As a resident of Fairbanks, you are likely a lover of all things snow. Snowmachining is a huge sport here in our neck of the woods. Whether you are cutting through our many mountain ranges or breezing across the open plains and valleys, snowmachining brings a thrill that is hard to match, especially here in Alaska with our landscape of extremes.
Glaciers are a huge part of the Alaskan life. They cover about 75,000 km of Alaska, which is about 5 percent of our state. According to the Alaska State Library’s list of glaciers, there are 32 glaciers in Southeast Fairbanks alone. While stunningly beautiful, glaciers can also be deadly. The borderlines between these natural phenomena and the rest of the Alaskan land are not clearly marked, which poses a threat for the exploring snowmachiner.
Oftentimes, snowmachiners will be riding along and not realize that he or she has ventured onto a glacier. Sadly, this has been a deadly mistake for many.
Glaciers are often called “rivers of ice” and are huge masses of ice that move slowly over land. They gradually form in places where more snow piles up than melts, and over time this growing snow pile compresses to form a thick sheet of ice called a glacier. Due to a combination of its own incredible weight and a process called compression melting (which basically means that a substance melts under extreme pressure), these massive sheets of ice then start to move.
When glaciers move over uneven ground, the top 50 meters of the ice is prone to splitting, as it is more brittle and inflexible than the bottom part. When the top of a glacier cracks, it forms a crevasse. These cracks are usually deep, steep, and thin, and pose a serious threat to mountaineers—and you, the snowmachiner.
Back in 2013, the Alaska Dispatch News ran a story about the dangers of riding on glaciers. The story covered two fatal and two near-fatal accidents among snowmachiners that resulted from unexpected crevasses or holes in glaciers. One 9-year-old boy who was riding alone on his snowmachine fell to his death when he unexpectedly came upon a hole in the Gulkana Glacier. Rich Runser fell through a crevasse in the Nelchina Glacier in 1997 and is now paralyzed from the waste down. He is now an advocate for snowmachine safety, urging riders to stay away from glaciers.
Many times, you cannot see a crevasse or a hole in a glacier until you are right up on it, and at that point, it is too late. Sometimes a thin layer of snow covers crevasses, forming what is called a snow bridge, which completely hides the crevasse from view.
We are not the only state to love the sport of snowmachining. The residents of Wisconsin and Michigan are huge snowmachiners. But other states seem to prioritize safety a little more than we do, especially when it comes to youth. In those states, minors can only ride with an adult, but here in Alaska, no such rule exists. Children are at a high risk of getting injured or killed in glacier-related snowmachine accidents, as we all are. It is important that you know where you are riding so that you can avoid glaciers. The Alaska State Snowmobile Association has compiled some great maps of snowmachine trails in Alaska. Check them out here, and try to stay on trail as much as possible.
Some Basic Safety Tips
Even if the state of Alaska does not impose all the safety rules we would like them to, it is imperative that you impose your own safety rules on yourself. Use your best judgment, and keep these basic safety tips in mind:
- Keep your machine in tip-top condition. Consult the owner’s manual and the dealer that you bought it from.
- Make sure you are following the rules of local natural resource and law enforcement agencies, as well as other snowmobile organizations.
- Look both ways before you cross roads and make sure you come to a complete stop.
- Wear layers so that you are ready for any conditions; wear goggles, a properly sized helmet, and a visor.
- Mind any posted speed limits and other rules.
- Don’t go alone—take a friend.
- Signal others:
- Left turn: left arm extended straight out
- Right turn: left arm out, bent upwards at 90-degree angle
- Stop: left arm extended straight up
- Slow: left arm out and angled toward ground
- Respect your natural surroundings—vegetation and wildlife alike.
- Stay alert to fatigue and dulling senses caused by the vibration and motion of the machine as well as the sun and wind.
- Carry a safety kit.
- If in the mountains, look out for warning signs of an avalanche.
Take a Selfie: It Could Save Your Life
You need to keep all of these things in mind when snowmachining in and around Fairbanks, Alaska, but believe it or not, snapping a selfie could be the move that saves your life in the end. Alaska State Troopers are now highly encouraging snowmachiners to take selfies right before they head out into the backcountry. These photos, they say, could save lives, and the more that you take pictures of, the better. Any and all details you can leave behind of your particular equipment, gear, and clothing will aid search and rescue teams in the event that they need to come find you, and pictures capture the most detail—more than any form can. That being said, it is essential that you also fill out a “wilderness trip plan” and leave it somewhere visible or with someone who is reliable. This form can be found here. These measures can help family and search teams find you if something goes awry.
Look Out for Defective Equipment
Defective machines are another danger of snowmachining. For instance, the 2005 and 2006 Ski-Doo models by the manufacturer Bombardier Recreational Products (or BRP) out of Quebec, Canada, had defective ring gears that would fragment off at high speeds. If you have been injured in Fairbanks due to a defective machine or other snowmachining equipment, you may have a legal case. Contact a personal injury attorney in Fairbanks to see if you have options for compensation for your damages.
If you are wanting to get into this sport, you likely have some reservations. It looks like a blast, but you also have no idea how to get started—and how to do it safely. If this is you, consider seeking out a “Take a Friend Snowmobiling” campaign in your area. This is one of the safest ways to get started with the sport. Stay safe, and have fun!