A man who survived 23 days in the below-freezing Alaskan wilderness after his cabin burned down was rescued by state troopers who spotted his “SOS” message written in the snow.
In video footage shared by Alaska State Troopers, 30-year-old Tyson Steele was discovered living in a makeshift shelter at his remote home around 112 kilometres northwest of Anchorage on Jan. 9.
Steele hadn’t been heard from for “several weeks” and the group of Alaska State Troopers were conducting a welfare check on him. In a recap of the rescue, Steele was compared to a Tom Hanks movie character.
Steele waves his arms up at the troopers who hover in a helicopter — manned by Cliff Gilliland and Zac Johnson — above him in the video.
“Steele’s shoulder-length hair, chestnut brown near the roots fading to golden blond near its frayed tips, hung matted and dreadlocks-like over his neck,” the recap, written by writer Ken Marsh, reads.
“His auburn hair flowed untrimmed to his chest. The combination made him seem vaguely reminiscent of actor Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Cast Away.”
Officials say that Steele’s cabin burned down at around 1 or 2 a.m. one mid-December night, after he tried to burn a cardboard box inside his stove. The fire killed his dog and left him without shelter or warmth, and no means of communication, for 23 days.
The homesteader had been living alone since September 2019 in Sustina Valley. He was living completely remotely, over 30 kilometres away from his closest neighbour.
Perhaps even more heartbreaking than losing his home, however, was losing his dog, Phil.
“Best dog in the world,” Steele told Marsh. “He was so scared of the fire … I grabbed everything that was on my bed … and I tell Phil, ‘Get out of here! Get out of here!’ And he jumps off the bed and I think it’s good, right? I think he’s left, and so I go outside.”
“I stepped outside and everything’s on fire. I’ve got to think of what to do next … and my dog starts howling … inside. I was hysterical. I had no logic … Just a visceral — not angry, not sad — just scream.”
Everything he owned was destroyed in the fire along with Phil, he continued. All of his bullets and ammo exploded, along with his oil and propane tanks.
Steele recounted that after working well into the morning, throwing shovels of snow onto the cabin, he switched gears to keep the fire going.
“I remember throwing a few logs on one of the corners to keep it going,” he said, adding that he then made an inventory of his salvaged food, noting that he had some peanut butter, beans and mayonnaise.
Before being saved, the outdoorsman had created two new smaller shelters, keeping a fire going perpetually to heat up his food and keep himself warm. He stamped out the big “SOS” signed, sprinkling ashes inside to make it black, and waited.
Walking to safety wasn’t an option, given that he had very little idea of his own whereabouts or which waterways stayed frozen long enough.
Steele plans to head back to civilization and family in Salt Lake City.
“They’ve got a dog,” he told Marsh. “That would be some therapy.”