After a fire destroyed his cabin and killed his dog, 30-year-old Tyson Steele found himself completely alone and miles from help in a remote corner of Alaska’s rugged Susitna Valley. He had only a small amount of food and just a woodstove for warmth. Despite the incredible odds, he managed to survive for three weeks through driving snow and freezing temperatures. He was rescued last week by Alaska State Troopers who discovered him, ash-stained and weary but alive, beside an SOS signal stamped out in the snow. They airlifted him back to civilization, and he had an incredible story to tell.
According to a report from the Alaska State Troopers, Steele had been living in Susitna Valley with his dog, a chocolate lab named Phil, since September. He was 20 miles from his closest neighbor, but he lived simply in a plastic-covered Quonset hut in a forest clearing. Aside from a faulty phone battery that was difficult to charge, he got along just fine. He even managed to grow a jalapeño plant inside his shelter. Then one night in mid-December, disaster struck.
“It started with a pretty hasty mistake,” Steel said. “I put a big piece of cardboard in the stove to start the fire. Which I knew was a problem. I’ve had woodstoves all my life. I knew that you don’t do that.”
A flaming piece of cardboard went up the chimney and settled on the plastic roof. Steele then awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of flames melting the plastic.
“Drip, drip, drip—there’s fiery drips of plastic coming through the roof above me,” he said.
He rushed outside to toss snow on the fire and saw that his entire cabin was ablaze.
“It goes up into flames faster than, like, I can even imagine,” he said.
Steele immediately thought of his dog, who was still inside the cabin. He rushed back in to grab what supplies he could—mainly blankets and sleeping bags—and yelled for Phil to get out of the burning shelter. He saw the dog jump off the bed, but Phil never made it outside. As Steele was rushing to grab his rifle from the side of the cabin, he heard Phil start to howl from inside.
“I was hysterical,” Steele told the troopers. “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.”
The blaze raged through the night, destroying all of Steele’s ammunition, his phone, and most of his belongings. Wracked with grief and exhausted from trying to put out the fire, he decided to take stock once dawn arrived.
“So I just sit down by my burning house,” he said. “I started going through a plan.”
He was able to salvage a few cans of food—things like beans and peanut butter—and he calculated that he could survive on two cans a day for 30 days. But the heat of the fire had melted and popped open some of the containers, contaminating the food with smoke. The meal he ate the night before he was rescued illustrates the kind of fare he lived on.
“Last night’s dinner was a can of plastic-smoked refried beans,” he said. “No hickory, no mesquite, it’s Class A waterproof tarp.”
Steele built a snow cave for shelter at first. Fortunately, the woodstove from his cabin was still operable, and he used that to keep warm through the long, frigid Alaska nights. Later, he scavenged for tarps and scrap lumber to build a larger shelter around the stove.
But he knew he couldn’t live like that for long. Miles of forest separated him from his nearest neighbor. On top of that, he weathered days of heavy snow that left several feet of powder on the ground, and with his snowshoes incinerated in the fire, it would be nearly impossible for him to travel. So he stamped out a large SOS sign in the snow near his camp, and dusted it with ash from the fire to make it more visible from the sky. And waited.
Luckily, concerned relatives contacted the State Troopers when they didn’t hear from Steele, and a helicopter team went out to look for him.
“The request is what alerted us to go look for him,” Ken Marsh, a spokesman for the Alaska State Troopers, told The New York Times. “The SOS might eventually have drawn a passing pilot to investigate, but hard to say when—it had already been more than three weeks.”
After getting rescued, Steele enjoyed a hot shower and a well-deserved McDonald’s combo meal. As for what’s next, he plans to spend some time with his family back in Utah.
“They’ve got a dog,” he said. “And that would be some therapy.”
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