Cordova Chronicles: Entrainment could prove to be hazardous

Stay alert to the sounds of nature when traveling in wilderness

Helmets such as this with built-in earphones are the latest innovation to enhance entrainment for skiers and snowboarders.
Helmets such as this with built-in earphones are the latest innovation to enhance entrainment for skiers and snowboarders.

One of the news reports that came from the recently completed Olympics centered on the use of music to pump up athletes, especially snowboarders and freestyle skiers, prior to and during their events.

In many cases, wires protruding from the tops of their jackets connected to ear buds under their helmets were as much a part of their uniforms as binding and boots, as were helmets specifically designed to include headsets.

According to Mathew Stork, a PhD candidate from the University of British Columbia, researchers have come to make a connection between music and performance called “entrainment,” defined as “the inmate human tendency to synchronize movement with musical rhythm.”

Or, as one snowboarder put it, “The vibe you carry is the vibe you ride.”

Interestingly, the same connection is used by many skiers, snowboarders, ice skaters, kick sledders, hikers and fat tire bikers everywhere, including right here in Cordova.

Unfortunately, rather than enhance performance, the Sound of Music can sometimes lead to the Sound of Disaster.

For example, a few years ago, while on my way up to backcountry ski on Eyak Ridge, there was a distinctive “whumpf” from a collapsing layer of snow in a flat area below the Ridge. I stopped to examine the conditions carefully, and realized it was indicative of potential avalanches. Scratch that day of telemark turns on enticing fresh powder.  Would someone wearing earbuds have noticed the sound?

Likewise, for the warning sound of ice cracking while zipping along on skates or fat tire bikes. Ice thickness can vary dramatically in short distances, and just because it’s safely three inches thick at the near edge of Sheridan Lake doesn’t mean it’s the same three miles away at the face of Sherman Glacier. With the sound of favorite songs enhancing your blades into rhythmic motion, would the warning signs be recognized?

For hikers, how about the sound of a startled bear rushing through nearby undercover, in which direction? More than once, I have been alarmed by the noise of crashing brush on the Mt. Eyak trail, only to discover it was someone’s dogs, not on a leash, racing in my direction. At least I heard them coming.

Perhaps the most disconcerting event on that same trail was an encounter with a small white dog racing around a switchback to put on its brakes yards away. It was a blustery day, and sound was not carrying very well.

The dog barked, and then went racing back to its owner, who was further down on a switchback in the trail. Its master, wearing ear buds, did not even notice me until I was only five yards away, when she looked up in surprise.

Not long after that there was a serious brown bear attack out on the Hartney Bay trail, during the late salmon spawning season, with a dog involved. Were earbuds too?

Even the pleasures of a leisurely walk along Power Creek road can be subject to unheard surprises. On more than one windy day, I have been startled by an undetected vehicle suddenly zipping closely by. Could loud music and a step to the left to avoid a mud puddle ended in a mishap?

Hey, I’m all for everyone getting out-of-doors. That’s why we live here. But part of the experience might also be listening to what’s around you, to avoid having “entrainment” spoil your entertainment.

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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at