As winter comes to Ketchikan, bringing plunging temperatures and snowfall, many outdoor enthusiasts are turning their attention to seasonal activities such as skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding and snowmachining.
The First City has several good spots to enjoy those winter wonders, but the snowy weather brings safety concerns for those hoping to hit the trails — especially when it comes to avalanches.
The Daily News spoke with Ian Clarke, a local backcountry skier and Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad volunteer, safe local terrain, about what to look out for in the snow, and the essentials to bring when heading outdoors in the snow.
Clarke told the Daily News that there have been confirmed avalanche deaths in Ketchikan in the past few years, and safety should always be a priority.
"I think the most people are getting out snowshoeing and some snowmachining," Clarke said. "There's a pretty active presence of snowmachines in Ketchikan. They have a lot of areas that they frequent ... they've usually do a pretty good job of monitoring conditions themselves, but I know that they had some close calls, as well. And then we've got several skiers in town. It's not a ski town to be sure, but it is more and more popular, especially as backcountry skiing gets more popular."
One of the simplest ways to stay safe in the snow is to be aware of where you're recreating.
"90% of staying safe is trying to minimize exposing yourself to an avalanche," Clarke said.
Some of Ketchikan's most popular routes might not be the safest option when it comes to the possibility of avalanches.
"We have spots here locally that are easy to access and pretty dangerous," Clarke said. "First couple that come to mind are the snow fields at the top of Deer Mountain that you can see from town. The summer trail goes right across three major avalanche paths on the way to the cabin. And that's a pretty popular path for snowshoers in the winter."
The road up and around Lower Silvis lake also poses potential avalanche danger when snowy.
"That road is at the bottom of several major avalanche beds," Clarke explained. "And it doesn't seem like a danger when you're there, because you're on a road. So it's hard to imagine that you're in avalanche terrain."
Both Perseverance and Carlanna Lake trails offer safer, accessible options for snowy recreation.
But "the thing there to be mindful of obviously is that there are some drainages, some creek beds, that those trails cross, which is probably true of any trail in this area," he said. "And those gulleys are potential areas that snow could slide down, if there was an avalanche farther up the mountain."
Clarke advised that as a general rule, staying on "low angle terrain" — an area with less than 30 degrees of slope — is a good option to "greatly minimize" danger of avalanche.
"It can be difficult to estimate that by eyeball, but most smartphones have an angle finder of some kind built into them," he noted.
Thickly forested areas are also safer options.
"If you find yourself in steep, bare terrain, it may be bare for a reason," he cautioned. "So sticking to thickly forested and low angle terrain is a really good way to ensure that you're staying out of terrain that could even be conductive to avalanches. There's no 100% answer. There are a couple of deaths every year from snow falling off roofs. ... There's always the potential there, but you minimize it."
Identifying potential hazards
Selecting safer terrain is important, but there are always signs to watch out for when it comes to the potential for avalanches.
Clarke identified five "red flags" that are commonly discussed during avalanche trainings.
The first red flag of a potential hazard is simple: spotting signs of other recent avalanches or snow falls.
"So, you know, if you see a fresh avalanche crown or fresh avalanche debris, that tells you that the snow conditions are such that they can avalanche," Clarke explained.
If snow cracks or collapses, that's another warning sign.
"Cracking or collapsing, so when you're walking on snow, if cracks are shooting out through the snow around you or it's collapsing in slabs around you — it feels like you're almost on breaking ice — that can tell you that you're on a slab that's on an unsupported surface, which is sort of a recipe for avalanche in steeper terrain," he said.
Recent heavy rain or wind can also impact snow conditions unfavorably.
"Immediately after a big storm is probably not the best time to go into steeper areas," Clarke noted.
Avalanche conditions also can take shape due to fast changes in temperatures, especially if temperatures are quickly rising.
"And what that does is it increases the water content of the snowpack up high in the snow, making it heavier and more likely to collapse on the lower layers of snow. It's making the snow heavier, and making it want to slough and slip down the mountain."
The last red flag is one Clarke said is a "pretty big factor around here:" high winds.
"High winds tend to take snow that's eventually distributed over the mountain and (scatter) it on the wind-facing sides and then deposit it more densely on the lee-sides. That creates what we call wind slabs, which are some of the more dangerous conditions."
When it comes to what to bring for a day in the snow, there are three main essentials that every recreator should have with them when heading outside: a probe, a shovel and a beacon.
A beacon is a kind of "avalanche transceiver," Clarke explained.
"It is not a SPOT beacon or a GPS unit or a cell phone," he said. "It's specifically built to be an avalanche transceiver. It sends a signal through snow, works with other avalanche transceivers on their own frequency that's less likely to be affected by other radios."
The probe is long tool that is collapsible, and that Clarke said is essential for "partner rescue."
A good-quality shovel can be used to dig through snow that collapses around oneself.
"Once avalanche snow settles, it becomes pretty concrete pretty fast ... so a light, plastic blade shovel is pretty likely to break," Clarke said. "We usually recommend at least an aluminum blade rescue shovel."
And while Clarke outlined those tools as the three essentials for recreating in potentially dangerous conditions, he considered knowing how to use the tools properly the fourth tool for safety.
He also recommends always adventuring with a partner.
"It's not uncommon that people go into the mountains in the winter alone, but your choices of terrain should be a lot more conservative if you're not out with a partner," he said.
A skier's perspective
Josh Carson hasn't been in Ketchikan long, but he's already made it up Dude Mountain, in the company of Clarke.
"One of the reasons that I wanted to come to Alaska was to ski," he explained during a Thursday afternoon interview with the Daily News. "I know Ketchikan is not, like, the location to do that generally, but I was assured by people that I knew that there were skiing opportunities."
Coming to the First City from Denver, Colorado, Carson grew up skiing in resort settings. He's been eager to journey more into backcountry skiing, and took an avalanche safety course last year.
Speaking about a mid-November trip up Dude Mountain, Carson said "it was a great first experience."
"Usually I don't get to ski in mid-November, but you do get to up here, I guess," he added.
Carson reflected on the differences between skiing in a resort setting in the Lower 48 and in Ketchikan's backcountry.
"I think backcountry, it's more fun, because you feel more connected to the environment around you, it's more like just going hiking or hunting," Carson said. "Resort skiing, someone's already been out there, they've blown up the area for you so that the avalanche risks are low, so you're not constantly trying to figure out, where are the risks, where are the danger."
"You constantly have to be aware of your surroundings," he continued. "You have to be looking above you to make sure you're not passing through avalanche terrain, if you're really being safe you're digging pits to try and figure out what the snow actually looks like beneath you and what the risks really are, and if there are risks, how you're going about to limit risks to you and those around you."
As far as what Carson takes on the trail with him, he echoed Clarke: a beacon, probe and shovel.
He also carries an avalanche backpack, which features an expandable air cannister.
"If you get caught in an avalanche, you can pull this device and essentially, it's like an airbag that expands," he said. "It's essentially meant to keep you floating on top of the avalanche instead of getting sucked in below it."
The Coastal Alaska Avalanche Center is based in Juneau and maintains an online observation page for the public: https://www.coastalakavalanche.org/view-observations/?regions=9
There are educational avalanche safety resources, tutorials and videos at https://avalanche.org/avalanche-education/