Every week, newspapers have the sad duty of reporting disasters that occur to those in the prime of their lives. This week, it was two fishermen, one only 17, who capsized their boat. One perished, another is missing. Two more were lucky enough to scramble on top of the overturned boat and get rescued, narrowly dodging a similar fate. And the saddest thing is that they all might have made it if but for one decision they made. You see, these men were not wearing life jackets.
Meanwhile, another man whom friends called one of the luckiest men alive because of his bold moves walking off into Alaska's wilderness with minimal survival gear and turning up two weeks later having hiked hundreds of miles may have finally seen his luck run out. He's missing somewhere in the wilds of Southwest Alaska, and while many are holding out hope that his tough and ambitious nature will once again pull him through, the simple fact is that the odds are against him at this point.
There's an old saying that you know what you know, but you don't know what you don't know. When it comes to sad happenings like these, which unfortunately happen almost weekly in a place with as many risks and risk takers as Alaska, the hardest part is the hindsight. So often, we can see simple mistakes people made. They didn't wear a life jacket. They didn't wear a seat belt. They didn't take basic emergency supplies with them. They didn't heed the weather warnings. They somehow thought that those safety rules didn't apply to them, that they could get by without it.
Unfortunately, some of those most familiar with Alaska's risks -- whether it be on the water or in the wilderness -- are the ones that feel they no longer need the safety net of caution to live to see another day. It's interesting that while most of us wouldn't think of sending our children out on the water without a life jacket or off on a road trip without a seatbelt, many adults choose less safe measures for themselves. While some 60 percent of teenagers wear life jackets in Alaska, by the time those teenagers become adults, less than 15 percent of them will put on this critical life-saving device.
The simple fact is, like it or not, our waters are too cold for most of us to remain functional for more than 15 minutes. If you have a life jacket on, you will be rescued even if you can't keep yourself afloat any more. In last weekend's accident, rescuers were nearby, and the chances are pretty good that had these men all been wearing life jackets, they might have all been picked up.
As far as safety precautions when enjoying the great outdoors of Alaska, the basic rule of thumb is to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Make noise. Have a means of starting a fire, some basic food, plenty of water, a map and an emergency blanket with you. All of except for the water that can fit in a Ziploc bag, and won't take much to assemble. And in a pinch, it could save your life. Alaska is the quintessential training ground for the risk of changing weather. Who hasn't been caught starting off the day in sunshine only to be caught in a squall of wind and rain. Those who didn't think to bring their jackets are miserable, but if you are miles from home, that situation could be so much worse.
But perhaps the saddest risk we take as Alaskans is driving without a seatbelt. There are few things we do that are more risky, really. The odds of getting munched by a bear are more in line with getting struck by lightening, I'm forever telling visitors. But drive your car downtown, especially without your seatbelt on, and you really are taking your life into your own hands. Countless deaths stand as confirmation.
The simple fact is, as Alaskans we all take risks in our lives. If we wanted to live safe, insulated lives we probably would have moved to a suburb somewhere. A drive to the grocery store in the dead of winter can put us in more danger than many face in a lifetime. But those risks are eased substantially by abiding by some very simple practices, like wearing a life jacket, a seatbelt and being prepared when you go out camping or hiking. Whatever chance there is that someone might judge you as less than brave evaporates when you get the opportunity to hold your grandchild for the first time. For two Alaskans and one visitor, that chance is likely gone. Perhaps a few of us will take notice and take stock of their habits. And maybe the news will be free of sad, hindsight-laden stories for a while.
Carey Restino is the editor of The Arctic Sounder , where this commentary first appeared. It is republished here with permission.
By CAREY RESTINO