In the Field

1000 Miles Across the Alaskan Wilderness…Alone! – An Interview with Buck Nelson

Bruce "Buck" Nelson interview with Joe Classen

For three years I produced and hosted a nationally syndicated radio show called Faith Adventures. The theme of the show, in general, was a combination of outdoor adventure and Christian spirituality. The first half of each episode included interviews with a wide variety of interesting folks…discussing a wide variety of outdoor topics…and the second half was then dedicated to a spiritual reflection on whatever the primary theme for the day was. I had a lot of fantastic guests on over the years, including guys like Dave Canterbury and Cody Lundin from the Discovery Channel smash hit TV show Dual Survival and many other fascinating people. Faith Adventures ran from 2009 to 2012. An interview that I still reflect on often is one I did with Bruce “Buck” Nelson. It was a rare treat to talk with an adventurer of his caliber and experience.

Buck is a lifelong outdoorsman who grew up on a dairy farm in east-central Minnesota, who, in 2008, retired from fighting wildfires as an Alaskan smokejumper. Buck spends much of his time living in a cabin northeast of Fairbanks, Alaska, and has several books and DVDs available which document some of his incredible adventures, which include a 1000 mile solo hiking and paddling trip through the Alaskan Brooks range, a 70 day survival adventure (where he brought no food along!) on Admiralty Island (Alaska) which is home of 1,600 brown bears, a 2168 mile backpacking trip along the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine, a solo 2300 mile canoeing trip down the entire length of the Mississippi River, and a 700 mile solo hunt in the Alaskan wilderness. Along with all that, Buck has climbed Mount McKinley, explored the 3,323 mile Lewis & Clark Trail, did a coast-to-coast 43 day, 2636 mile bicycle trip, he has hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and has embarked upon many other mind-blowing adventures as well. You can find out more about Buck at his website www.bucktrack.com I contacted Buck recently and he kindly gave me permission to post the transcript of the radio interview I did with him back in 2010. Enjoy!

Joe: Buck, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you on. I realize right now you’re in Arizona for a bit, but how’s life up in Fairbanks Alaska this time of year…besides being mighty cold?

Buck: It’s cold and dark. We get maybe four hours of sunlight this time of year, so it’s a nice treat to be in Arizona for a while.

Joe: How cold does it get in Alaska where you live?

Buck: About the coldest it gets in an average winter would be about 50 below. Sometimes it will get a little colder than that, but -50 is about the average.

Joe: Buck, first of all, one of the things I like to ask all my guests, can you share with us how you got interested in the outdoors and what outdoor activities you first pursued?

Buck: My dad was a real fan of the outdoors and really liked to hunt and fish. He enjoyed bird watching and just observing animals in general. He liked to work on habitat improvement for wildlife, did a lot of tree planting, and things like that. As a kid, I did a lot of small game hunting and fishing and helping my dad around the farm.

Joe: You obviously chose an outdoor related career as a smokejumper. A lot of our listeners probably have no idea what a smokejumper is, can you share with us how you got interested in that line of work and what it all entails?

Buck: A smokejumper is a wildlife/wilderness firefighter that parachutes to remote locations to fight fires, generally. I went to forestry school in Minnesota, and then during the summers, when I wasn’t going to school, I was fighting fires in Minnesota. After that, I went to Wyoming, and then on to work in Alaska. When I was in Wyoming I saw some smokejumpers parachuting to a fire, and that line of work seemed to be done by really fun guys having a tremendous amount of fun. And then, up in Alaska, I was working on a real dry, hot fire and we had to get some smoke jumpers involved on that job and I was really impressed. They were fun, tough guys working hard really enjoying themselves. That’s when I decided I would get into training and to pursue a career as a smokejumper.

Joe: How many years did you do that line of work for?

Buck: About 25 years.

Joe:  Well Buck, your outdoor adventures are far beyond what the normal outdoor enthusiast would embark upon, or even consider doing. I mentioned some of your adventures in the introduction briefly, but can you give us a quick rundown in a little more detail about some of your most epic adventures and describe a little bit about each one? Then, I’d like to talk a little more in detail about your thousand-mile trip.

Buck: One kind of short adventure I had, which was probably the most dramatic day of my life, was when I was goat hunting in coastal Alaska. Goat hunting to me is more dangerous than any kind of hunting, because it’s very steep and slippery, and one afternoon I slipped and almost fell and killed myself, literally. And then a few hours later, I had a brown bear charge me…a serious charge. I had to shoot the brown bear. So that was not an adventure that I planned, but like what happens sometimes in life, it was an adventure nonetheless. And, then I did a six-week solo hunt in Alaska where I just flew out into the mountains and had all my backpacking gear. I cached a raft and I spent about six weeks backpacking, rafting, hunting, and fishing. That was my first major wilderness adventure off by myself, and I enjoyed that immensely. In 2001 I hiked the Appalachian Trail which runs from Georgia to Maine. That’s about 2200 miles, and in that same summer, since I finished the trail quite a bit earlier than I had anticipated, I canoed the Mississippi River, as I was looking for something completely different…that didn’t involve walking. I canoed from the source of the river all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. I enjoyed that a lot, and it was something I had done with almost no planning. I just came up with the idea, did a quick search of the Internet to see if it was possible, and in a week after I finished the Appalachian Trail, I was starting on the river. So that was fun. It’s always fun to discover, learn and explore as you go along. I like that a lot.

I’m a big fan of the Brooks Range in northern Alaska, I hunted there a lot and backpacked and fought wildfires out there, so in 2006 I planned a trip that would cross the Brooks Range, starting at the Canadian border and following the Brooks across the state to the headwaters of the Noatak River. I hiked the first part of the trip and then floated the Noatak down to the ocean. Last summer, in 2008, I hiked the Continental Divide Trail which runs from Mexico to Canada, basically following the Rocky Mountains. But my biggest outdoor adventure of all I would say was being a smokejumper. Smokejumping defined my life gave me a different outlook on the world. So many people in smokejumping live an adventurous life and just made all these dreams that I had of adventure seem totally reachable. You can do these types of things if you just go for it. So that was my biggest adventure of all.

Joe: Well you certainly have quite a few miles on your feet! That’s incredible stuff. On your website, there is also mentioned a coast-to-coast bicycle trip?

Buck: Yeah, that was fun also. It was something I did in the middle of the winter going across the southern part of the lower 48 states.

Joe: In regard to your Mississippi River trip, how long did it take you to float the entire length?

Buck: I started in mid-August and finished up before the Minnesota deer season, which is in early November. So mid-August to the end of October.

Joe: Fantastic! That’s one of the things on my list that I certainly want to do someday. I dreamed about floating the entire Mississippi since I was a kid.

Buck: It is really fun and is an adventure I would do again too.

Buck Nelson at the Gulf of Mexico...after canoeing the entire length of the Mississippi River!
Buck Nelson at the Gulf of Mexico…after canoeing the entire length of the Mississippi River!

Joe: I recently came across your DVDs from your solo Alaska trips and I was blown away. I’d like to talk with you a little more in detail about that thousand-mile adventure trip, how you went about the details of planning it, what your exact route was, how long it took you, and things like that.

Buck: As I mentioned, I was interested in doing a long trip in the Brooks Range and I was considering different things: a trip entirely by canoe or walking, and I just got out the map, and nowadays is easier to study terrain with Google Earth and things like that, and I started looking and trying to pick out a good route. I knew enough from walking around in Alaska a lot, that Alaska is really tough walking and tends to be wet in a lot of areas, or brushy, or really steep, and having spent time specifically in the Brooks Range, I figured that walking river bottoms and creek bottoms would probably be the easiest going, so I studied maps and tried to find headwaters and drainages that parallel the main divide and the main crest of the mountains and I just tried to kind of stitch those ranges and headwaters together and develop a route. I would have to walk maybe 30 miles in one drainage on the north side, and then find a low pass to cross over to the south side, follow another drainage there, go back and forth, and so on. As I was looking at the map, I found that toward the end of the Brooks Range, the Noatak River was kind of doing that route for me. It followed the divide, and I knew that by the time I walked all the way to the headwaters, that I would have had enough walking for a while, so I cached a raft (dropped it off by bush plane ahead of time) at the headwaters of Noatak River, which is a spectacularly beautiful river, and the last few hundred miles of the trip I did in an inflatable canoe.

Joe: Reflecting back on that thousand-mile trip, what would you say was the most rewarding, most challenging, and perhaps the most frightening parts of that particular adventure?

Buck: Probably the most rewarding was just to spend that much time alone in true wilderness. Literally, sometimes you can go for many, many days without any indication that there was another person in the world. No tracks, no aluminum foil, no old fire rings, nothing. It was just like 50,000 years ago in the Brooks Range. And it’s hard to put a value on that. I had a lot of really dramatic wildlife encounters in the course of the summer. I encountered wolves chasing caribou right through the river beside me. The caribou was so frightened that it swam right past my boat. The wolves were so focused on the caribou at first that they didn’t even see me floating a short distance away. I saw wolf puppies in the wild, which was a rare thing to see, and of course, I saw Dall sheep and moose, caribou, musk ox, and spectacular remote mountain scenery in general. It was just a great experience to be able to explore the unknown. One really fun aspect of that trip was that I was making up the entire route myself, except for the Noatak River portion. As I headed up and over certain mountain passes, there was no way of even knowing if I could even make it over. So sometimes I would climb up, find I couldn’t make it over the pass, and have to backtrack 50 miles to get around the other side. So, exploring that blank spot on the map all summer is something I enjoyed immensely.

Buck Nelson pondering the steep peaks of Mt. Igikpak during his 1000 mile Alaska solo adventure.
Buck Nelson pondering the steep peaks of Mt. Igikpak during his 1000 mile Alaska solo adventure.

Joe: What would you say were the most challenging and the most frightening parts that adventure?

Buck: Usually the interior of Alaska doesn’t get a whole lot of rain. It’s only something like, depending on where you are, ten inches of rainfall a year, and it just happened to be the rainiest summer in history that year. All that rain is challenging when there are no cabins to get into, and most of the country is above the tree line, so I couldn’t build a big bonfire or anything, so simply dealing with cold and wet rain a lot. That was really challenging mentally and physically. I still slept dry every night, which is really important, but towards the end of the trip the weather changed and it was a real treat to be out in the sun and the beautiful fall colors. So that was probably the most challenging.

Joe: You know one of the first things people always bring up when talking about doing trips in Alaska is the bears. People are always in fear that the bears are going to get them. Did you have any exceptionally close encounters with bears on your 1000 mile trip, and how do you stay safe?

Buck: I think people are naturally scared of bears that goes back a long way, where people were prey items for bears throughout human history. I think that’s a real strong instinct to be afraid of giant, furry predators. But I did some research before my adventure to get an idea what the real risk was, and I could only find three fatalities from bear attacks in the Brooks Range in all recorded history. And that’s many years and many people and many bears. I think the risk is somewhat overblown in people’s minds. One thing I did when I went through real thick brush is that I would try to make some noise. I also made it a point to keep a clean camp and I would store my food away from camp and whatnot. On several occasions, when I encountered bears, they didn’t know what I was. I think some of those bears have never seen people, so they hurried over toward me, hoping I could be something they could eat, and in all cases, when they got close enough and smell me, they turned and ran. But, there definitely were some tense moments at times.

Joe: Yes, watching your DVDs, it was pretty wild to see those huge, massive grizzly bears come charging right at you and then turning and running away as soon as they realized, or smelled, that you were a human.

Buck: I think the most intense thing for me of all, was to be careful about falling in the backcountry, which is one of the greatest real-world risks. And, being alone like that, I couldn’t afford to hurt myself. I think crossing some of the steep mountain passes was even more frightening overall than the grizzlies. Crossing parts of the river in a raft, where the water was very deep and fast, was pretty cool, but that was also very tense… but it was kind of a fun scare too, I suppose.

Joe: Now obviously, when you go on these kind of adventures, one needs to be prepared. What you do as far as getting yourself physically and mentally prepared for a trip like that?

Buck: From smokejumping, one of the things we had to do as part of the job was to work out and be physically fit. So, I have a good physical base and try to maintain a level of physical fitness. Personally, I don’t do a lot of training beforehand. I just kind of stay in good shape year-round. I think for a lot of these trips, especially the long solo trips in Alaska like I did, the biggest challenge was the mental challenge. Dealing with feeling alone for that long, not dwelling on potential dangers and whatnot, it’s just the way I’m wired I guess. I’m unusual in that it doesn’t bother me to be alone and it doesn’t intimidate me to be alone. I enjoy it. So, I actually don’t have to do a lot of specific preparation, physically or mentally for myself, although I think it is wise to do so.

Joe:  Do you have any tips or advice for people who aren’t in the best of shape, what can they do to get themselves ready for going on a big outdoor adventure?

Buck: For backpacking trips, it’s really hard to beat actual backpacking. Make shorter trips, load up a backpack with the kind of things you are going to carry with you, go up and down the mountains, ensure your footwear is broken in well, make sure your raingear is working to your satisfaction, know how to set up your tent, know how to use all your gear properly, and all those kinds of things. Get some experience with the things you are going to be using and get some confidence. Confidence is really big, but of course, avoiding overconfidence is really big too.

Joe: From watching your videos and reading things at your website, I see you try to keep your gear to an absolute minimum so you don’t have to carry hundreds of pounds of gear on your back, especially on adventures like the Alaska thousand-mile trip. What would you say are the most important, essential items to have along?

Buck: Probably the basic knowledge of how to stay dry is really hard to beat. People worry about starving, but in the real world, people who are going out for adventures like this don’t starve, but they do sometimes get themselves in trouble with hypothermia, so I think the basic knowledge of how to keep yourself dry and to stay dry is more important than any specific item of gear. I often say that somebody with sufficient experience can get by with very poor gear, but somebody with good gear, who doesn’t have sufficient experience, can get in big trouble. But to answer your question more directly, I think a good shelter, good raingear, a good sleeping bag, a working compass and a backup compass, a way to start a fire, maps, and the traditional 10 essentials that they talk about are smart to have.

Joe: Well Buck, we are unfortunately running out of time. What’s the next big adventure?

Buck: I’m planning a hike of the Pacific Crest Trail that runs from Mexico to Canada, which basically runs through the mountains of California, Oregon, Washington, the Sierras and the Cascades, so that’ll be next summer probably starting in late April and finishing up in September if things go well.

Joe: As I mentioned at the beginning of the show, you have a website out there for people to get more information about your adventures, your DVD’s, books, etc. Can you please give us some info about that?

Buck: Yes, the website is www.bucktrack.com and if you just Google “Buck Nelson – Alaska” it will come up. I have pages dedicated to my various adventures and I also have clips of my trips on YouTube as well.

Joe: Buck, thanks so much for your time, it was great to talk to you and very inspirational, so God bless you and best wishes for your next adventures and be safe out there!

 

Buck Nelson Adventure DVDs and Books

 

Alone Across Alaska: 1,000 Miles of Wilderness DVD
Alone Across Alaska: 1,000 Miles of Wilderness DVD

 

Alone in the Fortress of the Bears Book, by Buck Nelson
Alone in the Fortress of the Bears Book, by Buck Nelson

 

Alaska Hunting Adventure: 700 Miles Alone by Backpack and Raft DVD
Alaska Hunting Adventure: 700 Miles Alone by Backpack and Raft DVD

 

Hunting Big Whitetails: Tactics Guaranteed to Make You a More Successful Deer Hunter. By Buck Nelson.
Hunting Big Whitetails: Tactics Guaranteed to Make You a More Successful Deer Hunter. By Buck Nelson.