By Michael W. Williams
Originally published December 2000 in The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman
As the sport of snowmachining grows in Alaska so does the potential for conflict. The media is full of stories about banning snowmachines from one area or another, lawsuits to open or close an area, conflict between user groups and mishaps involving snowmachines. I believe this negative attention is sensationalized at times, but we all know dirty laundry sells in our society. On the other hand, legitimate criticism can be healthy for the industry and sport. It has potential to ultimately make it stronger, more balanced with nature and more harmonious with other trail users.
Manufacturers are working to develop cleaner and quieter snowmachines. Here in Alaska a significant amount of labor and funding is being expended to develop safe, reliable trails and to identify sensitive habitat. I honestly believe, though that the greatest impact comes at the individual level. With over 20.000 snowmachines in the Anchorage, Palmer, and Wasilla area alone you are a force to be reckoned with in voice and deed. A simple positive act multiplied by thousands will be noticed and heard. Let’s call some of these acts “backcountry etiquette.” Here are several to keep in mind when traveling around Alaska this winter.
When encountering other trail users head on (especially mushers) yield the trail to them. Headlights rob people and dog teams of valuable night vision. Engine noise can make it difficult for a dog team to hear the musher’s commands as they maneuver around you. Shut your machine down and take a few moments to enjoy something uniquely Alaskan.
When overtaking other trail users from behind stay well back until the other user yields the trail to you or you have adequate room to pass without interfering.
Winter races are becoming increasingly popular. Snowshoers, x-country skiers, foot racers, snowmachiners, dog mushers and even mountain bikers pit themselves against each other and nature on winter trails, especially in south-central Alaska. Race organizers are redoubling their efforts to publicize race dates and routes to reduce conflict among trail users. As these races push further into the backcountry trail markers become increasingly important. Make yourself aware of these events, make every effort to leave trail markers undisturbed, and reduce speeds on race routes in congested areas. Wilderness races are not without danger. Be observant when encountering racers. You may make the difference to a racer in a distressed situation.
This should be self-evident, but please don’t drink and drive. On a snowmachine YOU are the designated driver.
I had the opportunity a couple of years ago to accompany a State survey crew along a section of the Iditarod National Historic Trail west of the Susitna River. It was late May and almost all the snow had given way to the spring warmth. I had traveled the trail in the winter for several years, but I had never seen it without snow. The first thing that struck me was the amount of trash on the trail. Years of winter accumulation were obvious everywhere. Many of these areas are extremely difficult to access in the summer, so the litter continues to accumulate. When you see trash in the winter please pick it up. Don’t add to the accumulation.
Be aware of winter runways. You will find them all over backcountry Alaska during the winter. Winter runways are quite vulnerable to snowmachines. Most ski equipped planes land at speeds in excess of 45 mph, have little directional control on the ground, and have no brakes. They depend on a runway that is flat and straight. Alaska Statute Section 02.20.050 makes it illegal to interfere with a winter runway, and that includes driving a snowmachine on it. If you should find yourself inadvertently on a runway, there are a few simple rules to follow that will leave little or no damage. First and foremost, be on the lookout for signs of a winter airstrip. Scrub spruce, poles or other objects in a straight line, snow packed in a straight line, windsocks, or the presence of a parked airplane should be clues. If you find yourself accidentally on a runway, travel in a straight line to the end of the runway and exit at either end. If you approach a runway from the side and can’t turn around, go straight across at a perpendicular (90 degree) angle to the runway. This will result in a speed bump, but won’t have any directional affect on a landing or departing ski plane.
There may come a time while traveling in backcountry Alaska that an emergency forces you to seek shelter. There are numerous recreational cabins, homesteads and trappers cabins scattered around the State. Although I can’t speak for all of the owners, I know that many of them do no object to the use of their cabins in a bonafide emergency. If you find yourself in such a situation use what is needed and replace what you can. If you use firewood put back more than you take, if possible. Make an attempt to contact the owner when you return home and offer thanks and compensation. At a minimum a note of thanks should be written and left behind. For many cabin owners knowing their cabin helped someone in need and that the user treated the cabin with respect is often thanks enough.
Daily travels in backcountry allow me to observe Alaska wildlife’s’ struggle to adapt and survive. Wind, overflow, sub-zero temperatures, extreme snowfall; the challenges are many and deadly. Wildlife can be quite vulnerable to the mobility and speed of snowmachines. They should never be chased or overtaken by snowmachines. Wildlife may not be able to recover from the stress of eluding a snowmachine, not to mention it is inhumane and illegal.
There is a good chance you will come across a trapper’s trapline while traveling in the backcountry. Regardless of your views towards trapping, the trapline is not the place to express them. Trapping is an Alaskan way of life and it is illegal to interfere in anyway with a trapline. If you witness someone interfering with a trapline, or you believe a trapline is being operated illegally, contact the local office of Alaska Fish and Wildlife Enforcement or Alaska State Troopers.
The vast majority of snowmachiners take pride in their sport and act accordingly, but there is an enemy within our ranks. Their numbers are few, but their acts of uncaring and indifference to the environment, private property and other trail users will bring us to our knees if left unchecked. We must police our own or I assure you it will be done for us and we won’t like the end result.
You hear it time and again that “we do it differently in Alaska.” The sport of snowmachining in Alaska is still in its infancy. Protect our unique opportunities here in Alaska. Make this a sport that develops a proud heritage. Simple acts of courtesy multiplied by thousands will make a difference. Practice a little backcountry etiquette this winter and see what a difference you can make.