No one had heard from Tyson Steele in more than three weeks. He’d been living in the Alaskan wilderness, sure, but this sudden lack of communication really worried his family. The hunt was on, then, to find Steele before the worst happened. But after the authorities began their search for the missing man, they discovered something chilling: an all-too-brief message he’d left in the snow.
By all accounts, Steele should have been able to take care of himself. While growing up in Utah, you see, he had learned survival techniques from his grandad. And as an adult, he’d purchased a Quonset hut in Alaska’s Susitna Valley from a Vietnam War veteran. For months, Steele had lived there in complete isolation.
The makeshift cabin that Steele would come to call home was surrounded by miles of forests, rivers and hills. But the setting was as isolated as it was idyllic. Steele’s nearest neighbor was around 20 miles away in the small community of Skwentna, and if he wanted to escape his remote homestead, his only way out was by air charter.
While such a lonesome existence isn’t for everyone, Steele seemed to enjoy his unique life in the wilderness. Besides, he had his beloved pet dog – a chocolate lab called Phil – to keep him company. With a stripped-back approach to living, Steele was able to rejoice in some of the most simple pleasures in life – like the rare jalapeño pepper he managed to cultivate in the south-facing side of his shelter.
And while Steele was growing used to life in the wilderness, one near-fatal mistake in December 2019 would cost him his unconventional home. It all began when the homesteader had woken up in the middle of the night to a chilly cabin. As a result, he’d thrown some fuel on his woodstove and crawled back into bed.
But as Steele was drifting back off to sleep, he was awoken by something dripping from above him. Molten plastic was coming through the roof and seeping into his living space. So he went outside to investigate – only to discover that the entire roof of his cabin was ablaze.
Steele later reflected on the near-fatal error that ultimately cost him his home. In January 2020 he told the State of Alaska Department of Public Safety (DPS), “My woodstove is very, very old. The mistake I made… [is that] I got hasty and I put a big piece of cardboard in the stove to start the fire.”
Theorizing on what happened next, Steele suggested that some of the burning cardboard must have flown out of his chimney and landed on the roof – causing it to catch fire. Steele had gone out to investigate dressed in nothing but his long johns, a heavy sweater and some boots – only to watch as his entire home went up in smoke.
Luckily, Steele was able to re-enter his cabin before the flames took hold. He managed to salvage some basic supplies from the fire: including sleeping bags, blankets, and some coats. However, there was one special something that Steele was not able to save from the inferno – his beloved dog Phil.
In the confusion of the fire, Steele told the DPS, he mistakenly believed that Phil had managed to escape. However, back outside in the cold, dead of night Steele realized that his dog was howling from somewhere within the inferno. And the poor animal – who his owner explained was the “best dog in the world” – was ultimately lost to the fire.
Describing his reaction to Phil’s death, Steele later explained, “I was hysterical. Right? I had no logic. Nothing… I have no words for [that] 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. [It] felt like I tore my lung out.”
But Steele didn’t have much time to mourn the loss of his precious pooch. With his home consumed by flames, he was now facing an uncertain amount of time exposed to the Alaskan winter with no shelter and very little in the way of supplies. As a result, Steele needed to hatch some kind of survival plan.
Steele told the DPS, “After sitting there for a while, I [thought], okay, I gotta get my food. [I had] a two-year food supply in there. But here’s problem number three or four… I had it stored with all of the Crisco and oils and greases and whatnot – and right next to the bullets… So, there’s explosions going everywhere.”
Steele then began shoveling snow into the flames in a vain attempt the distinguish the fire that was consuming his home. He battled against the inferno through the night into the morning until the sun finally rose on what was one of the shortest days of the year. But in the end, Steele had to accept that he was fighting a losing battle.
Admitting defeat, Steele sat down by the glowing embers of his home and even threw a few logs onto the fire to spur it on. Sitting there in the snow, his mind turned to how he might survive the coming days – perhaps weeks – in the wilderness without shelter. In January 2020 Steele explained to the Utah newspaper The Deseret News, “I knew nobody was going to come for about three weeks.”
Thanks to his snow-shoveling efforts, Steele had managed to save part of his pantry. Making an inventory of the food he had, the Utahn had worked out that he had enough edibles to get by if he rationed himself to two cans a day. He also had some mayonnaise, peanut butter and a jar of beans.
So Steele had enough food to live on, but much of it now tasted like burned plastic. He explained to the DPS, “The thing was, maybe half of those cans, [they had] heated up and popped open and the smoke [was] circulating inside the can… So, it [tasted] like my home – just burning.”
The next urgent issue Steele needed to address was his shelter. With that in mind, he built a snow cave where he slept for his first two nights in the wilderness. He told the DPS, “… I just huddled into that dark cave and I slept. I slept for a really long time. And it was, it was warm. Warmer than outside.”
However, while Steele insisted that the snow cave was fit for purpose, he wanted to build a shelter that he would be a bit more comfortable in. So he salvaged some tarps and lumber and fashioned a tent around his stove – the one that used to sit in his Quonset hut. This enabled Steele to take the chill off his shelter, though his living space was still far from warm.
Steele later revealed to the DPS, “… One night… it was so cold, and I just didn’t want to go outside. So, I took a bucket to go pee in. And the bucket is only a couple feet away from this fireplace and it freezes… That gives you an idea. It’s by no means a cozy cabin that I was able to put together. It just took the edge off. I could still see my breath, but at least I wasn’t suffering.”
Steele used tree bark, a candle and some matches to keep his fire going. Highlighting his survival knowledge, he explained to the DPS, “I always had several pieces of birch bark. [It] is great for starting fires.” However, Steele insisted that he was no expert when it came to wilderness survival.
Steele continued, “I’m not exactly trained. I’ve just always been in the outdoors and in the outdoor industry. [In] my first job back in high school for five years I worked at a gear shop, so I was familiar with all the technical, you know, fire starting equipment. Axes, bush craft… [I’ve] watched a lot of YouTube videos.”
Steele added to the DPS, “So, I’ve just always liked to interface with the environment directly to survive. I challenge myself to make fire all the time… Because if I need to in the future, I just want to make sure I can do it and I can tackle the problems.” And now here Steele was, putting his survival knowledge into practise.
As Steele ticked off the days using a piece of chalk, his mind turned to his rescue and whether anyone would actually find him. He had only enjoyed sparing phone contact with his parents since moving to the homestead a few months prior. However, he did try to check in with them on a weekly basis – just to let them know that he was doing okay.
And as we mentioned earlier, Steele’s nearest known neighbors in Skwentna were 20 miles away. Though he had heard word that there could be someone living five miles from him in a place called Donkey Creek. Steele then made plans to head that way if no one had found him by day 35. Nevertheless, he felt that his best means of escape was by air.
Steele subsequently turned his attention to a lake around a quarter of a mile away from his plot. Planes can often land on the frozen water in the winter. So Steele wanted to check the thickness of the ice to make sure the air service could stop there if they ever came looking for him.
But even traversing the short distance to the lake in the snow proved difficult for the ill-prepared Steele. He told the DPS, “There was almost five feet of powder out there. And my two pairs of snowshoes burned up. And so, I just have these boots and some crappy socks that were full of holes to walk through this powder… It took me days just to go a quarter-mile.”
Meanwhile, back in Steele’s native Utah, his family started to grow concerned over the lack of contact they’d had with him. Steele’s mom Sherri later told The Deseret News, “Christmastime really did it for me. I was like, ‘This isn’t normal.’” And it was then that they decided to raise the alarm.
Alaskan state troopers agreed to carry out a welfare check on Steele, but their efforts were delayed due to the wintery weather conditions. Steele’s dad Bert told The Deseret News, “It still took about four or five days before they could go out because it was so cold.”
Finally, a helicopter was deployed to check on Steele. Video footage captured on the chopper reveals the frozen landscape that Steele had been contending with for 23 days up until that point. Flying over Steele’s plot, it appeared all that remained of his homestead was its metal framework.
Of course, there was no telling what kind of state the authorities would find Steele in. There was even a chance that he may have succumbed to the cold and died. That’s when the helicopter crew noticed a sign stamped into the snow which, for all they knew, could have been Steele’s final message to the world.
Steele’s cry for help simply read “SOS.” In his desperation to be located, he had pummeled the letters into the thick snow, and he’d used charcoal from his fire to make them more noticeable from the air. The result was a message too large for the State Trooper to miss – but had they arrived in time to save Steele?
Video footage revealed how the welfare check on Steele panned out. And as the helicopter circled around the remains of the missing man’s cabin it suddenly picks up some movement in the snow. There, we can see Steele standing beside his SOS sign and waving his arms calmly above his head.
Miraculously, Steele had somehow survived for three weeks in the Alaskan wilderness with minimal shelter from the harsh winter weather. And by the time state troopers located him, his weight had dropped by approximately 15 pounds. However, he had no signs of frostbite, nor had he sustained any major injuries.
Following Steele’s rescue, he was taken to the Alaska State Troopers’ Aircraft Section Hangar in Lake Hood. He was treated to a shower and the meal he had been dreaming of during his time in the wilderness – a “McDonald’s Combo Meal No. 2.” Cleaned and fed, Steele then began to relay the details of his incredible survival.
In the hours after his rescue, Steele told the DPS all about his ordeal. He revealed how the fire had cost him his home and his dog and how he’d managed to survive by building a makeshift shelter and eating his salvaged food rations. All in all, his experience had amounted to an epic story of survival.
According to the DPS, Steele “appeared healthy overall and energetic as he nursed a tall cup of McDonald’s coffee. He seemed happy to talk, and certainly to have survived 22 or 23 days in the wilderness.” However, the article did remark that Steele resembled “Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Cast Away.”
After his three-week stretch in the wild, Steele explained that he planned to return to Utah and regroup. He told the DPS, “I’m probably going to go back home to Salt Lake City… to my family.” No doubt remembering his beloved Phil, Steele said of his parents, “They’ve got a dog. And that would be some therapy.”
Following Steele’s ordeal, he returned to Utah and was soon reunited with his family. And together, they belatedly celebrated the holidays, as they had been disrupted by the adventurer’s silence. His father told The Deseret News how Steele had told him, “If you don’t mind, I want to have a Christmas morning.”
Speaking of the reunion she had enjoyed with her son, Steele’s mom added, “I’m just so grateful, my heart is so full that he’s here.” However, it seems that Steele’s ordeal hadn’t put him off his isolated way of living for long. So, he vowed that he would return to his plot in Alaska, explaining to the DPS that “this is my home.”