Classes help teach basics so you’ll never say, ‘I should have stayed home’
Every year the Alaska State Troopers respond to dozens of search-and-rescue calls. When they do, they call in a mass of resources like the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, Alaska State Search and Rescue Association or Matanuska Search and Rescue to assist. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to coordinate and execute these rescues and thousands of paid and volunteer man hours. And far too often, the results end in tragedy with lost lives because there wasn’t enough time.
People don’t normally set out on their adventure to try and become the victim of a search and rescue mission. Generally the unexpected happens and they are suddenly faced with making split-second, life or death decisions.
Grant Pearson, a retired Denali National park ranger, was quoted in “Humility in the Alaskan Wilderness,” by Daryl Miller as saying, “There are no heros in the wilderness, only wise people who are prepared and those that are not so wise and unprepared.”
The Alaska State Troopers want everyone to remember that rule.
My friends Robert and Penny Albright, who like I were born and raised in Alaska, grew up when we didn’t know any better and didn’t have mentors or teachers. We all used the ‘trial and error’ method.
“Heck we used to surf on avalanches on purpose when we were kids,” Robert Albright said. “We even got away with it for awhile.”
It doesn’t take many dead friends to learn this is a really dumb idea.
The Albrights are my definition of true survivalists. They have spent more than 50 years living off the land. They fish and hunt and garden for their food.
One beautiful February day they took their four-wheelers and headed off the Parks Highway toward the Denali Highway searching for caribou. They crossed the Susitna, then the McClaren rivers with near perfect conditions. But then, 110 miles into their journey with an estimated 20 miles to go, the blue skies and sunshine were swiftly overtaken by dark, stormy clouds. The wind picked up and the temperature plunged.
It started as rain, but as the temperature dropped, the moisture turned to pellets of ice and then finally to heavy snow with palm-size flakes. Within an hour they found themselves in an absolute blizzard at least 15 miles from a major road.
“We wanted to try and make it to this lodge we knew of on the Denali Highway but the snow was piling up about a foot an hour and we were not sure exactly how much farther we had to go,” Penny Albright said.
“Finally, when we were trying to cross a creek and got one of the four-wheelers stuck Robert just said ‘We’re done.’
“Instead of trying to push on to reach the highway, we got the wheeler unstuck and then set up camp and hunkered down. We had everything we needed to survive and so we were just fine.
“We never expected anyone to come rescue us,” Penny Albright said. “We just made sure if we went, we went prepared.”
The next day the storm subsided and they emerged from their cozy, makeshift shelter and continued on their way. As they traveled, they passed an area where they saw several crude crosses on the side of the trail.
“It really hit us hard,” Robert Albright said, “because we had a good idea about what had probably happened to those people. If we had not had everything we needed to hunker down, we would have died in that storm.”
Now, thanks to support from the Alaska Department of Public Safety, Division of State Troopers, you have the opportunity to attend a free training program presented by the North America Outdoor Institute (NAOI) in partnership with the Alaska Avalanche Information Center (AAIC) to learn and practice skills for surviving that unexpected night out, making a safe passage through avalanche terrain and much more.
Whether you are a veteran or new to backcountry travel, there are some important tips to remember that will help you increase your chance of survival if the unexpected happens. These two-to-four hour programs can help you refresh your skills or learn new ones so you’ll be prepared,
“From avalanche awareness to wildlife encounters, it’s important for people to learn and practice skills they may need in the backcountry,” said Andy Romano, NAOI executive director.
If you like to snowmachine or ski or otherwise play in the snow, you can attend a program that emphasizes safe mountain travel. If you boat and play on the water, attend a class geared toward water safety. Want wilderness medicine? There are programs featuring that aspect and more.
“The great thing about this program is that it is adaptable,” said NAOI education director Dorothy Adler. “It can work for youth, families or seasoned adventurers. The classes can be the initial exposure to these topics, or a great refresher.”
Whatever you love to do in the Alaska backcountry, make sure you go prepared. Investing a few hours in training can make all the difference for you and your family, maybe not today, but perhaps one day when you need it the most.
Courses are available for youth, families and adults in Anchorage, Mat-Su, Cordova, Haines, Skagway, Juneau, Kenai Peninsula, Fairbanks and Valdez. If you would like to request a program for your community, call (907) 376-2898.
For a full schedule of programs available through May 31, visit www.besnowsmart.org or www.alaskasnow.org.