Andrew Skurka hikes in the Alaska Range in mid-April, overlooking the Straightaway Glacier, which flows off of 17,400-foot Mt. Foraker.
Before his latest trip, Andrew Skurka had hiked more than 23,000 miles and been to some of the most remote areas of the lower 48 states.
But on his Alaska-Yukon Expedition, which he completed on Sept. 5, Skurka experienced wilderness in a more powerful way than before.
"When I think of a true wilderness area, I think of an area where there's no regular, or sometimes no indication, that mankind exists on the planet," Skurka said. "And in Alaska and the northern Yukon, there are many places where you feel that."
"What's neat about that is that you stop feeling like an elevated species."
You tap into a primal feeling, he said, of "when the challenge of making it to tomorrow was a noble
The 29-year-old sometime Boulder resident hiked, skied and paddled through roughly 4,650 miles of Alaska and Yukon backcountry over the course of about six months. The circuit he created connects the Alaska, Brooks and Chugach ranges; six U.S. national parks, from Gates of the Arctic to Wrangell-St. Elias; and follows wild rivers, such as the Copper, Peel and Yukon, via a one-person inflatable packraft.
That path occasionally follows a pre-existing route through the backcountry, such as the Iditarod Trail, but overall, Skurka thinks he only spent 33 miles on trail. The distance he hiked off-trail is approximately the same as the length of the Appalachian Trail.
"About a quarter of the miles were on skis, 50 percent on foot, 25 in packraft," Skurka said. "Occasionally I'd hit a road or ATV trail."
"I live for big trips," he added.
The expedition -- which Skurka completed solo -- was funded by a grant from the National Geographic Society.
From a young age, Skurka hasn't imagined the same adventures as the rest of us, said Jonathan Dorn, editor-in-chief of Backpacker Magazine, which named Skurka its Person of the Year in 2005.
"He was also crafting hiking adventures that were audacious in scope and solitude -- another difference from the plethora of knock-off mountaineering feats that only a handful of humans can aspire to," Dorn said. "So his adventures were brilliant in originality, but also approachable when you sat down to daydream."
This isn't Skurka's longest trip -- that was his 7,778-mile Sea-to-Sea Route, which linked several of North America's long trails. But the Alaska-Yukon Expedition was his toughest.
"On most other trips, I've been able to sort of force my will on nature, with a trail," Skurka said. "On this trip, I didn't have that fallback. It's bigger rivers, it's bigger open bays, it's bigger, more extreme mountains."
Without trails to follow, he had to rely upon all of the skills he's learned over the years on his other expeditions to navigate through white-outs, survive rushing rivers and avoid avalanches (and becoming bear food). But eventually, he said, you start to feel like "just another creature" in the wilderness.
"I had had that sense of being completely on my own and being frightened, my survival was hanging by a thread, which is not the way you normally feel," he said. "I was having that feeling, and when I hit the caribou trails, I was like, 'Oh, got it -- I'm just one of them.'"
Though he completed the expedition solo and went three weeks at a time without seeing another human, Skurka says he didn't get lonely.
"It's not because I'm a social introvert, but it's because I'm so engaged out there," he said. "I'm on the map all day long, I'm picking routes, I'm changing my plan, I'm focused on fording big rivers, or scaring away bears."
Dorn said Skurka's mental fortitude sets him apart.
"What he does requires so much more stamina, mental toughness, survival smarts," Dorn said. "He doesn't get to go home at the end of his workout to a masseuse, hot tub, Whole Foods and soft bed."
When asked what's next, Skurka replied with a laugh:
"I'm going to try to enjoy a life of mediocrity."
Will that last long?