging off the rough patches and enjoying the experience.

And if you were worried, the airline did finally locate my luggage. A full month after the trip a delivery person showed up at my apartment with my luggage. It was the final layer of ridiculousness on a truly transformative trip.
Find Your Unknown

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