A snowmachiner careens down a hill in Caribou Hills. Two snowmachiners who recently became stranded in deep snow in Caribou Hills were saved by emergency equipment they brought with them including fire-starting supplies and a wind-up flashlight.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
In the final hours leading up to the new year, Matthew Offrink and Trent Larson thought they would be celebrating with friends in Ninilchik, but instead found themselves wading in belly button- to waist-deep snow as they climbed a ridge in Caribou Hills to make a cell phone call letting family know they were stranded.
“It was incredibly difficult,” Offrink said. “I would take maybe two, three steps at most and we would stop for a second and catch our breath.”
On New Year’s Eve, the two Anchorage men had been snowmachining in the hills when they got off course. Deep snow repeatedly bogged their snowmachines and open water became a persistent obstacle.
Exhausted and not knowing a safe and expedient route back to their vehicles, Offrink and Larson decided the safest thing to do would be to hunker down for the night and ask a Ninilchik friend to help them guide their snowmachines out of the hills the next day.
Although an Alaska State Trooper would later agree that Offrink and Larson were well prepared for their predicament, before sun rose on the first of the year Larson and Offrink would find themselves leaving the Caribou Hills in a rescue helicopter rather than the backs of their snowmachines.
Because Offrink and Larson had packed appropriately for an emergency, they spent the more than eight hours they were stranded in the hills warmed by a fire and well fed. Although they did not think they needed to be rescued by a search party, a cut-off phone call lead their families to think otherwise.
Offrink and Larson had two cell phones between them. Offrink’s cell phone had a fully charged battery but no service, and Larson’s had some service but a nearly dead battery.
Seeing a small shack on a ridge above the valley where their machines were bogged down, Offrink and Larson decided to climb to it to get better reception and use it as shelter while they waited for the night to pass.
At the shack they built a fire and located their coordinates using a global positioning system as they prepared to make the most of what was likely to be a short phone call.
At the top of the ridge Offrink’s phone still didn’t have reception and Larson warmed his phone up in his armpit trying to get it to turn on.
“The hardest part about the whole thing was that our families didn’t know what was going on,” Offrink said. “That was the real stressor, because we knew we were OK. We knew we were fine. We knew that we could build a fire and keep warm.”
Once they had made a call to Offrink’s wife, Offrink and Larson were relieved that they had let family know they were OK, but that’s not the message Offrink’s wife got from their call.
“She said, ‘Is everything OK?’ and Trent said ‘No, get a pen and paper,’ and then he read her the coordinates,” Offrink said. “And then he told her that we had found a cabin, that we had a fire, that we were fine and then the phone went out. The problem is the phone went out earlier than that.”
Offrink’s wife didn’t hear what Larson said after he read their coordinates, thought they were not OK, and requested help to rescue them.
Back at the shack, Offrink and Larson drank hot cocoa while they dried clothes beside the fire. The shack didn’t have a fireplace, but Larson made a chimney using a tarp leading out of the shack though a window.
Offrink and Larson had plenty to drink and eat. Offrink alone had three liters of water and the three Meals Ready to Eat that he always takes snowmachining with him in case of an emergency. Offrink and Larson had sandwiches and munchies including one snack they might not ever bring snowmaching again.
“We were eating Ruffles, no, no, no. What was it? What are those darn things called that come in a can?” Offrink said of the awful snack that assaulted their tounges in the shack.
“Oh God,” he said in a burst of vivid memory. “You never want to get stuck anywhere with Pringles. They sound great, but you eat the whole can and it makes you really, really thirsty.”
Offrink and Larson couldn’t sleep because they had to continually gather, chop and then dry wood beside the fire for later burning.
As they waited for the night to pass they realized it would soon be midnight and Offrink set his cell phone alarm to ring in the New Year.
Troopers had been notified at 8 p.m. on New Year’s Eve that Offrink and Larson were stranded and had organized a ground search team of snowmachiners, but Offrink and Larson remained unaware that any one was looking for them until they heard the thumping of helicopter blades above at 4 a.m. New Year’s Day.
“Trent said ‘What is that?’ and I said ‘That’s a stinkin’ helicopter,’” Offrink said. “I really was like, you’ve gotta be kidding me. I was not expecting a helicopter.”
On hearing the helicopter search for them above, Offrink stepped outside the shack and shined a wind-up flashlight into the air, leading the helicopter straight to their location.
After landing and talking to Offrink and Larson, Anchor Point-based trooper Mike Henry said he and the helicopter pilot found them surprisingly well prepared.
“It’s a great story for people to hear because these guys did the right things,” Henry said. “They were well prepared, they had things for shelter, they had things to make a fire. And the thing that most led to them being found was a crank flashlight that doesn’t require batteries.”
Henry said the helicopter’s pilot commented that the wind-up flashlight was particularly useful in helping him pinpoint Offrink and Larson’s location and that he encourages its use as a piece of emergency equipment for anyone at risk of becoming lost in the wilderness.
A flashlight like the one Offrink and Larson used can be seen by a rescue helicopter up to a couple of miles away at night, Henry said.
Although Offrink and Larson were well prepared for an emergency, having brought plenty of food, drink, flashlights, emergency blankets and a saw, Offrink said that did not mean they were not worried. But he said they were reassured by their preparedness and ability to work together.
“You’re going to feel that panic,” he said.
“But knowing that it’s not going to do you any good and knowing that you’ve got the skills and the ability you’ve just got to do it. Trent and I just working together, sticking together, that was key to everything.”
Patrice Kohl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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