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To-night will be a stormy night
You to the Town must go,
And take a lantern with you, dear,
To light you through the snow
Adapted from “Lucy Gray” by William Wordsworth

These words come to me as I step outdoors. My mother had memorized “Lucy Gray” as a schoolgirl and my siblings will remember how she used these lines — just a bit changed from the original — to tell us to take care as we headed out in bad weather. We were in Southern California; bad weather meant rain.

It’s snowing. The wind has been howling for the last twenty-four hours. We had thirty-degree weather last night; the mercury is plummeting and we expect to wake up to thirty below tomorrow. The bang of shutters against the wall unnerves Ella when she’s alone at night, and she tries to climb the loft stairs to join us.

Red sky at morning, mushers take warning

Cordova, on the coast, has fifteen feet of snow with no sign of relief. Once they dig out the town they’ll start digging out the ski lifts. We hear coastal forecasts calling for “frozen spray,” so bad this year that eagles with ice-laden wings have been seen, unable to fly. Our local NPR station is based at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks; weather reports include a listing of which campus parking lots have lost power to the headbolts, outlets to plug in the essential engine blankets.

We’ve been lucky so far. The snow has come in polite little batches, an inch or two at a time just when it was wanted for skiing or to provide a fresh slate for viewing animal tracks or, well, to cover up the yellow snow. But we’ve had several inches of snow today, and it’s still going strong.

The river is changing as the ice buckles and the snow drifts

So far it hasn’t caused us any real inconvenience. I did have to dig about four feet of it off my watering hole, which was so filled with drifted snow that I had to be careful not to step anywhere near the hole itself as I shoveled out, in case I guessed wrong about its exact placement. As it turns out, I wouldn’t have gone far: ice on the river bottom is so thick that the water is barely deep enough to accommodate my bucket.

But even without huge amounts of snow, drifts can become dangerous. Sunday was windy, too, so we stayed indoors and took the opportunity to go online while our wind turbine hummed busily. An email from our friend Jayne put us on alert — friends of hers were stranded on the road twenty miles from us. The couple was traveling by dog team and snowmachine when the snowmachine got stuck in drifting snow. Late in the day a second email arrived, letting us know they were safely settled for the night under a tarp. By then the wind had died down and the sky was clear. The temperature fell steadily as Gary split wood late that afternoon.

We checked email Monday morning, getting word that some folks from town were heading out. By then it was thirty-two below, and we were thirty miles closer to the stranded travelers. I hurried breakfast and filled a thermos with coffee for Gary to take, along with some food and a week’s supply of Ella’s dog food, a mere snack for a team of fourteen dogs. Gary packed snowshoes, a shovel and axe, the come-along, a sleeping bag, fire starter, extra warm clothes, and packages of handwarmers.

He was gone two or three hours before Ella heard our snowmachine and trotted out to meet him and Mark, who followed right behind. Mark was exhausted, his cheeks red and his hands cold and cramped. I quickly made coffee. While we sat around the fire, Gary told how he had gotten stuck twice on the way, once within 100 yards of reaching Mark.

“I got stuck because I slowed down when I saw him,” Gary said.
—It’s easy to get stuck

“I was so happy to see someone else get stuck too,” Mark laughed. “It wasn’t just me! I am so tired of shoveling.”

Lawrence and Will, the folks who’d come in from town, soon joined us; they had reached Mark and Gary just as they had finished shoveling out. I made more coffee.

Gary had come upon Debbie, Mark’s wife, before he reached Mark. Her dog team was in a tangle, so Gary helped sort them out. Drifts can leave dogs — not to mention people — up to their eyeballs, or worse. Without a trail packed by snowmachine, mushers sometimes resort to snowshoeing in front of their dogs. As we talked, we heard Debbie’s dogs; she wouldn’t stop in but did take a break to feed the dogs nearby, comforted perhaps to be near people. Her day would be a long one, so Mark stayed on awhile, knowing he would pass her on the way to town.

Jayne looks on as Anitra gets ready to go.

Mark and Debbie got home safely Monday. By Tuesday the weather had warmed above zero, and Jayne came up by snowmachine. Her dog team followed shortly, run by her young friend Anitra, who was enjoying the last day of her winter break from college. Wednesday, yesterday, was lovely, with dramatic skies and temperatures heading up toward freezing. After a sunrise walk down the river with the dogs, they wisely hurried home. The storm blew in only after the day was done.

Ella entertains her friends

Usually Ella and I take a detour on our way to get water, walking or trotting up the road a piece to see (and, in Ella’s case, smell) who’s been out there. We look for tracks of snowmachines, sled dogs, and wildlife. We didn’t go today; tracks don’t last in this weather. But the snow will stop, and in the next day or two we will be walking in the winter sun, bundled up not against wind and snow, but against cold and clear.

Sunrise: 10:24 a.m.
Sunset:  3:43 p.m.
Weather: High, 10°, Low -4°, howling wind. Snow decreasing; had a few inches of accumulation today.

Mush! The team heads home in a window of good weather.