Preparedness in the backcountry can be key to survival
Alaska, especially in winter, is often a harsh and unforgiving environment. On foot, skis, or snowshoes , you can be swallowed by the wilderness in no time. Climb into a car or aboard a snowmobile, ATV, boat, aircraft, or helicopter and you can be in the most rugged of places within minutes. If something goes wrong you could instantly find yourself in a life or death situation. Are you prepared?
From airplane crashes to drowning to snowmobile wrecks to boating mishaps, dozens of individuals have been forced to answer this question. And too often they don’t have the right answer.
Turn on the evening news or grab a newspaper and tragically many days you’ll find stories about someone getting hurt or killed while out traveling or recreating in the backcountry.
In February 2006 Richard Strick, Jr., and five others set out by snowmobile to break trail for the Iditarod. While traveling through the Dalzell Gorge, Strick was buried by an avalanche. The others with him quickly discovered too late they did not have the skill or equipment to deal with the emergency. Strick didn’t make it out alive.
The same thing happened to Jim Bowles and Alan Gage in February 2011, while out riding with a group of friends about 50 miles east of Anchorage. Even though this group of veteran riders knew the area and had done this many times before, not everyone in their group carried the proper equipment or had taken the time to get trained on avalanche awareness and response. Sadly, these two men also lost their lives when an avalanche caught them unaware.
Fortunately you can also find those miraculous stories where people were saved thanks to a combination of good fortune, quick thinking, practiced skills, and the right equipment.
In March 2011 a group of snowmobilers riding in the Wrangell St. Elias National Park near Kennecott triggered an avalanche that buried one rider. The group admits they made some mistakes by not checking the snowpack and crossing above other riders, but to their credit, they all wore beacons, shovels and probes and were quick to respond when the avalanche occurred. According to National Park officials, the victim was seconds from death when he was recovered and resuscitated.
In June of 2011 a father took his two teenage daughters and their two friends on a boating adventure across Tustumena Lake on the Kenai Peninsula. The weekend of fun turned tragic when a wicked storm blew in and capsized their 18-foot aluminum skiff. Everyone went into the frigid, glacier-fed lake, with water temperatures hovering in the low 40s. The man and the girls wore life vests, but that precaution wasn’t enough to save them all.
One of the girl’s life jackets did not fit properly and it kept riding up and choking her. The father tried to help but hypothermia can be a fast and silent killer and both he and the girl soon fell victim and drowned. But the other three girls, encouraged by the oldest girl in the group (who was just 15,) kept swimming, made it to shore and then on to a cabin where they were ultimately rescued. According to the official report, Miranda Udelhoven’s quick thinking, continual encouragement and lifetime of training kept the girls alive.
Knowing what to do and not giving up made all the difference in their survival.
This year the Alaska Department of Public Safety is committed to helping individuals get prepared and learn skills for safe backcountry travel. A contract issued to the North America Outdoor Institute will provide free training opportunities for youth and adults all across Alaska.
“The goal is to teach people basic skills for packing and planning for their adventure,” explained NAOI education director Dorothy Adler. “In addition the program we call the Alaska Wilderness Safety Challenge will teach folks how to avoid potential dangers and the best way to respond in the event of an emergency.”
The program includes curriculum for all levels, from kindergarteners through adults including professionals. The program will begin with packing and planning and then participants will rotate through a series of stations to learn and practice critical skills. NAOI will deliver two- hour community programs and field trainings in various communities throughout the state.
To learn more or schedule a program in your school or community contact the North America Outdoor Institute at www.naoiak.org or call 907-376-2898.