Racing across the open coast of Alaska at eighty-miles an hour, the beam from headlamps bouncing across the ice belied the danger ahead. The frozen tundra under their sleds suddenly turned black and smooth like freshly frozen ice. Thin ice.
Decisions. Take the short route straight across or go around the time-consuming safer route?
“On this trip Evan Booth was with us and he’d almost drowned before in a similar situation,” said Chris Olds, four-time Iron Dog Champion. “You could just tell, he’d stared death in the eye and knew he didn’t want to go there again anytime soon.
‘I’m pretty confident that your machines have the power to do it, you have the strength to do it, and if everything goes perfect, you’ll probably make it across,’ Booth told us. ‘But if anything goes wrong… a belt, plug, anything… and you have to stop, you’ll go through the ice and no one will be able to help you.
‘And just so you understand, if you choose to go straight across, you’re on your own.’
“We made the decision to go around,” said Olds.
Tyler Aklestad, current champion, said he wasn’t there at that time to hear the advice from Booth. Instead he and his partner made the decision to go straight across. “Yeah, that turned out to be a terrible choice, “said Aklestad. “Lucky for me, my partner did make it and had the equipment needed to rescue me.
“I made it to the coast but there was this steep shelf and I couldn’t get up on it. I stopped and sure enough, my machine and I went through the ice. I was soaking wet and every time I tried to claw my way out, I’d slide back in. If it hadn’t been for my partner who had a rope and was able to pull me out, I would have drowned.”
Both Olds and Aklestad have numerous stories to share about amazing experiences they’ve had riding and racing across the mountains, glaciers, tundra and coastline of Alaska. They also have some hair-raising tales that didn’t end so well. Both have achieved great success. Both have suffered serious injuries and have had their own brushes with death and lessons learned. While competitors on the trail, they are now working together to give back to the community that has supported them.
In 2021 they teamed up with Mike Buck, Dan Hall, Peter Kaiser and Scott Davis to form the Alaska Safe Riders. Their mission is to promote the safe riding of snowmachines, all-terrain vehicles and recreational off road vehicles through educational programs in order to reduce the number of unintentional injuries and deaths related to off-highway travel.
Over the past year the group gave more than 40 free school and community presentations, traveled more than 2,000 miles by snowmobile to share their training and raised more than $50,000 to support their efforts.
On April 5, 2023, Alaska Safe Riders received recognition for their achievement in spreading snowmobile, ATV and off-highway vehicle safety as recipients of the 41st annual Alaska Governor’s Special Achievement Award.
“This award means a lot to our team,” said Mike Buck, Executive Director. “We could not have done this without the support of our sponsors, members and individual donors. And we still have so much more to do.”
There is nothing quite like the feeling of riding a snowmobile as you sail across a field of powder on a blue sky afternoon. Or the heartfelt joy of seeing the look in someone’s eyes when they are being fit for their very first snowmobile helmet even though they have grown up riding snowmachines.
Did you know that Alaska currently ranks number one in the nation for traumatic brain injury related deaths yet there are no state-wide laws requiring the use of helmets? According to the Brain Injury Association of Alaska, there are currently an estimated 10,000 Alaskans living with disability due to brain injury. And many of those injuries could have been prevented simply by wearing a helmet.
Alaska Safe Riders partnered with Iron Dog this year and helped to distribute 450 helmets to Alaskans in rural villages who often do not have the resources or means to purchase a helmet. “That’s 450 people who will ride safer as a result of this program,” said Buck. “We are proud to host these training programs and to be able to give away these amazing helmets to those in need who attend.”
Alaska Safe Riders is also partnering with the Alaska Avalanche Information Center to host free public training programs with support from the Alaska Department of Public Safety, Division Alaska State Troopers. You can learn more, or sign up your school or community for a free training by visiting www.AlaskaSafeRiders.org
Photo Credits: Helmet fitting by Iron Dog board member Johnny Dean