Life in Alaska

Our Survival Story – Part 1

My Name is Vivian (Cotter) Mayo, and with my husband, Scott, I reside in Cantwell, Alaska, where we’ve lived, loved, and nearly frozen to death—this is our survival story.

First, I should lay some groundwork about how we came to live in the small village of Cantwell… I was born in Anchorage in 1957, a territorial baby, since the Territory of Alaska didn’t become a state until 1959. The first seven years of my life were spent in a “flat-roofed” little house at 1424 Juneau Street. When the 1964 earthquake shook our Anchorage homes from their foundations, my family decided that the time was right to try something new. So, my parents, Herman and Muriel Cotter, grandfather, Alwyn Smith, and uncles, Dick and Bob, purchased the small town of Cantwell, Alaska, 230 miles north.burned-snowmachine-003

My dad, mom and four siblings packed up, sold the house, departed earthquake-torn Anchorage, and headed “way up north.” We arrived in Cantwell via the Denali Highway on July 4, 1964. As kids we didn’t know what to expect, and boy were we surprised and dismayed to find no telephones, TVs, radios, or commercial power at our new home. It was like going back in time!

My upbringing in Cantwell was unique to say the least… My parents owned the only bar within a hundred miles—I could tell a host of stories that came from that place. I started 3rd grade in a one room school with an “outhouse.” No matter what the temperature was, when you had to “go,” off you went to the freezing outdoor privy. A little behind the times for the 1960s!

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Scott P Mayo, at 18 years old, fell in love with the freedom of Alaska the moment he stepped off the plane. He hired on with the Alaska Railroad and his job eventually landed him in my little town, where in December of 1975, we were married.

Scott and I are blessed with three wonderful children, Kevin, Kaeleen and Blaine. We raised them in Cantwell, where the winters are long and the summers are short but there was no better place to bring up our self-sufficient kids.

In the early ‘80s, Scott and I decided to expand on “Our Alaskan Dream” and began “winter camping.” With the lives of our children in our hands, Scott and I learned to prepare well and not take any unnecessary risks.

For 30 years our family has been safely snowmobiling, ice fishing, ptarmigan hunting and trapping the Monahan Flats area, 35 miles east of Cantwell. We have graduated from the small tents with tarp floors and an outdoor “kitchen” that we started with to glorified wall tents. Our camp is now comprised of three, insulated and comfy tents. One “cook tent,” two “sleeping tents” and an outhouse. These wall tents are the “cabins” I will speak of later in my story.

Our kids have grown up and moved away, but Scott and I remain in Cantwell, and are stubbornly hanging on to our “Alaskan” lifestyle. Some may think we’re too “old” to keep doing this stuff, but we continue our winter camping, ice fishing and trapping because we love these activities. They make us feel “young.” Still, even considering our years of extensive planning and preparation, with familiarity comes complacency.

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The Cabins

In November of 2013, Scott and I began planning a 5-day trip to our “lakeside winter camp” on Monahan Flats. Planning a trip like this represents weeks of prep time. We can’t just jump on our machines and go. First there’s the 360-mile round-trip drive to town to get supplies and gas. I then prepare pre-cooked meals, pack our other food stuffs and water while Scott checks out our snow machines and gear. By the time we’re ready to hit the trail we have two or three large cargo sleds packed to the hilt. I pull one sled behind my machine and Scotty pulls two in tandem.

I normally love our trips to winter camp but right up to the day before we left I had thoughts about canceling this one. It just felt a little off kilter to me and I wasn’t “feelin’ the love.” But, I knew Scott was excited about going so I ignored my reservations and just went with it. Even my daughter, Kaeleen, who worries most about us, actually got sick to her stomach with worry when I told her about our trip, which is a little unusual, even for her.

Scott and I had purchased a SPOT GPS messenger device so we could send a “we’re okay” or a “we need help” message, but we didn’t purchase the darn activation subscription. Not the smartest thing we’ve ever done. Kaeleen had asked about the SPOT right away. “Mom did you activate your GPS SPOT?” I said, “No, honey, we’ll do that after Christmas.” We were saving that money for the grandkids’ Christmas presents. Then I told Kaeleen, in my most reassuring voice, “We’ll be fine, don’t worry, we’ll be careful.”

To my credit, I did call each of the kids and told them to come looking for us if we weren’t home by 9:00 PM on December 10th.

Anyway, that’s how our trip began. It started on a sour note and just continued to get worse and worse until it almost took our lives.

December 5, 2013

Scott and I had most of our gear packed up and ready to go the night before we were supposed to leave for camp. There are only a few hours of daylight in December and we wanted to get an early start so we could get there before dark. In the morning we realized we had quite a bit more packing to do and didn’t get on the trail until about 1:00 PM.

It didn’t help that I was moving mighty slow that morning. I had put off making our fire starters for camp until the last minute and was up late getting them ready. They’re made with egg cartons, dryer lint and wax. My daughter-in-law, Tracy, had given me the recipe and I was dying to try them out. I was kind of manic about getting them done. I don’t know why, but they did end up playing a big part in my survival. ucm-320-x-180-bear-1

Our house in Cantwell is only a quarter mile or so from the trailhead. So, once we were packed, had the sleds hooked up, and our Jack Russell terrier, Elvis, in his pink snowsuit, we stepped out our door and took off down the trail—Scotty on his, 503 “super wide track” Ski-doo, and I on my 440 Arctic Cat.

It was cloudy and about 20 above, so the first 30 miles of our 35-mile trip zipped by. The 5-mile trail off of the Denali Highway was a different story. At Monahan Creek, Scotty went out on the ice first. I always wait to see if he crosses safely before I follow him onto the ice. Not so safe this time! Scott’s machine fell through shelf ice into a large hole. Only the tips of his skis were sticking up. Thank goodness there was no running water in the bottom.

Scott unhooked his cargo sleds and stomped as much snow as he could under the track of his machine. I then backed up to the edge of the hole with my Arctic Cat to pull him out. It took a few good yanks, but out it came! We’re pros at this kind of thing. It’s happened many times on our snow machining escapades over the years.

When we were hooking up the tow rope, I felt the ice give a little bit and another big hole opened up a few feet from us! I’ll never get used to that! It’s still scary even if it has happened before. At this point I was pretty worried about being out there alone with no backup. We talked about turning around and going home right then, but we pushed on.

It was dark by that time and hard to see the trail. We ran into overflow on the lake, and even though we made it through, I was not a happy camper! Overflow feels kinda like quicksand. It’s formed when snow pushes the lake ice down and the water seeps up through every crack and crevice creating hidden pockets of water under pristine looking snow. Off you go gliding over the beautiful snow covered lake on your powerful snow machine when all of a sudden you feel that sickening drag and you know it is the dreaded overflow. You’re not going to drown in the two feet of slush but it wreaks havoc on your trip!

We finally made it across the lake to camp and were so relieved to be at our little “cabin.” We unloaded our gear and had steaming bowls of chili to warm ourselves up. Tired out from the strenuous trip, it wasn’t long before we settled in and went to bed, and slept peacefully all night. The fire was burning in the wood stove and we were warm and cozy.

When we woke up the weather was still warm and foggy. I made Scotty coffee and a little breakfast. He finished up, got his gear together and took off at around 11:00 AM to put out a few Marten traps. I was worried about him out there alone, but Scott made it back to camp around 3:45 PM, well before dark, and I was happy!

We had a nice evening. Scotty played some cards while I was hooking a rug for Blaine and Tracy’s Christmas present. We also hooked up our new $100.00 radio. In hindsight we should have used that money to activate our SPOT, but with the new radio we could listen to something besides static! Our favorite station was the Juneau “oldies” station. Scott and I love our 60’s and 70’s music. Being able to listen to music and the weather was super exciting for us. What can I say? We’re easily amused. After all the radio excitement, Scott and I hit the rack and had another uneventful night. Just the way we like it.

We got up the morning of December 7th to more warm and foggy weather. I had a strong cup of coffee and made Scott breakfast. He didn’t want eggs or pancakes, he wanted “dinty moore stew” on toast points. When you’re at camp “toast point” translates into plain old bread. I whipped up his outlandish breakfast and got him all set to go out for another play day in the fog.

I was a little preoccupied when Scotty packed up to leave because I had a metal sliver in my thumb and was concentrating on that instead of him. He gave me a big smile and said, “Okay Honey, I’m going.” The last thing I said to Scott that day was, “Love you, don’t do anything stupid.” Hee hee hee. Ohhhh famous last words!

After Scott left I spent a relaxed and peaceful day hanging out with Elvis, doing a few chores, reading and hooking the rug.

I began worrying about Scott when he didn’t come home by 4:00. I started looking out the window, pacing, listening, and anxiously waiting for him to show up. I kept my eye on the clock, watching the time slowly tick by, and starting to feel sick in the pit of my stomach.

I knew I had to do a few things before it got dark. I had burned most of the split wood so I had to split enough for the coming night. It’s a tough job splitting wood and I was happy I got it done without chopping off my toes. When my dad was a young man he chopped his big toe off and I wasn’t interested in following in his footsteps that way.

About a half hour before dark, Elvis and I were sitting in the cook tent listening to the radio and waiting. Well, I was listening and Elvis was sleeping next to me. I was so overcome with anxiety I had to get up and do something. I went to the cabin window hoping to see Scott, but what I saw instead shocked me. I saw what looked like fresh wolf tracks on the lake. While I was sitting in the cabin with the radio on, a pack of wolves had snuck through camp!

Out on the lake in front of the cook tent there was a dimple of open water in the overflow and it looked like numerous animals had dropped by for a drink of water. I wanted to investigate the tracks further but felt it was much too dangerous for me to go out on the lake alone.

This wouldn’t be the first time wolves had come into our camp. A few years back we came out to find a fresh caribou kill on the lake—and bloody wolf scat in front of every door and on every trail in camp.

I was horrified and surprised at how quietly the pack had come through. Elvis hadn’t even heard them! Thank goodness they hadn’t shown up when I was splitting wood or heading to the outhouse. It would have been catastrophic if Elvis had been outside. The wolves may have killed him.

I decided right then that I would stay in the cook tent. That way I would only have to stoke one wood stove and I wouldn’t be wandering from tent to tent in the dark. I went over to the sleep tent and got bedding and a “honey bucket.” You couldn’t pay me to walk to the outhouse in the dark with wolves close by!

I was feeling very vulnerable so I thought I would lock the door until Scott showed up. This is when I noticed that the door of the cook tent wouldn’t latch. I thought, “Jeez if something pushes on that door it’s going to fly open and they’re going to come in for a little visit.” I spent the next few hours moving the catch plate around trying to get that door to latch. Well, it never did close properly so, to ease my mind, I slid some heavy stuff up against the door so nothing could sneak in on me. This was the first time I had ever spent the night at camp without Scott and I missed my husband’s comforting presence by my side.

I knew if Scotty made it back to camp he would be freezing. So before lying down, I stoked the wood stove with several spruce logs. I didn’t notice until after I filled that “sucker” up that the fabric gasket around the door had come loose and was falling out. By the time I saw the problem, the stove was so blazing hot that I couldn’t fix it. I just had to close the door the way it was and hope for the best but the stove was sucking air like crazy. Needless to say, it took off like a house afire. Man, I’m not kidding, I thought the tent was going to go up in flames.

Thinking fast I came up with a solution to shut it down. I covered the whole front of the stove with tin foil, hoping to cut off the air supply. Thank goodness it worked! The fire died down, but I burned my thumb pretty bad in the process. The firefighting kept me occupied for an hour or so, but Scott was foremost on my mind all night. I lay awake tormented by my thoughts, wondering if Scott was dead or alive. My brain wouldn’t stop! I kept thinking of all the worst case scenarios: #1, Scott had a heart attack, #2, he had broken a limb, and #3, he cut himself with his axe while chopping bait. There seemed to be endless possibilities for me to choose from.

Of course my first thought would be that Scott had suffered a heart attack. He had open heart surgery in 2004, and three stents in 2012, so a heart attack was a real possibility. Then I thought, No, no, he’s been feeling so strong and he has his nitro with him just in case. So, heart attack went a little farther down the list of things that might have stopped him from coming home. But, #2 and #3 and on down the line were weighing heavy on my mind.

Now I’ve lived in Alaska my whole life and I know how unpredictable the Alaskan weather can be. It was a balmy 18 above, but the temperature could drop to minus 30 in mere hours. A 60 degree temperature change in a day is not unheard of in this neck of the woods. I also knew that the kids wouldn’t be looking for us until 9:00 PM on the 10th of December. That boiled down to the fact that Scott would be at the mercy of the Alaskan weather for three long days. And that wasn’t acceptable to me.

All night I thought about what I should do. Should I go look for him on the back trail? Should I walk up there?” I couldn’t just sit here if Scott was out there helpless, hurt or freezing. If he had passed away from a heart attack I didn’t want the birds or the wolves … I didn’t want anything to touch him.

I left the oil lamp burning, hoping that Scott would see the light and it might help him find his way home. The sadness, loneliness and worries about Scott were crushing.

That night as I lay there on the couch, I thought, I will not sit in this warm cabin while Scott’s in trouble! Whether he had a heart attack or hurt himself, I could not sit there until our son, Kevin, came on the 10th. That’s just not in my makeup—that’s not who I am.

So, I made a decision. I told myself … in the morning, if I can get my machine started, I’m going to go get help. I’m going to Cantwell to get a search party to find Scott.

Since I’ve lived this lifestyle for many years I’m a fairly strong and capable gal. That being said I was aware of my physical limitations. I’m not in top-notch shape anymore—a bit overweight and I have an artificial knee. But none of these things mattered. I was going to do whatever I could to help Scotty. I wasn’t going to sit and wait; he would never do that if it was me out there in trouble.

Five or six miles away Scott was alive and praying I would not leave the cabin. Scott had made the cardinal mistake of not taking extra gas with him on what was supposed to be a short exploration trip. Enjoying the day and looking for new places to make sets, Scott had meandered through the woods and meadows making many new trails. About three hours into his trip and much to his surprise, Scott realized he was about ten miles west of where he was supposed to be. Looking down and seeing his gas gauge and knowing he hadn’t brought extra gas, Scott knew he had to head to camp right away. Now Scotty’s snow machine is a workhorse and will go through any amount of snow, but it is a gas hog while breaking trail. Knowing this, Scott knew he had to stick to the trails to make it home without running out of gas. The problem was it was foggy so he was unable to see any landmarks. He had made so many loops and turns on his way that he couldn’t find the trail that led home. He ended up going in circles for a while before he realized it and started marking each trail by dragging his foot. By this time it was totally dark.

Unable to see his surroundings and dangerously low on gas, Scott decided to camp for the night and try again in the morning. Scott had his buddy heater and a tarp so he made his bed in his cargo sled and was fairly warm and cozy. He was more worried about what I was thinking and doing than he was about himself. After an uneventful night, except for the nightmare of a marten in his bed, Scott woke up to more foggy weather. After following the confusing trails for a few more hours, Scott ran out of gas! He looked around and said to himself, “Well, this is survival now,” and he dug in.

Meanwhile back at the cabin…

My machine looked much too cold and frosty for me to start, but I had to give it my best shot. I’m kind of a wimp in the upper-body department so Scott usually starts my machine for me. It’s a bugger to pull when it’s been sitting for a while and it had been sitting for a couple of days. But, I was determined to get it started and go get help for Scotty. I needed to do something and I had a plan!

The snow was deep around my machine, so I packed down a place to stand to give me maximum leverage and pulling power. The first time I pulled it was much too stiff to start. But the second time around I really gave it my all and I threw my weight into it. I’m a big gal and I pack some weight and damned if it didn’t start! I couldn’t believe it! Well, I had choked it and done all the things I knew I was supposed to do. But I was still a little surprised that I got that beast started. I took this as a sign that I was doing the right thing. My mind was made up. Boom! I’m gone. I’m going to Cantwell and getting help for Scott.

I may be stupid, but I ain’t dumb and I wasn’t going to leave camp without survival gear. So I quickly started packing a few things. I stuffed my down blanket, a blue synthetic blanket, my homemade fire starters, a box of matches, and a couple pages of last year’s calendar in a black plastic garbage bag. In camp the day before, Scott had torn the pages off the calendar saying they would make good fire fodder. Boy was he right! I had extra wool socks, pants and lots of other stuff I might need inside my suitcase so I pitched that and the plastic bag in the sled that was still hooked up to my snow machine. I grabbed a plastic tote and threw some chocolate crackers and a bowl of pork ribs inside. That went in the sled too. The very last thing I remembered to bring was my North Slope parka. It was in the sleep tent in a plastic bag in the corner, it would have been so easy to forget. That parka saved my life, there’s no doubt about it. Without it, I would have frozen to death.

I was scared! I had never made the 35-mile trip alone. We always used the buddy system for safety reasons. I knew I wasn’t supposed to leave the cabin but I just wasn’t going to stay. So with my heart in my throat, Elvis and I started down the trail.

There’s a fork in the trail up on the back side of camp. One fork goes up to where Scotty ran his trap line and the other takes you around the lake toward Cantwell. I sat at the fork for a few minutes and questioned my decision. Should I go up the trapping trail and look for Scott? He had told me the day before that the trails were really confusing even for him and not to come looking for him if he didn’t come home.

Monahan flats is notorious for losing people because of its repetitious nature. Hence the name “Monahan Flats” … a fellow with the name of Pete Monahan was found frozen on the flats in the early 1900s.

Remembering what Scott had said, I headed down the Cantwell Fork. I knew I could make it to Cantwell. I knew it! I’d traveled that trail so many times I knew it like the back of my hand.

There were three places on the trail that I was worried about. The first was the overflow on the lake. By sticking to the outer edge of the lake and avoiding the worst of the overflow, Scott and I had barely escaped getting stuck on the way into camp. Even then we were nearly pulled down numerous times. Now leaving camp there was no way around it! Sticking to the trail, I headed toward the overflow. Some of it was frozen but I felt the soft slushy drag soon enough! In overflow the throttle is your friend, so I put the pedal to the metal and zoomed out of there. I almost got stuck twice but I made it through!

With a little pat on my back I started toward the second obstacle. Monahan Creek! But my luck was holding out and I sailed over the creek with relief. The big gaping holes where Scott had fallen through the ice were clearly visible and easy to avoid. It was still scary though! I expected to crash through the ice at any moment.

The last challenge in my mind was the long hill heading up out of Monahan Creek. Just another disaster waiting to happen! With lots of trees and no wind the snow is always deep and soft on the hillside. I knew if I screwed up and slipped off the trail my snow machine would be buried deep in the snow and being able to get myself free was unlikely, so I moved forward with the utmost caution. Keeping my speed up and carefully negotiating the trail I made it to the top of the hill. Whew!

That’s when I said to myself, “Viv, you’re home free. That was your last real challenge.”

It’s about five miles from our lakeside camp to the Denali Highway and I was moving along fine and dandy. I was singing “Forever and Ever,” Mom and Dad’s favorite song, over and over in my mind. I guess I’m still a kid at heart and need Mom and Dad to comfort me when I’m scared and feeling vulnerable.

Suddenly, my machine made a loud grinding noise and the track stopped moving. The engine was still running but the track refused to move. My heart sank and I said to myself, “Viv, you just made the biggest mistake of your life. You are stuck out here in the middle of nowhere and it’s going to be nearly impossible to walk 2.5 miles back to the cabin before dark.”

I knew I was in big trouble…
Story to be continued in the Jan./Feb. 2017 issue.

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10 replies »

  1. Wow! Amazing to see, my feelings, my words, my survival story in the Last Frontier magazine and on their website. What started out being therapy turned into a pretty good story. Thank you Anne Sanders!

  2. A frightening trip. I still can’t believe Viv & Scott survived this almost tragic misadventure. I’m glad I know the rest of the story! Well written and should be read by every person planning a winter trip in the wilds of Alaska.

  3. GREAT WRITING !! I MET YOU GUYS SEVERAL TIMES WHEN I LIVED ALONG HONOLULU CREEK, SOUTH OF CANTWELL. REMEMBER MIKE PROUTY AND THAT OLD FART IN THE CABIN AT DENALI ? I LIVED AT GRACIOS HOUSE ONE WINTER TOO. I CANT WAIT TO READ THE R4ST OF YOUR STORY !

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