One woman’s small misstep turns family outing into emergency
Monica Dufour packed the car for a weekend outing in Hatcher Pass last spring, excited to get out and enjoy the unseasonably warm spring day. She quickly tossed in a picnic lunch and a few extra things she figured they might need for the day.
Once in the pass, the small group of hikers set out across the patches of snow still covering the ground to stretch their legs and explore. They had traveled a little more than an hour from the car and were soaking in the sunshine when they made their first tragic mistake.
“We decided to hike down to the Little Susitna River because the water was flowing and with the ice dams breaking up, it just looked beautiful,” she explained. “I was just planning to snap some photos but what I didn’t realize is just how slippery the rocks are near the water.”
Dufour was in for a startling surprise when she lost her footing and fell into the ice cold water, quickly getting sucked downstream by the fast moving current. Without a life jacket, she found herself terrified and suddenly fighting for her life.
“I was horrified at how fast everything happened. My poor husband was so shocked he just stood there for a minute not sure what to do.”
Fortunately for Dufour, instinct kicked in and her husband raced downstream to try and get ahead of her as she shot toward a drop off. Grabbing onto a small tree for balance, he managed to reach out and snag her jacket just before she plunged over the fall. Pulling her to shore, the couple collapsed in exhaustion on the rocky bank.
“I was so cold when I finally made it to shore I couldn’t stop shivering. My whole body was just convulsing.” That’s when Dufour realized they hadn’t brought anything with them on their hike. Their lunch, water, and extra clothes were all in the car more than an hour’s hike away.
“My husband sent our kids, who were 9 and 11 at the time, to try and find help. Then he peeled off his shirt, which was pretty wet from helping me out of the water, and wrapped it around me to try and warm me up. It didn’t work very well but it was better than nothing.”
As the next hour ticked by and the sun started setting, the temperature dropped, adding to their fear.
“My husband was also freezing by this point and totally regretting sending the kids in search of help when we heard a park ranger calling out. I have to tell you, I have never been so happy to see another adult in my life. It was just fortunate that the kids found him near the road and were able to find their way back to us.”
The ranger was able to provide a warm jacket and he had a radio to call for further assistance. By the time Dufour and her husband reached the hospital, her core body temperature had dropped to 87 degrees and he was hovering around 90 — both were moderately hypothermic.
“I learned a valuable lesson that day,” Dufour said. “If you’re going to even be near water, you should have a life jacket on because falling in happens in the flash of an instant. And take at least basic survival gear with you even if you only plan to walk for a short distance. I was so grateful when it was all over that it was me that fell in and not one of my kids. That would have been so much worse.”
Spring offers a wonderful opportunity to ride the hills, tear across the slopes and burn out the last of the carbon before putting away your skis, sleds and boards. It’s also a great time to attend exciting events like Arctic Man, Tailgater and the Mountain Man Hill Climb.
It’s also the perfect time to take a wilderness medical class to learn skills you might need when out recreating. The North America Outdoor Institute offers national certification courses for Wilderness First Aid and Wilderness First Response (WFA and WFR) through Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities (SOLO).
These are interactive, fast-paced courses that let you practice the skills learned and experience first-hand, the challenges that could be faced if a wilderness emergency occurs more than an hour from medical care.
For a full schedule of North America Outdoor Institute courses and to register, visit BeSnowSmart.org or call (907) 376-2898.