I swear, I do not just spend my time in the woods in a perpetual state of fear (even if the last post and this one suggest otherwise).
I’m not carefully looking around every corner, wondering what scary beast is lurking and hungry nor am I constantly running away yipping with my tail between my legs.
But from bears (both imagined and real) to bonfires, this place is alive with excitement and danger, both in a constant battle to win over the other.
Everything here is so tough and at the same time so delicate. The snow is packed until you hit a soft spot and fall in up to your thighs. The fire is roaring until you get distracted for a moment and it suddenly goes out. Your snowmachine is running great until you hit a hidden rock and now you’re stuck without transport. You go to pump water and the generator is on the fritz so it’s back to melting snow. You’re confidently chopping wood until the axe swings through and you hit your boot and luckily your boots are thick and you aren’t hurt.
Because if you are, you aren’t in a good way when you’re way out here. And so the balance continues. Do what you need to do and do what you want to do but aim to do it well and without incident.
So, when some friends were getting together to go for a snowmachine ride up to The Bowl I was both excited and scared. First option: call my neighbor/old boss/best girlfriend who’s a guyfriend and poke around to see if I can ride with him (meaning on his machine because I’m nervous to drive on my own and The Chief is at work).
Plan failed. He sniffed me out in seconds.
You’re coming. And you’re driving. Or, you know, you can sit at home and sit out this beautiful day.
You know a friend is your friend when they force you to do things you’re scared of like:
The Bowl. Driving solo. Getting stuck. Flipping the machine. Losing the machine down the hill. Falling off the cliffs. Did I mention I have a fear of heights? I try to just pretend I don’t and sometimes it works (typically when I’m on flat ground).
There were so many options for things to go wrong and all of them were running through my head.
The Bowl is at the end of a narrow and winding trail of about 3,000 vertical feet up into the mountains. One side of the trail is a sheer drop-off and parts of the trail are so narrow that in order to keep on it one has to stand up and use all your body weight to lean and tilt the machine to the opposite side to avoid falling down the hillside. The best case scenario if you did is that you would ditch your machine in time and be able to stop yourself from careening to the bottom and that your machine would get hung up in a tree (and therefore would be save-able and salvageable) instead of breaking into a million little pieces on it’s descent into town.
The first time I had gone to The Bowl we went with a different group of friends. I rode with The Chief. Without much more to hold onto than a narrow strap with too much slack my legs were squeezed as tightly as possible to hold me on and to keep me in sync with The Chief’s moves. He leans left, I lean left. He leans right, I lean right. Forward, back, making yourself a team, a unit (which is really hard to do when you can’t see through the person you’re riding behind and thus can’t anticipate a bump or tun. All you have to go off of is a response to and an anticipation of their movements).
Everyone got stuck in the deep snow in the final ascents.
Machines would sink and we would dig them out and pull and push until they were free, just in time for another to sink. But, these guys are excellent drivers, throwing legs and shifting hips over the machine and making maneuvers I never even thought of. We made it to the top and it was a perfect day filled with shared snacks and sips and just a bit of a view.
So, now I’m doing that? Ok, I mean I am a pro. I’ve just taken my first few solo trips in the last week or so and I’ve probably driven the machine about 6 times total, so yeah! Let’s throw this thing into full gear and jump from the bunny slopes to the black diamond.
A few exciting facts about the machine:
The footrests are iced over on this particular morning (and there’s no time to heat it off), making my footing about as stable as slippers on an ice rink
The “brakes” are a bit of a work in progress. The brake handle is a replacement that doesn’t quite match and therefore is loose and falls forward, out of your reach. So when you go to brake, well sometimes you miss it. Best to keep it pulled in at all times even if it cramps your hand.
You don’t have reverse, so think fast before you put yourself in a corner.
Steering the machine is more of a workout than a day at the gym. But, the turning radius is pretty amazing.
A few realities about what it means to go for a snow machine ride:
It’s not just a joy ride. How will the house be when you return? Will the weather turn and the house freeze? The only way to help stave that off is to a. stay home (which my neighbor has conveniently shamed me out of doing) or b. make an amazing fire and get the house cooking so…
As you’re dressing for the cold, you are going to make the house a temperature that would beg for clothing optional (think 10 degrees outside and 95 inside).
You start upstairs in the bedroom loft: underwear first. Then socks. Last time you wore thick socks with your boots (that you bought on your first major gear acquisition in Anchorage in this post and that you thought you bought too big before you knew the meaning of buying boots too big) your feet were cold. Like icecubes. So, ok, let’s do the liners and thin socks move.
Ok, we have underwear and socks on. The next moves are to cover the body and the options are too many to count. Think about it, it’s 10 degrees outside (this is HOT), but where are you going? The Bowl is higher in elevation so there may be in inversion, it could be 30 degrees above up there. So, let’s start with a light layer, a wicker of sweat, then let’s add a little warmth with a light sweatshirt, then a fleece jacket followed by a skiing jacket to hang out in if it’s warm, followed by a parka for riding and for if the temperature starts to drop.
Now, for the fabulous bottom half. Let’s start with long underwear then add some warmth with a pair of fleece pajama pants.
Add to the masterpiece a pair of bibs (not the kind you throw-up on as an infant, the kind that I know as waterproof overalls but everyone calls bibs). Note: You are now starting to sweat, fiercely.
Then, add a log to the fire because it has finally kicked up and you need to add as much to it as possible before you leave for who knows how long.
Back to the outfit: You’re almost there. Add a balaclava (if you’re an outdoorsy person this is apparently a word as simple as “candy”, I had no idea what it was. It is essentially a jack of all trades for neck and head warmth). Then, pick your gloves, pick your poison. Too light of gloves, you’re cold. Too big of gloves and you sweat and lose your dexterity. So compromise with mid-weight gloves, hope for warmth in The Bowl and shoot for having room to pack mittens to go over said mid-weight gloves. Grab a hat and your ski goggles or sunglasses and your ear protectors, a scarf to bring with and…shoot!
You haven’t eaten today and there’s no telling when your next meal will be so, time to pack some snacks with a punch. Oh, and let’s boil some water and make a mug of tea in case it gets super cold up there and you need a quick way to warmth.
Ok. I think you might be ready.
Go outside. Fire up the machine (this takes about 6 pulls, full choke, half choke, run and a lot of gentle gas gives. It’s up and ready finally) and…it’s out of gas.
Ok, you are almost ready.
Drive to the gas drum, unscrew the pressure release, unhook the pull and start filling.
Tank is full. Check the oil. Oil is low. Find the oil. Add the oil. Wait for the oil to go into the machine (it’s cold, it takes a while) add more oil.
Ok, now we are ready.
Just on the ride to town to the base of the mountain I felt out of my league. My neighbors and I took the river trail that I’m used to riding but at a much faster clip and once we got the road it was full throttle.
But that just means it’s time to step it up a bit. This is how you learn.
When we got to town, everyone was snowboarding the hills and drinking beers. I’m embarrassed to say it but I thought the plans had changed and this was our landing pad for the day.
Phew! A sigh of relief. I could try The Bowl another day.
Not so fast.
It turns out we were waiting for someone to return…and then we were going to The Bowl.
Great! (This is a sarcastic “Great!” in case you couldn’t tell)
Time to do the self-pump-up dance again.
And we were off. I asked my best guyfriend to ride behind me in case I got stuck and eeked out a little “I’m kinda scared” as we took off.
Around the bends, the tipsy curves and up the climbing hills we went. Thankfully those machines are loud because I was yelling “You got this!” interchangeably with “Ohhhhhh shittt!” to myself around every hairy corner. And I did. Even the extra sharp one right before the final ascents. We got past the treacherous spot from my previous trip and we were on the home stretch, the final ascent and…
I didn’t make it.
At the last big hill I gunned it and…almost made it.
Halfway up the hill the machine topped out, no more pull, and the speed I had wasn’t enough. I sank and started rolling backwards. I squeezed the brakes as hard as I could but still the angle was in cahoots with gravity and I kept falling backwards down the hill.
Nothing feels as good as not only foiling your plan to make it up the hill as to ruin the momentum of all of your friends behind you (4 machines of them), but hey, at least I caught my machine before it ran down the hill into any of them (always look on the brightside, right?).
And so, as quickly as I had almost given myself bruises from self pats on the back for making it to the summit, I was stuck in hip-deep snow at a 45 degree angle on a mountain thousands of feet above the town.
Thankfully, when you decide to go on a group trip you are also agreeing to help your comrades and before I knew what had happened I had help. We started digging snow from underneath the track and the skis (for those of you who don’t know (and I certainly didn’t prior to riding one) snowmachines have a track beneath them in the middle, like a tank but narrower, accompanied by skis on the sides of the track that ideally guide the machine)). Once we realized that there was no way the machine was making it up we started trying to just lift it. 400+ pounds isn’t all that much for two people to lift but when on either step you both are standing or falling into hip-deep snow it can start to look like an Oompa Loompa up and down dance and it gets a little tricky. Eventually we got it pointed rightways or right enough to move (which still meant almost perpendicular to the 45 degree incline) and I asked my friend to steer it down to the next landing pad.
Well, I didn’t make it but it was close. So I walked up the rest of the mountain. Good thing I dressed for cold, I thought as I walked slower and slower up the steep incline. Ten minutes and about four stops to peel off layers later I got to the top, sweating. I realized I was a bit screwed with all of these layers now being sweaty but I was happy to make the view.
We played around for a bit and watched friends ski down the icy slope above us for an hour or so until it was time to rally down. Walking downhill to the machine I started sending good ju-ju waves down to the brakes.
It’s you and me guys, let’s do this together.
And we did. Slowly but surely. At times I would be full press on the brakes and we would still be Slip Sliding Away (I sang that song all the way down to distract from the fact that I was sliding down a mountain and that my forearms were so tired I felt I might have to let go at any moment) , but hey it’s that balance again between excitement and danger so let the battle begin.
Safely at the bottom my neighbor and I decided to visit the boys at their work site (I needed someone to hug). I got that hug and rejuvenation enough to make plans to head to my neighbor’s for cocktails (and high-fives, even if she didn’t know that was on the menu). I just had to go home first – remember the fire? It had been hours and the temperature had started to drop, plus I needed to check on the dog since she had refused to leave the house and for a while there she (a Husky mix) had basically been in a sauna house.
At the break in our paths on the river trail (my exit home and her continuance on the trail) we waved and I geared up for the big jump off the river trail and…
I didn’t make it.
What I had worried about all day had finally happened: I crashed.
I had landed the jump. I just happened to land it right into a tree.
Booyah! At least I saved it for the only moment I wasn’t surrounded by people, right? Except wait…now I needed help (and just where the hell had my sunglasses and ear protectors gone to? I guess they flew off in the crash). This thing is heavy.
I started heaving and hoing but I couldn’t get the machine to move. I used a lifeline and phoned a friend. No answer. Everyone was on machines and couldn’t hear their phones.
I was NOT about to make the:
Sorry Honey I Roped Your Machine Around a Tree and Now I Need You To Leave Work Early To Come Bail Me Out
No way. Whatever stubbornness I had to summon in order to make the decision not to call him was enough to power me to get the machine out by myself. I pulled and dug and pulled the skis and rocked it and finally I was free to be on my way. On the way home I ran into our nearest neighbors and immediately told them about my mishap (there’s something about Alaska for me, or maybe it’s just growing up, but whenever I do something embarrassing I feel like I have to immediately tell someone). They looked over the machine and assured me all the smoke coming from it was from the snow I had gathered in crashing and that overall it looked fine.
By the time I got to the house, made it warm, fed the dog and finally got all my layers off and hung to dry The Chief had made it home.
I told him what I had done and waited for the ball to drop.
No ball, just a jaw accompanied by an amused smile and an “Are you ok, babe?”
Finally cozy and out of wet layers and safe from the elements I wasn’t risking going anywhere else. I told the neighbor I was in for the night and cozied up, recouping for the next adventure, the next balance between excitement and danger and I thanked my lucky Big Dipper for keeping the tilt to the excitement side today.
You see, I’m no daredevil but I don’t think I’m any sort of pussycat either but out here, the bar is raised. I’ve never lived where I have no idea what a day will look like, where you might wake up feeling vulnerable and still go out on a trip that feels beyond your ability, where our day (and dress) is so dependent on weather and where I know a day spent half in fear will also likely be spent half in sheer excitement (at least hopefully). And I’ve never had so many opportunities to be scared and push through.
So thank you friends for the push (and for the digging).