Our first winter in remote Alaska has been truly spectacular…beautiful and crazy even beyond our wildest dreams. We are “cheechakos” (newbies to Alaska, a term born from the Gold Rush days) so, we have been in a state of “wonderment” for the past four months…
-I “wonder” how much more wood we are going to need to chop to last through the winter
-I “wonder” if the frozen lake is strong enough to ride my four-wheeler on
-I “wonder” what kind of crazy creature is making all of that noise in the lake, far beneath the ice
-I “wonder” if we will ever see the sun again
-I “wonder” where is that avalanche that I hear rumbling and echoing like thunder around the lake
-I “wonder” when the bears will wake up
The answer to the wondering question about wood has been a tough nut to swallow. We stuffed the complete wood storage area underneath the house back in November, and we continued to cut down trees and split wood, but we came close to running out of firewood in January. We did have some unexpected visitors in our guest cabin for nearly two months, and that ate into our wood supply. So, we have been like lumberjacks downing trees and splitting wood to get us through the rest of winter and to fill back up our supply, some for this year, but most already in preparation for next year. We estimate we probably need double the amount of wood that we stacked last year. Although we did a fair amount of cutting over the summer, it was difficult to transport the bucked pieces. We have discovered that winter time is great for cutting wood. We are able to down trees and transport the bucked pieces using a sled trailer pulled with the snow mobile. Nate also came up with an ingenious way to get the bucked pieces of wood up the steep hill to our house. He rigged up a pulley system, with one end of a rope tied to a sled trailer, and the other end tied to the four wheeler. The center of the rope is on a pulley that is attached to our cabin. Nate simply loads up the sled trailer with a few of the bucked log pieces, then he backs up the four wheeler, tightens the slack on the rope, then as he backs up further, the rope pulls the sled trailer up the hill to the top of our property right near our front door.
The answer to the wondering question about traveling safely on our frozen lake is complicated. Since mid-December, our entire lake is frozen solid. If you cut through the ice, with a chainsaw or an ice auger, you will see nearly 2 feet of ice from the surface down to the water. This makes the lake strong enough to ride almost anything on top of. Nate joked that he could probably drive our truck on it. Although the ice surface of the lake is super strong, we are still challenged by the day-to-day weather for transportation options. The snow mobiles only do well if there is lots of snow. The engines are cooled by the constant stream of snow flying off of its main track. So, if there is no powder for it to push, then the engine will overheat, and fast. So, the snow mobiles are great, if we have lots of snow on top of the ice. When we don’t, we have found that the four-wheeler works great. We are able to ride it anywhere and everywhere on the lake. But, the four-wheeler doesn’t do so well in the snow. It will get stuck in more than 10 inches of snow. The only other challenge we have is when we have several warm days back-to-back. Whenever the temperature rises above freezing, the surface of the lake starts to melt. Several times, we had nearly a week of 40 degree temperatures and lots of rain. When this happens, the top 2 or 3 inches of the lake melts, and while the ice underneath it is still strong enough to drive on, its a slippery, slushy mess. The snow mobiles and the four-wheeler will both slip and slide all over the surface. We tend to stay home when the surface is this kind of a melted mess. Even if we walk on it, we have to wear our rubber boots! We make sure that we move everything off of the ground during these conditions, otherwise, when the temperatures drop, your item will be stuck in 3 inches of water that is now frozen solid.
One day, Nate and I were walking on the frozen lake, and we heard a loud, deep thumping noise coming from underneath the ice. It reverberated all down the lake. It sounded like a giant creature underneath the ice, trying to break through. The Tlingits are local natives, and I read about one of their folk tales about a giant water creature, called the “Gunakedeit ” (Goo-na’-ka-date). From what I understand, it is very similar to the Lochness Monster, but it brings luck to your village! I joked with Nate that the sounds we were hearing underneath the ice was the “Gunakedeit “. We have come to learn that the loud noise we are hearing is simply the large blocks of ice shifting underneath our feet, and the constant release of air and gasses from the water gurgling up and being released out of the holes in the ice.
For the past four months, our days have been short. The sun was rising around 8:30 a.m., and setting around 3:30 p.m. That doesn’t sound bad, except that our cabin is surrounded by very tall mountains. On these short days, the sun hangs low in the sky, and unfortunately for us, it never rises above the mountains. So, we haven’t seen the sun since November. Around mid-February, we woke up and saw the sun peeking up over the mountain across the lake from us. A small sliver of sunlight shone on the icy lake and it glittered like diamonds. You would have thought that diamonds were falling from the sky. We took pictures, and had to go outside and feel the sun on our skin (even though it was still only 22 degrees!) For the next couple of weeks, we watched in awe and wonder as the sun rose higher each day, and that sliver of sunlight on the lake became wider and wider. We would go outside and chase the sunlight until we could no longer feel it. Today, we had sunlight for nearly 4 hours, and over the next 4 to 6 weeks, our sun will become brighter and stay longer. By mid-March, we will have sun from 5:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. And, the days will just get longer and longer, until we hit the peak of the summer soltice in July when the sun will rise at 3:30 a.m. and set at 10:45 p.m. We have missed the sun. We’re glad it’s back, even though soon it will be back with a vengeance–we can’t wait!
As the sun shines on the tops of the mountains, the snow is beginning to melt and roll down. This is perfect avalanche conditions. We hear lots of them. They rumble down the mountain, and it sounds like a continuous rolling thunder, and it echoes back loudly. They usually only last a minute or two, and it can be hard to spot them. But, afterwards, you can see an avalanche spot really well. The balls of ice and dirty snow track sometimes pushes down to the very bottom of the mountain, and spills out onto the icy surface of the lake. The resulting sculptures are beautiful!
Throughout the winter, we have continued to have some good fishing. There is one area of the lake in front of “Bear Beach” where a small patch of water doesn’t freeze. We continued to catch Cutthroat Trout there in November and December, but beginning in January, we starting catching a new fish that we haven’t seen before. At first, we thought it was a Cutthroat Trout, but it has speckles all over its entire body and it has a reddish stripe down its side, like a Rainbow Trout. We have scoured through Alaska fishing books and can’t figure out what kind of fish this is. A local lake neighbor says it must be a “Cohini”, which he says is a moulting Coho Salmon. Whatever it is, we think it must be some type of moulting fish because its flesh is pinkish and doesn’t taste very well. They are a nice, big, fat fish, and fun to catch!
Most of the wildlife has been very dormant this winter. We only saw one moose with her calf in November, but we haven’t seen any moose since. We also saw bears climbing up high in the mountains in November, but no signs of any bear since then. Some locals have said they have seen bears canvassing the ground near Bear Beach in January and February, but we haven’t seen any signs yet. They can sleep as long as they like, and that’s okay with me! I have enjoyed not having to constantly be looking around for a potential dangerous threat. We have also glassed a few solitary wolves and bobcats. Spring should be here soon, as the first Trumpeter Swans have returned to the lake.
We are blessed with so much awe and wonder living in this vast wilderness. We never tire of admiring the beauty and majesty of the mountains all around us. Although this is all so new to us, we feel “at home”, and can’t imagine living anywhere else at this time in our lives.