He wrote “SOS” in the snow and traced the letters in ashes. Tyson Steele knew it was his best bet for help.
His cabin in the remote Alaskan wilderness had burned to a crisp. The nearest town was 20 miles away. And now, without any shelter, limited food and no working phone, in subzero temperatures, Steele was entirely alone. His dog, Phil, had died in the blaze.
It had happened suddenly, in the middle of the night on Dec. 17 or 18 — he lost track of the days, according to a detailed news release and interview with Steele published by Alaska State Troopers.
The 30-year-old homesteader from Utah made what he called a “hasty mistake”: He threw a large piece of cardboard into his wood stove fire. It sent sparks up through the chimney — and then, as he slept, the sparks landed on the plastic roof, Steele explained in his interview with authorities.
“It’s 1 or 2 in the morning, and I’d been awakened to a cold cabin, right?” Steele told the troopers.
“. . . And drip, drip, drip — there’s fiery drips of plastic coming through the roof above me. So I go outside . . . and I just see that the whole roof’s on fire.”
That was how his 23 days trapped in rural Alaska began, as Steele scrambled to save what he could, watching almost his entire livelihood burst into flames. For three weeks, Steele would huddle in a snow cave and next to the remains of his wood stove, subsisting on canned rations — until finally, on Thursday, troopers from the Alaska Department of Public Safety rescued him.
The state troopers published Steele’s gripping survivalist tale in an eight-page news release Friday, mostly in Steele’s own words, after bringing him to safety at Lake Hood in Anchorage.
That afternoon, troopers were dispatched to Steele’s cabin for a welfare check after friends and family reported they had not heard from him for a concerning amount of time. Sure enough, troopers spotted Steele trudging in circles in his boots, waving calmly for the helicopter’s help.
Despite spending three weeks stranded in the snow, Alaska State Trooper Ken Marsh wrote, Steele appeared in good spirits and health — and seemed “vaguely reminiscent of actor Tom Hanks’s character in the movie ‘Cast Away.’” Steele’s shoulder-length chestnut hair was matted, his auburn beard untrimmed, Marsh wrote. The coveralls he “salvaged from shed” after the fire, circa 1980s, were smudged with charcoal and smelled like smoke, Marsh wrote.
But as Steele sipped a tall McDonald’s coffee, “he seemed happy to talk,” the trooper said, “and certainly to have survived 22 or 23 days in the wilderness.”
Steele told the troopers he had been living on the small homestead plot since September, when he bought the hut from a Vietnam veteran and set out for an adventure. He brought plenty of food, matches, his rifle, a “crappy phone” — as it would later turn out — and of course, Phil, his 6-year-old chocolate Labrador.
He said he never had any formal training in outdoors survival. But he knew how to make a fire — and he knew, he said, that he should never have thrown a large piece of cardboard into his vintage stove.
“There’s this image that keeps coming back in my mind of a swirling flame coming sideways for my face, you know?” he told the trooper. “And the worst part of all of this — I can survive 23 days again. But my dog was in there, asleep by my side.”