Man Versus Alaska

Written by David Kushner, Men's Journal

Wednesday April 1st, 2015

An engineer and his dog attempt to survive for a year on a frozen island teeming with bears.

One morning in June 2012, Charles Baird, a 40-year-old former contracts writer at British Petroleum in Anchorage, chartered a boat for the two-hour ride to the island of Latouche in the Gulf of Alaska. The 12-mile-long, three-mile-wide spit of land had been abandoned since the 1930s, after the copper mines that served the needs of World War I closed. Baird planned to spend the next year alone on Latouche, bringing along thousands of pounds of food and gear; his three-and-a-half-year-old Labrador, Wilson; and an ornery brown goat named Thor that he bought on Craigslist and — if things went seriously sideways — intended to eat. He would text occasional updates to his older brother but would not be resupplied. All he had to do — all he wanted to do — was survive. “If this goes badly and I get hurt or killed, I’m OK with that,” he said shortly before the trip. “This is my passion.”

Growing up in Tampa, Baird often escaped to his backyard tree house, where he pored over adventure books such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Call It Courage. While still a teenager, he ran a 37-mile ultramarathon in which he found himself fascinated by the sensation of his body and mind breaking down — he remembers hallucinating luminescent dots and a phantom runner pacing him through the final stretch. He studied engineering at the Air Force Academy and so enjoyed the cadet survival missions that he spent a spring break wandering alone in the Colorado wilderness. After graduation, while working 12-hour days, seven days a week, on an oil rig off the coast of Texas, Baird decided to split for the greatest American wilderness of all. “It is the biggest and most extreme state and also a very inexpensive place to get land,” Baird says. “So I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to Alaska.’ ”

Almost as soon as Baird arrived, in 2008, he began plotting his adventure — stockpiling cash and honing his survivalist skills at a cabin he built in the woods outside Anchorage. He discovered Latouche in an online listing for remote empty lots and snatched up one and a half acres, sight unseen, on a hilly northwestern shore for $8,000. It took him another three years to save up for all the supplies he needed: 600 feet of rope, 500 feet of fishing line, five guns, and 4,799 matches, plus hand warmers and T-shirts, knit hats and deodorant, playing cards and antibiotics. After some internet research on diet requirements, he determined that he needed about 12 calories per day per pound of his body, no matter what the source. “It’s just calories,” he says. “You can eat Twinkies or rice and beans.” In total, he had to haul 5,900 pounds of supplies and 4,100 pounds of plywood up from the beach — a tough enough task without the incessant summer rain.

The torrent began shortly after his arrival in June, and it didn’t relent for his first 12 days there. He slept wrapped in a tarp in the mud of his property. Water penetrated everywhere. His feet went numb. Kamikaze mosquitoes devoured every piece of exposed skin and made his hands and ankles swell like tender hams. For Baird, the fear of failure, of having to quit and go home, was scarier than death. “That would just be embarrassing,” he says. But he had clearly underestimated the strain involved: “I just laid there and said, ‘This isn’t good.’ ”

Eventually, though, the rain stopped long enough for Baird to settle into a routine. He’d wake at eight, boil some water for coffee on his small propane burner, and cook up a pan of rice, powdered eggs, and Crisco. Sometimes, before starting work on his cabin, he gathered wood for a bonfire on the beach and heated seawater in a large black shrimp pot for his bath. At first, sponging himself off naked on the island’s edge felt “savage and immodest,” but he got over it. The flip side of loneliness here was that he could stand on a stunningly gorgeous bay under the Alaskan sun, completely nude, and not give a shit. “Thirty square miles to run free,” Baird recalls thinking. “It’s kind of nice.”

“Looks like you could use a paddle,” Baird joked as I rafted to the rocky shoreline of Latouche early one wet and chilly morning in July 2012. I’d heard of Baird’s adventure through a mutual friend and wanted to find out how he was faring. I’d had an unexpectedly dangerous journey, one that made me appreciate even more how far off the grid Baird had gone for his escape. The gulf ’s notorious weather assaulted our boat, leaving its three-person crew and me lost at sea overnight. I later learned another boat had flipped in the storm, drowning a passenger. When my captain finally found the island, 12 hours later, the motor on the dinghy that was supposed to get me to shore died. Now I was paddling in, using a rusty shovel.

Four weeks alone on Latouche had taken its toll on Baird as well. His long-sleeved green shirt and jeans hung loosely from his body as a result of the 33 pounds he’d shed from his 6-foot-1, 230-pound frame. He had a long red gash on his hand from accidentally leaning on his buck knife one night as he fell asleep. Scabby red bug bites covered his forehead under the brim of his damp brown hat. “I stopped using bug repellent after my first two weeks,” he told me. “It’s kind of a losing battle.”

Despite the scars, Baird seemed upbeat as he showed me around his private bay. The beach was beautiful — rimmed by tall spruce trees and rolling hills — but also littered with the odd detritus of past homesteaders who had tried, and failed, to live here: an old busted radio from the Sixties, a rusty bulldozer. Later, hiking through a scratchy patch of woods, we came across the mangled blue and white fuselage of a downed airplane. Hoisting a dusty liquor bottle from the cockpit, Baird said, “Welcome to the island of broken dreams.”

His unfinished cabin was just a bare wooden box measuring eight by 12 feet. As he hammered the walls, Baird would listen to songs in his mind — “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake was a favorite — or hash out ideas for science fiction novels. He had recently finished installing three sets of small windows and a white metal door. The inside felt like a slightly bigger version of the kind of tree house where Baird sought refuge as a kid. A customized street sign friends had given him at his goodbye party was hung outside: Latouche Island: Population 1.

Baird showed me a cosine equation he’d scribbled on the wall to determine the slope of the roof. “My John Nash moment,” he said, referring to the schizophrenic math professor played by Russell Crowe in the movie A Beautiful Mind. I wondered if an actual John Nash moment might await him once the interminable Alaskan winter set in. Back in Anchorage, Baird hung out with a tight circle of local bohemians and was accustomed to constantly checking email and Facebook. Enduring the physical demands of homesteading is one thing, but Baird was confronting a more contemporary challenge, too, the isolation of leaving behind the digital world. When I asked what his biggest fear was about this adventure, he said, “Being alone.” Before I came to Latouche, one of his friends in Anchorage had told me, “My biggest fear is that he goes insane.”

For now Baird had more pressing concerns. “I carry this gun if I see something I want to eat,” he told me one morning, pulling his .380 from its holster. Then, pulling out his .44 Magnum, he added, “And I carry this one if something wants to eat me.” During his early nights on the beach, he kept hearing rustling noises in the woods; he recalled wondering if a bear could smell him beneath the tarp. One afternoon at his cabin, as he fished a lollipop out of a bin, he pointed to a fresh pile of shit. “That’s bear scat,” he told me. “They know I’m here.”

After I left the island, I worried about the impact my visit might have had on him, whether my presence might tap free some reserve of unwanted loneliness. On Facebook he looked weathered, his face ruddier and increasingly consumed by a thickening beard. With the cabin built, his days were now filled with cutting and collecting firewood, a task made more difficult after he hurt his shoulder hauling a bin of logs. Simply lifting a coffee cup to his lips made him wince, but he had no time for rest.

The bears had finally come. The first appearance happened during a bonfire on the beach. Wilson was barking at something up by the camp. Baird wandered through the darkness, carrying his lantern, and saw nothing. But when he returned to the beach, there it was: a hulking black bear, shuffling across the nearby hillside. Baird reached for his gun but realized he had left it back at the cabin. Thankfully, the bear wandered off without incident. “Forgetting my gun was foolish and could have gotten me killed,” he wrote in his journal a few days later. “It is not acceptable.”

Baird figured the bears were attracted to the scent of Thor. “The time had come to eat the goat,” he wrote. On the morning of September 10, Baird walked him down to the beach. Wilson, who’d developed a friendship with Thor, let out a whimpering cry as Baird fastened together the animal’s hind legs and strung him up on the back of the bulldozer. Then Baird slit the goat’s throat. He later recalled, “I probably should have tied up the dog somewhere because she found the events confusing and disturbing.”

Baird was aware of something else at that moment, though: He had become a man alone, killing an animal to survive. Something primal was taking over, the thing he had come here to unleash. With Wilson barking wildly as blood pooled in the sand, Baird cut Thor down and dragged him farther down the beach to gut him, so as not to attract bears near his home. But at least one already had his number.

A large black bear in the icy blue water was wading toward the shore. Baird drew his .44, but Wilson had already bounded into the waves and was barking angrily at the bear. When it lumbered onto the beach, Wilson continued charging right up to the giant, which haltingly retreated into the thicket. “Good girl, Wilson!” Baird shouted.

For the rest of the evening, Baird sat with Wilson on the beach, roasting the goat over a bonfire. The heat from the flames was strong enough that Baird peeled off his damp shirt and tossed it aside, letting the smoke envelop him as he gnawed on the goat’s leg. It was, he says, “one of the most manly moments of my life.” He nailed the goat’s horns on the wall of his cabin as a reminder of how he felt that night, how far he had come, and how far he hoped to go.

Snow began falling in October, and by February more than eight feet had accumulated around his cabin. Other than trudging 30 feet to his outhouse, he was spending the entire day indoors (with only a few hours of sunlight, it’s not like he was missing much). The propane stove, and the combination of his and Wilson’s body heat, kept the cabin about 15 degrees warmer than the outside temperature, which hovered around 30 degrees — still cold, but only occasionally dipping below freezing. He read a half-dozen books a week, including a lot of Sherlock Holmes and Stephen King’s eight-part Dark Tower series, and slept up to 15 hours a day. What he didn’t do much was eat — usually just once a day — or exercise, or bathe. He changed his underclothes most weeks and his shirt only after five months.

He still had his phone, with which he had been texting and, when the reception was strong enough, calling his family once a week. But as the weather worsened, so did his signal. In a last-ditch effort, Baird hiked two hours through the snow to the top of a mountain, the best spot he had discovered on the island to use his phone, and put his finger on the switch. He stood there on the hill, the modern-day homesteader, hoisting his last link to civilization into the sky, only to face inevitable disappointment: no service. Just a long walk back to his cabin to spend untold winter days and nights cut off, alone. “I did feel isolated and anxious,” he recalls. “I felt kind of disconnected from myself.”

He had nightmares of being back at the Air Force Academy, unprepared for some mission, and his emotions cycled through fits of laughter and somberness. “It really takes a few weeks to completely calm down,” he says. “It is something I had to learn to do.” He began playing games — like seeing how long he could hold his breath (more than three minutes after enough practice) — and talked a lot to Wilson. He wrote copious journal entries and science fiction stories about characters with telekinetic powers. Eventually he was able to relax, and settled more deeply into himself. “I just sat there calmly for months,” he says. “And really enjoyed it.”

As winter turned to spring, Baird emerged from his cabin with a new sense of ease that, he admits, sometimes bordered on stupidity. He roamed the island without his guns, the fear of bear attack strangely absent. He was also nearly out of food, eating just lentils and rice and the occasional can of tuna. His shoulder still bothered him, and his hands had grown cramped with tendinitis. But he was amazed at how little he needed now. “I felt more relaxed and got into this bliss,” he says.

Before long it was June again, a year since his arrival, and Baird was back on the shore waiting for the same boat to pick him up. He’s not a sentimental guy (most of his possessions were left behind), but he couldn’t help watching from the stern as Latouche faded from view. “I felt overwhelmed,” he says. “It felt like home.” That afternoon, as he bit into a cheeseburger at a dive bar in Whittier, he realized just how long he’d been away.

Nearly two years later, Baird’s now working on film crews in Anchorage, and he recently finished a memoir about his time on Latouche. But he has yet to feel fully back in place. He finds little motivation in what he calls “normal societal expectations” — money, job, house. When he sees people arguing over trivial matters in a grocery store, they remind him of bears fighting on a beach. Even in Alaska, that primal part of himself he discovered doesn’t quite square with modern life. So he’s hatching plans for another adventure, perhaps to an island with an active volcano or somewhere deep in the interior. “I’d like to get away again,” he says. “Being alone and quiet is so foreign. But it is something I miss.”