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The thin line

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The signage at Scary Tree, a prominent landmark at the confluence of the Susitna and Yentna rivers/Steve Stine photo

A product of Anchorage, AK from his youth, Danny Maroney lived the big wild, life until it killed him at an age when he was settling into those senior years when a man really has the time to enjoy the big, wild life.

He was fit and healthy at age 66 and engaged in building a cabin 50 or 60 miles north of civilization in the wilderness near Bulchitna Lake along the Yentna River. It was a perfect escape from the city. He had his little place in the spruce-birch forest near Lake Creek where the rainbow trout fishing is almost always good and salmon fishing seasonably so.

The big king salmon of June don’t return to the area in the numbers they once did nor do the hard-fighting coho of July and August, but the salmon angling remains world-class.

What exactly happened to Maroney on Monday is unclear since he was traveling alone. But his body was found Tuesday ahead of his snowmachine in some overflow water atop the snow and ice of a well-traveled snowmobile trail near the confluence of the Susitna and Yentna Rivers about 20 mile due west of the resort community of Big Lake.

Friends said it appeared his snowmachine had hit something and stopped suddenly, launching him over the handlebars. He is believed to have broken his neck on landing.

By the sound of it, it was the kind of accident that happens to Alaska snowmachine riders with some regularity. The vast majority of them are lucky and walk away. Maroney was unlucky.

Dangers lurk

Nowadays, the frozen, snow-covered Susitna and Yentna rivers north of Alaska’s largest city become snowmobile highways in winter. The main trails from Big Lake and Deshka Landing to Skwentna more than 50 miles to the north are regularly maintained.

On a busy weekend, hundreds of people – if not thousands – will take off for remote cabins in the area. Most who travel the river as regularly as Maroney come to take it for granted.

It is not dangerous until that rare day on which it is. In March of 2010, 51-year-old, Scott Aslkason from Houston, AK, went through the ice on the Susitna and disappeared. His death came only months after 71-year-old Russ Bevans and 65-year-old Dave Luce nearly suffered the same fate only miles away on the Yentna.

Bevans and Luce went through thin ice about 8 miles upriver from where Maroney died. Maroney brother-in-law Robert Lundgren said Friday that friends and family believe Maroney’s snowmachine also broke through thin ice at speed, and then hit shelf of ice that immediately stopped it.

Ken Lee, a former winner of Alaska’s 2,000-mile Iron Dog snowmachine race from Big Lake to Nome to Fairbanks and a man who has spent tens of thousands of hours riding in the Susitna and Yentna drainages, said it appears the snowmachine stopped so fast that Maroney bent the handlebars trying to hold on after the impact.

Snowmachine handlebars are not easily bent.

Bad trail

Lundgren said the family believes that sometime after leaving Deshka Landing on Monday, Maroney decided the trail to Bulchitna was too wet, rough and mushy for hauling supplies to his cabin and turned around to come home.  He was  apparently headed back to the overland trail from the Yentna to Deshka Landing when he hit the ice.

Steve Stine, a Willow rider who was on the trail early Tuesday described the conditions as “tough” and “wet.” Stine went through the area of the confluence about four hours before Maloney was reported missing, but saw no sign of other snowmachines in the area crisscrossed with trails.

Upstream at the Yentna Station Roadhouse, Jean Gabryszak said she spent the night wondering why Maroney hadn’t stopped in and then began to worry.

‘Two guys came into the yard around 1p.m. (Tuesday),” she said. “They had found Danny on the lower end of Kroto (Slough) near the Yentna. He was near his machine, deceased.

“We called the (Alaska State) Troopers to report his location. Their helicopter was already flying along the main trail looking for him. His wife had called in the morning asking if we had seen him.”

Temperatures in the Susitna and Yentna drainages have become to climb into the 40s during the day, making for mushy trail. But they continue to fall into the 20s at night, which makes for a good early morning crust on the snow.

Morning travel by snowmachine is good, but it can become challenging by afternoon, even dangerous. Snowmobile technology has made the sleds so much more forgiving over the years, and the Su-Yentna trail has become so much better, that it is easy to forget this.

But beyond the road system in Alaska their remains a fine line between life and death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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