We have been stuck back here only about 5 weeks now and I’m already backpacking out to Bear Beach to uncover a canoe and head to civilization.
The weather has been extremely cold(-3/-6 and highs 5 or 6 degrees).I know that a true northern Alaskan would laugh at me labeling -3 as extreme, especially when they hit -40 and -50. But for this southern boy, -3 is extreme enough. The Little Lake is frozen thick enough for me to walk out. The ice is right at 7 inches deep. I take a 3/4 inch paddle bit and walk out every other day and check ice depth by drilling into the surface until I hit water. If it gets cold enough, the hole just freezes back over. After falling through the ice several times last year, my goal this year is to not get WET!! 7 to 9 inches is more then adequate to be walking out on the lake, so I decide that it is safe to go out. What I’ve been told is that all you need is for the ice to be 2 to 3 inches to be able to walk on it. I really should look that up one day!!!..but herein lies the dilemma. “Off-grid” means no “instant” anything…I don’t have the privilege of just looking something up on the internet and instantly getting an answer.We have to jot down any question that we might have in a little book and wait until we get to town to the library where we get the world wide web. This is how we get our answers. It’s as bad as, Jen and I will be arguing to one another about something stupid. A couple of days later, I’ll see in our little book that Jen has stuff written down to look up about our argument. We will be at the library and she will lean over and say “see i told you there are 16oz in a pound” and ill retort ” that was 4 weeks ago, why you bringing up old shit?” This can be a good thing at times though, like when I am messing with her and she can’t fact check me “instantly”. I just hope that she will forget about it and not put it in the book. All answers used to be just a few swipes and types from a cell phone and satisfaction “instantly”.
I orginally told Jen that I was gonna stay all winter back here without going out! I didn’t know that within 5 weeks I would be eating my words. Now the true reason for this journey out was all due to the fact that we were missing a single 12-inch piece of flue pipe. Without this connection, the new chimney in the workout room can not be completed and fired up. Jen and I both thought we could wait till Jan or Feb but some nights I would look out into the window of the workout room and see Jen in there. The thermometer reading 19, 21, 24 degrees etc, and then I decided it wouldn’t hurt to go to town. After all, our mailbox was over filled and we had packages piling up at the local airport. Every UPS package arrives by puddle jumper at our little airport in Haines. And nothing gets to Alaska “instantly”. I remember a time leaving my wallet in Texas and had it mailed to me overnight in Mississippi. I dont think i will ever see overnight shipping up here. Everything takes longer to get to us. It is truly snail mail up here.
I think about how in an “instant” back in the lower 48 I could have shot over to The Home Depot and been done with all this in less then an hour. But then again, I would have “instant” heat back in the lower states as well. All I would have to do is walk over to a little thermostat on a wall move the arrows up or down to desired temp and “instantly” have the comfort I was looking for. No crumbled up newspaper, no kindling, no loads of firewood(not including going to chop the wood), no matches…just a few pushes of a button, and voila!
So in the AM we set off to go recover the canoe and embark on this adventure. Something that may seem so mundane and normal to most is always an adventure for us.
Going to the hardware and grocery store consists of a series of events and challenges this time of year. We originally staged a canoe over at a place we call Bear Beach, respectfully named due to the high bear activity. Bear Beach separates the large lake from the little lake where we live. Due to our close proximity to the mountain side, back in the little lake, we tend to freeze about 4 to 5 weeks before the large lake starts to freeze. This is mainly because the mountain starts to shield the sun completly during the day this time of year. Today, Dec 6th, The Chilkat Valley mountain range is getting about 5 hours of daylight. The sun comes up around 9am and goes down at 3pm. We don’t get any sun rays being so close to the mountain side and being cast in its shadow.
This is frustrating when you look up behind the house and about 1000 yards up our side of the mountain is lit up with sparkling sunlight. Because of this, we are trapped a few weeks longer than the few people that live over on the large lake. This happens during break up, in the spring as well. Our lake always freezes first and melts last. Freeze up and break up definitely don’t happen in an “instant”.
Learning this from last year’s winter, we anticipated this and figured we could just walk over on top of the lake to the canoe and then paddle out from there. That is the 1st leg of the trip, a 1 mile walk on top of the lake to Bear Beach. This short walk can be hair raising. Now for the most part I’m confident that the lake is a good 7 inches are so. This doesn’t mean there are not weak spots. We learned this out the hard way when the 4-wheeler crashed through the ice with us on it last year(refer to old blog). As we walk down to Bear Beach, I am zigging and zagging around some of these weak spots. We can see them for the most part. They are typically 1 to 12 inch clear round holes with visible water within. I can only assume this is from warm gases being released from the lake’s bottom. I tend to walk at least 30 to 40 feet apart from Jennifer when walking on the ice. She has a weird fascination of walking right over to these spots and if they are iced over a little, she will take her walking stick and smash right thru them. I don’t argue with her about how dumb I think this is cause I’m sure it will just be added to the fact checking list somehow.
Once at Bear Beach we must dig the canoe out from the snow and then from there it’s a 5 mile canoe ride to Clear Creek. As we arrived at Clear Creek we notice that the entrance to the creek was completely frozen in with 3 inches of ice. We have to travel up Clear Creek about a mile and a half to get to the river. The ice is way too thick for us to break through with our paddles. We have to detour and go back about a mile where the ice meets the shoreline, get out, park the canoe and walk the back trail all the way to truck.
The 3rd leg of this journey is a 6 mile hike from the back trail to the truck parked over by Chilkat Valley Farm. Right about this moment in the trip, I start to realize how nice it would be to just walk out to my truck in my garage, kick on the heat, and in an “instant” be ready for a warm ride to the store.
So we made it to the truck in little under 5 hours, but the work is still not done. We have about 4 feet of heavy wet snow that the truck is buried under. This all has to be cleared in order to move the truck anywhere. After about an hour of shoveling snow and freeing the vehicle from its snowy coffin, I get into to the truck and look foward to starting the engine and blasting the heat. It’s 24 degrees at the moment and very frigid. We jump in the truck and with the turn of the key, I hear that most unfortunate click,click,click,click,click…. the battery is completly dead!
Maybe i do get “instant” in Alaska. Cause I instantly started cursing and pounding on the steering wheel! I instantly start questioning myself why am I even going out in the first place, and I instantly realize all the “”instants” Alaska has—
-Weather can change in an instant.
-River water dangerously rises in an instant.
-You can get hurt bad in an instant…..and help is nowhere close.
-A bear can attack you in an instant….. and kill you
-You can break through the ice and in an instant.. drown
-You can catch hypothermia in an instant….and freeze to death!
…I could go on and on.
We lucked out and found someone that was “out and about” over at the farm. So they rushed over and gave us a jump. Finally after about a 6 hour endeavour we could sit back in the truck seat, crank the heater, pull off layers of wet clothes, and let out a long sigh of relief as we pressed our fingers up against the hot vents.
This getting to town adventure still has a 30 mile, white knuckle drive on ice packed roads to get to town. Now I was always told before moving out here that the state does a great job of maintaining the highway. After all it is the only highway that connects us to Canada and the rest of Alaska. Haines is also know as the End of the Road. There’s only one way you can go on this highway to get anywhere and that’s to head due north. From Haines to the Canadian border is roughly 40 miles. The Highway ends when it hits the coast of the Lynn Canal in Haines. Now whoever it was that told me that the highway was well maintained obviously must have stayed home alot in the winter, or didn’t listen to the one radio station that we catch out here. They always make announcements of when the highways are closed and it seems to be quite a lot. We have really bad mudslides coming off the mountain when we have lots of rain as well. When these occur it can take all day to clear the debris before they can reopen highway. I have driven this road alot, and I can honestly say I’ve seen my life flash before my eyes several times. Although I have not had the pleasure of out-running a mudslide down the highway, I have become a pro at pulling out of icy death spins. I think at times Jen is nuts cause when I thought we were going over the mountain side, flying off into the river, or the one time when I was skiding on the ice back and forth, then spun into a complete 360, pulled it out and started driving in the right direction, just as nothing ever happened. I would turn to look over at Jen with a white sheet of death on my face, hands welded tight to the steering wheel, and eyes bulging out of my head…she calmly looks at me and says “dang baby you’re a good driver!!” I sit and wonder if she had closed her eyes briefly and didn’t see any of what had just conspired. I said “baby that was Jesus driving just now, not me!” I thought man she must be crazy if her heart isn’t racing as fast as mine. I had no control over what was happening on that icy highway at that moment!!
The video above shows a good driving day on the Haines Highway
This video shows a “not-so-good” day driving on the Haines Highway
As I arrive into town tired and beat, and a few years less, I approach a stop sign and the truck comes to a complete stop and dies. It’s dark at this point and after 5pm. Due to it being Saturday, nothing is really open, well at least the not the only auto parts store in town. And even worse, everything is closed on Sunday.
Haines is a small quaint little town that still is so small that we don’t even have a single stop light in town. Most businesses close down during winter and not if the town wasn’t already at a slow pace it slows down even more this time of year. I remember back in the day when nothing was really open on Saturdays and Sundays. Back when television would go off the air, followed by the national anthem. Back when if you wanted to talk to someone on the phone you had to wait until you got home. Before, when there was no such thing as 24/7 anything. If you needed something Friday night you would just make due until the following Monday. Those days are a thing of the past for most people. The majority of us can get just about anything we want or need “instantly!”
We chose this slower pace and we try to roll with whatever is thrown our way. But, now I’m sitting at a stop sign with a dead battery. I’m realizing a simple trip to town has now turned into a 3-day trip unexpectedly.
I can’t lie, it sure was nice to get a hotel and enjoy some of the modern and instant conveniences of back home. I got to take endless instant hot showers, surf the internet, and watch mindless crap on cable TV, plus lots of football!! Come Monday after being stuck in town for 2-days, I couldn’t wait to get back home. I got a temporary battery because the parts store didn’t have the right size. They will have to order it and that can take a few weeks to get here. I would never have this problem in the lower 48. I can go pretty much anywhere and get a battery “instantly”. I take off to get back to the lake just to do the journey all over again, except this time I have 3 huge boxes stuffed from post office, grocery store, and hardware store to cart back home!!!
As we paddle back home with the canoe way over packed, I realize no matter what kind of challenges we encounter out here, and all the instant conveniences we give up, that this is still the way I want to live….at least for now!