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When your snowmachine is swept into the Bering Sea on an ice pan

Craig Medred

Three days after the snowmachine of Nome resident Frank Carruthers took off on a journey toward Russia, he has it back. The helicopter retrieval from an ice flow in the Bering Sea nearly 550 miles north of Anchorage cost the 60-year-old commercial crabber $880, but he said he's happy to have one of the most important tools of his trade in hand.

And to be alive.

Carruthers was on the ice offshore from the historic, old, gold-mining town on Sunday checking his crab pots when the ice beneath his snowmachine started to move. Long-time Nome residents -- who can't quite see Russia from their houses but know it's only 200 miles across the water to the west -- blamed unseasonably warm weather, an offshore wind, and a seasonally elevated high tide.

"The wind was gusting to 44 mph,'' said Matt Johnson, chief of the Nome Volunteer Fire Department, "and the ice in Nome doesn't anchor itself very well anymore. I think it's due to the shoreline.''

Offshore gold miners

Nome has been slowly but steadily trying to build a port by inching a pair of breakwaters farther and farther into the sea off the mouth of the Snake River. The longest of these fingers of rock now extends almost two-thirds of a mile offshore.

Even that far off Nome's famous, gold-filled beaches -- where people still mine and some now become celebrities on the television show "Bering Sea Gold'' -- there isn't enough water to accommodate the draft off ocean-going ships, but the Nome harbor can now dock smaller, coastal transports and larger fishing boats. Not to mention the floating gold dredges of a small army of summer, offshore miners.

Unfortunately, Johnson said, the breakwater has also altered shoreline currents, and that appears to have made the coastal ice less stable, as Carruthers discovered over the weekend. He drove from Nome out onto the sea easily enough, but getting back became a different matter.

Open-water gap 

"I'd just finished checking my pots, and I was headed back in, and I saw there was a gap, like a 50-foot gap'' between the ice and shore, he said when reached by telephone in Nome Wednesday. The gap was filled with white-capped waves above cold, blue water. Carruthers said he momentarily thought to trying to water-skip his snowmachine to shore.

Water skipping is a well-established, sometimes dangerous, Alaska trick for crossing open water. If you hit the water fast enough, the snowmachine will plane across it for considerable distances if you keep the power up and the sled straight. Carruthers' thought of water skipping passed almost as fast as it popped into his head.

“I was pulling a sled,'' he said. "I've never skipped before. Everyone says you need flat calm water, and there were white caps.'' Plus, there was a howling headwind, and bad traction on the slick surface of the warming, offshore ice.

"My track was spinning and I was barely making headway into the wind to begin with,'' Carruthers said. He decided it best to come up with a plan other than water skipping. So he stopped, got out his cell phone and called for help.

Calling 911 

"I'm sure glad I remembered to stick it in my pocket,'' he said. "I probably would have figured out some way to signal'' without it, but the phone made things easier. Carruthers had told a friend where he was going and when he was expected back, so he was confident authorities would have been notified after 7 p.m. Sunday night. But it was a lot easier to dial 911 at 2:30 in the afternoon to report the problem, especially since the distance between the ice and shore was rapidly growing.

"I was thinking they'd put a skiff in and come out and get me,'' Carruthers said. "I wasn't expecting a helicopter.''

Johnson said Alaska State Troopers called him to start organizing that rescue by skiff shortly after Caruthers' emergency call. But as the fire department was organizing, troopers called back to say they'd decided to contract with Bering Air for a helicopter to go get Carruthers. There were concerns about the ever growing patch of open water between him and shore.

"By the time they picked me up,'' Carruthers said, "it was about a mile wide.''

He was happy to see the helicopter, but then again not so happy. Troopers rescue people; they do not rescue gear. By policy, those rescued by troopers are usually required to leave their gear behind. Carruthers got in the helicopter thinking he might have seen his Polaris trail touring snowmachine for the last time.

"It was headed somewhere out toward Sledge Island,'' said Johnson, who was a little surprised Carruthers got it back.

"Over the years,'' he said, "we've had people lose their stuff. Usually, if you lose something in the ocean, it's lost. I know one guy who lost one (snowmachine), and it was last seen off Shishmaref. It was out on the pan ice.''

Hauled by cargo net 

Shishmaref is Bering Sea coastal village about 130 miles north of Nome. No one ever reported the snowmachine drifting to shore, Johnson said, at least on the U.S. side of the Bering Strait. It could conceivably have gone to Russia, but Johnson presumes it eventually sank.

Carruthers was worried that's what would happen to his Polaris.

"I walked out (Tuesday) to the causeway by the harbor and looked out with binoculars and didn't seen any sign of it,'' he said. "The ice was all jumbled up. I thought that was it.'' But a Bering Air helicopter pilot spotted it on Wednesday and was able to land on the ice nearby with a crewman.

"They put a cargo net down and drove the machine onto it,'' Carruthers said, and then sling-loaded the machine off the ice and back to town.

"I guess it had drifted about 6 miles west,'' Carruthers said. The return of the sled put the commercial fisherman back in business, although he admits he could have done without the added expense.

The winter king crab fishery in the waters of Nome is small and not terribly profitable.

"There's not much money in it,'' Carruthers said. "It makes expenses and a little more. (But) if you pay $880 for a helicopter, you don't make much money.''

Johnson said Carruthers might have been better off if he'd stayed home Sunday. The tides, the warm weather, and the wind were all warning against heading out onto the ice that day, the fire chief said. "People need to pay attention to the weather,'' he said. "That's the number-one thing people need to do. Monitor the weather forecast. People need to do that everywhere.''

Fickle Bering Sea ice

Carruthers is now wishing that is what he had done. He's got his snowmachine back at a cost, but some of his crab gear is still missing. "The pilot said he saw some of my crab gear,'' Carruthers added. He hopes to retrieve it. The fickle Bering Sea ice -- once far offshore from Nome -- was moving back in on Wednesday.

"It's pretty close to being maybe 100 feet offshore,'' said John Bahnke, the owner of Wilderness Ski-Doo and a sometimes crabber who grew up in Nome. Bahnke was crabbing last week, too, but got off the ice before it moved.

"I was born and raised here,'' he said. "You have to pay attention. This could happen any year if you're not paying attention.''

Consider it another of those odd hazards of working -- or playing -- in the 49th state.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com