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Avalanche forecaster to hold workshops in Ketchikan: Free events scheduled for Saturday and Sunday
The depth of the Twin Peaks snow slide of April 2009 is shown. Photo by Ken Arriola

Daily News Staff Writer

There are more than 58 miles of trails to be hiked and explored in Ketchikan, and 700 miles of trails throughout the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska.

With such a substantial amount of backcountry encompassing the First City, it’s crucial for Alaskans to be aware of the wilderness that surrounds them. The Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad has two free training events planned on Saturday and Sunday to assist with that.

There will be a backcountry skills event from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Saturday in the assembly chambers at the Whitecliff Building located at 1900 First Ave. On Sunday, there will be an avalanche preparedness session from 8 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.

The avalanche awareness event will begin at Fire Station 6 at Ward Cove, located at 7550 North Tongass Hwy., and will then head outside for a field workshop — practicing avalanche beacons, testing snowpack and similar activities.

Both of the events will be led by Tom Mattice, an avalanche forecaster from Juneau. Mattice runs the Alaska Avalanche Information Center, and has years of snow and backcountry knowledge to share with attendees.

On Saturday for the backcountry skills event, Mattice will talk about proper planning and preparation for a backcountry trip; understanding weather and terrain; group dynamics; confronting wilderness challenges; examples of survival and rescue equipment; wildlife and environmental respect; proper emergency reactions; and search and rescue victim protocol, among other topics.

Shawn McAllister, a volunteer with the KVRS, said as soon as people get away from the road system in Ketchikan — they’re in the backcountry. Whether they’re wandering on a trail or bushwacking to go deer hunting, McAllister said the information at both events can be useful.

“It’s great information for hunters, snowmachiners, people who ride ATV’s and four-wheelers; and then hikers, skiers, climbers (and) fishermen who are bushwacking to remote places to fish,” McAllister said.

For the avalanche preparedness workshop, Mattice will speak about the equipment people should have when they’re going to be in avalanche terrain, and how to use it; how to avoid avalanches, with some basic snow science; learning how to read terrain; and learning how to read weather to predict where and when an avalanche might take place.

Then, the attendees will go out into the wilderness and learn how to stay safe while hiking in avalanche territory. McAllister said where they choose to go for the field workshop will depend on the ability of those who attend, adding they might hike or drive to the snowy area.

In Ketchikan, anywhere there is snow with steep enough terrain to slide off of, there is avalanche risk. McAllister said Deer Mountain, Silvis Lake, Dude Mountain and above the tree line at Carlanna Lake are some areas that can see avalanches.

“If you get buried, you basically have about 12 minutes to live under the snow. If you don’t have a partner that can quickly dig you out, which — if there’s nothing showing on the surface of the snow, like a leg or a glove or something — it requires a beacon, a shovel and a probe,” McAllister said.

At the avalanche workshop, McAllister said Mattice will show people how to use the beacon to find where the person is buried; use a probe to find their exact location; and use the shovel to dig them out. He added people need to have a partner with them, when they’re in the backcountry, to dig them out if an avalanche occurs.

McAllister added both events could be for anyone, like the family of a boy that likes to go hiking all the time — but forgets to tell his family where he’s going and when he’ll be back. He said the event is partly to get people to be more responsible about planning backcountry excursions.

“It could be useful for just about anyone,” McAllister said. “... Basically it’s for people that are using the backcountry. But, you know, it might be nice for armchair enthusiasts to learn a little bit more about it, just to know what their friends or family members are up to and how to respond, or how to ask them to plan.”

Although more common in the winter, avalanches can happen any time of year. They can occur in the spring when water starts moving underneath snow-capped areas, according to McAllister.

“It’s just a great opportunity to become more informed about planning a safe trip in the backcountry. It’s a great free event, and Tom is a great storyteller, and has decades of experience playing and working in the snow.