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Bushwacking nightmare brings Alaska wilderness race tough guys to their knees

Craig Medred
One of the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic finishers, a veteran of a lot of tough country in far corners of Alaska, called the bushwhacking the worst he'd seen. The brush was so thick Rob Kehrer had to get on hands and knees like an animal to get through. Only 13 men entered. Courtesy Lee Helzer

While Americans were this summer gathered around their TV sets watching a phony “reality" show about a made-up race across Alaska that the New York Times called "too contrived to be truly compelling,'' there was a truly compelling survival race underway in the 49th state.

The TV show that failed to impress Times critic Neil Genzlinger is called "Ultimate Survival: Alaska." The real ultimate survival Alaska is called the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic.

It has simple, Alaska rules: Start at Point A. Go 150 miles across the wilderness to Point B. If you can't make it, find a way to save yourself. If you die, don't blame us; we warned you.

Luc Mehl, a Wilderness Classic veteran and the organizer of this year's event, pretty much summed up the difficultly of the current course for the race in two sentences: "There were 13 participants for the 2013 Wilderness Classic. None of the finishers from 2012 returned this year."

Of the 13 who started from Thompson Pass on the Richardson Highway bound for the flea-speck community of McCarthy in the heart of the massive Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve far to the east, five finished.

Alaska hard-men at the start -- there were no women entered this year and the weak do not show up -- some were humbled by the end. The Classic does that to those brave enough to enter.

One of the finishers, a veteran of a lot of tough country in far corners of Alaska, called the bushwhacking the worst he'd seen. In many places, the brush was so thick Rob Kehrer had to get on hands and knees like an animal to get through.

How might a TV crew have filmed in this sort of thicket of reality?

"I am not exaggerating," Kehrer said. "Roman (Dial) was genius last year wearing shin guards and arm guards on his forearms. We did the same this year and made a world of difference."

Dial, another extreme Alaska adventurer, is a professor at Alaska Pacific University known for his wilderness travels. That Dial wasn't back on the course in 2013 says something.

"I think the bushwhacking was awful because the density of the alders with devils club with the amount of fallen spruce trees," Kehrer said. The height of brush made it difficult to see the ground so many times you would step into holes because of old, fallen trees and such."

Once racers managed to make it across the roaring Copper River in their tiny, 5-pound, one-man boats, they started up the Bremner River drainage, thought to be the easiest route through the Wrangells. Difficult climbing lie ahead.

"At times, your best option was grabbing devil's club to help you up steep inclines," Kehrer said. "Other times it was your best option to climb up on the falling spruce to go 10-20 yards. And yes, it made sense to crawl for short distances because no matter what you chose to do, it was going to be slow and expend a lot of energy.

"Also the bugs were very un-fun."

The race was eventually won by the trio of Steve Duby, Lee Helzer and Len Jenkins, who just happened to meet up in the wilderness a few miles from the finish and hiked to the end together. Duby's participation in the winning group was thanks in large part to Kehrer.

A teacher in the Yukon River village of Nulato, Duby flipped his packraft on the Tasnuna River at the very start of what was to be a seven-day, nearly nine-hour adventure. As he swam for his life, his raft floated away with most of his gear strapped to it.

Luckily for Duby, the raft was found and recovered by Kehrer and partner Greg Mills, who tied it off to a tree in the river where Duby and Helzer couldn't miss it as they fought their way down the Tasnuna toward the Copper River. Duby was shocked to find his raft and gear.

"I thought I was seeing things,” he later told Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter Tim Mowry. "My mental state did a 180. I went from beating myself up for what happened to, 'Let’s roll!'”

And that they did, busting their way east until they ran into South African adventurer Jenkins on the banks of the Lakina River a few miles from the finish line.

“You go 150 miles and have no idea where a person is for several days and couple of miles from the finish you run into each other,” Duby told Mowry. “It was bizarre.”

Although not totally bizarre. The Classic races, in general, follow no trails but game trails. However, the terrain tends to funnel people through certain choke points and it is not all that rare for Classic competitors to meet up in far corners of the wilderness accidentally -- but not so much by accident.

Mehl has a full report of this year's race on his website. He notes that Anchorage Dr. John Lapkass, who has finished more Classics than anyone, was one of those who gave up on the course this year. Thankfully, the race moves onto a new course every three years.

Lapkass and friend Michael Martin from Seattle, another Classic veteran, "hoped for a less-brushy route by descending along the Tiekel River to the Copper, then up Dewey Creek to Tebay Lakes," Mehl writes. "This route would have avoided all the Bremner brush, a brilliant strategy.

Unfortunately, the Tiekel brush is worse. They covered one mile in six hours. And these guys know how to travel through brush. After calculating that the race would take two months at that pace they fought back up to the highway for a scratch."

Mowry's story -- also has some interesting details on Danny Power and Wyatt Mayo from Fairbanks, who ended up deciding they'd best make a call for a commercially chartered aircraft to pick them up and fly them back to civilization. It was a good decision. Powers ended up going to the hospital, where doctors kept him for three days to treat an infection that stemmed from a nasty encounter with a prickly devil's club.

Luckily, no one died, but as those Alaska reality shows suggest over and over and over again, they could have. 

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com