The hazards of trapping in Alaska are numerous and include breakdowns, overflow, and bitterly cold temperatures. In these arctic conditions, the line that separates normal and dangerous is pretty thin. The line that separates dangerous and deadly is even thinner. A common saying here is, “In Alaska, little problems can become big problems very quickly.” I’ve had quite a few close calls over the years, days when everything seems to go wrong, but there’s one that easily tops my list of near-death experiences.

Two winters ago, I was busy cutting my marten trapping trail through miles of burnt timber. Normal trail cutting is exhausting, but burnt timber is worse. Literally every step is impeded by fallen trees, and in three-feet-deep snow, clearing a path wide enough for a snow machine is a very long, slow process. This story occurred in the middle of a cold snap, with the temperature at a less-than-balmy -30F. I had been cutting trail all day, had reached the end of my seven-mile-long line, and was headed back to the truck at about 3:00 p.m. I was sweaty and exhausted, a bad combination as darkness was quickly setting in, and I could feel the temperature dropping even more.

As I made my way back up the freshly cut trail, I tried to bump my snow machine over a log that I had been able to ride over coming down the ridge. Going uphill was a different story, however. I was impatient and had no more energy to cut an easier trail around the log, so I goosed the throttle to try and get enough momentum to make it over the log. As my skis went up on the log, they slid down, causing me to lose my balance. I stepped off the side, but without a packed trail, I sank deep into the snow, my machine rolling onto its side on top of me.

As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get any leverage to lift the heavy sled off of my legs. Being on the downhill side of this thing was bad, and now I was drenched, freezing, and had fresh snow in my gloves, coat and in my coveralls. After a few minutes I was done, and really had to fight the desire to close my eyes to rest. Somehow I managed to wiggle my way around and dig out enough snow to pull one leg out, then the other. I was pinned for about 15 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity. I was able to summon strength I didn’t know I had left and get my machine off the log and back home.

I didn’t really appreciate the gravity of the situation until after I had made it back, but it could have turned out much worse. It really goes to show that even simple things up here require constant diligence. Dumb mistakes can cost you big time, and I was lucky to get away unscathed. I was bluntly reminded of how things can turn bad very quickly, and learned the value of a few things about the Alaskan winter:

1.) In extreme cold, do NOT exert yourself to the point of being soaked with sweat.

2.) If the safest option for accomplishing something takes a little extra time, do it anyway.

3.) Especially when tired, you can’t let impatience and frustration get the best of you, and never ever give up.