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 the 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 that 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.”
Standing outside in his long underwear, staring at the burning roof, Steele started to panic. He ran back inside through a plume of smoke to save whatever blankets, coats and sleeping bags he could find, yelling for Phil to get out. He felt relieved when he saw Phil jump off the bed, before running around back to grab his gun before it went up in flames.
That’s when he heard the howling, coming from the inside. By then, his plastic hut had become an inferno, as his 500 rounds of ammunition exploded. Phil was trapped.
“I was hysterical,” he said. “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. Just a scream.”
For hours, he tried shoveling snow onto the flames but it was no use. By morning light, he said, “I just [sat] down by my burning house,” realizing he had lost nearly everything he owned. He had a gun but no bullets. He had no snowshoes, no phone and no map. He knew there might be someone living five miles away, but a trek in knee-deep snow and with only six hours of daylight could take him days. He knew it was too dangerous to try.
So instead, Steele stayed put. He took inventory of his food: a couple jars of peanut butter in melted plastic, a jar of beans and enough canned food to last him 30 days, two rations per day. He built a snow cave big enough for him and his sleeping bag.
“I just huddled into that dark cave and I slept,” he said. “I slept for a really long time. And … it was warm. Warmer than outside.”
Eventually he got craftier, building a new makeshift shelter around the surviving wood stove with lumber scraps and scavenged tarps. There, he could keep a fire going perpetually, using it to heat up his smoke-damaged canned food that “tastes like my home, just burning,” he said. He saved the worst of the rations — what he called “plastic-smoked refried beans” — for later days.
“No hickory, no mesquite,” he said of the flavor. “It’s Class A waterproof tarp.”
As the days inched by, Steele spent them wondering how long it would take before friends or family realized he hadn’t called. With his phone that did not charge properly, he often failed to call home at regular intervals, he said. He realized his family might simply think his phone was broken again.
He started to think about the odds that an airliner might spot him. He could hear planes zipping through the sky every day, but none were close. Still, he prepared for one’s arrival by hiking out to a lake about a quarter-mile from his homestead, where he knew planes could land during the winter. It took him days just to get there. He checked the ice, making sure it was solid enough to support a plane — and then built a path that led all the way back to his homestead, where he painted “SOS” in ashes.
It kept snowing and snowing, and Steele kept tracing and retracing the letters.
Finally, from above the evergreens, a pair of troopers read them.
After bringing him to Lake Hood, troopers offered Steele a shower and fulfilled his “long dreamed-of” meal request: a McDonald’s No. 2 Combo Meal. And then, Steele told his story. He said he would eventually return to his Alaskan homestead — “because this is my home,” he said — but that for now, he would go back to Utah to be with his family for a while.
His family had a dog, he said, and that was exactly what he needed.