To build a fire

frozen toes

Frozen digits/Mike Watkins via Facebook

About a week before Christmas, 26-year-old Mike Watkins took off on a snowmachine adventure in the foothills of the Alaska Range mountains about 100 miles north of the state’s largest city. He almost didn’t make it back alive.

Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of Petersville Search and Rescue, a gang of volunteers who gather around a place that lives on today more as a wilderness outpost than a community in the sense most Americans  know communities, Watkins lived to tell a tale, but the image of his blackened toes will be forever seared into his memory as a reminder of a good time gone quickly bad.

Watkins did nothing wrong, and he did many things wrong in a land too easily taken for granted.

Up until the second the young Trapper Creek man stuck his Polaris Assault 900 in a hole in a creek, he had no problems. Afterward, he had a bunch of them.

As he later put it on his Facebook page, “I was very unprepared…I’m lucky I made it out alive that day, and I’m hoping others will also learn from my mistake here.”

If you are among those who venture into the Alaska wilderness in winter (there are some who just hole up and pray for the season of cold and darkness to end quickly), you will inevitably come to know someone killed by the weather or by avalanche.  And you will meet many more who have survived close calls.

Always it has been this way in the north, but technology has made winter more dangerous at the same time it has made it safer.

Watkins, who says his core body temperature was down to 91 degrees when rescuers found him, was lucky that the snowmachines of today make it easy for searchers to comb huge chunks of winter wilderness. But it was the same piece of machinery – a snowmachine – that got Watkins into trouble.

After he stuck his in that creek, he couldn’t get it out. Some friend with whom he’d been riding didn’t worry about his temporary disappearance from their group until his non-appearance when everyone regrouped at the jumping off point for the ride. Then they got worried and called for help.

That was a good thing.

The Alaskan way

Michele Stevens, the longtime volunteer coordinator for Petersville SAR in a largely roadless area of hundreds of square miles west of the George Parks Highway, got the call late on a Monday.

Petersville was once a busy mining camp in the even busier Yentna-Cache Creek mining district, so there are old roads in the area. But they get snowed under and become snowmachine trails in winter. Petersville the camp was abandoned long ago, but the remote and isolated  Forks Roadhouse near the intersection of the Collinsville Trail and the Petersville Road remains as a focal point for wilderness recreation summer and winter.

After Stevens got the call that Watkins was lost, she started going down her checklist of assets. Search and rescue is a dangerous business. The last thing a coordinator wants to do is send out into the night people inexperienced in the area and in wilderness survival.

Over the past few years, several would-be rescuers have lost their lives during SAR operations. In the White Mountains about 70 miles north of Fairbanks in Central Alaska, the body of rescuer Gerald DeBerry remains missing. He disappeared in 2011 while looking for a woman found safely.

The subsequent search for DeBerry turned up nothing.  His four-wheeler was found about a year later, but his body has never been recovered.

Stevens parsed her call-out  list carefully.

“I pulled them out of bed at 11 o’clock at night,” she said. “They stayed up all night.”

There was no sign of Watkins. At 4:20 a.m., she said, rescuers decided they needed a break, and Stevens went looking for reinforcements.  Mike Uher was at the top of her list. A 60-year-old Palmer contractor, he has spent a lot of time on the seats of snowmachines in the Peters Hills.

Stevens reached him in the wee hours of the morning, “and he said he’d be up. By 6 a.m.,” she said, “he’d checked in with the (Alaska State Trooper) in the parking lot.”

A Trooper was coordinating assets on the ground where winter road maintenance ends in a parking lot about two-thirds of the way out the Petersville Road to the Forks Roadhouse.

“I wasn’t there because my mom was in the hospital with heart problems,” Stevens said, but she had a phone, knew how to organize a search, and understood the need to keep the internet under control.

Welcome to the 21st Century.blurb

Too much help

Once word started spreading on Facebook that Watkins was missing, Stevens said, people started popping up in the tubes left and right saying they planned to join the search. None of them had been vetted.

Stevens worried she might have a mob of people show to help save Watkins only to have more get in trouble in the wilderness.

“It was driving me nuts,” she said. “I don’t think social media helped at all.”

And thankfully  it didn’t matter because after only a few hours on the trails in the search area, Uher had found a hypothermic and frostbitten Watkins. The time, Stevens said,was sometime between 8:30 and 9 a.m.

Watkins was being warmed up at the Roadhouse not long after. He reported he’d been running his snowmobile off and on through the night to warm up the engine, and then hugging the machine to try to stay warm. Fortunately, the temperatures, though cold, never dipped below zero.

Watkins later posted his thoughts on “some things I wish I had done, and things that kept me going.

  • “Don’t go out alone and stay with your group. Even if you think you know where your friends are,  don’t go out to catch up and remember no man left behind.
  •  “Always mind your surroundings.
  • “Bring a survival pack every time you go out it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
  • “Attitude, as hard as it was staying calm is a major factor in making it through.
  • “If all else fails and the sled is still running even though it isn’t the greatest source it does provide heat in a pinch.

Stevens did leave out a couple of things there. Carrying a shovel, which should be a standard piece of equipment on every snowmachine in the Alaska back country, might have enabled him to dig a ramp to make it possible to drive out of the hole in which his sled ended up stuck.

And a good rope can sometimes help. It can be tied around brush and, if necessary, wrapped around the clutch of the snowmachine to use the engine to power out of a hole, although ofttimes rigging the rope to the brush and setting up a simple Z-pulley drag is enough.

Lastly, there is the matter of a fire-starting kit, something Stevens stressed, and maybe a Garmin InReach two-way satellite communicator.

“I was just called out two days ago for another SAR,” Stevens said. The man in trouble that time was 75-year-old mine caretaker.

Troopers reported that shortly before midnight on Tuesday he turned on an InReach “in the area of the upper Kahiltna River west of Petersville.  The beacon user, Pete Germaine…was traveling to the Collinsville Mine area where he is the winter caretaker when he became disoriented and called for assistance. ”

Given that the InReach provided Germaine’s coordinates to narrow the search, it was easy to find him, and by the time help got there, Stevens said, “he had his own fire going. He totally had his act together. He was prepared to stay the night.”

Stevens said she thinks Watkins learned a lot from his little misadventure. Who knows?

If he ever runs into trouble again, maybe he’ll make like Pete.  His toes would probably appreciate it.


23 replies »

  1. Snowshoes: Seems like every person I see on snowshoes has the short ones that sink deeply into the snow. If a person is going to carry snowshoes with his sled for emergency situations, I suggest the long, 48-inch (and longer) old-school wooden snowshoes. They offer floatation even in soft snow.

  2. In the old days we would sneak out of town under the cover of darkness because if anyone knew we had left or where we were going we were beholden to them to make it back. That was then, single-unemployed-and homeless.
    Now we all carry InReach locator-communication devices or a similar ilk. We stay more in touch with people when we are off the grid than we are in town. If you can afford a sled you can afford a satillite two-way communication device. This whole story is a non-issue. All our wilderness “accidents” are on purpose by the action of leaving town. Each rider owning a communication device on the other hand would have allowed the team to take care of their own in a responsible fashion.

      • Was waiting for that.
        Sure, every car should have a bicycle in the trunk in case the car doesn’t work. Every phone owner should carry a carrying pigeon in case the phone doesn’t work. Part of knowing what to do involves bringing the right technology (including clothes, skis, sleeping bags, etc) and knowing how to use it. Two-satellite communication devices work and are light. Any battery concerns are easy to handle. Southside of the AK Range reaching a satellite is easy. This incident was totally manageable with standard wilderness communication devices. They work and are the only way this fellow could have let his people know whete he was and what the situation is.

  3. Looks like should have put his bare feet on the running engine and dried his socks on the muffler.

  4. No reason not to carry the minimum while sledding. Weight is not an excuse. No good reason not to purchase an avalanche airbag before buying or with a purchase of a sled or a splitboard with climbing skins. There more of course. And ….60 and older Alaskans should beware the creep of complacency.

  5. No reason not to carry the minimum while sledding. Weight is not an excuse. No good reason not to purchase an avalanche airbag before buying or with a purchase of a sled or a splitboard with climbing skins. There more of course. And ….60 and older Alaskans should beware the creep of complacency.

    • What is the creep of complacency? Becoming too comfortable in a possibly dangerous situation?
      If I were to get into a situation like this I would keep moving, maybe follow my tracks back. Even if you are just walking slowly you can keep warm in above zero temperatures without burning too many calories.

      • Following tracks back are a problem until the snow machine track sets up, which can take some time. Many take snowshoes with them to protect themselves in this case.
        You can visualize this problem by imagining each step going down into the snow.

    • Back in 67, Uncle Sam showed us GIs @ Ft. Rich a video of a man with completely blackened toes that they pulled completely off with a pair of waterpump pliers. I’ve remembered that picture all these years and still have all of mine.

  6. A spare set of wool socks sealed in a plastic bag, place them in your back pack where they stay dry.
    Bunny boots are best…if you step in water, then you can drain your boots and change into dry socks.
    I also carry a container filled with cotton balls and alcohol, as these work well for starting a fire.
    Glad he made it and good job to all who helped with rescue efforts.

      • plagiarism: “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.” to plagiarize the phrase “to build a fire,” the world would need to be ignorant of Jack London. i don’t think the world is ignorant of Jack London. i’m confident there’s no one in the north who thought i was passing of as my own those four words arranged in that order and offered in the context of this story. maybe someone deep in the Amazon rain forest, but then i don’t believe they have internet there yet.
        that said, i appreciate the comment. it led me to go back and link To Build a Fire in the copy because it’s a great short story: https://americanenglish.state.gov/files/ae/resource_files/to-build-a-fire.pdf

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