I am an optimist. In normal, everyday living that can be a good thing. But, in wild Alaska, optimism can get you into trouble. As our weather turned colder, we watched in awe as the entire lake in front of our cabin froze. The first time we ventured out to walk on top of the ice, we tiptoed around in disbelief. It happened so quickly. Our winter weather was late in coming (or, so we were told by locals). The week before Thanksgiving, we were still boating out and making trips into town. We were even so bold as to make Thanksgiving Day plans with neighbors on the big lake, but old man winter had different plans for us. Thanksgiving week brought temperatures in the teens. We pulled the boats up out of the water just in time, as the lake froze around the shore the next day.
By Thanksgiving Day, the entire lake had two inches of frozen ice on top of it. This was the beginning of the season called, “Freeze up”, when it’s impossible to get a boat out because of the ice, and the ice is not yet thick enough for walking on or snow machining. As we watched the sheet of ice on the lake thicken over the next week, we got braver and braver walking on the ice, and venturing out farther and farther. Finally, we trusted the ice enough to walk down to the narrow section of our lake that leads to the big lake. There’s a place there called, “Bear Beach”, and over the next few weeks, a walk across the ice to Bear Beach was part of our daily adventures. But, this was as far as we could go. The big lake had no signs of freezing, so while we were able to walk to the big lake, there was no getting past Bear Beach. We were prepared to be “stuck” back here on the little lake for 4-6 weeks. We had plenty of provisions, and we were mentally prepared. We had a Thanksgiving feast for two, and we passed away the time by reading, writing, playing scrabble, and doing funny things with Nate’s beard.
Out of the blue, we got word that we would potentially have two unexpected visitors within the next couple of weeks. My daughter would be here in less than a week, and a week after that, Nate’s nephew would be here. Nate is a realist, and he announced that they would both be stuck in downtown Haines at a hotel for several weeks until we could get to them. But, me being an optimist, I started scheming a plan for how we could get to them. After some cajoling and convincing, Nate and I agreed on a plan. We would push our canoe on top of the ice across the little lake to Bear Beach, then launch the canoe into the big lake and Nate would paddle (or troll using the trolling motor) to a friend’s cabin on the main land section of the big lake and catch a ride with him by motor boat to the landing. This seemed like a solid plan. Nate would travel alone so that he could bring the snow machine back to the trail section of the big lake.
The day before my daughter’s arrival, Nate and I woke up early and he packed two large waterproof bags. One bag contained a set of dry clothes for Nate, in case he fell into the frigid water. (We had already learned that the ice on the little lake had areas that were unstable, and the risk of falling through the ice was high) The other bag contained winter clothing for my daughter, since we anticipated that their travel time to the cabin would be 3-4 hours in -1 degree temperatures, and I was sure she wasn’t fully prepared for this. We put the two bags, the trolling motor and battery, and paddles into the canoe, and we started to push. The weather for the previous two days had hit 40 degree highs, so there was a top layer of snow and slush across the ice, making it very difficult to push the canoe. When we tested this several days earlier, pushing the canoe was easy because it simply slid across the ice with little effort. Pushing the canoe through slush was another story. But, we didn’t have any other option. So, we put our heads down and went to work. It was one of the most physically challenging things I have ever done. We could push the canoe for about 30 steps, then we would take a break, and then start up again. It took us about 45 minutes to reach the narrows where the big lake meets the little lake. Launching the canoe into the big lake would be tricky because we were venturing from solid ice to unstable ice and then into water. As we neared the water, we tiptoed gingerly, gently pulling and pushing the canoe, listening for cracking ice, all the time ready to jump into the canoe if the ice broke beneath our feet. We made it to the edge of the ice, and Nate prepared the canoe for launching. When he was ready, we both gave the canoe a gigantic push and we both lunged into the canoe. At this moment, the ice cracked beneath us, and we each sunk waist deep into the freezing water before pulling ourselves into the canoe. As soon as we were floating, I guided the canoe back onto the thin ice using the paddle. When the ice underneath the canoe seemed somewhat stable, I stepped out of the canoe and padded gently along the ice until I was safely back on solid ice. Nate moved the canoe to open water and immediately began changing from his wet clothes into dry clothes. I said goodbye, then moved quickly across the icy lake back to our cabin. By the time I arrived at our property, my feet were so frozen that I couldn’t feel them. It felt like I was walking without feet. I couldn’t climb the hill to our cabin, so I just crawled up on my hands and knees. I pushed open the door and scooted over to the fireplace. It was still warm, and I sat there for about 20 minutes as I thawed out my lower half.
When I felt like I could walk again, I moved over to the phone to check for messages, and I panicked when I saw a message from the friend Nate was planning to meet on the big lake. He hadn’t received any of our emails, and he was questioning whether or not Nate was heading over today. The cell phone reception was spotty, but I tried sending additional messages, and I called someone else and got them to also send our friend an email. I worried about Nate because although he changed out of his wet clothes, his skin was still wet and cold, and after changing, he would be in the canoe for another 45 minutes or so traveling to our friend’s cabin. I knew he had to be cold because it was -1 degrees that day. I sat by the phone, and several hours later I heard that Nate had made it to our friend’s cabin and got a ride from him to the landing. I assumed all was well, but I didn’t hear from Nate again until late that evening.
He said that when he arrived at the landing, there was a foot and a half of snow on the ground. He had to climb through this snow, pulling his two bags behind him for roughly three miles. It took about 3 hours to trek through the snow to our truck. When he arrived at the truck it was nearly dark, and the truck was completely buried in snow. It took him about an hour to dig the truck out of the snow in the dark, and at one point he said he heard a growling noise coming from the woods. He’s not sure if it was a moose or a bear, but it made him shovel faster. As he drove the 40 miles into town, there was a whiteout, and he could barely see the road. He finally made it to the hotel around 8 pm that night, after starting the trip at 8:30 that morning at our cabin. He was exhausted and dehydrated, and the muscles in his legs ached from trekking for so long in the snow. He said he took four hot showers that night and went to bed wondering why on earth he thought it would be a good idea to try this plan.
The next day, he picked my daughter up at the airport, and they took the snow sled from where they parked the truck to our friend’s cabin on the lake. Our friend took them in the motor boat to Bear Beach, where I met them, and we all hiked back to our cabin walking on the icy lake. My daughter’s face was white as a ghost. On the short walk to our cabin, she kept telling me that her toes and her fingers were completely frozen, and how much longer until we get there? I had the fire blazing in the wood stove, and hot chicken and dumplings waiting for them. Everyone was home safe and sound, and we all breathed a sigh of relief until the next day when we heard that Nate’s nephew was on his way too, and would be here within a week. Nate was not looking forward to another treacherous trip to town to retrieve another visitor. The second trip was just as difficult, minus the long trek in the snow at the landing. But, in the end Frontier Nate successfully retrieved both of our visitors, and it proved worthwhile as we spent the next several weeks enjoying each other’s company. We played lots of games, and we taught them both how to split wood, haul water, shovel snow paths, and the do’s and don’ts of honey pots and outhouses.
My daughter and I took snow shoe treks each day, as I challenged her to make it farther and farther each day. We started out simply just crossing our little lake, then going to the end of the lake and back. One day, we were at Bear Beach and I pointed to a cabin on the big lake and I told her that we should try and make it there one day. She was excited to get out on the big lake and we agreed that we would try this longer hike soon. We watched the temperatures to make sure we had several days in a row of freezing to ensure that the ice on the big lake would be stable enough for us to walk on. When we were sure that it was safe, we headed out for this journey on snow shoes. We arrived at the cabin on the big lake pretty quickly, in less than an hour. We were both in an adventurous mood, and I asked her if she wanted to continue travelling on the big lake until we could see Birch and Loon Island on the other side. She was game and so we continued. When we came around the bend, I told her about one of our good friends who lives on Birch Island. I pointed out her house and said, “we should go there and visit her.” My daughter agreed, and we kept plodding along.
We made it to my friend’s cabin and we enjoyed the warmth of her fire, and some warm drinks. I was just settling in for a nice visit when I noticed the time on the clock read 2:30 p.m. I didn’t want to be walking in the dark, so we said a quick good bye, clamped on our snow shoes and headed out for home. I asked our friend to send Nate a text message telling him that we were just leaving her cabin so that he wouldn’t worry. (We told him we were only trekking to the first cabin on the big lake, so I knew that he would be wondering what was taking us so long). As we were starting out home, I also told another friend on the big lake to text Nate that we were on our way. I figured between one of the two, he would get the message. As we started slushing through the snow, I was thinking that it took us a little over 2 hours to make it there, so we should be home by 4:30 or so. This was problematic because our sunset at this time of year is at 3:30 pm, and it gets especially dark quickly on the little lake. We made good timing to Bear Beach, and it wasn’t completely dark yet. I thought we would be home in about 15-20 minutes. However, when we arrived at Bear Beach, we discovered that there was another foot of snow along the path, as snow had been falling there all day long. This made the going tough, and my daughter was just hitting her breaking point. Several steps into the deep snow, she had to sit down and rest. Our GPS showed that we had gone over 10 miles that day. We waited about 20 minutes, and as the sky grew darker, I told her we weren’t far and needed to get going fast. But fast was not in her. She was completely exhausted by now, and could manage only 10-20 steps at a time, and then needed a 30 second break. We went on like this for the rest of the trek home. What should have taken us 15-20 minutes took longer than an hour, and it was 5 o-clock and dark by the time we arrived home. Nate had been worried sick. He didn’t receive either text message, and he was exhausted from walking back and forth numerous times from our cabin to Bear Beach looking for us. We made it home, but I realized that my optimism could definitely get me into trouble out here. It’s better to err on the side of safety than to take any undue risks.
The additional guests challenged our provisions, and we ran out of milk, eggs, and butter. This challenged my cooking skills and substitution intuition. I did learn that I could make milk by mixing one tablespoon of sweetened condensed milk from the can into 1 cup of water and it made delicious milk you could drink or use in recipes.
The company made our Christmas holiday extra special. We feel truly blessed to host these two young people, and I was grateful that we were able to get them to our cabin. Christmas day brought another great blessing. The big lake was now completely frozen, and we were able to take our snow machines to our friend’s cabin for a wonderful Christmas dinner with good friends. We were all thankful for this little blessing. Even the young people who were with us felt blessed to be able to get out and be honored guests for Christmas dinner. We have learned not to take anything for granted.