I moved to Alaska to live an outdoor, adventurous kind of life. Before coming here, I was pretty active— running, hiking, biking, and lifting weights. I liked to challenge myself physically in all of these ways, so I was excited about the prospect of living in Alaska and pushing my physical limits every day. In reality, however, for much of the winter, we get trapped indoors. For nearly 4 months now, old man winter has been throwing everything he has at us in an attempt to keep me inside, clinging to the comfort of my chair by the fire.
Our cabin is literally wedged into the side of a mountain. The man who built our home a dozen years ago purchased a CAD digger, and brought it to the property in pieces, winching each piece up the hill inch by inch. I can’t imagine the effort it took just to get it up the hill. Then, he put it together on the flatest section of land he could find. He used this machine to carve into the side of the mountain and nestle the house back where it sits in its cozy little spot.
The remaining carved out wall of rock and dirt that borders the back of our house is a mixed bag of beauty and beast. In the spring, the wall hosts millions of caterpillar cocoons that hatch into delightful butterflies. There are so many of these flitting insects in May and June that they look like clouds of smoke hovering in clusters behind our house. By summer, this man-carved wall is also home to a few small birds who, much to our excitement, build their tiny nests into the small crevices right at eye level. One end of the wall has even managed to nourish a large cluster of wild strawberries. This rock and dirt border is busy and productive all spring and summer, but that’s the beauty part of it.
In winter, this wall slowly transforms into the floodgates of hell. The mountain behind the wall is 1,500 foot high and literally extends straight up. This incline is wonderful for our gravity fed water system, which delivers fresh mountain water practically to our front door. In winter, however, this incline becomes a luge for melting snow. This creates havoc when the melting snow traveling downhill in front of our cabin quickly freezes, making our entire front yard a treacherous mountain of slick ice.
We have tried, with little luck, to direct the snow melt. Nate has dug out little trenches behind the house that lead away from our cabin, then down to the lake, but the water has a mind of its own and doesn’t take easily to being told where to go. This summer, we will come at the wall with smoking guns, and build a large waterway with rocks and stones, and we will tame this water, if it’s the last thing we do! For now, though, we have to deal with the ice skating rink of death every time we step out the front door.
The lake is frozen solid, over 2 feet deep, so its plenty strong to travel on. Our main transportation method in winter is snow machines, but they don’t work unless you have a few inches of snow. They typically overheat if you run them on ice, and they are prone to sliding and spinning. On one of our few trips on the snow machines this year, I was driving on the lake by myself, and my sled did a 360 degree spin. It was very scary to lose control of such a heavy machine, especially when I’m out there alone. Luckily, I was able to get back on track quickly. Later that same day, a guy who lives at the front of the lake wasn’t so lucky. He spun out at the same place I did, only he was pulling a trailer full of supplies which made his machine jack-knife. His supplies completely dislodged from the trailer and were strewn all over the ice. He was thrown from the machine and hit his head pretty badly. It just proves that even a trip to the grocery store can be pretty dangerous in these parts.
Because of the varying conditions of the lake during the early part of winter, in the past 4 months, I have only been to town a few times. Last year, we made more regular trips because we had lots of snow. This year, we have been “holed up” in our cabin a lot. There’s only so much “word search”, scrabble, trivial pursuit, reading and watching movies that one couple can do. My new workout room has helped to ease the monotony of indoor life, but 4 months is a long time!
Now that we have someone who lives on the back part of the lake with us, I conspired with her to walk with me to town and back in a day. While I knew it would be grueling physically to attempt 24-plus miles on foot, I was happy for the opportune adventure. Our plan was to walk to the car, which would take about 5 hours, drive to town and do some shopping and errands, then make the 5 hour trek back home. It seemed like a reasonable (and somewhat fun) idea when we thought it up. If we left early enough in the morning, we figured we could be home by dinner time.
The day began at 5:15 a.m. My alarm rang and it felt energizing to have somewhere to be, somewhere to go. I filled my backpack with the essentials for the day: hand warmers, a pocket knife, an emergency fire-starting kit, light snacks that could be eaten on-the-go, keys to the car, my wallet, an extra pair of socks and a change of clothes (just in case I step on a weak section of ice and fall into the lake), and a water bottle, which can be kind of useless because the water quickly freezes into an impenetrable block of ice.
I “suited up” in my cold weather gear, put on my backpack, and pulled studded “scratchers” on over my boots to help me walk along the frozen lake of ice without slipping. I stretched a headlamp around the top of my knit hat, and I ventured out the front door, ready for anything. It was still pitch black outside, and the front path down to the lake was a slick sheet of ice. I switched on my headlamp, and carefully maneuvered down the incline, placing each foot carefully, while gripping tightly onto a rope that we have laid out from the top of our property down to the lake, to keep us from falling and taboggoning down the hill!
I’m relieved when I reach the lake because now I am on flat ground. I ready my sled that I am planning to pull behind me with a rope as we walk, and I set off for my friend’s cabin. I arrive at her frozen-in boat dock and everything is dark except for my headlamp. I wait for a minute, then I hear her voice, somewhere up the mountain in the trees, telling me that she will be right down. I look up, and I can see a tiny light high up, higher than our house. I watch as her headlamp moves across the side of the mountain as she meanders back and forth, making her way down to me. I marvel at her strength. Her house is three times higher up this side of the mountain than mine. She traverses down the icy strait. As she touches down onto the flat ground, the lake is making eerie groaning noises. When the lake goes through stages of melting and then freezing again, air gets trapped underneath the ice. As this air shifts and releases, the lake makes very loud, deep noises. Sometimes, it sounds like burping. Other times, it sounds like a large primeval creature groaning underneath the ice.
My friend grabs her sled, and we both start walking together in the dark, pulling our sleds, our two headlamps dancing like tiny dots across the icy tundra in this valley between several vast snowy mountain ranges. We walk for miles, literally. About halfway to the car, the sun rises, and we can see sunlight coming up over the mountaintop behind us. It’s surreal to us because we are without sunlight on our part of the lake until mid-February.
We walk across the surface of the entire lake, which is 8 miles long. Then we hike alongside Clear Creek, which is low, but not frozen. When we reach the landing, where the creek meets the Tsirku River, we see that the warm weather from the week before has opened up large sections of the river, which are usually covered with ice and frozen snow by now. We will have to wade across two areas of ice-cold rushing water that are about 50 feet wide. My neighbor has worn her knee-high rubber boots for this trek, and so this is no problem for her, but I wore my hiking boots with scratchers, so while I giggled every time she slipped on the ice in her rubber boots, the last laugh was on me because I was going to have to get wet to cross the river.
We sloshed our way through the water and bounded up to the road that leads to the area near the farm where the 3 or 4 of us who live on the lake park our cars for the winter. This 2 mile section of the road doesn’t get plowed, so it’s not an easy walk.
We made it to the car by 11 a.m., and we both felt good about what great timing we were making. We were a little tired and sore from the first leg of our walk, and my feet were soaking wet, but we were happy to be driving along the long road to town with the heater on. We arrived in town at noon, and proceeded to get gas, pick up mail and packages, and get a few groceries. We ate our backpack lunch in the car as we left town, heading back about an hour behind our planned schedule. We parked the truck, then began unloading our supplies onto the sleds we had pulled out. We quickly realized that we had way too much stuff that we were trying to bring back, so we had to sort through what we would bring back with us and what we would leave behind in the car for some other day. We packed each sled like a game of Jenga, until each one was loaded to capacity and we secured each load with a network of bungee cords. We lost another hour doing this. When we finally started off pulling our fully-loaded sleds behind us, it was 4 pm.
Pulling a 150-200 pound sled is somewhat easy when you are on a flat, icy surface, like our frozen lake, but the first leg of our journey was a snow and ice filled road that’s never plowed. Although much of it is down-hill, it can be challenging to control or maneuver so much weight traveling fast downhill. There are also lots of ruts in the ice, where a few snow machines and 4-wheelers have driven in the wet snow and now these track marks are frozen solid. The uneven surface dumped over our sleds more than a few times, and we made our way down slowly, alternating between pulling, chasing a runaway sled, and repacking a sled that has fallen over. Are we having fun yet? What was I thinking? We made it to the river crossing safe and sound, but it was completely dark now, and my toes were killing me from trying to grip the ground to slow down my sled from running away from me.
We still had 10 more miles to go, but first we had to figure out how to get our loaded down sleds over the two areas of rushing water. We decided to unload the sleds, and hand-carry each box of supplies across the river separately, then reassemble and repack the sleds on the other side of each bank. It took about a dozen trips back and forth across each section of rushing water. This worked, but it took us about an hour and by the end of it, my feet were completely soaked again. At one point when we were carting stuff back and forth across the river in the dark, a guy on a 4-wheeler drove by us, which is a strange site out here in the middle of nowhere. He stopped to say hello, and when he saw what we were doing, he asked, “Are you girls opposed to machinery, like snow mobiles and 4-wheelers?”
I guess he assumed that anyone who was walking out to cabins on the frozen lake, pulling heavy sleds behind them had to be some kind of stubborn-minded individuals who didn’t believe in four-wheelers, or who were trying to save the planet by not using gasoline. I just smiled and said something cute, but I wanted to say…. “No, we did this for the adventure. We did this because I was getting cabin fever and needed to get out. We did this because the four-wheeler wouldn’t carry the both of us, plus all of these supplies. We did this because…this is why we moved here…to do this!”
Once our sleds were loaded back up on the other side of the river, we started on the next phase of the journey. The next half mile would be the most challenging, physically. The narrow trail is up and down, but mostly up. We would need to pull our heavy sleds up each of the many small hills and inclines. At the end of this trail was another larger hill leading down to the flat marsh that runs alongside Clear Creek. The uphill trail was tough, but, luckily, we traversed it quickly, and the downhill way to the marsh was full of powdery snow, so it was easy to slide the sleds down.
We were happy to be in the flat marsh, but the marsh is stinky, and in some areas, the ice is thin, so we broke through and had to slosh through a lot of it. And, my feet got wet, again. At the end of the marsh, we reached Chilkat Lake, and we stopped to celebrate that we had made it halfway home. It was a boost psychologically to know that the rest of the way was smooth, flat ice. It was approaching 6 pm. We ate a small snack, and surmised that it would take us about 2 1/2 hours to walk the remaining 5 miles, but we felt like we were in the home stretch!
The rest of the way was a mixture of blur and euphoria. We turned our headlamps off and walked in the dark for most of it. Although the moon wasn’t visible, there were a million stars out, providing enough light to see the shadows of the mountains, which would guide our way to the narrows, the section between two mountains where the lake narrows before opening up again into a small lake. We walked along in the dark, staring at the celestial sky and the snow-capped mountains. I felt so small. I thought about me and my neighbor, two women, trekking 24 miles by foot, heading home with sleds full of provisions. I thought about how women through the ages have always gathered foodstuffs and carted them back home to their families.
Although my feet were still wet and cold, and my knees and back were aching, I thought that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else at this moment. I felt so alive in the cold night air, with the mountains towering so majestically above me, and my feet scooting haphazardly below me. I pulled the sled’s rope up over my shoulder and tugged the sled behind me with ease. Although the earth was dark and quiet, our sleds scratched noisily along the top of the ice, making it almost too difficult for us hear one another say anything, so we both retreated into our own thoughts.
I listened to the sleds scrunching the ice underneath us, and I watched the light of my headlamp as it made the ice in front of us dazzle like it was filled with a million tiny diamonds. I thought of how the beauty of nature can both overwhelm us, and numb us. No one in their right mind would walk 24 miles pulling a 200 lb. sled, crossing frigid water rivers in freezing temperatures for a bag of flour and a few other provisions. But, someone might, if they were surrounded by the breathtaking beauty of foreboding mountains, an Alaskan night sky, and an 8 mile river which was completely frozen and glittering like crystal.
I arrived home at 9 p.m. Okay, a little past dinner. It had been a 15-hour trip to town, most of it on foot. Standing on the lake looking up at our cabin with a small light glowing in the window, I was happy to be home. The contents of my sled took 4 trips up and down the icy hill to our front door. The last trip up, I thought my feet and legs would give out on me. I was beyond exhausted.
In the house, Nate had prepared my bath water, and made me dinner. He shook his head and laughed as I retold him the stories of the day. He said, “You are crazy for making that trek.” I replied, “Isn’t that why we moved out here— for the adventure of it?” I fell into my chair next to the fire, and smiled. My cabin fever was gone.