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Trailblazing. The word speaks of adventure, even danger. Here it’s part housekeeping, too: something that, once done, refuses to stay done.

Home from harvesting firewood along the river

Our snowmachine is a workhorse. We ride it to town and back, attach a sled to haul luggage, logs, lumber — anything that needs hauling — and we pack trails. Every few days Gary rides out to pack the paths we want to travel, creating a solid base and literally smoothing our way, building a network of trails on the river and on nearby ATV roads. Walking, skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmachining is more difficult on soft snow. Our large, stable snowmachine has a wide track allowing it to float where others might founder. Still, it can get pulled in toward deep, soft drifts, and at 650 pounds it’s a heavy machine.

As many afternoons as time and weather permit, Gary and I ski the river. More private and scenic than the road, it’s a veritable highway compared to the hummocky, spruce-covered tundra. More than two feet of snow covers the ice in most places now; our skis sink and we trudge more than glide without a groomed trail. We also need a path into the woods to harvest dead trees for firewood. So Gary uses the snowmachine to break new trail and reinforce existing trail weakened by snow or wind-drifts.

Ella and I stand by as Gary breaks trail on the river, avoiding fissures

Obstacles and fissures in the river’s icy shell hide under snow, so breaking trail can be tricky. That’s why Ella and I generally stay home when Gary is trailblazing. He goes prepared, knowing he could crash through the ice or get stuck. Two weeks ago he headed out to extend the downstream trail.

“When should I start worrying?” I asked.

“I should be back in a couple of hours, but don’t worry if I don’t make it home tonight. If I run into trouble and feel I have to get back here, that’s where the real danger lies. I might try to come home when instead I should stop and start a fire to dry myself,” he explained.

“When should we start looking for you?”

“Five days,” he replied. A kiss and he was gone.

A couple of hours later Ella and I heard the hum of the snowmachine. The trip was a success, and since then we have been enjoying new scenery on the longer trail. Skiing along, we circumvent a snowmachine-sized section of ice that has collapsed three feet onto a lower layer.

Gary and Ella circumvent the site of the snowmachine water landing

“The tail of the machine had just passed over when the ice fell in,” Gary explained.

A few days later he decided to break trail upstream. I was looking forward to skiing upriver, both for a different view and because the gentle downstream slope is a big help when I turn home tired. Gary came back before I even thought about worrying. But I should have worried.

He had only gone a half mile upstream when he crashed through the ice. Our shiny new snowmachine stood on its tail in the deep water, fast-flowing about three feet under the surface ice.

“I’m glad I wasn’t there to see it,” I said.

“If you’d been with me, you’d have gone in,” he replied, laughing but serious.

Gary rescued the snowmachine with a come-along – a hand-held winch. With no trees near, he tied it to a dwarf birch, a leafless bush about the size of a large bouquet. The surface ice held as the winch shortened the cable, notch by notch, pulling the machine up and out, no worse for the wear.

I would have called it a day, but Gary finished breaking the trail as planned. The next day we skied past the site of the accident and even saw snow-white ptarmigan take flight just where he’d seen them the day before.

A week ago Friday Gary invited me to join him re-packing the downstream river trail. He had just run it the day before, but after the night’s snowfall wanted to extend it into the woods where he’d seen a stand of dead spruce. We’d harvested some a few weeks ago, but as Gary says, firewood is like money in the bank. We have three woodsheds partially filled with spruce and birch, but much of it is green. If we hit a long cold snap we’ll burn wood quickly with no way to replenish — the chain saw works haltingly if at all once it gets much below zero.

Gary uses the come-along to pull the snowmachine into an upright position

We rode together on the river, Ella running behind, but I got off just before Gary started up the steep riverbank into the woods. I was going to follow in my snowshoes, a gift from my former colleagues. The snowshoes are fantastic – once on, they stay on, but getting them on and off isn’t easy. I struggled with the clasps as he drove off. I was putting on the second snowshoe when Ella began to whimper. I looked up to see the snowmachine tipped on its side about thirty feet away. Gary pushed and I pulled, but in the end he used the come-along to right the machine. That done, he rode into the woods while I shoveled snow in the hole where the machine had rested, to prevent another mishap.

We followed the beautiful lights at sunset

We rode home toward a prism of color, blowing snow caught by the setting sun. We took a detour down the road, with the nearly-full January moon floating over the Alaska range in a pink sky to the north, and a setting sun with sundogs left and right to the south.

The moon over the Alaska Range, taken at the same time as the sunset picture above

When we got up Saturday it was just below zero, a bit cold for the chain saw but worth a try. I set out first on my “bushwhackers,” short, fat skis for rough terrain. Gary soon passed me, and more than once I found myself detouring around breaks in the ice caused by the snowmachine. I arrived as Gary was cutting the first tree, and was just out of my skis when another snowmachine arrived. We hadn’t seen another soul since Christmas Eve. It was Jim, the local state trooper (see “Snowed In?,” October, 2011). He had promised to check on us this winter, but we were always away from the cabin when he stopped by.

“It looks like the ice broke under you in a few places,” Jim observed.

Gary told Jim how he’d fallen through the ice upstream; Jim’s story was more dramatic. We’d already heard about a solo hiker gone missing in a cold snap, and Jim was one of the two troopers who had made the rescue.

“My machine went through the ice, and I was wet up to my waist. It was thirty-five below. But we got the guy out alive,” Jim said, “and I got a new snowmachine.”

Jim left and Gary began cutting the downed trees into eighteen-inch segments to fit our stove. I stacked them in the sled and dragged branches to a small bonfire. Dusk was falling when Gary set down his chainsaw and finished securing the wood with ropes. I put away my skis and rode home. Our headlight broke the darkness as we returned on the river, Ella running behind the sled. I held my breath, but the ride was uneventful. Before setting out from home I’d pulled a pot of turkey noodle soup from the porch; cold and hungry, we were happy to find it hot atop our wood stove.

Sunrise: 10:10 a.m.
4:02 p.m.
High -28°, low -42°, calm, sunny day, starry night. We did get four to six inches of snow on January 12th, but nothing like they’re seeing closer to the coast!