Arctic Survival School, aka "Cool School," holds 18 sessions a year between November and March. Here are some images from the first class of the season. (MIKE HOFFMAN / STAFF)
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(MIKE HOFFMAN / STAFF)
(MIKE HOFFMAN / STAFF)
(MIKE HOFFMAN / STAFF)
(MIKE HOFFMAN / STAFF)
EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska Staff Sgt. Jason Mihal stopped, bent down and inspected the animal tracks across the snow-covered path.
A survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialist, Mihal nodded, looked up and told his students what he suspected.
"Those are probably wolf tracks," he said. "I'm guessing at least four of them walked by pretty recently, but don't worry. They don't want anything to do with humans."
Mihal's words were little comfort to his four charges, who all wondered whether the wolf pack would return to prove Mihal wrong.
Each student shuffled through the snow to start his three-day Arctic Survival School field test with only a bolt knife, a Leatherman, an MRE, and a can of pork and beans to ward off the Alaskan cold.
Aircrews from all services and SERE specialists can attend Arctic Survival School, or "Cool School," at Eielson, about 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle. In the winter, temperatures in the area just south of polar bear country can fall to 50 degrees below zero.
Cool School holds 18 sessions a year, all between November and March. Students get two days of instruction in the classroom and three days out in the field. They learn how to build insulated shelters, start a fire, hunt food and, most importantly, stay warm.
The first class of the season had 13 students 10 aircrew members, a SERE specialist, a Coast Guard pilot and an Air Force Times reporter. It was a small class; attendance is usually near 30.
Eielson, the SERE specialists explained apologetically, was unseasonably warm for the first week of November. The high temperature hovered around 20 degrees.
"It's not supposed to drop below zero," SERE specialist Tech. Sgt. Brian Kemmer said dejectedly the day before the class set out for the field. "We're hoping it gets down to zero, but it's really only supposed to be between 10 and 20 degrees."
Slides and lectures filled the two days of classroom time, although the students had the chance to look at ice shelters, impromptu snowshoes and stuffed polar bears.
"Even at a survival school, you can't escape the curse of the PowerPoint slide," said Tech. Sgt. Steve Nedorolik, a Reserve aeromedical evacuation technician stationed at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.
The specialists hit hard on the subjects of food, clothing and shelter. After all, if an airman knows how to dress appropriately, kill his dinner breakfast, too and protect himself from the cold, he stands a good chance of living to tell about it.
One lesson that students didn't expect was how to avoid sweating even when temperatures dip below zero. "To sweat in the Arctic is to die in the Arctic," the instructors said repeatedly.
"It's not dangerous while you're active and dripping in sweat, but once you stop moving, the sweat on your body freezes and quickly puts you at risk for hypothermia," Senior Airman Jess Evans told the class.
Wearing a wicking layer made of the right material wool, for example keeps moisture off the skin and ultimately keeps the body warm, Evans said. Cotton, on the other hand, soaks up moisture and puts an airman at risk.
Like most civilians, most of the students knew about wearing layers to keep warm. Far fewer knew what to do to keep from starving to death in the wilderness.
For the three days in the field, each student got one MRE, a can of pork and beans and a thin spool of wire to build a rabbit trap.
The specialists reassured the students they could survive on the packaged food alone but would be ravenous, considering how many calories they would burn to stay warm, if they didn't make hunting a priority.
"During a survival situation you have to take stock of priorities and, at some point, collecting food must be one. If you guys don't hunt out there, you will be hungry and not very happy come Friday," said Airman 1st Class Jason Allchin, another SERE specialist.
A trapping two-star
Wednesday morning, about 8, and the sun wasn't up and wouldn't be for another hour. Daylight lasts about eight hours this time of year. The mercury hit 14 degrees.
The six specialists split the class into three elements, each with four or five students and two specialists.
Mihal and Allchin led a team that included Nedorolik; Senior Airman Brandon Dunn, also a Reserve aeromedical evacuation technician at Peterson; and Lt. Ian Hurst, a Coast Guard pilot stationed at Kodiak, Alaska. Staff Sgt. Mark Dornford also oversaw the element and helped Allchin, who was teaching his first arctic survival class.
A bus took the students to a trail behind Eielson that leads to the Cool School camp sites, which Kemmer explained are rotated regularly to minimize the human footprint.
The camp was another 20 minutes downhill. Surrounded by evergreens dusted in snow was a circle of logs beneath a parachute canopy. A 10-foot-tall pile of logs was 20 yards away.
First order of business was to build a shelter with the logs and what each student was carrying a plastic tarp, a parachute and parachute cord.
Allchin demonstrated how to put up an A-frame that he promised would keep out the snow and wind. Then he sent everyone off to pick a spot to put up his own quarters.
"I'd recommend a flat one," he advised. "Any sort of decline will push you to the bottom of your A-frame."
The four students split up and walked in different directions. After picking a spot, their next job was to find the logs to build the shelter's skeleton. Students stripped off Air Force-issued thick green "fat boy" pants and parkas remember, to sweat in the Arctic is to die in the Arctic and trudged sometimes 200 yards from their shelter site to find logs the right size to build their temporary homes.
It took some time and knot-tying to get the skeletons up. Then each student threw his tarp over the frame and covered it with snow, moss or a combination of both to trap heat. The finishing touch was a makeshift door made of logs and a parachute filled with snow to cover the entrance.
With the shelters built, the students headed back to the fire circle for lunch. Everyone fished out the pork and beans.
"Bush's beans would have been nice," Dunn said.
No one disagreed.
Halfway through the meal, the rumble of ATVs drowned out the sounds of chewing and swallowing. The specialists gave a heads-up that 19th Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Gregory Feest was coming for a visit.
"That's probably his entourage heading this way," Hurst said.
Hurst was right; it was Feest.
The two-star and the students talked a bit Feest asked questions, the students answered them before Allchin came around with the next assignment: setting snares for rabbits.
He pointed out the animals' paths in the snow. "Rabbits are just like humans when it comes to walking in the snow," Allchin explained. "They prefer to walk back in their tracks. It's easier."
Even with Feest looking on, Allchin was calm and authoritative, fielding the students' questions. Feest set his trap first. Each student chose a different line of rabbit tracks, prepped a wire noose connected to a log and set the trap down.
Before long, the general and his entourage headed off to visit the other elements.
"Being out there and feeling how cold it was during the day, I am impressed the students out there spend two nights no matter how cold it gets," Feest said three weeks after he returned from his visit.
The rest of the afternoon was spent learning different skills how to start a fire, how to melt snow and how to filter snow through a parachute to produce drinking water.
At 4 p.m., darkness started falling. A couple of hours later, Allchin and Mihal left for the night after checking the students' feet for frostbite and trench foot.
All four students were cold, tired and hungry. They ripped open their MREs.
Exhausted and ready to crawl into their sleeping bags, the students headed off to bed about 9 p.m. Once in their shelters, they wrestled off their fat boy pants, parkas and white rubber "bunny" boots. The temperature was in the teens warm by arctic standards.
Only when morning came and they woke up not frozen to death or eaten by a bear would they know it had been a good night.
Splitting logs - and a hare
The first order of Day Two was to check the snares set the afternoon before. All sat empty except one, which held a snow-white rabbit struggling to get free.
Allchin leaned down, grabbed the rabbit by its legs and slipped the noose off its neck. The bunny cried out, sounding much like an unhappy baby.
The specialist took a couple of steps toward camp before his counterparts, Mihal and Darnford, yelled: "Kill it. Don't bring it back to camp."
Allchin extended his arm, holding the rabbit for Hurst to take a swing at with a log. The Coast Guard pilot took aim and let the hare have it.
The blow was so powerful that the rabbit's eyeballs popped out. Blood spilled out, painting the white landscape red.
None of the students spoke. Base camp radioed in to ask if the general's snare caught the rabbit. Allchin decided to keep his answer ambiguous.
"It could have been the general's. We're not sure," said Allchin, knowing base camp was hoping for a "yes."
After hanging the rabbit in a tree to keep it out of the reach of hungry wolves or bears, the students trudged back into the woods to learn to split wood with a bolt knife.
The rest of the morning was spent hacking down trees and splitting logs to expose the dry wood underneath the bark. The last task was forming a V-shaped signal out of orange parachutes in a clearing and practicing firing off signal flares. A "V" signals a need for help. An "X" means the downed aircrew needs a medical evacuation.
Lunch was rabbit, but not the one Hurst killed. Allchin had caught one before the students arrived at camp and decided to share.
Allchin cut up the frozen rabbit and sat the meat near but not on the coals to allow the heat to caramelize the meat. Although still covered with a hair here and there, the meat tasted delicious a bit like the dark meat of a chicken to the students.
After lunch, the students returned to the clearing to pile together logs and pine boughs for a towering signal fire that would grab the attention of a plane flying overhead.
The work of the day, though, had caught up with the men. No one talked. They just wanted to complete the job and get back to the fire.
The mercury had climbed a few degrees since they had waked up. The temperature never made it over 22.
Dinner consisted of more rabbit. This time, Allchin demonstrated how to skin the animal and separate the meat from the organs.
"When you take off the fur, it's like taking off his jacket or a sweatshirt," Allchin explained.
The cooking classes that Allchin took before joining the Air Force certainly came in handy. He stewed the rabbit using snow and a tin can in the camp.
It tasted pretty good, although the students agreed a carrot and onion would have made the dish even better.
With their stomachs full, the students settled down by the fire. The specialists retired back to headquarters for the night. For the next couple hours, the students collected birch bark in their empty MRE pouches and talked about how Hurst, the Coast Guard pilot, had flown around the crews of "Deadliest Catch," the Discovery Channel show that chronicles crab fishermen near Hurst's base at Kodiak.
The conversation then turned to the course and what made up the students' favorite parts.
"Working on building those fires was pretty cool," Dunn said. "Although, standing in the cold when Allchin told us to take off our [fat-boy] pants [before building the shelters] wasn't too fun."
About 9 p.m., the conversation started to falter.
It was time for bed. It was the last night of going to sleep hungry, worrying about staying warm.
Out on their own
A few airmen get special treatment at Cool School: those whose planes are equipped with ejection seats.
Ejection-seat pilots, as the SERE specialists call them, get sent off on their own, since they will more than likely be by themselves if they have to ditch their planes. Four F-22 pilots made up a third of the Arctic Survival School's first class of the season.
Each built a shelter, and each was warming himself by a fire next to his A-frame when the specialists came around to check on them. Despite the isolation, each was upbeat.
"Doing stuff like this really makes you think about what could happen every time you get into that cockpit," said Capt. Erik Schilling, a pilot with the 90th Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska. "It's training like this that will help prepare you for any type of environment if things go wrong."
A welcome sight
As soon as the students woke up, they took down their shelters and packed their gear.
Everyone just wanted to get back to Eielson. They were cold and tired of eating rabbit.
Leftover rabbit was breakfast. Hurst refused to eat another bite of the stewed meat and balked at drinking the melted snow spiked with Tang.
"I think Hurst has had enough," Nedorolik said to Dunn. "This has been fun, but I think we're all at that point where we know we are going home and just want to be there."
The specialists herded the four to the clearing to practice vectoring guiding a helicopter onto one's position with directional headings with a HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter from the 210th Rescue Squadron.
Mihal set off the signal fire by lighting the softball-sized collection of birch bark the students had gathered the night before underneath the pile of logs and boughs. In minutes, the flames shot up 20 feet in the air. A plume of black smoke billowed well over the snow-covered trees. Mihal then lit a smoke flare to make sure the pilot saw the signal.
The Pave Hawk did an overpass four times, to let each student practice his vectoring skills.
"One, two, three, mark," Dunn called out.
After everyone had his turn, Allchin directed the Pave Hawk to show the students just how cold rotor wash is in the Arctic.
An icy blast slammed into their faces. They whipped back to protect their exposed skin before the Pave Hawk rose back above the trees.
The arrival of a rescue chopper signals the end of a "survival" situation.
The students were done, though they still had to hike that mile uphill to the bus.
As they trekked back past the wolf tracks, the four described exactly what they planned to order for lunch: Double cheese steak from Charley's Grilled Subs, hold the rabbit fur.