Homer couple survives fall into Tustumena Lake
Petersens find refuge in well-stocked cabin
By Michael Armstrong
Photo by Brent Petersen
Diane Petersen stands in front of the Tustumena Lake cabin where she and her husband, Brent, found refuge after breaking through ice on the lake.
A travel plan, good winter gear, a cabin stocked with food and firewood, and dogged persistence kept a Homer couple from freezing in the wilderness last Thursday. An Alaska State Trooper helicopter and rescuers picked up Brent Petersen, 47, and Diane Petersen, 41, at a cabin at the southeastern end of Tustumena Lake at 9:15 p.m., about 10 hours after their snowmobile broke through the ice. Troopers took the Petersens to their car parked on the north end of the lake. Except for mild hypothermia and a touch of frostbite, the Petersens survived their ordeal without injury.
"A lot of things went really, really wrong," Diane Petersen said this week. "But a whole lot of things went right. We're still here."
The adventure started the morning of Jan. 20 when the Petersens drove from Homer about 60 miles north to Kasilof and down a side road to Tustumena Lake. They set off in their snowmachine down the lake to see Tustumena Glacier, a day trip Brent Petersen had done before. They rode about 30 miles from the north end by Tustumena Road near Kasilof toward the glacier at the south end.
Temperatures were between 15 and 20 degrees, and the lake ice looked solid. Brent drove the snowmachine with Diane on back. While rounding a small island about 10:30 a.m., Brent saw water on top of ice.
"I thought, 'Uh oh,' we have to get moving and get away from it," he said in a phone interview while waiting for a plane to his job on the North Slope. "It was a little too late when I throttled up. I could see the rear end of the snowmachine start to sink."
Diane jumped to her right off the snowmachine and Brent jumped to his left. Both fell into open water.
With a 30-pound pack on her back and water quickly filling her boots and clothing, Diane floundered. She finally got a hold of a chunk of ice but couldn't get out of the water. Brent got onto solid ice.
"I reached over and grabbed her backpack with one hand and literally pulled her out of the water," he said.
With the weight of the pack and water-filled clothing, Diane guessed she weighed about 200 pounds. Although Brent works out, she was amazed he got her out.
"My husband pulled me out with one arm" — a feat that left him sore all weekend, she said.
She didn't know how long they were in the water.
The couple had food, a compass, matches, a space blanket and other survival gear in their pack. They got out chemical hand warmers.
Troopers later said they should have stopped and made a fire to warm up, but the Petersens said they aren't sure they could have found wood fast enough. They started walking northeast toward shore to cabins Brent had noticed earlier as they rode along the lakeshore.
"That hike to the cabin was hard. We were pretty drenched and soaked," Brent said.
"We were really getting exhausted," Diane said. "We couldn't stop. If we stopped, our legs would seize up."
About two miles from where they went into the water, the Petersens first found a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cabin, but a wood stove had been removed. Brent remembered seeing another cabin to the north. After a short hike, they found an unlocked private cabin.
Photo by Brent Petersen
The cabin where the Petersens found refuge after falling through ice on Tustumena Lake.
"It was all fancy. It had a wood stove. There was wood already there," Diane said. "It was like Goldilocks and the Three Bears."
The Petersens started a fire, melted snow for water and ate a can of beef stew.
It took them about 3 hours and a 3-mile walk to find refuge.
"That was when we knew we would be OK for the time being," Diane said.
From a journal in the cabin they found the name of the cabin's owner. The Petersens are trying to contact him to thank him for keeping the cabin open and stocked.
Safe and warm that night, the Petersens faced another challenge: getting home. They had filed a travel plan with Brent's father, Gary Petersen in Anchorage, and told him to call for help if he didn't hear from them by 4 p.m.
Gary Petersen called troopers at 4:03 p.m.
Troopers started a search. An initial helicopter flight didn't find the Petersens, but a second helicopter and crew located them using night vision goggles. The Petersens waved flashlights when they heard the chopper.
Diane said a storm had rolled in and she didn't think the troopers would fly.
"I was amazed they came that night. I was sure they wouldn't put their lives on the line with that storm coming in," she said of the troopers.
"They were shocked," she said. The troopers had told them they were expecting to recover bodies. "They were absolutely stunned we were still alive. I was, too."
Also with troopers was a volunteer with the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group, an organization Diane said she also wanted to thank.
Brent Petersen said staying calm made all the difference.
"You don't know how you're going to react until you're in the situation," he said. "I was just thankful I was able to keep my cool."
"It didn't really occur to us to panic," Diane said. "We were very goal oriented. That's probably good."
Diane said she wanted to talk about their adventure to help others avoid what they went through.
"People just need to be aware of the dangers of frozen lakes," she said.
Brent Petersen said he's now heard of a snowmachiner floatation suit made by Mustang he wishes he'd had.
"If it helps people, I'd like to let them to know to stay calm," he said. "That's ultimately what saved us."
The Petersens said they've been talking to each other about their adventure and have written down their stories.
"There will be some remnants of what we've gone through," Diane said. "The rest of our lives will be a gift."
"It's funny how it really makes you appreciate little things after an experience like that," Brent said. "It didn't seem normal for three or four days. Everything was surreal. We were that close to death."
The Petersens have not yet made plans to recover the snowmachine or if it's even possible.
Actions that helped the Petersens survive
• The Petersens filed a travel plan with Gary Petersen, Brent's father in Anchorage, including an expected time of return.
• They had good survival gear, including clothing in layers, warm boots, and a space blanket, food, compass, matches and water, all carried in a backpack worn by Diane Petersen.
• The Petersens kept moving until they found a cabin with firewood and a stove.
• "Another thing we had going for us was sobriety," Diane said. "We weren't drinking."
• Above all, the Petersens kept calm and didn't panic.