Hidden hazards await the unwary as spring approaches

Posted: Wednesday, March 14, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- On a sunny day not far from Cantwell, numerous trucks with empty snowmachine trailers sit along the Denali Highway.

Miles and miles of public lands are perfect for snowmachiners seeking wide open spaces with plenty of snow. The snow-covered peaks of the Alaska Range jut into the blue sky, contrasting with the spruce trees that line the road.

But a snowmachiners' paradise can quickly turn into a nightmare.

Weather conditions can quickly change from 20 degrees and sunny to below zero and white-out. Noise or disturbance from the machines can trigger an avalanche. Warming weather can produce hidden holes in the ice. Deep snow can hinder the popular and powerful short-track models.

What starts as a day of exploring the countryside can turn into a day of digging, or worse.

No one knows this better than the residents of Cantwell, a town of about 150 people in the winter, situated about two miles off the Parks Highway at the junction with the Denali Highway.

Some residents have participated in many search and rescue missions and some body recoveries over the years. Now they're gearing up for what they think may be the most dangerous season for snowmachiners in years.

''It hasn't gotten real cold here,'' said Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Sonny Sabala, one of two troopers posted in Cantwell. ''We've had warm weather and then snow on top of the existing snow. It's just making a bunch of unstable layers without a real strong base.''

He also predicts early breakup of rivers already developing holes in the ice.

Sabala said the area has experienced a gradual boom in snowmachiners over the last 10 years. The draw is constant snow and miles of public land.

''For the most part, we don't have problems with people coming down to go snowmachining,'' Sabala said. ''As long as people are considerate, we have no problems.''

But that vast expanse can put many miles between a snowmachiner and civilization. Combined with hazards buried under snow, a trip can turn deadly quickly.

''Even the most prepared person can get in trouble. You never know what's going to happen to you,'' Sabala said. Sabala, a native of Houston, Texas, had never been on a snowmobile until he and his family moved to Cantwell nearly three years ago. Now the family owns three machines.

''You need to know your limitations,'' Sabala said. ''You need to recognize that you're getting into all types of trouble. You need to stop and regroup and think about what you're doing.''

There are places he wouldn't go without more experienced people leading the way, and guiding services are available in the area.

About three times a month, Scott and Vivian Mayo of Grayjay Snowmobile Tours take tourists out to their cabins located 40 miles from Cantwell near Monohan Flats. They have eight BearCat long-track snowmachines and two Skankic Ski-Doo super-wide tracks that are nearly impossible to get stuck in the deep snow off the Denali Highway.

They have been snowmachining more than 23 years. But so far they've never run into a problem that they couldn't handle, because they've learned to read the weather fairly well and they're well prepared for whatever the journey throws at them, they said.

''That's why people should have a guide,'' Vivian Mayo said. ''These people go on these fast snowmachines and they can go a long ways very quickly and they don't know where they are.''

When someone dies get lost in the area, the two troopers manage the search effort while experienced volunteers comb the area using snowmachines and aircraft.

''We have about 10 to 15 people we can call on,'' Sabala said. ''We couldn't function without volunteers. We could do it, but we'd never have the response time that we have now.''

But what helps the searchers most is knowing where the person went snowmachining, to get a starting point at least. Otherwise, the searchers may have to scour both sides of the 135-mile long Denali Highway and the Parks Highway from Mile 147 to Mile 230.

Experienced searchers have had to look for their own before.

A day after leading a search for three stranded snowmachiners, Trooper Rod Johnson and Department of Transportation worker Kevin Herman, plus a third snowmachiner, spent the night huddled around a candle because they ran out of daylight Feb. 19.

The three were ready for the likelihood of a night out and the next morning Johnson, Herman and Martin Moffet were quickly found by searchers as they neared one of the fuel tanks Johnson set up on the Denali Highway.

Sabala was notified that evening that the three were overdue, but decided it was too risky to search for them at night.

''Even though I knew these guys could handle it and they were well prepared, you don't know what went wrong,'' Sabala said. ''That's a tough call. You know you want to go.

''You really take your life into your hands traveling at night because of the terrain out here. You look at a map, it looks good,'' Sabala said. ''When you get out there, there's parts where the river cuts a bank or there's a gully somewhere with a washout or a boulder. You can't see that stuff at night.''

Experienced volunteer Vernon Carlson said most of the local accomplished snowmachiners have probably spent an unplanned night out in the cold.

''You realize that you're not going to make it where you're going, and you figure out, 'Well, here we stay,' look for a tree, break out your ax and make a fire,'' Carlson said. ''I can remember finding Radar (Ray Goble), who had been sitting there for two days.

''The key is, we were prepared,'' Carlson said.

Goble, a trapper, keeps an emergency kit vacuum packed in a trunk under his seat. It holds flares, matches, extra bungee cords, a stove, ax and shovel, fire starter and a package of sausage and cheese. He also carries a pair of snowshoes in case he needs to trek home on foot.

Goble uses his extra-wide track snowmachine as a workhorse when he checks his 15 miles of trapline off the Denali Highway.

''Performance machines are not made to carry anything. They're just made to play in the snow,'' Sabala said.

Carlson has relied on his mechanical skills and the extra tools he takes with him to get out of jams. He's put a snowmachine in water, only to pull it out, take the engine apart, put it back together and ride it home.

''I've lost no less than three machines below the ice,'' Carlson said.

Cantwell Emergency Medical Services Supervisor Marge Nord remembers when she had to spend the night out in the cold with a patient who had broken his leg when his snowmachine rolled on top if him.

The military rescue helicopter couldn't get to the spot.

The man was in a ravine that the helicopter couldn't reach and the steep terrain made it impossible to take him out on a sled that night. So rescuers brought sleeping bags, put the injured man in the sled and waited the entire night with him.

The medics kept the man warm despite 20- to 30-below temperatures.

''Sometimes you get in places you can't take them out with the sled,'' Nord said. ''We appreciate the MAST (helicopter).''

Recently, a day of snowmachining with two friends went wrong when Fairbanksan Adam Zaverl ran out of gas in unfamiliar territory.

Zaverl, 25, Michael Mavencamp of North Pole and Patrick Hallett of Fairbanks were snowmachining in the Dunkle Mine area south of Cantwell when they noticed their snowmachines were low on gas. They decided to turn back. Instead of retracing the bumpy path back to the highway, they decided to follow a route other snowmachiners had said was easier on their backsides.

The trio kept getting stuck. Zaverl was having a hard time with his short-track snowmobile -- a machine built for speed, not deep snow. He took a different trail than his companions. Then he ran out of gas.

''I didn't have any matches or anything. I just tore my windshield apart and dug a little cave right next to my snowmachine,'' Zaverl said.

Luckily, he was in a cell phone reception area, and used his phone to call 911. That led to his rescue a few hours later, around 2 a.m. A rescue helicopter crew with night-vision goggles spotted Zaverl from the air.

By that time, Zaverl was shaking uncontrollably because his clothes were wet from the waist-deep snow. The temperature had dipped to about nine below.

Even after an hour of warming, Zaverl's body temperature was only 94 degrees.

Since then, he has received countless tips on what he should do the next time he takes a snowmachining trip and has endured almost constant teasing from co-workers.

''Everybody tells me a different thing to take along,'' Zaverl said. ''I'd need a trailer to tow it all.''

But Zaverl says that on future trips he'll take matches, a flare and a Global Positioning System.

''We'll definitely carry backpacks,'' Zaverl said.

(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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