Complacency a sneaky stalker

by • June 25, 2013 • Safety MattersComments (0)1168

Being comfortable outdoors is good; too comfortable is dangerous

We’re all guilty of it at some point – that bad habit of getting so comfortable with doing something, we forget about the real danger. The dictionary defines this as complacent – being content and unconcerned in the face of real danger.

A lone skier treks across the lower flanks of the Gulkana Glacier. Debra McGhan

A lone skier treks across the lower flanks of the Gulkana Glacier. By Debra McGhan

After living in Alaska for nearly 60 years and dedicating my life to safety education, I should know better. Yet recently, I confess, I caught a case of complacency.

It was mid-April, and I set out for a cross-country ski without practicing what I so often preach: Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back.

For three days our North America Outdoor Institute team had been working at the annual Arctic Man race and snowmachine festival, warning people about the potential dangers lurking in the hills and glaciers surrounding the event. I was so desperate for some quiet solitude and to stretch my legs that I let my heart, and desire to get in a good ski, override all logic. I left responsibility behind and headed out with nothing on my mind but my own selfish desires.

I traveled several miles and passed a number of dangerous sinkholes on the glacier before it dawned on me that I had not told anyone where I was going. I knew they were expecting me for a staff meeting at a specified time and I could hear the conversation they’d be having if I didn’t make it back in time: “Did she say which direction she was going? Did anyone see where she went?”

Instead of turning back at this point, I decided to keep going, although I did alter my planned destination to ensure I would be back in time and avoid causing undue concern.

Four hours later, I was back in camp, chagrined at my slip of not being conscientious and thankful that I’d returned safely. Little did I know that at about the same time, another family would not be so fortunate.

Soon after my return, Alaska State Troopers approached me and asked for assistance. A young boy had fallen into a “moulin” (a drain hole in a glacier that typically has sheer ice walls and can be hundreds of feet deep.) Understanding glaciology, I knew the outcome for this scenario was unlikely to be good.

Complacency caught me the same day 9-year-old Shjon Brown of Fairbanks fell about 170 feet into that glacier and died. Foolish but fortunate for me, I made it back on time with no further consequences. Shjon was not so lucky.

This tragic event should serve as an important reminder for all of us. When you are venturing into the wilderness you cannot afford to drop your guard or become complacent for one moment or you might not be lucky enough to share your story.

I remember another story a couple of summers back when a father took his two teenage daughters and their friends boating on Tustumena Lake. They had made this trip many times over the years, which proved to be both good and bad: good because his girls were familiar with the area, knew critical survival skills and were trained in what to do in an emergency. Bad because they had become complacent about the weather and did not ensure that everyone in the skiff had a properly fitting life jacket.

When a storm rolled in, and their boat capsized, these overlooked details were cause for tragedy. The father ultimately drowned trying to save one of his daughter’s friends, who was struggling with an ill-fitting life preserver and who also died despite the father’s efforts. The other three girls managed to swim to shore in water that was reported to have been hovering around 40 degrees.

This summer, before you or your children head out for adventure, take the time to learn – and even practice – the skills that can help you avoid a similar situation.



Learn to never succumb to complacency. The North America Outdoor Institute is offering classes in wilderness safety for all ages. The interactive, experiential courses include such topics as wild-plant identification, safe glacier travel and the NAOI Wilderness Safety Challenge. A full calendar of opportunities is at, or call (907) 376-2898.


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