'Stay off the lakes': Anchorage Snowmobile Club president after Pettigen deaths

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - The president of the Anchorage Snowmobile Club is recommending that people “stay off swamps, stay off lakes” after multiple reports of overflow, open water and thin ice at popular waterways for snowmachining.

Tim Cook, the president of the club, is hearing reports of heavy overflow and open water around Petersville Road. Last week, he rode his sled across lakes in Willow and said it was similarly bad.

Some ice appears to be safe to ride on but there could be big differences in lakes right next to each other, or within the same lake.

The 7.0 earthquake that struck just near Big Lake Nov. 30 has also cracked ice said Cook, before adding that no one knows “what the lakes are doing at this point.”

The deaths of Van and LaVerne Pettigen while riding sleds on Big Lake are fresh in everyone’s minds but not uncommon for recreational snowmachiners.

“One of the things that people don’t realize, as much as we stress avalanche education, more people are killed by drowning on snow machines than avalanches," said Cook. “If you go through the ice, the chances of survival are almost zero.”

He described that there is a type of mitten you can buy with hooks to rescue yourself and some snowmachine gear that floats.

Cook emphasized that there may not have been any preparation that could have prevented the deaths of the Pettigens.

The underlying message for people traveling into the backcountry: preparation is key, no matter how short the trip. Cook said that snowmachiners don’t typically seem to have problems on long treks, it’s on the short jaunts where less gear is carried that problems emerge.

Tips for snowmachiners hitting the backcountry
- Never go by yourself: Cook says that he personally has had to rescue multiple people who went off riding alone.
- Always carry the necessary gear: Wear a helmet, carry a shovel and carry enough clothes to stay warm overnight if there is a breakdown or if the sled gets stuck.
- If you hit overflow, hit the throttle. Stopping means you’ll sink and get stuck.
- Cook always carries a dry bag filled with heavy duty mittens, a space blanket, a tarp, extra polar fleece top and bottom, a garbage sack and a way to make fire.
- Carry a backpack separate to your sled with enough supplies to last overnight if you lose your snowmachine.