Utah man survives nearly 3 weeks in Alaska wilderness after cabin burns

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A Utah man relied on his wits and survival skills to withstand three weeks in the Alaska wilderness after his cabin burned down.

Tyson Steele, 30, was rescued Thursday by helicopter from a remote area about 20 miles from Skwentna. He had written “SOS” in the snow and rescuers saw him frantically waving his arms, KUTV reported.

His survival depended on a series of life-or-death decisions.

Steele is not exactly trained in outdoor survival tactics. However, he has always spent his time outdoors and had familiarity with the equipment needed to survive in the wilderness.

Steele decided to homestead and in September moved to a remote part of the Susitna Valley. It was only accessible by plane charter. His closest neighbor was about 20 miles away.

Steele’s cabin was a small, plastic Quonset hut he bought from a Vietnam veteran. It was basically pieces of lumber and tarps. But it stayed warm and caught the southern sun.

It was Dec. 17 or 18, Steele isn’t quite sure, when he was awakened around 2 a.m. by drops of burned plastic raining down. The roof had caught fire.

Steele admittedly made a mistake and put a large piece of cardboard in his wood stove, sending a spark through the chimney, which landed on the roof.

He grabbed his felt-lined boots and ran out the door into the sub-zero temperature.

He watched as smoke filled the area and flames consumed his cabin. Phil, the 6-year-old, 110-pound chocolate Labrador Steele had raised from a puppy, did not make it out.

“My dog starts howling. Inside. And I thought he was not inside,” Steele said. “And that’s when there was … I was hysterical. I had no logic. Nothing. I have no words for what sorrow. It was just, just a scream. Just a visceral – not angry, not sad, just, like, that’s all I could express – just scream. Felt like I tore my lung out.”

Steele was able to recover some blankets, coats and sleeping bags. He soon realized his supply of ammunition and cooking oils and greases were in close proximity to each other, as about 500 rounds went off nearly simultaneously.

Eventually he was able to recover some food and take inventory of supplies. About half of the food had opened and filled with smoke. Each bite tasted like Steele’s burning home.

“Last night’s meal was probably one of the worst,” Steele said. “I was leaving the burned-off stuff for the last. And last night’s dinner was a can of plastic-smoked refried beans.”

He slept in a snow cave for a couple of days before building a makeshift hut with what remained of his cabin around the wood stove that started the blaze.

“It’s by no means a cozy cabin that I was able to put together,” Steele said. “It just took the edge off. I could still see my breath, but at least I wasn’t suffering.”

He usually checked in with his family each week but had been lax with his calls because of problems with his cellphone. When his family had not heard from him for an extended amount of time, they called the air service.

Alaska State Troopers found Steele and brought him to Lake Hood where he was able to get cleaned up and ate a McDonald’s No. 2 combo, he had requested.

Steele plans to return to his family in Salt Lake City and regroup but insists Alaska is still his home.

“They’ve got a dog,” he said. “And that would be some therapy.”