What is overflow? Any experienced snowmobiler can answer that question.
Overflow, as the term is used in Alaska, is water flowing on top of the ice. No Alaska winter excursion would be complete without it.
Overflow can occur at any temperature. Sometimes it is visible, most times it is not. Either way it can provide an adventure.
As I always contend, an adventure is just another way of saying you made a mistake. Snowmobilers who drive big mountain sleds with tons of horsepower and paddle tracks scoff at visible water on the ice. They grab some throttle and go for it.
However, hidden overflow a foot or more deep under snow cover can give even big, powerful machines the fits.
The best way to deal with overflow is to avoid it. Knowing what to look for is key. Knowledgeable awareness helps, but is no guarantee.
This past week I had a tourist from Florida out riding. Of course he was depending on his “experienced backwoods guide” to help him navigate the backcountry safely. I did a fair job until just before dark.
A couple miles from the truck, we skirted the edge of a big lake. I was riding a Skandic Superwide. Don’t get them stuck! A 700-pound machine with 300 pounds of slush in the undercarriage is an immovable object.
I felt the snow get loose under the track and the machine sagged. I backed off so as not to spin the track and made it back to solid snow.
My client was not so lucky. He sank his machine — a Skandic with a 20-inch long track — in a foot of slush and water.
Here is the technique to extract a machine that can’t be lifted:
Find the shortest route to decent snow. Walk a trail back to your machine, kicking or shoveling fresh snow onto your walking route and packing it with your feet. The amount of snow you will need depends on the water depth.
The machine will need to tipped on its side and a pad of snow built under it. Be sure the skis are clean of slush. Once the pad is built solidly, your machine can be driven out easily. Walk alongside and baby the throttle. Don’t spin the track. This is a good plan if there are two people. One person alone can’t tip a wide track full of slush.
The other method is to shovel a clean path down to the ice. This requires the snowmobiler to carry a decent plastic shovel and not be afraid of a little work. All machines will run on ice with water on it. If your choice is to use this method be sure you build a good solid ramp to get your snowmachine up on top once you hit decent snow.
I also carry a rope come-along with 100 feet of rope. Another essential, if one travels alone, is a Danforth-style anchor. If you are working in open country without much to hook to, a 13-pound Danforth is the ticket. Fortress makes a aluminum/magnesium alloy model that weighs less than 7 pounds. A dog sled snowhook works almost as well, though they are tougher to work in overflows.
The real key to overflow is to avoid it. Understanding the cause of water under the snow will help. Lakes freeze relatively early in the season. As they freeze deeper, the weight of the ice, and the pressure, compresses the water underneath. The expanding ice cracks and water comes through. The insulating snow cover keeps the water from freezing. Water will puddle in the low spots toward the middle of lakes and ponds where the ice sags.
Run the shorelines on lakes. Avoid locations where creeks enter, or where there are open springs. Little springs don’t dump much water on the lakes, but they will trickle out enough to get you stuck.
Creeks and rivers are another story. Glacial streams are mostly immune to serious overflow. However, rivers like the Gakona River will have plenty of sections with running water on top. Alaska is also full of small clearwater creeks that have serious overflow running bank to bank. Check on foot before you dive off the bank to cross any creek.
Lakes can be surveyed as you ride the edge. Anything that looks like an open hole with spider-like arms means there is overflow all over that area. Head for shore.
Overflow doesn’t have to ruin your ride. Remember not to spin the track on trail machines. The opposite may be true with high-powered paddle tracks — know your ride. One of the keys to extricating a snowmobile is to stay away from the back end of the machine and avoid lifting. Neither of these things will do much for you under the majority of circumstances. In shallow overflow, all that may be necessary is to clear the front end and have your buddy (who, of course, is wearing waterproof boots) tug on a ski while you give the machine a little gas. Many times your sled will walk right out.
The great winter weather we have been experiencing has been a boon to snowmobile riders. The time to get out and enjoy winter is now, over Christmas vacation. Getting out of overflow will add just enough spice to make your trip memorable.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.