Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 4:53 PM on Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Couple's adventure offers survival lesson

All too often we've written sad stories about people who get in trouble outdoors and die or are severely injured. Thus we were happy to tell the adventure last week of Brent and Diane Petersen after their snowmachine broke through ice on the far end of Tustumena Lake on Jan. 20. How the Petersens survived should inspire all Alaskans. As Diane Petersen said, "A lot of things went really, really wrong, but a whole lot of things went right. We're still here."

The Petersens were reluctant to tell their story, but we're glad they did, and we thank them for that. They shared their ordeal with our readers to make people aware of the dangers of traveling in winter, especially on frozen lakes and rivers.

Any Alaskan heading into the backcountry — and for many of us, that can mean a half-mile out our back door — should be prepared. The most important tool is having the knowledge to survive. Also important is what Brent Petersen said: "If it helps people, I'd like to let them know to stay calm. That's ultimately what saved us."

Of course, it's a good idea to always carry a basic survival kit: energy bars, water, a space blanket, chemical hand warmers, a compass and matches, all of which the Petersens had. We can all think of other handy items, like multi-tool knives, pocket flares, signal mirrors, rope and a first-aid kit. Filing a trip plan like the Petersens did also is a good idea. As Alaska State Troopers have said, they'd rather launch a search and hear, "Hey, it's OK," then launch a search too late.

A lot of us have been in bad situations that could have turned into disaster. Survival starts with not letting a sudden tragedy overwhelm you. As Diane Petersen put it, "It didn't really occur to us to panic."

Luckily, the Petersens got out of the icy water. With no handy firewood nearby, and too cold to be sure they could start one anyway, they made their own warmth and started moving. Good gear like wool and polypropylene underwear kept them warm even when wet.

The Petersens kept moving until they found refuge in a well-stocked cabin with a wood stove and firewood. That's another thing commendable about Alaskans: Keeping the door of your wilderness cabin unlocked for the person who might need it for refuge. Vandals who abuse that hospitality should be condemned for trashing an Alaska ethic that clearly saves lives.

We live in a harsh land that challenges us every day. That's why we live here: For the natural beauty, the adventure and the experience going to extremes gives us. We need not fear the wilderness, but we should respect it. Learn how to return, as the experts say. Take classes. Listen to elders. Listen to nature. Try out and test new survival technologies while using the tried and true. Support wilderness studies programs in our schools and organizations that give young people the skills to live in our great land.

Someday many of us will be faced with a wilderness challenge like the Petersens. If we've learned well, we'll be like them: good Alaskans who made the best of a tragedy and came home alive with a great story that changed their lives.