The saying for Alaskan winters is "it's never easy." Whether it's a simple task like starting your car or a perfectly planned trip to the Denali Highway, Mother Nature has the final say. While most initial reactions to a frozen pipe, non-starting car, snowed in driveway, an open creek crossing that should have been frozen, overflow, or any other obstacle is cursing and flopping over, it's these very challenges that make life exciting. It's the "well....crud" moments that create an adventure worth telling about.
We had big plans for Thanksgiving. My brother Nick and sister-in-law Cass were visiting for the holiday, and this was Cass's first time to Alaska. Since they were braving the cold and dark of an Alaskan winter to come up and visit, I wanted to show them a good time. The plan- take 27 dogs, 2 snowmachines, and 5 people the 65 miles down the unmaintained Denali Highway to Alpine Creek Lodge for Thanksgiving. It sounded simple enough. On Tuesday we loaded up the two trucks with everything we could think of and drove the four hours down to the start of the highway in Cantwell. Reading the Winter Weather Advisories and seeing the drifted over Parks Highway should have been a hint, but dogs and snowmachines are the ultimate trail breakers, so we didn't think about the 25-30 inches of snow falling around us. Our next hint was the parking area at the start of the highway. It was nonexistent. Or rather, a field of deep powder. No problem though, with five people we just shoveled out two large parking spots and a tent site.
The next morning we awoke to two more feet of fresh powder. Derek unloaded the snowmachines and quickly realized they can't make it in these conditions. Big mountain machines probably could, but his Tundras were not equipped for such deep snow. My next thought was perhaps the dogs could break trail and the snowmachines could follow behind? Ok, for 65 miles that's a little unrealistic.
I called Jennifer Bondy at Alpine Creek Lodge and described the situation at our end of the Highway. Her husband Claude and Andy Pace from Hey Moose! Kennel decided to take snowmachines from the Lodge to the start of highway to break open a trail for everyone. Several other snowmachiners were also planning on spending Thanksgiving at the Lodge, so between Claude, Andy, and the rest of the snowmachines, there should be a good trail. Well, the pictures do a pretty good job of illustrating what happened. Claude's machine burst into flames just 20 miles from us. Andy and Claude were forced to return to Alpine Creek Lodge (check out Alpine Creek Lodge's Facebook page for some funny videos of Claude describing what happened and giving the machine it's own eulogy).
Kristin from Hey Moose! Kennel and Jennifer Bondy called with the news of Claude and Andy's predicament. But even though they didn't make it all the way to us, a family (who we deemed the Super Family) was coming from our direction and has big mountain machines to put in a trail. They were driving up from Anchorage and would be there in an hour or two. We decided to wait a little longer.
An hour later, Kristin called back- the Super Family would be late. They were delayed by an avalanche across the Parks Highway. More waiting. In the meantime, I decided to take out the dogs and break open a little bit of the trail by dog team. The snow was so deep that we tried out the loose leader technique. Lefty ran free in front of the dog team to put in a trail unencumbered by a tug line. Amazingly, Lefty did fantastically well even though we've never practiced or trained for loose leading. He stayed just a short distance in front of the team and ran in a straight line down the trail. When I'd whoa the team to catch my breath (I was peddling and running behind the team), Lefty would stop and look back, waiting for the go cue. Then, I'd holler, "ready, alright!" and off we'd go with Lefty breaking the trail. While this was all good and fun, I realized we were traveling at around 1 mile per hour. Breaking open 20 miles of trail was extremely unrealistic at this pace. So we decided to turn around and head back to camp to wait for the Super Family.
By the time we arrived back at camp it was 6:30 PM, and we realized making it to Alpine Creek Lodge for Thanksgiving just wasn't going to happen. By 10:00 PM, we heard a revving engine outside our tent. The Super Family had arrived but were stuck in the deep snow. A little creativity and lots of digging later, their truck and trailer were free and headed back down to find a better place to park. Fast forward to the next morning (Thanksgiving morning) as we were packing up to leave. The Super Family had slept in their truck without sleeping bags or pillows and were boldly going to still try and make it to Alpine Creek Lodge. They buzzed by our camp on snowmachines and just before they got out of sight, we could hear the revving of an engine. They were stuck. A couple hours later, they came back by our camp. In barely 400 yards, they'd already burned up a belt on the machine and were headed home.
We'd all come to the same conclusion- you win Mother Nature.
We drove home to Two Rivers laughing about our "failure" and knowing that this would be a Thanksgiving story for a lifetime. And don't worry- we didn't just eat peanut butter sandwiches and sit in a tent for Thanksgiving. We arrived home just in time to eat Thanksgiving dinner with all our friends in Two Rivers, making me feel so thankful for all the adventures, friends, family, and incredible dogs that make life complete.