He wrote “SOS” in the snow and traced the letters in the ashes. Tyson Steele knew that was the best way to get help.
His cabin in the remote wilderness of Alaska burned to the ground. The nearest town was 32 miles away. And now, with no shelter, limited food, no phone lines, and freezing temperatures, Steele was completely alone. His dog Phil died in a fire.
According to a detailed news release issued by the Alaska State Police and an interview with Steele, it happened suddenly at midnight on December 17th or 18th. He said he had forgotten about that day. The 30-year-old homesteader from Utah made what he called a “rash mistake.” He threw a big piece of cardboard into the fire in the woodstove. A spark rose from the chimney and then fell on the plastic roof while he was sleeping, Steele explained in an interview with authorities.
“You woke up in a cold cabin at one or two in the morning, didn’t you?” Steele told the men. “…and then, dripping, dripping, fiery drips of plastic fell from the roof overhead.
Thus began 23 days of being trapped in rural Alaska as Steele scrambled to save as many lives as he could while watching nearly his entire livelihood go up in flames. For three weeks, Steele huddled next to the wreckage of a woodstove in a snow cave, subsisting on canned food, until Alaska Department of Public Safety officers finally rescued him on Thursday.
After escorting Steele to safety in Lakehood, Anchorage, on Friday, state police released Steele’s inspiring survivalist story, mostly in his own words, in an eight-page news release. That afternoon, police were dispatched to Steele’s cabin for a welfare inspection after his friends and family reported a worryingly long absence from Steele. Sure enough, the officers found Steele walking in a circle in his boots, quietly waving for helicopter help.
Alaska State Trooper Ken Marsh said Steele appeared fine and healthy despite being stuck in the snow for three weeks, and “vaguely resembles the character of actor Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away.” reminds me,” he wrote. “Steel’s shoulder-length chestnut hair was matted, and his auburn beard was untrimmed,” Marsh wrote. It was dirty and smelled like smoke, Marsh wrote.
But as Ms. Steele sipped McDonald’s Tall coffee, “he was talking happily,” said the officer, “and must have certainly survived 22 or 23 days in the wilderness.”
Mr. Steele told the men he had been living on a small farm since September when he bought a hut from a Vietnam veteran and set out on an adventure. He brought with him lots of food, matches, a rifle, a “crappy phone,” as it turns out, and, of course, Phil, a six-year-old chocolate-colored Labrador dog.
He said he had no formal training in outdoor survival. But he knew how to start a fire. And he knew he should never throw a big piece of cardboard into a vintage stove.
“I’ve always had this image in my head of flames swirling up my face from the side, you know?” he told the cop. “And the worst part of all this is I can survive 23 days again. But my dog was there, sleeping by my side.”
Standing outside in long underwear, staring at the burning roof, Mr. Steele began to panic. He escapes through the fumes of smoke and returns inside, rescuing all the blankets, coats, and sleeping bags he could find, yelling at Phil to get out. After being relieved to see Phil jump out of bed, he runs around and returns to grab his gun before it catches fire.
Just then, a howl was heard from within. By then, his plastic shack had turned into hell with 500 rounds of ammunition exploding. Phil is trapped.
“I was hysterical,” he said. “I don’t have words for what sadness it was. It was just…it was just a scream. It was just instinctive. It wasn’t anger or sadness.
For hours he tried to scrape snow over the flames, but in vain.In the morning light he said, “I just [sat] “I was by a burning house,” and realized that he had lost almost all of his possessions. He had a gun, but no bullets. He had no snowshoes, no phone, no map. He knew someone might live eight miles away, but it was impossible to get there. With knee-deep snow and little sunshine he could take several days in six hours.
Steel stayed there. He checked his food inventory. He had several jars of peanut butter in melted plastic, a jar of beans, and a 30-day supply of canned food, twice daily rations. He built a snow cave big enough for himself and his sleeping bag.
“I just huddled in a dark cave and slept,” he said. “I slept for a really long time, and… it was warm. It was warmer than it was outside.”
Over time, he got even more ingenious, building a new makeshift shelter around the remaining woodstove using scrap wood and scavenged tarps. There, you can keep a fire burning forever, and use it to heat smoke-scorched cans, “just burning makes it taste like home,” he said. He set aside the worst rations, what he called “plastic-smoked refried beans,” for a later date.
“No hickory, no mesquite,” he said of the flavor. “It’s a class A waterproof tarp.”
As the days ticked by, Mr. Steele wondered how long it would be before friends and family realized he wasn’t calling. He said he often couldn’t make regular home calls because his phone wasn’t charging properly. He realizes that his family may simply think his cell phone has broken again.
He began to think about the possibility of an airliner finding him. Every day I could hear planes flying in the sky, but there were no planes nearby. Still, knowing that planes could land during the winter, he prepared for his arrival by hiking to a lake about 400 meters from his home lot. It took him days just to get there. He examined the ice to make sure it was solid enough to support the plane, then made a way back to his hometown, where he drew an “SOS” in ashes.
As the snow continued to fall, Steele kept tracing and tracing the letters.
Finally, two soldiers read it out from the evergreens.
After taking him to Lake Hood, officers gave Steele a shower and fulfilled his “long-time dream” meal request: McDonald’s No. 2 combo meal. And Steele told his story. He said he would eventually return to his farm in Alaska — “because this is my home,” he said, but for now he’s moving to Utah to spend some time with his family. He said he would return.
He said his family had a dog and that was exactly what he needed.