Buck Nelson paddling up the Missouri River while retracing the Lewis and Clark Trail in 2016. Buck Nelson fishing for salmon during the 70 days he spent surviving off the land on Admiralty Island in 2014. Buck Nelson in ANWR during a 2006 traverse of the Brooks Range. Note to readers: Buck Nelson has a wealth of inspirational and helpful information about the different adventures he’s had. He’s also authored books and made movies about some of these journeys — some of the footage is nothing short of amazing. Check it out at BuckTrack.com. It’s well worth your time.
Thirty-eight years ago, while fighting wild fires in Wyoming, Bruce “Buck” Nelson met two firefighters fresh from McGrath on the Kuskokwim River in Alaska.
“They told me if want to fight real fire, you should come up to Alaska,” he recalled during a phone interview from his log home outside of Fairbanks.
Born and raised on a dairy farm in Minnesota, Nelson signed on to fight fires as a ticket to see the West. He was looking for an excuse to get to Alaska and the rumor of challenge and opportunity was enough to make him move north. A year later he became a rookie smoke jumper and embarked on a career that he called the biggest adventure of his life. That’s saying a lot when you consider his incredible resume of solo journeys — everything from a 1,000-mile traverse of the Brooks Range to a 3,300 hike and paddle retracing the Lewis and Clark Trail.
Now retired from smoke jumping, his career taught him going on big adventures was more than just possible; they could be tackled by normal people.
Some of his first long trips include walking the Appalachian Trail and canoeing the Mississippi River. What he considers his first epic was a six-week hunting, hiking and rafting trip he made in 2000 in the Brooks Range. The trip began in ANWR and ended 700 miles later at the bridge on the Yukon River.
The “Alaska Traverse” — a trek across the Brooks Range — was, perhaps, his favorite and most challenging adventure. It was a particularly rainy summer and the mental game proved just as difficult as the physical journey. One of his coolest wildlife experiences happened towards the end of that trip. He’d made camp near a river when wolves began howling all around him.
“If I hadn’t known how rare wolf attacks are, that would have been intimidating,” Nelson recalled. “Instead, it was thrilling. It was so loud and so close.”
That same night, a female grizzly and two cubs swam across the river inadvertently to his camp. The bear huffed and swam back. Despite seeing multitudes of grizzlies, there was only one that acted a little spooky. It paralleled him along a river, then crossed and steadily approached. Nelson — who was not carrying pepper spray or a gun — described what happened next.
“I think he was hoping I was a caribou or something to eat. I got up on a big tussock and unzipped my rain jacket. I started talking to him and yelling at him to make clear that I wasn’t something to eat. He got closer and closer. He didn’t know what I was until he got reasonably close and then the wind must have swirled and as soon as he smelled me he took off running.”
While hiking the Desert Trail in 2012, a route that runs 2,223 miles from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada, Nelson had one of his favorite wildlife encounters. In Washington, a mountain lion — an animal he’d always wanted to see — leapt out of a tree before running off. It was fleeting but a memory he treasures.
In 2014 in Southeast Alaska, he fulfilled a lifelong dream when he flew into a bay on Admiralty Island with no food. He spent the next 70 days surviving off what the woods and sea offered.
“It’s hard to beat Southeast Alaska,” he said. “There’s so many options for food.”
It’s one thing to travel solo through wild country. Movement and the everchanging country tend to lighten mental challenges, but base camping in the Southeast rainforest seemed like it could lead to the blues. Nelson didn’t get lonely or homesick, instead he remembers how cool it was to see orcas, sea lions and a host of other animals that locals frequently take for granted.
The closest call Nelson ever had didn’t happen on a long solo adventure but on a standard mountain goat hunt. While packing the meat of a billy down sketchy terrain, he entered a steep swath of alders and heard a bark. It was a 2-year-old brown bear cub warning its mother, who promptly ran out of the brush. She did a series of bluff charges, while chomping her jaws and roaring. Each time she came closer, until “she was about in Nelson’s lap.” He had no choice but to shoot, which knocked her back. She ran downhill, before turning for one last charge. Nelson shot once more, killing her outright.
His troubles were not over that day. An hour later, he lost his footing and began tumbling down a steep slope. In Nelson’s understated way he said, “I didn’t think it was going to end well.” Luckily, after losing his glasses and rifle (he’d later find his gun), he soon came to a stop.
Nelson recently turned 60 and is planning more big trips — though he was secretive about what they might be. He offered this basic advice for people who dream of making their own adventure.
“Be realistic about your skill level and don’t try to swing for the fences the first time. Build up to the point where you think you have the skills you need and then take reasonable risks. A lot of time people fear the wrong things. In general, the biggest risk is drowning and falling. People tend to underrate them in favor of more dramatic perceived risks. The biggest risk of all is not living your life. People have such strong instinctual fears that they fail to get out and do things that would be priceless experiences.”