P1390884 (Medium)I have this habit of sleeping in my van on little side roads with great views. After three years of doing this, it finally got me in trouble. I like the quiet and solitude of these side roads. I feel safer in the middle of nowhere than I do at a campground or rest stop. I also have all I need in my van, so why would I seek out an outhouse and running water? My full sized memory foam mattress, porta potti and two 5 gallon water jugs meet my needs.

I also have this habit of driving whatever road I please and not thinking much about it. If it’s a road, I can drive it with my 2 feet of clearance and 10 ply tires. Even if it’s not a road, maybe I can still drive it. I guess I was a little overconfident about my van’s abilities. The Alaska wilderness tends to smack down those who are overconfident.

P1390933 (Medium)It was the evening of the summer solstice and I was driving the Top of the World road in the Yukon. The time was around 10 PM and the sky was still filled with soft, yellow, arctic light. The entire road follows a ridge line with layers of mountains on either side. Anywhere I camped would have had a great view. I started exploring the little roads branching off the Top of the World road. Some were slippery from the recent rain but I barely noticed. I just rolled around the back country, scouting for a supreme camp to celebrate the longest day of the year.

Then I saw a little tan ribbon sloping gently upward to a rounded green summit, taller than anything else around. This was my solstice camp. I have a policy of investing only a mile or two in a side road. If it doesn’t look promising by then, I turn around. At about mile 1 the road turned rough but was no problem for the van. I decided to keep going and turned a blind eye to the obstacles because the van was able to drive right over them. The ruts and rocks didn’t matter. I was headed for my solstice summit.

I encountered some mud that looked like nothing at all. It was a short patch of mud and it didn’t even look wet. It was the only place along the road where a bunch of small logs and steel mesh littered the side, though. Those must have been used for traction. This should have been my first clue this place had trapped a lot of people.

I was confident my van could do it. I slowly pressed on right into the middle of the mud patch. The front tires spun and wouldn’t get traction. No problem. I backed up, moved over a couple feet and tried a different spot. Moving to the right two feet sank my front passenger tire so deeply into a patch of gooey tundra mud that the van would no longer move at all. I could also see that with each press on the accelerator my front passenger tire was only sinking deeper into the goo.

P1390949The other three tires were on solid ground but it didn’t matter. With the one tire clutched in the mud I wasn’t going anywhere. I got out and started digging through the mud with a plastic cutting board. I didn’t even have a real shovel. The cutting board was sturdy and was pretty effective with its sharp corners. It must have been a ridiculous sight for any animals watching me from their hiding spots. Clouds of mosquitoes tried to bite through my special mesh shirt as I dug vigorously among the bright green tundra plants with my plastic cutting board at midnight.

I didn’t lose my composure, but I was afraid. Really afraid. I didn’t understand how this mud trapped me so quickly and so completely. It had looked like nothing at all. Were there other threats I just had no clue about, waiting to smack me down? My whole sense of confidence about the trip felt shaken.

I persevered with my plastic cutting board and freed my front passenger tire from its wet, muddy cocoon. I put branches under the tire and propped logs behind it, but the tire just spun helplessly no matter how much wood I placed around it. All I needed was a little push to get me onto the logs, and it would have been an easy downhill push at that. Now that the tire was dug out, all I needed was a push to get the tire moving while I pressed lightly on the gas. There was absolutely no way to hit the gas and push the van at the same time. That was the most frustrating part about this ordeal. I felt helpless. A small problem had suddenly become a crisis because I was alone. Why did I do this drive alone? Why, why, why?

Would anyone even come up this road tonight to help? The Top of the World road is already incredibly remote, and then I took a side road to get even more remote. What sort of person would show up and would they be helpful or creepy? Whoever showed up would find out I was by myself with no way to escape. I couldn’t let worry take over. I just had to trust that things would work out. A good person would help or give me a ride to cell service. I could pay money to retrieve my van, although as far as I was from services it was hard to imagine the bill I would incur for this.

At midnight the light was still streaming in the windows of the van. I needed to get some sleep. I put up my blackout curtains and tried to get comfortable on the bed with the van pitched toward the right. I propped myself up with several pillows and started to form a plan for finding help. It would be safer to ask for help during the day so I decided to stay here for a few more hours. If no one came by morning I would walk down to the Top of the World road around 10 am and try to flag down a big pickup truck. I would hope to find a burly truck capable of navigating this road, with a driver willing to help with a stranger’s muddy mess. I realized this was a lot to ask and I would need to find a person with a heart the size of the entire state of Alaska.

It was difficult to sleep because I felt the constant urge to get out and dig more to try to get free. It was hard to admit that I couldn’t do anymore to fix this. The more I spun the tires trying to get free, the lower the van sank. The front axle was already lightly touching the ground. I would only make things worse if I drove the axle into the mud.

I finally slept a bit and had euphoric dreams of rescue. I awoke and wondered if this was really happening. Yes, I was still sleeping on a severe incline in the middle of nowhere. It was really happening. Back to sleep. I heard dogs barking in the distance. Back to sleep.

Finally the restless night was over and I gathered my valuables in my backpack and began the “walk of shame” down to the Top of the World road. My tail was tucked and it was time to admit I underestimated the Alaska wilderness. Immediately I noticed fresh wolf tracks on the road and I remembered waking to the sound of dogs barking last night. I realized those were wolves and they probably traveled this road last night to investigate my van. I was completely on edge. I had to talk myself through the entire 30 minute walk to the road. Ok, 20 more minutes to go before I was at the road and near other people. OK, now only 5. Almost there. I tried to sing to calm my nerves. I recalled my plans to hike solo during my trip. How can I possibly hike solo in Alaska if this 30 minute walk inspires this much terror?

I reached the road and saw a truck pulling a fifth wheel camper. I didn’t even care it wasn’t the type of truck I envisioned for a rescue. I flagged them down and started rapidly describing the events and asked what they thought I should do next. I probably sounded like a crazy person. They said they would give me a ride to the border so I could call for help. These people represented safety, which I had craved for the last 12 hours. I didn’t want to hang out on the side of the road with the wolves until the right truck came along. I looked at the clean interior of their truck and kind faces. Everything I saw looked so very safe and comforting. I got in.

They were travelling with another couple. When we all met up a couple miles down the road I described the situation and showed them pictures of the stuck van. They said it didn’t look so bad. They started to look for tow straps and unhooked the truck from their trailer. It was a smaller truck but maybe it could navigate the road. If we could reach my van there was a good chance we could free it from the mud. I just felt ecstatic to have found someone who would even try at all.

We started up the road and the first mile went smoothly. When the small truck hit the first rough spots we got nervous and almost turned around. They said they had no idea why I would drive this terrible road by choice, why it even existed in the first place, and I needed to have my head examined. I heartily agreed with all statements. They pushed past the terrible obstacles on the road and we finally arrived at my trapped van.

We connected webbing from the front of their truck to the rear bumper of my van and I got behind the wheel to gently give it gas. With just a little tugging the tire was freed from its cauldron of mud and now my ecstasy could not be contained. I got out, saw I was free and started jumping up and down with happiness. Thank you! I yelled to them and threw my hands in the air with delight. I wasn’t stuck anymore and could drive out of here without paying for a rescue. Ecstasy.

I felt so grateful. I offered money but they refused, so I grabbed a copy of my Idaho Canyoneers book and wrote inside: “To my Top of the World angels, may you receive 10x the blessings you have bestowed upon me. Much love, Lisa.” What else could I have done to show my gratitude for the kindness of these strangers? Now, when they tell the story about the woman from Idaho they helped out of a jam, they have photographic evidence.

P1390960 (Medium)We made it back to the highway and posed for photos together by the van. This rescue would be a treasured memory for all of us.

As I rolled down the road away from my angels, I felt so filled with gratitude I hoped I would have the opportunity to help someone else along this road. Usually helping someone is just an impulsive act when the need arises, but today I really wanted an opportunity to pass on the kindness I just received.

About 30 minutes later, I got my chance. I passed a group of bikers clustered around a motorcycle. I pulled over and saw they were working on a flat tire. The tire had been patched but the patch wasn’t holding. There’s nowhere to get a tire out here and the owner of the bike looked concerned. I happen to have a lot of supplies for fixing a tire and surely this big group of bikers will know how to use them.

P1390979 (Medium)I was excited to help and started grabbing my repair items. The first thing I produced from the van wouldn’t work on a motorcycle, but the second thing I produced was a true motorcycle tire repair kit. I’m not sure why I chose it several years ago at Walmart since I’ve never even owned a motorcycle, but it rode around in my van until the perfect moment arrived. I presented the kit to a very happy recipient, and after chatting with the group for about 10 minutes the tire was fixed and holding air! Now this new friend with the previously flat tire had the same light in his eyes that I had earlier. Maybe he felt the same swelling in his heart that comes from a total stranger seeing your distress and caring enough to solve your problem. He wanted to pay me for the kit but I said, “no, that’s ok”, and I told him what happened to me earlier that day. He was all smiles. He rode away on his bike and I rode away in my van.

What could have been the lesson in all this? We may try to be self-sufficient but some problems just cannot be solved alone. This realization up on the tundra in the mud shook me to the core, but it also forced me to trust in “people helping people”. This is probably the best thing to trust in, anyway, and it provides more protection than control and planning ever can. We’re never really in control of our own safety, anyway.


Lisa Hackett

About the Author

Hi, I’m Lisa. I’m a tall, blonde superhero and I live in a van. I do it all. I rappel big waterfalls, drive from Idaho to Alaska solo, live and work in a van in the wilderness and dodge encounters with wolves and bears. Seriously. More

One Response to Tundra Mud Rescue

  1. Jeff Munroe says:

    Lisa, you are an inspiration. I am an old man who had realized he needs to get his ass in gear if he is ever going to have any adventures. I live in Marin County north of the Golden Gate Bridge in the shadow (figuratively) of Mount Tamalpais. I had a VW van tricked out like a camper but used it infrequently. Now I have a Ford Ranger FX4 and I must get my ass in gear. I just had to tell you how inspiring you free wheeling is. I hope I can stay tuned into this blog, but as a neophyte I am not sure how to do it. Please let me know, or where I can go to follow you. If I don’t am afraid I will loose this enthusiasm, and I don’t want that to happen. Also is there any referral you can direct me toward that will help. Thanks. Happy exploring. Jeff

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About the Author

Hi, I’m Lisa. I’m a tall, blonde superhero and I live in a van and on a sailboat with my superhero husband, Brian. I do it all. I rappel big waterfalls, scuba dive with sharks, dodge encounters with bears and wolves, and work remotely as a full time computer programmer.
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About the Van

Hi, I’m Vanifest. I’m a big, 4x4, off-the-grid van complete with solar panel for power. I'm a 2000 Dodge Ram Van and Lisa has had me since 2009. Read more about me here.


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