Avalanche awareness pays off in big way

Mike Campbell

Anchorage snowmachiner Mitch Lyman isn't the most avid driver, lucky to squeeze out enough free time for three rides a winter.

But now he has one skookum sled.

Lyman topped 156 other competitors at a wilderness survival game at this year's Arctic Man races to win a 2011 Polaris Rush machine.

Sound familiar? That's the same type of snowmachine Tyler Huntington and Chris Olds have ridden to two straight Iron Dog victories. In fact, it's one of the machines ridden in this year's race by Alaska Army National Guard racers Pam Harrington and Elaine Jackson.

"It's unbelievably fast, just amazing," Lyman said. "It absorbs all the stuff that beats the crap out of you. It will absolutely be fun to drive."

Lyman won a game called Pea Pod and Wilderness Survival Challenge, a contest designed to raise avalanche awareness and snowmobile safety. It was put on by the North American Outdoors Institute, with sponsorship from Polaris Industries, Arctic Man, the Department of Public Safety and the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation.

"Arctic Man is a party, so you better be playing a game or people will never listen to you," said Debra McGhan, executive director of the institute. "So we'd ask people going by, 'Hey, did you come and play our game?' Avalanche beacon training was part of it and in two hours we got 127 people."

Participants had the opportunity to win prizes by passing through a series of stations that focused on avalanche awareness, snowmobile safety, wilderness medicine and general survival. The institute awarded $720 in cash to split-the-pot winners too.

"Once they saw the snowmachine there, we were busy pretty much the entire time we were open," said McGhan, who was joined at Arctic Man by four other instructors.

Bruce Friend, Alaska district sales manager with Polaris Industries, set up Lyman's machine, which costs about $10,000 new, for its post-Iron Dog career.

"Anything that was questionable on this machine, they took care of," Lyman said.

"Those guys at the North American Institute were great," he said. "After I went through it, I was unbelievably impressed. They put you through a test while they're teaching you at the same time. And there's always a couple of things you just don't think about until you're in a bad situation."