Snowmachiners get stuck outside Cantwell

Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Mitchell Stoutenberg and Lewis Allen passed a crucial test Sunday they don't suggest anyone else take.

The two snowmachiners got lost Saturday night and kept getting stuck in the snow in the mountainous expanse outside Cantwell. As night fell, the two settled in for the night, huddled around a smoky fire to wait out a windy 20-below night.

They parked their snowmachines facing each other to use the headlights to see. Then they soaked their helmet sheaths in gas and started a fire they kept fueled with a small thatch of willow.

Then they waited for a helicopter they hoped would come soon after daylight.

''At about 9:30 a.m., when it didn't come, it sucked the life out of us,'' Stoutenberg said.

The two set out on their SkiDoo Summits through 6-foot-deep snow. Stoutenberg estimated the two dug themselves out of the snow 80 times before their ordeal was over. However, they made it back to their trucks parked near 200 Mile Parks Highway just as searchers were headed out on snowmachines to look for them at 11:28 a.m. Sunday.

''We were able to get out on our own. That's a tremendous feeling,'' Stoutenberg said. ''It wasn't neat anytime during the ordeal, but it sure feels good on this side of it.''

The pair was the first of two overdue groups of snowmachiners who prompted Alaska State Troopers to initiate searches over the weekend. All emerged from the mountains unhurt.

On Monday morning, a party of friends and family members found Griz Stoepler, 23, of Healy; Orion Johnson, 19, of Delta Junction; and Kalaem Johnson, 20, of Healy after they didn't come home at 6:30 p.m. Sunday as planned.

Nenana trooper Brian Wassmann said the group became disoriented and opted to wait for daylight instead of tackling dangerous terrain in the dark.

The search team of family and friends found the threesome about 20 miles northwest of the turnout at 186 Mile Parks Highway. Wassmann attributes their quick return to the three giving family members a detailed trip plan.

However, their trip could have easily ended differently.

For Stoepler, who was born in Alaska, the adventure was an impromptu campout, but also ''a good slap in the face.'' The group had some of the essential provisions, but Stoepler said he would have liked to have had a working cell phone.

Cantwell trooper Sgt. Dave DeCoeur, however, said because of spotty reception, snowmachiners shouldn't rely on cell phones.

DeCoeur is gearing up for what is typically a busy time for Cantwell area troopers now that temperatures are rising, making the Denali Highway area a snowmachiners' nirvana. He plans to distribute trip itinerary forms at area gas stations for travelers to fill out and leave at fuel stops or drop off at any of the three trooper stations along the Parks Highway.

DeCoeur also said snowmachiners should bring everything needed for a wintertime camping trip. That includes such items as a first aid kit, fire-starting material and enough food for several days.

''Carry as much gear on your person or on your sled that you can fit,'' DeCoeur said. ''A lot of folks come up here ill prepared, not properly dressed or outfitted for the area.''

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