Lost luggage and frozen tents: lessons in perseverance from Alaska

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That paranoid feeling I often get when I approach the baggage carousel – Oh no, what if my bag never shows up? – was finally realized on my flight to Anchorage, when United Airlines lost the pack with all my camping supplies.

My friend and I waited and waited, yet our garish orange pack never arrived. We spoke with the lady at the United baggage counter, who assured us it must have just missed the flight and would probably arrive on the next one, scheduled for just after midnight. She offered to drive it up to Talkeetna, a couple hours away, where we were staying in a hostel for the night. Though it was an inconvenience, I figured all would be forgiven if the bag showed up in the morning.

Except it didn’t. And since we were scheduled to camp in Denali National Park that day, we needed to replace our entire inventory of camping equipment in a hurry. Gone was our tent, sleeping bags, first aid kit, camelbak, flashlights… pretty much all of the gear we had spent months finding and purchasing online.

fred meyer

We had to drive 90 minutes back to Wasilla, the nearest town with real stores. So we got up super early (starting a pattern of operating on minimal sleep that would become the theme of the entire week) and began the journey. I assumed we’d have to buy everything at Target, but we also discovered a Fred Meyer and a Sports Authority there. We couldn’t afford to blow our budget, so we decided to buy the cheapest supplies we could find, no matter how crappy they were. (United had offered to provide a small level of reimbursement, but that wouldn’t come until much later.)

With limited time, we embarked on a whirlwind shopping spree, which still makes me smile. I dropped him off at the Target and Sports Authority, conveniently located next to each other, and drove over to Fred Meyer. We each set off with a grocery list of important items and frantically exchanged texts about the prices of each.

sleeping bags

At Fred Meyer we found sleeping bags on sale for $15. Score! They were 40 degree bags, which was fine for this particular week in Alaska. We also found a tent on sale for $27. It was obviously not a quality brand, but as long as it provided shelter, it would do the trick. At Target, we spotted little micro travel pillows in the bargain bin for $2.50 each. We picked up $3 flashlights, though it turned out those were totally unnecessary since at this time of year, it stays semi-light all night long.

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We also had to buy a new pack. Properly replacing my 65L bag was out of the question, but Target came through with a $35 duffel bag with straps that could turn it into a somewhat comfortable pack facsimile. Ultimately, we got everything in less than 20 minutes for around $100 (luckily, there’s no sales tax in Alaska) and felt proud for salvaging our camping trip.

All of these supplies for less than a benjamin!

tent

In Denali, we received more lessons in perseverance. As I feared, the budget tent leaked when it rained. We had a towel to mop up the dampness, so it was tolerable. The following night, we camped out in the backcountry, without realizing the area we selected had a higher elevation (around 4000 feet) than most of the spots along the main road (around 4000 feet.) At night, the wind rocked our tent like we were on Mt. Everest, and a brutal chill took over. While curled up inside the sleeping bags, we stayed surprisingly warm, but when I woke and tried to unzip the door flap, I realized it was stuck.

The zipper was frozen shut.

It had apparently gotten down into the low 30s overnight. The ground had frosted and the rain droplets on the tent had iced over. Yikes. But we made it through. And now we get to tell the story about surviving freezing temperatures camping in the Denali backcountry, in a spot that happened to be right on the other side of a hill where we spotted a grizzly bear just an hour before pitching the tent. Fighting through the adversity led to a rewarding experience.

(More on the camping adventure next week. And more on the lost baggage situation – at the moment, United still has no clue where my bag is.)

There would be plenty of other hurdles during the week that I haven’t even mentioned yet, like locking our keys in the car hundreds of miles from the nearest locksmith. But Alaska is supposed to be rugged and tough, so perhaps it’s fitting that we encountered all sorts of obstacles. The important thing was that we never let them stand in the way of having an epic adventure.

Have you ever faced unexpected challenges while traveling?

About Quirky Travel Guy

Scott Shetler is a Seattle-based freelance writer & fan of indie rock, road trips, ice cream, squirrels on power lines, runaway shopping carts, and six-way intersections. Looking for a hotel? I always recommend Booking.com where you can easily compare hotel rooms, prices, and availability. Some posts on this site contain affiliate links, which may earn me a commission (at no extra cost to you) if you make a purchase.

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20 Comments

  1. Wow! That was a crazy story. It is wonderful that you could make the most of your experiences despite the unexpected turn of events. So often people just can not cope with unexpected or negative events, but you have proven that just because something bad happens, you can still have an amazing vacation experience.

  2. Incredibly resourceful. I used to travel with my tent and sleeping bag in another suitcase. And one other time the tent was frozen on the inside and I headed south and into a hotel – its cold sleeping outside at 30 degrees unless prepared.

    I would have been devastated. Glad you salvaged your trip and your fun

  3. I am loving your Alaska posts. All that stuff for under $100?! NICE!!! No sales tax? I’m stocking up on *something* (don’t know what yet) when I get there next month, score! I don’t have a sleeping bag and will probably borrow my friends, but good to know they are cheap as chips, just in case. I love it when places make things that you’ll actually need in the location a decent price instead of gouging you, because they can.

    1. Most supplies in Alaska are very expensive, so this was kind of a fluke. Make sure to buy everything you need at the big department stores in the big cities.

  4. Hey Scott, I feel your pain. I’ve come to the conclusion that United is the absolute worst airline on the face of the earth. I had a similar thing happen to me recently — they lost my luggage on an 8-day trip to Mexico, lied to me for the first couple of days and said it would arrive on the next flight, then finally admitted they didn’t have any idea where it was. It never showed up; I had to buy new clothing, and new luggage for the return trip and believe it or not — they lost my new bag on the return trip!!! Both bags — the one they originally lost and the new one they subsequently lost — showed up the day after I returned home. I filled out a claim form for reimbursement, but still haven’t received a check. There’s no way I’ll ever fly United again unless there is no other choice!

    1. Wow, what a miserable experience! I didn’t have a good impression of United already (I only went with them this time because flights to Alaska are expensive and I had to choose the cheapest.) I’m not sure I will travel with them again.

  5. I DREAD the day my luggage does not appear on that carousel. My precious clothes, shoes and makeup would not be nearly as easy to replace as your camping supplies! But it sounds like you made the best of things and it worked out OK. I wouldn’t be surprised if some baggage handler is having a very nice camping trip with your stuff!

    1. Luckily, our clothes were in our carry-ons, so at least we didn’t have the hassle of creating a new wardrobe!

  6. What a sinking feeling it is to lose your luggage especially when you are on a trip like this. But its great that you made it through and I almost felt that chilly wind smacking me in the face when I read about it!!!
    Waiting for the adventures to continue.
    Have a wonderful weekend Scott:)

  7. Suffice it to say that this made me want to give the two of you a hug.

    Not only do you have some great stories (and I don’t even know how the rest of your trip went), but those are the things that test a relationship. So next time you are fighting about something stupid and small, you can remind one another that you survived Alaska.

    1. Thanks for the support. You’re right, it is a good test of compatibility to go through something like this. Considering that our last argument was over margarine(!), this helps put things into perspective.

  8. Wow, talk about travel mishaps! Love that you didn’t let it get in your way of having an epic adventure! How fast and cheap you handled the luggage crisis is pretty remarkable. I hope you have a photos of the frozen zipper and the ice on your tent, sounds like a (thus far) once-in-a-lifetime experience. I know this might not make sense, but this post makes me want to go to Alaska! OK, so just the word Alaska makes me want to go to Alaska, but your post reinforces it despite the challenges! Winter wonderland in summer is my kind of joy 🙂

    Oh yeah, and since you asked, I had to go through 3 suitcases in a 9 week trip, because they kept getting torn. Fortunately, the contents of the suitcases stayed safe. I hope United uncovers the mystery of your luggage soon!

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