With inches of snow pilings and temperatures dipping 15 degrees below zero, Tyson Steele was alone in the Alaska wilderness fighting for his life. He decided to do something desperate in hopes that he would survive to tell his story. And just when he had nearly given up hope, search teams spotted a clue.
In Salt Lake City, the Steele family was far from being able to enjoy the comfortable Christmas season that they had hoped for. Despite the surrounding holiday cheer, the family could tell that something was wrong miles away. It had been weeks since they had heard from their son, Tyson, and it was not like him to not call, especially around the holidays.
The Christmas holiday had passed in its entirety without so much as a text message. New Year’s came around and still there had been no word from their son. The Steeles were worried, and they were right to be. Over 2,000 miles away, unbeknownst to them, their son was literally fighting for his life — with no one to help him.
A Man In The Wilderness
Tyson Steele was 30 years old when he decided to do something that he had spent years dreaming about. In what might have seemed like a crazy move to some, Tyson had bought 40 entire acres of land in the wilds of the Alaskan frontier, a full 60 miles away from the city of Anchorage, in an area called Skwentna.
Tyson had visited Alaska a few times prior, and fell in love with its untamed frontiers. He quickly packed up his life and moved out to his plot of land. He bought an old plastic hut from a Vietnam War veteran, built using tarps, and set up camp. But it would not be long before this dream of his turned into a nightmare.
Preparing For The Worst
Living so remotely would be a continuous challenge, and yet while Tyson knew that, he was not exactly the most well-trained camper. He had grown up inspired by his grandfather, who hunted and fished. “I continued kind of the wilderness tradition,” Tyson said in an interview.
But there was one problem. “I’m not exactly trained,” Tyson admitted. “I’ve just always been in the outdoors, and in the outdoor industry.” He had worked in a gear shop, so he knew about the tools he would need and how to use them. For the rest, he carefully studied YouTube videos. Then, one night, Tyson made a life-threatening mistake.
A Deadly Error
Out in the middle of nowhere, there were not exactly the same amenities that could be found in most homes or cabins. Instead, Tyson had to rely on a wood-burning stove so that he could heat his home and prepare most of his meals.
He was used to the wood stove, seeing as he’d had one growing up as well. That’s why it was so surprising to him that he could have made such a huge miscalculation. “It started with a pretty hasty mistake. My wood stove is very, very old,” he told Alaska’s Department of Public Safety. But that night, he had attempted something with his stove that he had never done before.
A Grave Miscalculation
Tyson explained his mistake in an interview: “I got hasty and I put a big piece of cardboard in the stove to start the fire. Which I knew was a problem…I knew not to do that.” Despite cutting some corners with the quick move, it seemed like the cardboard was working for Tyson’s wood stove.
By the time that Tyson crawled into bed on that night, either on December 17 or 18, 2020, everything was still going according to plan. He drifted off to sleep like any normal night. But in the middle of the night, Tyson woke up to something strange.
An Unwelcome Wake-Up Call
It was 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning when Tyson woke up cold in his cabin. Considering that Tyson had set up camp in Alaska, the feeling was totally normal. But as he laid awake, trying to fall back to sleep, he noticed something that was definitely not right.
“So, it takes me a while to got to sleep,” Tyson explained. “And drip, drip, drip — there’s fiery drips of plastic coming through the roof above me.” The steady dripping was landing all over his bed, burning his skin as it landed on his body. He quickly went outside to investigate what exactly was going on.
A Campsite On Fire
Tyson was already sleeping in long johns, but he slipped on a heavy wool sweater and quickly shoved his sockless feet into boots for what he expected would be a quick trip outside. Awaiting him was an nightmarish sight: “So I go out to pick up some snow and I just see that the whole roof’s on fire.”
It did not take long for Tyson to realize his mistake. The large piece of cardboard that Tyson had used earlier that evening in his wood stove had sent sparks through the chimney, which had landed on the roof. That was enough to quickly ignite his plastic and wood home, sending it erupting into a fiery blaze. Now, Tyson had to think quickly.
Time Is Running Out
The flames on the roof were swallowing Tyson’s cabin even faster than he could have expected. There was fire everywhere. He had to rush inside and grab as much as he could before all his belongings became a massive pile of ash. Without even thinking, he dashed back into the burning cabin.
“It was just, like, from the point of going back and seeing the roof on fire, going back in, like, smoke everywhere,” Tyson recalled. “There’s this image that keeps coming back in my mind of a swirling flame coming sideways for my face, you know?” Tyson could hear the cabin cracking and disintegrating, with the sound of flames roaring as he gathered his things. And then, the fire turned deadly.
A Tragic Loss
Tyson was running as fast as he could, entering and exiting the blazing cabin, trying to gather as much as he could hold before it was too late. Everything that Tyson had ever owned was stacked in the shelves of that cabin. But Tyson did not care as much about those things as he cared about getting his chocolate Labrador retriever, Phil, out of the fire.
While Tyson thought Phil had run out of the cabin to safety, he realized too late that his dog was trapped inside. There was nothing that Tyson could do. “I had no logic. Nothing,” he said. “Just a visceral — not angry, not sad, just, like, that’s all I could express — just scream. I felt like I tore my lung out.” He was on his own.
Alone In The Wilderness
Tyson continued to scream, but no one could hear him. He was alone in the Alaskan wilderness, covered in ash, the only remains of his makeshift home. Tyson used shovels full of snow to try to put out the fire, but nothing was working. The longest night of his life was far from over. He was quickly presented with another problem.
Tyson had stored two years’ worth of food inside of his cabin, but that had all been kept next to the cooking oils and Crisco tins. When the fire raged through his home, it swallowed the oils, greases, and everything surrounding them. The grease fires only added to the chaos, and Tyson was left sitting by his burning cabin hopeless, alone, and afraid for his life.
It was the time of year that nights were increasingly darker in this part of the world, so Tyson could not really see what he had collected and think of a proper plan until morning light came a few hours later. Heartbroken, he spent the night using the fires from his destroyed home to keep himself warm.
“I started going through a plan,” Tyson said. “So, my first objective was making inventory. And to eat something! Because I’d been working my butt off all night.” But he quickly noticed that there was a huge problem. Tyson had only been able to get a fraction of his food out of the home safely, and a two-year supply instantly shrank into a 30-day supply.
Starting To Worry
“I got all my cans [of food] and I figured I had two cans a day for 30 days of rations,” Tyson said. Some of the jars, understandably, were in terrible shape. Liquefied plastic had seeped into his jar of peanut butter, and as he explained, “the thing was, maybe half of those cans, they’ve heated up and popped open and the smoke’s circulating inside the can.”
“So, it tastes like my home, just burning,” he said. For now, Tyson would have to make do with the few cans that he had left. Of course, two cans of food a day did not seem to be nearly enough, especially considering all of the stress he was under. But Tyson had much more to worry about if he was going to survive.
After witnessing his home burn to the ground, Tyson spent his first two nights huddled in a snow cave. During both of those freezing nights, temperatures dipped to 15 degrees below zero. Tyson had been able to grab a pair of overalls as he gathered his things, but all he had besides those were the clothes on his back, no socks, and a sleeping bag for warmth.
Without a candle or any source of light, those first two nights were spent in complete darkness. Tyson knew that this was not going to be sustainable, and so he started to get to work on building a temporary shelter. But even with a new shelter, he knew he could not survive like this for long without finding help. The question was: from where?
Cut Off From The World
As Tyson was building himself a new shelter he wondered when his family was going to begin to worry about him. He had brought an old cell phone to Alaska to check in with them weekly, but sometimes his disconnection from the world meant that he would occasionally miss a call with his family, and weekly calls would sometimes become biweekly calls.
There would be times when his family would worry, and then they would get a call from him a few days later. Now, Tyson was left wondering how long exactly it would be before his family stopped blaming his poor phone habits and started to really worry for his life — and whether he’d still be alive by then.
A Race Against The Elements
Snow was piling down in the woods, and Tyson became increasingly panicked. He started to think of a plan to try to find help on his own. As far as he knew, his closest neighbors were a full 20 miles away. Tyson had heard rumors that there was another camper at Donkey Creek Lake, about 5 miles from where he was.
But Tyson was not sure if there was any truth behind those rumors. Maybe he would walk five miles to this lake only to find himself just as isolated as he had been back at the camp. The risk was high, but he was beginning to think about making the trek. And then, once again, everything took a turn for the worse.
The Next Goal
If Tyson’s parents became worried and alerted the police, Tyson knew that the only way they were ever going to reach him was by helicopter. The trees were too dense near his campsite, and to further aggravate logistics, snow had been barreling down. First there was a foot of snow, then another six inches, then more — until there was over 5 feet of snow piled in some areas.
Tyson knew that one of his only chances of getting rescued involved making use of the frozen lake nearby, in hopes that the ice might be thick enough for a helicopter to land on. But Tyson’s snowshoes had holes in them and so he spent days just trying to walk a quarter mile. His plan wasn’t going to work, and he was running out of time and food.
Time For Another Plan
Tyson’s plan involving the lake, he realized to his dread, was simply not viable. There was no way he would be able to trek out there with all of his things that he needed to survive. Instead, he went back to the ruins of his campsite. While trees surrounded the area, he saw that the actual homestead of his land was relatively clear.
Tyson had lost track of just how many days he had been stuck in the freezing wilderness. He began to build out his shelter so that it could outlast however long he would be stranded. But he needed to do something more than just sitting and waiting. And that is when he came up with a scheme that would utilize the very few tools he had on hand: snow, and ash.
Sending Out An SOS
Skwentna, where Tyson was stranded, is an area in Alaska known for its miles and miles of wilderness devoid of any signs of human settlement. Spotting Tyson hidden somewhere in these woods would be nearly impossible, especially considering that the land he himself owned took up 40 acres. So Tyson began to work on a way to get himself noticed.
Tyson carved a gigantic “SOS” sign into the snow. To make it more noticeable, he filled the letters in with ashes taken from his fire-ravaged cabin. But almost as soon as he would finish filling in the letters, he would have to start all over again. Snow steadily continued to fall, and his plead for help was repeatedly covered in snow. Would it even work?
Tyson would occasionally see planes flying above his campsite, but they were all way too high in the sky to notice his desperate SOS message. Nonetheless, this did not stop him from waving his arms and legs for his life each time he heard the whir of a plane engine.
For those few seconds after hearing a plane, Tyson felt a surge of hope. But as they faded into the distance, Tyson was alone, worried even more that there might not be a way out of the situation he found himself in. In the meantime, he was able to salvage his old wood stove and began to build a shelter around it, but he was quickly running out of food.
Time Is Running Out
Tyson was able to build a small, temporary shelter around his old wood stove, and finally was able to find just a few matches that were salvageable. To save himself from freezing, he basically kept the wood stove burning at all hours and huddled around it for warmth. But the cabin was still barely livable.
The wood stove could barely keep the shelter warm anymore. One night Tyson remembered putting some liquid into a bucket and keeping it mere inches away from the fire. Within minutes, everything inside the bucket had frozen. “That gives you an idea,” Tyson said of the temperatures. Tyson worried about how much longer he could survive like this. Far away, there were others worrying for his safety too.
A Family Left Worried
Having a son who was living in the Alaskan wilderness meant that Tyson’s parents were pretty used to not hearing from their child for a week or two at a time. But this was markedly different. “When Christmas came around, for sure, that’s when we were like ‘something is wrong, this is not like him not to communicate,'” his mother said.
“Then New Year’s comes, and that’s when we called the pilot.” It had been weeks since Tyson’s cabin had caught on fire, and finally, although Tyson was not aware of it at the time, there was someone actively searching for him.
After Tyson’s parents had alerted a pilot about their son, a plan was set in motion to check in on the camper’s wellbeing. The Alaska Department of Public Safety and Alaska State Troopers took out helicopters to take a look at Tyson’s land. And once they did, they could not believe what they had seen.
As soon as they had reached the clearing where Tyson was camped, they saw the massive SOS symbol, standing out against the white snow with its dark ashes. Suddenly, they saw a man running out of a shelter, waving his arms for his life. After a full 23 days stranded, Tyson was finally being rescued.
A Riveting Rescue
After living in the Alaskan woods for months and being stranded for over three weeks, troopers found Tyson covered in soot, charcoal, and ashes. His hair was matted into near-dreadlocks, and rescuers described his look as “vaguely reminiscent of the actor Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Cast Away“.
But despite his appearance and having miraculously survived a harrowing, near-death experience, Tyson seemed to be in good spirits. He was quickly airlifted back to civilization and was given a shower along with his specially requested meal of a McDonald’s combo meal number 2. Troopers called Tyson’s family to alert them that they had found their son, but soon thousands more people would hear about Tyson’s unbelievable story.
The scene that had just unfolded seemed like something lifted straight out of the plot of a movie. And luckily for the troopers involved and for Tyson, the whole dramatic episode was captured on the helicopter’s video camera. With Tyson’s permission, the Alaska Department of Public Safety posted the rescue mission video online, and it quickly gained attention.
In just a few hours, hundreds and soon thousands of people had watched the video and shared it to their own social media followers. Overnight, Tyson went from alone in the wilderness to attracting the attention of random fans online. Meanwhile, Tyson reunited with his family in Salt Lake City. But the reunion would not be for very long.
Going Back To Alaska
Tyson had survived an experience that could have easily killed him. He confronted the dangers of the freezing Alaskan wilderness head on, and lived through something that could have left him scared to be left alone in the woods again. But instead, Tyson feels a little differently.
“Two months away from Alaska is wearing on me, so I’m going back to the homestead!” Tyson posted on Facebook, alerting his followers that he would be moving back out to his land in the woods. It seems that not even a near-death experience could keep Tyson away from his love of Alaska’s natural bounty.
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