Alaska rescue highlights crucial law enforcement cooperation

Craig McCaa

Public lands have proven a treasured escape for Alaska residents feeling cooped up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recreation staff from the BLM Alaska’s Eastern Interior Field Office have facilitated visits to public lands by continuing to groom winter trails and maintain public use cabins in the 1-million-acre White Mountains National Recreation Area north of Fairbanks.

Their efforts are backed up by BLM law enforcement rangers, who step in when visitors’ backcountry trips to remote, rugged country don’t go as planned. When a search and rescue situation develops, BLM Alaska’s LE rangers work whenever possible with a closely entwined group of law enforcement and emergency response personnel from numerous other federal and state agencies.

With such resources spread thin across Alaska, this group is accustomed to helping each other on all kinds of missions and on short notice. Such was the case on April 5, when Eastern Interior Field Office law enforcement ranger Jonathan Priday received word from the Alaska State Troopers that two men visiting the White Mountains had run into trouble. The two men had left Fairbanks on a one-day snowmobile trip as a winter storm moved in.

About 40 miles from the nearest road, they diverted off a trail and became stuck in exceptionally deep snow. Unable to free their snowmobiles, and with the weather deteriorating, they spent a miserable night huddled under a blue tarp before activating a satellite emergency device the following day to call for rescue. The weather was too poor for a rescue helicopter to launch, so Priday, accompanied by three Alaska State Troopers, left Fairbanks in a blizzard to try to reach the two men.

 

Rescuers riding snow machines
The rescue group consults on route-finding in the rugged country near where the snowmobile riders became stuck in deep snow. The area is approximately 40 miles from the nearest road.

Alaska State Troopers dispatchers convinced the stranded men via their satellite device to leave the inaccessible ravine where they had overnighted and try to hike to a nearby BLM public use cabin where they could seek shelter until rescuers could reach them. With great difficulty, the men made it to the cabin.

Meanwhile, Priday and the three troopers struggled down the Elliott Highway and onto the Colorado Creek Trail, where snowmobiles carried them through miles of deep snow and drifts. It was slow going. The weather finally began to improve, allowing a UH-60 helicopter crew from C Company, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment to take to the air.  They arrived on scene around the same time as the rescuers on snowmobiles.

Priday and the troopers assisted as the Army rescue crew loaded the two men for transport to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. There the two men were treated for exhaustion, dehydration, and exposure and then released. Follow-up interviews with the two men revealed they are doing fine.

 

Three rescuers standing on the porch of a BLM public use cabin
Three of the rescuers who participated in the search and rescue mission stand on the porch of Windy Gap Cabin. The men were preparing to travel back to the Elliott Highway on snowmobiles after the departure of the Army rescue helicopter.

For Priday, the incident only reinforced the importance of the close working relationships BLM law enforcement has forged with other agencies in Interior Alaska -- relationships that have become only more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With COVID-19 and people wanting to get outdoors, we still have a lot of use of these winter trails,” Priday said. “We’ve also had numerous wind events this winter, and deep snow that has extended the season on the trails. Given all that, we’ve had more rescues than usual. Our good coordination with state and federal partners – especially, in this case, the Army – has been critical. We work and we train with the Army for incidents like this. That made a huge difference this time.”