Gary and I made a final foray into Anchorage week before last. We had made what we thought would be our last trip the week prior—to get our snowmachine, skis for me, more flannel sheets, long underwear and socks, groceries, and anything else we might need in the coming months—but our snowmachine was held up at the port in Seattle, necessitating one last run to go get it.
It was just as well, too. The weather finally turned just cold enough for us to bring frozen foods back on our long drive. With highs around forty degrees, we could keep three large coolers’ worth of frozen food frozen and produce fresh in the truck bed. I grew up on canned goods like green beans, pears, and fruit cocktail (fighting with my siblings over the one-half maraschino cherry in the whole can) but had largely abandoned them in favor of the fresh produce available year-round in San Francisco. Here in our Alaskan pantry we have canned tomatoes, olives, corn, beets, pineapple; purees of pumpkin, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes; and even canned mushrooms. And, though days are shorter now, Alaska’s gardeners thoroughly exploited the long summer days. We stayed with Gary’s sister Karen and her family on the outskirts of Anchorage; they showered us with home-grown celery, carrots, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, and peppers, and we bought apples, bananas, onions, and sweet potatoes. Everything made it home at more or less the right temperature. So the trip to Anchorage saved me from a winter of canned green beans.
Of course, what we’d really gone for was to get our snowmachine before we were snowed in─or out. Chuck, our salesman, promised us the snowmachine would be ready for us Friday morning, which meant we needed to leave on Thursday.
Closing up the cabin in cold weather is a big job. Before leaving we got a good fire going and brought in plenty of firewood and tinder for our return. I filtered lots of water so our ceramic filter could start drying Wednesday; we worried it might crack if it froze with water in it while we were gone. We ate the last of our onions and put the potatoes in a cooler with a sleeping bag wrapped around it for insulation, setting it not far from the wood stove. We did as much as we could ahead of time to allow for an early start, and were pleased to have made it to Karen’s in time to take a shower and read the paper before dinner. We even had time to stop on the way to buy an eight-foot red sled for hauling lumber or camping gear with the snowmachine.
On Friday we got to Costco shortly after it opened and did the rest of our shopping before picking up the snowmachine. You can’t just leave something like that in your truck while you shop and expect it to be there when you get back, so once we had the snow machine one of us always stayed with the truck. Everything went off without a hitch—almost literally; we pointed out to Chuck he’d failed to install the promised hitch so we could pull the sled. But by evening we had groceries, warm things, a snowmachine, and were back at Karen’s doing loads of laundry and watching movies with the family while Ella kept her eye on the family cat.
Snow began to fall as we made our way home Saturday, the truck bed packed full with the coolers tied down alongside the snowmachine. We got home just as it was getting dark and woke to four inches of fluffy white on Sunday.
Gary took the snowmachine on its maiden run that morning to break trail on our driveway and around the cabin and outbuildings in order to pack the snow, making walking easier and setting a good base for skiing. But who wants to ski on the driveway? On Monday we went further afield to break some trail for real skiing.
Hunters and recreational ATV users have cut hundreds of “off-road” roads throughout the wilderness, exploiting what used to be a system of animal trails. We hate to see so many roads, but they do make for easy snow-machining. Gary drove and Ella ran alongside through snow untouched except for tracks of red fox, snowshoe hare, and caribou. Oh, and mice. Tracks of mice and voles are everywhere.
When we stopped after riding for ten or fifteen minutes, we looked down on the fog and up to the mountains, some sprinkled with snow, some covered. This will be beautiful skiing, I thought.
We could only attend to the view when we stopped, though, because Gary was focused on trailblazing and I…well, I was having trouble paying attention. I had never ridden a snowmachine before. At the start of the ride I marveled to float past our icy creek, out the gate and down the road. When we turned onto the ATV trail leading into the woods, the snow didn’t fully cushion the bumps. My ride went from nice to exciting.
Gary turned his head a bit and asked, “How are you doing back there?”
“Great!” I said. I was really having fun. Ella was having fun, too, racing alongside us with a smooth, elegant gait.
As we penetrated the forest, the trail steepened. The bumps were no longer reliably due to shrubs but often to snow-covered rock. I felt every muscle tense with each bump, as though riding a willful horse, and knew I would be sore in the morning. I shifted my weight to avoid tipping. My breathing changed to what I imagine is taught in a Lamaze class.
“Whoa!” I screamed.
Gary stopped and turned his head.
“Sorry”, I said sheepishly. “I didn’t mean it.”
Closing my eyes helped, especially as Gary picked up speed to climb a ridge. But at a crucial point in the climb, I let out two more loud shrieks and he stopped again. Oops. Maybe a piece of leather to bite on would have helped me. Too late; the machine was stuck. I disembarked while Gary reversed out and could get going again.
To be clear, this is no racing machine. Its wide track makes it very stable, and we weren’t going fast, maybe ten or fifteen miles per hour, slower still when going over rocks or through snow-covered spruce branches. Gary insisted this was an easy ride. We made it back to the road without incident and rode toward our cabin. Ella and I were surprised when Gary slowed but went past our gate.
“Up!” he called to Ella.
Up she jumped, riding between his arms as he accelerated. Forty-five miles per hour seemed like a hundred to me, even on the road. About a half-mile from our turnoff, we stopped again. I could hardly pry my hands loose from gripping the passenger seat handles so long and hard in the cold.
“You’re driving home,” Gary announced, climbing off.
And so I did. Gary held onto me, and Ella ran alongside.
“Drive on the loose snow,” Gary suggested.
It was smoother than on the trail we had just made.
“Don’t go into the ditch!” he said, more urgently this time.
Then I practiced shifting gears. The machine made an angry sound because I failed to come to a complete stop first, but machine, people and dog alike survived. I couldn’t bring myself to test the machine’s speed past twenty miles per hour, which seemed fast enough. We moved fast through the cold air, then slower, then fast again. Ella kept pace. It was exhilarating and less scary than I expected.
Tuesday we went out again, this time carrying our new red sled. We explored a little more and loaded up the sled with downed, dry wood. It was a wonderful ride. What had my problem been? This was great fun! By tomorrow, I thought, I’ll be begging to drive.
Special thanks to Erin for the title, “What Color is Your Snowmachine?”
Sunrise: 9:11 a.m.
Sunset: 6:09 p.m.
Weather: High 38, Low 22, cloudy, snowy and very windy!