Monday, March 12, 2012

My First Snow Machine Ordeal (My Husband Loved It)

Bryan was probably as excited about his snow machine (same as a snowmobile in the Lower 48) as with his first tricycle at age 3.  (What is it with guys and powers of locomotion?  Residual memories of being ambulatory hunter gatherers?) When we returned home at 11 degrees outside to a 50 degree cabin and crawled, exhausted into bed with mugs of tea, he said with a sigh of great contentment, “That was a GREAT day.”  Noticing my stony silence, he put on his “attentive husband” voice and asked, as if winding up for a punch line in a comedy, “So which part of you was the coldest?” 
Snowmachine sled with building supplies
for future chicken coop

While Bryan felt like Nanook of the North, Man Merged with Nature, or Whatever, I felt like the Michelin Man on a bad hair day with a runny nose. Even with four layers of socks, pants, tops, and three layers of gloves, I got so cold that I shivered, teeth chattering for many minutes when we stopped at the only restaurant on the river for a mediocre hamburger (after 5 hours of being outside).  When we returned to the vehicle, maybe 30 minutes later, the wheels and tread had frozen up, and Bryan had to lie on the snow with a hammer and tap pertinent points on both sides before we could move.  Altogether, our round trip outing of 84 miles to get 750 lbs of gasoline (about 90 gallons) took 7.5 hours, about the time it takes to fly from Houston, TX to Anchorage, AK. 

I don’t know what heaven looks like, but I know what it feels like:  it feels exactly like the heated bathrooms at Deshka Landing after 3 hours on a snow machine across windy, bumpy terrain.

On the machine, Bryan derived warmth from the hand warmers on the handles and from the engine itself.  Unfortunately, I was sitting behind him without those amenities, and unlike walking or snowshoeing, I wasn’t generating any warmth myself sitting there for hours on end, except for lame isometric exercises when I started getting bored and cold. 

Two Bobble Head Dolls
The full head helmets we wore were so heavy I felt like a bobble head doll.  The rebreather was great for keeping one’s face warm without fogging up the interior face plate, but it also meant that I smelled the bad breath of my prior toasted cheese sandwich for about three hours.  Notes to self:  Don’t burp.  Avoid cheese. 

Multiple discomforts aside, it was a lovely excursion.  We left our remote cabin about 1 pm, following the Anchorage area friends who had hauled the machine by truck trailer to the river and then snow machined out the same route we would now traverse in reverse.  We passed a few cute, isolated cabins like ours on lakes, and some ice fishermen with their warming tents and four foot augers (sp?) – (a sport (?) I cannot envision choosing to do).  The wind was highest, buffeting our helmets and bodies, as we crossed open lakes or bogs down wind from mountains, and lower in the sheltered river valleys and woods. 

My favorite section was a narrow winding trail through a confectionery wonderland.  It was straight out of Grimm’s fairy tales, all menacing trees and biomorphic snow shapes that looked like they could come alive and grab Hansel and Gretel at any moment.        

The rivers were less populated by recreational or functional snow machiners than I expected on a sunny Sunday in March.  We passed one family hauling a huge pile of fluffy pink insulation out to their Bush cabin, and a few groups on small, speedy machines enjoying a day's outing.  Altogether, over the 3+ hour one way excursion, we passed maybe 20 cabins, mostly looking unoccupied until summer boating and fishing season.  A trail of markers outlined the thickest, safest path down river, but it was often precariously close to holes of open water or thin, green ice, marked by a warning pair of crossed branches.  Particularly downstream of obstructions and confluences of two or more streams, and particularly on the bigger and more turbulent river, the frozen surface was really bumpy.  It reminded me of skiing down mogul fields.

Heading home, which was primarily west, we drove toward the sun setting over the Beluga Mountains.  It was a beautiful sight – purples and pinks, but that started the countdown toward traveling in the dark, through moose country, on a route new to us, marked by occasional skinny stakes with a square inch of reflector tape stapled to them.   (I think it would be very easy to get lost on the flat areas in a snowstorm.)

We passed two moose, the first at a distance, across a wide lake, but the second we startled just ahead of us in a wooded section, so Bryan slowed to a stop and got his gun out in case he needed to fire a warning shot.  Moose want to be on the packed snow machine tracks for the same reason we do – the deep powder is really tough to walk through.  Each winter features stories of hungry, irritable moose charging and stomping sled dogs and snow machiners with their 5-6  foot long legs.  We waited while the moose moved of its own accord off the packed track and into the deep snow.  It did not want to be there, lumbering up to its torso with each arduous step.  It kept looking back at us to gauge how far it needed to move for safety and perhaps how soon it could return to the easier trail.  As if I needed another reason to get home before the sun set on an incredibly dark world, this moose at close quarters was a good one.

It was fully dark by the time we arrived home.  Bowlegged and stiff, I creaked my way toward the cabin and down the make shift snow steps to the back porch.  Once inside, I felt around for the matches and lit the propane light so I could see well enough to light a fire.  The stove had gone out during the day, of course, and the interior temperature had sunk to 50 degrees F.  I thought of trappers, on their multi-day sojourns along their traplines, returning multiple times per winter to cabins far colder and a pot of frozen stew.  Once my fire appeared stable, I made us some welcome cups of tea to warm us up inside before the cabin would.

Tomorrow I plan to stay home.  The next day, too.   Then, maybe I'll take a short excursion by myself and try out those hand warmers. Ah, the things we look forward to...


  1. Hi Laura,

    Sorry for not responding to your question earlier. I think you should write your blog as if your giving a speech or a sermon because the people that will read your blog are interested in what you have say.

    I think what I find so brilliant is you are a great story teller--you have wonderful wit, your story line flows, and its from the heart. I completed related to how you were feeling on the snow machine and your attitude toward Bryan for making you go through that ordeal, but then you tell the reader of the wonderful views of nature that most of us will never see, but can picture them because of your description.

    Thanks for letting me share in your Alaskan adventures.


  2. Hello, my wife and children live off the yetna, I usually do round trips from our cabin to the landing , so its a long day on my machine pulling a freight sled with four 55 gallons drums of gas. Its a one hundred and sixty mile turn around for me, our freighting time on the river is short so I get in as many trips for food and gas as I can. Hope to see you guys on the river.
    Be safe