Alaska has become one of the premiere tourist destinations for people around the world, but does that mean it’s safe? How safe is it?
I should point out, of course, that just because a lot of people do it, doesn’t make it safe. People climb Mount Everest all the time and there has been at least one death recorded on the mountain every year since 1978.
The Alaska Triangle
Thanks to the same-named show on the Travel Channel, people are becoming more familiar with what’s called “The Alaska Triangle,” an area of Alaska that has led to many disappearances over the past few decades.
Since 1988, over 16,000 people have been reported as missing after hiking, flying, or boating through the area, which is a scalene triangle made up of the area between Juneau, Anchorage, and Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow, the city made famous by the movie “30 Days of Night”).
How much of this is true and how much is made up to sell television advertising space, though? What’s the real story?
The Story Behind The Alaska Triangle
The simple truth is that most of these disappearances are not very mysterious. Bad weather conditions (including frequent snowstorms) are common in that area. The mountains are also both numerous and very tall.
Many planes are equipped with something called the Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS), which is designed to warn pilots about potential collisions. Unfortunately, Alaska’s geographic features often cause false alarms, causing bush pilots to turn it off.
Faulty aircraft can also be responsible, as in the case of the comedian Will Rogers and his pilot Wiley Post died near Point Barrow in 1935 after their plane nosedived into a marsh.
Common Causes Of Injury & Death In Alaska
In addition to plane crashes, some tourists have gone missing while hiking, been attacked by wild animals, or drown in boating accidents.
Living in Juneau, at least once or twice a year, I’ll see a news story about a tourist who went hiking on a local trail, disappeared, and has not been seen or heard from in a week.
Some of these people are never found. Not just tourists, either – there have been several high-profile stories in recent years about local residents who went hiking and never came home.
Christopher McCandless, whose life story forms the basis of John Krakauer’s book Into The Wild and the 2007 movie adaptation starring Emile Hirsch, famously died in the Alaskan wilderness after eating poisonous potato seeds.
So, How Safe Is Alaska For Tourists?
All of the stories, examples, and explanations I’ve just given have one main thing in common: the people in question went off the beaten path and went into the wilderness.
This phenomenon has been so common here for thousands of years that, in the traditions of the Tlingit tribe, when a person dies, they don’t use the word “death.” Instead, they say that he or she “walked into the forest.”
The Tlingit have understood that walking into the woods alone often means death, either from wild animals, exposure, tumbling off a cliff, or many other causes.
Chris McCandless from “Into the Wild”, as mentioned above, is often a point of contention between Alaskans and people from other places.
I myself often use his story as a litmus test, to determine whether or not someone has lived in Alaska for many years or just a short time.
Not all the time, but most of the time, when people from the lower 48 or elsewhere talk about Chris McCandless, they talk about how noble his dream was and the tragedy of his sudden death.
Most longtime Alaskans, however, tend to believe that McCandless didn’t really understand what he was getting into and find the notion of a person surviving in the wilderness by themselves to be impractical, to be polite about it.
Now, I’m not saying that exploration or seeking solitude in desolate places is wrong; I’m simply suggesting that it’s important to take proper precautions.
If you’re going into the woods, on a mountain, or some other desolate place for more than an hour or two, it’s important to make sure you’re prepared.
At the very least, you should bring a satellite phone, a personal locator beacon, enough food and water for your trip, leave a detailed plan as to where you’re going and for how long, have an emergency plan, and make sure that you’re physically prepared for the journey.
The “Alaska Triangle” is reportedly responsible for 16,000 deaths since 1988. That’s 32 years, which gives us an average of about 500 tourists lost or killed in Alaska each year.
500 people in a year may seem like a large number until we look further and find that Alaska, as a whole, sees an average of over two million tourists per year (Covid years notwithstanding).
This means that the average visitor to Alaska has a 0.00025% of dying or mysteriously disappearing while visiting our great state.
With all of this, we can conclude that Alaska is a very safe place for tourists, as long as you’re properly prepared and don’t take any unnecessary risks.
If you come to Alaska on a cruise ship for a week, your chances of survival are even better. There has never been a serious risk to passengers on board a cruise here, thanks to the numerous safety features and precautions taken.
The deadliest shipwreck in Alaskan history was the SS Princess Sophie, which was lost along with all 343 people on board, back in 1918.
For comparison’s sake, Royal Caribbean operates a ship in southeast Alaska called “The Radiance of the Seas,” which has 7,800 rooms and a total maximum capacity of 73,800 people.
As long as you don’t plan on climbing a mountain, standing on top of a glacier, hiking through the wilderness, BASE jumping, or any other dangerous activities, you have nearly a 100% chance of survival.
Even if you do plan on doing those things, as long as you’re properly prepared, you have a very good chance of survival as well.
Please don’t fall for the media hype! Alaska is a beautiful and safe state that looks forward to welcoming you and your loved ones for a visit. Come on over and enjoy the amazing scenery!