Deadly temptation


South of the Alaska Range mountains and west along a wide band of the 49th-state coast to Bristol Bay and then north to the Arctic, the danger season has begun.

By the time you read this, someone might well have gone through the ice on a snowmachine and died.

The modern snowmachine is an Alaska blessing. It starts with a turn of a key almost as easy as a car, soaks up rough trail with suspension systems no one could have dreamed of in the tank-like days of bogey wheels, and opens up vast stretches of northern wilderness almost inaccessible in summer.

But the modern snowmachine is an also an Alaska curse – a crotch-rocket, adrenalin-rush piece of technology that can make a man (and some women) feel almost invincible. It’s easy for someone to convince themselves that if the trail ahead is clear, and if you keep that throttle pegged, you ought to be as safe as if you were actually flying above the ground.

Only it doesn’t always work that way.

Into the void

“I wish there was a universal way that everyone could get the word that the ice on Big Lake is not safe,” Matanuska-Susitna Borough resident Dan Mayfield posted on the Facebook page of the Big Lake Alaska Community Bulletin Board on Sunday.

“We had a second (snow)machine break through the ice today and the rider had to be rescued by hovercraft. Excitement is running high with folks wanting to get out on their machines. That is understandable but the ice on Big Lake is barely formed on the west end of the lake and some of that is covered with insulating snow. In this case, the machine is lost in the lake. Please do not venture out on the ice.”

Mayfield’s plea didn’t seem to help much. By late Monday afternoon, a dive team was on the ice at nearby Crooked Lake investigating a hole where another snowmachine was reported to have gone through the ice.

Big Lake, a resort community about 50 miles north of Anchorage, is the snowmobile heart of the sprawling, 25,000-square-mile MatSu Borough. The 2,000 mile Iron Dog – the world’s longest, toughest and wildest snowmobile race – starts on the ice of the lake at the end of February on a journey over the towering Alaska Range and across the desolate Interior of the state to the Bering Sea Coast before turning around to race back to Fairbanks.

Former Iron Dog champ Todd Palin and his wife, Sarah, the former Alaska governor famous for the punchline “don’t retreat, reload,” live in this area. Her don’t retreat attitude is representative of a certain, gung-ho, just-go-for-it attitude common to a lot of Alaskans.

“Thinking with the throttle,” Mayfield wrote in response to a comment below his post.

The high cost

Youth and enthusiasm can get people into a lot of trouble in the north, but it isn’t just the fast and furious who fall victim to thin ice.

It was about this time two years ago that Alvin Dayton left Huslia north of the Yukon River in the Interior to collect firewood. Huslia is famous both for its sled dogs, and its local hero, the late George Attla, the Huslia Hustler, arguably the best dog driver in Alaska history.

Dayton grew up in Koyukuk, a village on the north bank of the Yukon River south of Huslia, in a time when winter transportation was transitioning from dogs, which must be fed year round, to snowmachines that need fuel only when someone wants to use them.

So it was he left Huslia late in the afternoon of Nov. 16, 2015 on a snowmobile, or snowmachine as they are almost always called in the state that sometimes seems a different world from the rest of the U.S . He would never be seen alive again. No one knows exactly what happened, but at age 64, it’s doubtful he was suffering from throttle fever.

It is more likely he fell victim to one of those simple mistake that still kill people in wild Alaska. By mid-November good ice was forming on lakes in and ponds in the Huslia area, but the ice on moving water was still sketchy.

When Dayton didn’t return in the evening, an Alaska State Trooper dispatch said, “community members became concerned and initiated a hasty search….(They) found snowmachine tracks that led to a large hole in the ice in the Koyukuk River. Searchers recovered what is believed to be the sled that Dayton was towing with the snowmachine.”

Dayton left behind his wife, a daughter and three stepchildren.

“He was really an outdoors person,” his sister, Violet Huntington told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “He spent his time on the land, wood cutting, trapping, hunting.”

Dayton was the first of a string of Interior Alaskans to go through the ice and die that winter. Less than a month after Dayton disappeared, Casey Graham of McGrath went into the Kuskokwim River  about 100 miles south of Koyukuk. He’d been on a snowmachine ride home after participating in a Marine Corps Toys for Tots program.

On Jan. 7, Andrew Henry was riding from Ruby to Galena when he went through Yukon ice. Galena is just upriver from Koyukuk.

Cheap safety

A couple of months after Henry’s death, Doyon Limited – the Fairbanks-based regional Native corporation for Central Alaska – bought 100, $15 ice picks to give away at the corporation’s annual shareholders meeting.

The picks fit together and come attached to a cord. They can be worn like a life-saving necklace. If you somehow end up in the water, you can rip the necklace off, pull the handles apart, and smash the spikes at their ends into the ice to gain a purchase to make it possible to pull yourself out of the water.

“The devices are marketed mainly to ice fishermen,” News-Miner outdoor editor Sam Friedman wrote at the time. “They haven’t historically been used much by Interior snowmachiners.

“Alaska’s frozen rivers are important and relatively reliable wintertime highways. They’re especially vital in rural Alaska, where the rivers are principal navigation routes. Usually, people who live along the rivers can predict when they’re safe, but warm winters in the last few years have made it harder.”

Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes to fall through in the winter, has been a big advocate of snowmachine riders carrying ice picks or ice claws as they are sometimes called.

The state has a step-by-step to guide on how to survive if you go through the ice. It’s not complicated:

  • Don’t waste time trying to get out of winter clothes. They won’t drag you down. They could actually help keep you afloat.
  • Turn back in the direction from which you came. The best ice is probably there.
  • Get your picks out and stab them into that ice.
  • Kick your feet for propulsion and use the picks to pull yourself up on the ice.
  • Once on firm ice roll toward shore. Rolling spread your weight over a greater area  and minimizes the chance of falling through thin ice again.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources instructions on making ice picks are simple:

“Two short lengths of broom handle with nails sharpened on both ends and joined with a piece of strong line can be carried easily in your pocket.”

Easy as the picks are to make, if you don’t want to go to the trouble you can visit Cabela’s in Anchorage and buy an orange-handled set for $5.49. They could save your life.

So, too, good judgment.




6 replies »

  1. I have fallen several times through the ice into the Arctic Ocean in negative temperatures. The big problem is busting the soft ice until a firm platform is reached. I never considered the incident to be overly dangerous but always a stupid mistake.

    • I too have fallen through ice a number of times…but hearing dick griffith call it a stupid mistake has scared me straight more than falling in ever did!!

  2. From my experience traversing early season Crosswind lake at -20, at a time when bunny boots were more plentiful than cell phones, a stopped snowmachine will not immediately sink. If you have the presence of mind you can use the 2sec to leap off the front or back, closing the distance to the remaining ice edge. Then scamper for all your worth.

  3. These days it is usually not worth your time to make your own rescue ice picks when, like Craig noted, you can get them for $6 at many places. But if you decide to make your own, or already have homemade picks, be aware of how they were made. If they were made with common 16d framing nails, that’s not good. Because these nails bend easily. And you don’t want your pick tips to bend and become useless when your life depends on them. Much better is to use hardened steel concrete nails. Also, use hardwood handles that won’t split. Modern day imported wooden broom handles don’t usually have the quality and strength of wood that broom handles were made of 30 years ago.

  4. Good post. It’s not quite that season here in Finland, yet, but your post’s featured image is a great idea. I need to make something similar for my site, althou I need to put in centimeters instead of inches 😉

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