Buck Nelson spent nearly two and a half months hiking over 1000 miles across Alaska on a solo-hike. I stumbled upon his blog a month or so ago and was immediately drawn to his story. Before the hike even crossed his mind, Buck was a smokejumper who parachuted out of airplanes with his team to fight Alaskan forest fires, doing so for 20 years. Before that? He was fighting fires in Wyoming and Oregon. Buck was born and raised on a family farm in Minnesota, so it begs the question, how does a Minnesotan farm boy end up going on so many great adventures? I had to ask, and I wanted to learn more about his hike too. Check out our Q and A below.
DB: As a child growing up on a farm in east-central Minnesota, was it a childhood dream of yours to one day live in Alaska?
BN: I was fascinated with Alaska and it's wild animals and wilderness. I certainly wanted to visit Alaska someday, but it seemed so exotic that I never really thought about actually living here.
DB: So what changed? Was it simply luck that you ended up where you are today or was there something else at play?
BN: I fought fire in Wyoming one summer and saw smokejumpers parachuting to a fire. I talked to them later. It seemed like a really cool job. The next year I was fighting fires in Oregon and ran into someone that had been fighting fires in Alaska. They told me that Alaska was THE place to fight wildfire. I fought fire in Alaska the next season and that winter I applied to the Alaska Smokejumpers and was accepted into training. After that, I knew smokejumping and Alaska was where I wanted to be.
DB: Working as a smokejumper and fighting wildfires is what you describe as the 'Greatest Job in the World.' I'm sure it was a tremendous adrenaline rush to jump out of airplane next to roaring forest fires. In 20 plus years, you had to see quite a bit. Tell us a story!
BN: We parachuted to a wildfire about 100 miles from Fairbanks. A crew of smokejumpers was working up one side of the fire, another planeload of us were working up the other side. There was a strong, dry wind and the fire was burning hot in black spruce. Suddenly there was a wind switch and we had to retreat. "Fire whirls," 100-foot fire tornadoes, formed on each side of the fire. I was running and watching a buddy of mine who was trying to escape the fire whirl. He was leaning hard, the wind was so strong, I was afraid it was going to pull him off his feet. We made it to a big open area, a safety zone, and laid face down in the dirt. I remember cargo that had been dropped, still under parachute, getting sucked back up into the air. A smokejumper on the other side of the fire was hanging onto a tree to keep from getting pulled into the fire whirl on that side. He suffered burns on his ears and arms but recovered completely.
DB: From one adventure to the next, going off on a 1000+ mile solo-hike across Alaska is quite an undertaking. What made you decide that this was something you wanted to take on?
BN: Years ago there was an article in National Geographic about a fellow named Keith Nyitray who had traveled across the Brooks Range. I'd spent time in the Brooks Range and thought it had a unique magic to it. I like big adventures in remote areas so a trip across the Brooks Range seemed like a great challenge to tackle.
DB: Did you spend years it over or was it a more spur of the moment thing?
BN: I had my Alaska Traverse in the back of my mind for years, and spent a few months planning it. Sometimes I'm much more spontaneous. I did my canoe trip down the length of the Mississippi River about a week after I came up with the idea!
DB: While hiking, was there a point when you saw a stream, mountain, or animal in front of you and thought to yourself "Wow, this was a mistake..."?
BN: I never thought that the trip itself was a mistake. Probably the time I was most concerned was crossing a pass in the Arrigetch Peaks. It was very steep and slippery and I was getting higher and higher on the mountain without being sure if the other side of the pass was even doable. It would have been a very bad place to fall and get hurt.
DB: A friend of mine is working in Alaska and tells me that the days can be pretty warm. How was the weather while you were out there?
BN: Some elder Inupiat people who lived in the Brooks Range were saying it was the rainiest summer in their memory. The rain was a real challenge. For the most part, building a campfire to dry out was impractical. There were no buildings to escape the weather, no stoves or dryers, so I spent plenty of time wet. I kept my sleeping bag and sleeping clothes dry which was vital. I slept warm and dry every night. That made putting up with challenging conditions during the day much more bearable. Of course, all the rain made me enjoy the many beautiful, clear, sunny days even more.
DB: Besides the rain, I can't imagine a more peaceful moment than being alone in the Alaskan wilderness, but it does make me wonder, did the quietness of being alone get boring and lonely or was it enjoyable to get away from everything for so long?
BN: I never get lonely on long solo trips. It's the way I'm wired. I never get bored, either, because I'm doing my own thing and there is always something to observe or think about. I'm excited to leave on big trips, and I always enjoy returning to the comforts of home as well.
DB: What piece of advice do you have for a novice who has read your blog's journal, seen your documentary, and thought "Wow, I'd really like to do this"?
BN: I think it's important to have good outdoor skills like navigation, river crossings, sleeping dry, and an appropriate level of confidence along with good judgment. So for a novice, I'd recommend developing those skills first. Start out with short, easy trips, then increase the level of difficulty and the challenge as your experience and skills grow.
DB: Would you say it was a fulfilling experience and if so, would you do it all over again?
BN: My Alaska Traverse was one of the most fulfilling adventures of my life. If I hadn't already done it, I'd definitely tackle it. But I enjoy new adventures. Next time I'll explore a different trail.
DB: Any idea where your next adventure might take you?
BN: I'm planning a hiking route from Mexico to Canada through Arizona, Utah, Nevada and Idaho that I hope to do next summer.
DB: Most important of all, what was the first thing you ate as soon as you got back to the comfort of your own home? I'm sure I'd be dying for our local Marion's pizza within only a week or two... after two and half months you had to be craving something!
BN: Last summer I went on a 70 day trip where I brought no food at all, I subsisted solely by foraging, hunting and fishing. The first day back I had a big plate of pancakes and butter and syrup, a half gallon of ice cream, and a large pizza with everything on it!
A big thank you goes out to Bruce 'Buck' Nelson for taking the time to answer all of my questions. You can learn more about his many adventures through his blog at www.bucktrack.com. Also check out the documentary he filmed of the entire Alaskan hike on Amazon by clicking here!