Where I’m from in California, it’s pretty much essential to have a car. Public transportation is lacking (to say the least) and even if it was better it still would be near impossible to get to a friend’s house in the boonies without some other added mode of transportation. Why not walk? Walking the roads is like tip-toeing on railroad tracks. Often there’s little to no shoulder and blind curves are plentiful. And so, although I’d prefer to walk or bike it’s often much more efficient to drive to work. Almost everyone I know has their own convenient individual machines and…Hi Ho Hi Ho, off to work we go. It goes a little like this:
Going to Work (Anytime) in California:
Steps 1-5 to get out the door: Wake up early enough to go for a walk or run. Take a shower (you have hot water that pours straight from the wall!). Eat breakfast. Caffeinate. Make lunch.
Step 6: Head outside to your car (likely already warmed a bit by the morning sunshine). Insert key and search for some music to play through your phone while the car warms up (while sipping coffee).
Step 7: You’re off! Ugh, it’s so hot in here. Put back the sunroof and get your summer highlights and your vitamin D intake started.
Step 8: Stop for snacks. What’s a workday without a little chocolate? Stop at your favorite local hippie mart (today Andy’s market is on the way) and grab some goodies and hey, while you’re there why not a specialty coffee drink? You could really go for a Dirty Chai today (if you haven’t had one, try one. You can trust me on this).
Step 9: Arrive at work, cozy and caffeinated.
Step 10: Work. Maybe go grocery shopping on your lunch break (you have a hankering for a good Bolognese tonight. Maybe some zoodles? I think I was banned in California from saying that word too much. Zoodles too are delicious. Try them. I am living my culinary fantasies through you).
Step 11: You’re done! Get back into your cozy car, run an errand or two and head to your warm house. Hey, maybe even meet a friend for Happy Hour or go to the gym. The world is at your fingertips, my friend.
Going to Work in the Winter in Alaska:
Steps 1-around 50: In Order to Get Out the Door…
You wake up (seemingly) early enough to get all of your chores done so you can leave the house (and know that you’ll never wake up early enough to do them all…so you immediately start prioritizing once you’ve risen). Put on water to boil. Make a fire. The dog will tell you if she’s ready for breakfast or not (she likely will be if you’re running late, she likely won’t be if you’re on time. She’s good at testing you like that). Brush them bucks and wash your face after the water has warmed on the stove. Do a little bird bath action (oh, to have an on-demand shower). Pour the water into the coffee pot and while it’s circulating through the grounds go outside to check the machine. You glance at the thermometer: last night it got down to -13 but now it’s 15 above.
You assess: how many layers will I need this morning? Big gloves or light gloves? Parka or double lighter jackets? Check the gas and the oil on the machine. Low and low.
Head to the gas drum and loosen the air escape, unhook the hose and pump the arm until you fill the gas tank (and likely overfill. Ah, the smell of gasoline all over your clothes first thing in the morning. At least you already built the fire). Tighten the air escape and replace the hose. There’s a bit of water in the gas from melted snow so pour the gas through a water filter so the machine will run more evenly (apparently water in gas is a bad thing…makes sense). Find a can of oil and add it to the machine, careful not to overfill this too (a funnel would be helpful but…naw).
By now your coffee is ready but you only have enough time to find all of your layers and get dressed before it’s time to leave (you didn’t realize the gas can was empty so you are now minus ten minutes, no coffee interlude this morning). This is when the pup decides she’s hungry but she’s so cute you can’t help but concede.
O.k., now it’s really time to hustle. As you’ve been doing chores throughout the morning you’ve been planning your layers so you can be quick to dress. You find all the components and start dressing just as you look and see that you forgot to take the liners out of your boots last night (I have never had to do this before this winter. I didn’t even know liners came out, probably because I’ve never had a boot with liners since I’ve never lived in snow so needless to say, I’m out of habit). Oh well, things could be much worse than cold feet for the day.
You dress and tie your hair back, pack the coffee into a to-go mug, put extra layers in your backpack and head outside.
Step 51: Driving
The machine (snow machine) got cold along witht the weather last night and so it is a little sleepy to start but after a few extra pulls you get her going. You rev the engine lightly and listen for the drop in pitch to let you know you can take the choke completely off (even when you’re rushing, you still have to make sure to treat your equipment like a queen, lest she decide to cast you out the Realm of the Riding). You rev a few more times, listening for her to tell you she’s ready to rumble. You give it one last big rev and she jolts forward. She’s ready! Get on the rest of your gear (goggles and ear protectors (these machines are loud)) and you’re off!
You decide to take a different route this morning so as not to disturb your neighbors (it is 7:30 in the morning, after all) and head out to the road just in time to see the deep blue as the sun makes her ascent over the mountains.
You also already hit a good enough speed on your short route so far to realize that you have indeed under-dressed. You’re still still learning. Some days 15 above feels like 40 and other days it feels like 15 below zero. Moisture, wind and other scientific stuffs all affect how we feel at the same temperature and today, well, you underestimated. Now, you can decide one of two things:
Drive as fast as you can to get there as quickly as you can so as to minimize time in the cold
Drive slowly to keep the wind down and stay warmer but endure a longer trip
You decide to compromise: you’ll stand up while driving as fast as you can (safely, Mom, don’t worry). Sounds counter-intuitive, right? But because your windshield is busted it is actually less windy above the windshield. Tadaa! Plus, since you didn’t get to go for a walk or exercise this morning this will be your stand-in for a workout (it takes muscles I didn’t even know existed to be able to drive this thing). You bounce around following the river and trying to learn different limits of the machine (and your driving ability) until…
Step 52: The River Crossing
In order to get to work you need to cross a (mostly) frozen river (mostly being the most operative word here). Two months ago, the crossing was impossible due to the breaking of a glacial lake in the mountains which, subsequently, opened up the river.
But, now it often is possible. The bridge is an alternative, but a unpreferable one at best since, due to the warm weather (up to 45 degrees above zero!) we’ve been having lately, all of the snow has melted from the bridge. This makes it a spark-filled adventure to cross on the metal skis of a snow machine. Therefore, if possible, it’s best to take the river.
The first time I crossed the river by myself I was pretty sure I would fall in the whole time.
This had been my preparation:
“How do I know if it’s cross-able?” I asked everyone I ran into.
Oh, I’ll know? That seems unlikely. I mean, I’ve been here for one winter. I don’t think that makes me any sort of ice expert. I’m more of an ice cream expert.
But, yes, if I approach the river and see it gushing, sure, I’ll know not to cross. Yet aside from the an obvious flow, how do I know if the ice I see is ice to cross?
The Chief and I had talked about dark ice being precarious and to watch for overflow (essentially when there is water out on the ice) because this indicates that water has broken through somewhere and is flowing, making the ice very slippery and less stable (though not necessarily impossible to cross).
As far as I had surmised, it seemed the key ingredients to crossing a river were:
Inspection (looking at the river, maybe even turning off the machine and listening to the river – the only problem with that is that even a crossable river may have an audible flow of water beneath it)
Intuition/Decisions (see: going for it). Once you’ve decided to cross, you’re crossing and if you start to fall in, the only option is more speed. Great!
On my first solo crossing I already had concluded on one ingredient: I was going across. Probably, it would have been best to decide that after inspection but, hey, I’ll admit I’m stubborn. I was ready and I was going. I did pause at the top of the hill that leads down to the river and although it was jagged and craggy with icebergs as speed bumps, what I could see looked doable and so, I went.
As I started out, the ice quickly changed pitch below me. At first the skis made a deep rolling sound on the ice but it quickly changed to a hollow growl.
Time for a second helping of the ingredient of speed.
I hurried across the remaining crossing and once on the other side stopped to see my path.
I had made my first crossing.
I let out a holler a wolf would be proud of and then promptly texted The Chief that I was alive (he apparently was not as surprised as I was, you know, that whole undying faith in me thing and all. I don’t know where he gets it, but I’m sure glad he seems to have it in bulk).
Ok, let’s return to the Journey to Work (Step 52 continued):
Since by now (two weeks into work) crossing the river is old hat (see: you still get nervous every time because every hour on the river is potential for change. You could be able to cross in the morning and by mid-day the river could be flowing) you approach the river with healthy inquiry. It’s like being a kid at a crosswalk. Stop, look both directions. Grab your mommy’s hand (oh, darn. Mom, can you visit now?) and go.
You cross without incident and now you are more than halfway to work (a little celebration dance follows). Your legs are starting to get tired from essentially performing a twenty minute long squat but, hey, you’re not exactly hitting the gym out here so why not? Plus, it’s helping to warm you up. Well, most of you.
Step 53: Arrival at Work
You arrive at work with frozen fingers (you had to stop once just to blow on them because they started hurting so much) and remind yourself to keep heavier gloves in your ever-expanding backpack (it’s filled with an every-growing array of potentially needed items). You arrive early because you always try to leave early in case something comes up (everything from running into a friend to running out of gas becomes a possible time swap and so I always try to build in a buffer) but today you’re using this extra time to warm up before you start your shift. Plus, you need time to disrobe.
It’s funny to arrive at work and the first thing you do is start undressing and re-dressing. Your pile of outerwear takes up half of the back table (the other half is for the chef, you’re working at the local saloon/restaurant that’s just opened again for a quick blip in the pre-season for the film crew in town) and that ever-growing backpack comes in handy as you swap out for a new shirt (turns out that 30 minute squat really got your blood pumping). Finally your fingers have defrosted and now, it’s time to start work. It feels like a whole workday has gone by just getting here, but really it’s just the beginning.
Three hours later, coffee and breakfast served and dishes done and your shift is over (youwork split shifts of three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening). It’s 11am and you’re free until 5:30. What to do?
Step 54: Getting Home
You figure you could use a little walk so you leave the machine (and most of your outerwear gear) in town and head home, walking the hidden paths the machine can’t power through and crossing the frozen river on foot.
Step 55: Making Use of Home Time
And so, a little over an hour later, you return home. The fire needs to be stoked but at least it’s taken away the morning chill. You survey the scene: what needs to be done? Haul water, do laundry, do the dishes, finish outside projects…etc. and then decide what’s feasible in four hours (since now, having left the machine in town, you’ll need at least an hour to get yourself back to work). You spin the chore wheel in your head and then the fun wheel for your post-chore reward (I think today it might be a nap) and set out to get things done. Or not. Some days, you’re tired and you go straight to the fun wheel (read: nap time).
Step 56: The Journey Back
Alright, it’s 4pm and time to head out again. Since you left most of your outerwear gear at the restaurant (it’s too hot to walk that far in) you suit up with lighter snow pants and layers that can go under your bulkier outerlayers or into your backpack for the ride home on the snow machine tonight. You decide why not go for the whole trifecta and ski to work? Plus, the pup could use some exercise. She’s ten so she can’t run with the snow machine anymore, but she can lap you even on skis and so you interrupt her from her afternoon snooze-sesh to go on an adventure. You call her “Uncle” who’s working construction in town to make sure he can give her a ride home in his truck. It’s settled. You’re off.
Well, almost. You forgot an extra pair of shoes (since ski boots probably would be a bit slippery for work). The ever-expanding backpack is getting ever-heavier now.
Ok, now you’re off. Packed like a mule and ready to glide like Tanya Harding (oh wait, we liked Nancy Kerrigan, right?).
Thirty minutes in and you’re to the river crossing.
It’s eerie to look down into the craggy ice and see and hear water below, knowing that only hours earlier you took hundreds of pounds over the same spot. But at the same time, seeing the thickness of the outcroppings of ice and testing it with jumps and prods with poles overpowers any fears, at least for now.
Plus, when your dog runs ahead of you, you immediately feel safer (and even if it’s an unjust sense of security, it’s security nonetheless).
And so, you cross again.
Once on the other side, past the swimming hole
(better suited as an ice skating rink nowadays), you run into three friends at one of the creeks people stop at to fills jugs for drinking water (pretty amazing, huh? Fresh, pure water flowing year-round. Yes please). Ten minutes later, updated on everyone’s latest happenings, you’re off again. Lou has already ditched you. She knows that where she’s going there’s a potential for french fries and if you’re around she’s less likely to get as many (yea, mom put her Little Lou on a little diet. “Husky” can’t serve as both her breed and her physical description).
Step 57: Lose the Layers
You get to work and start the undressing/dressing game again, clean up all the snow you’ve tracked into the bathroom, grab a makeshift water bowl for your thirsty pup, attach your skis and poles to the machine (better now than later in the dark) and clock in.
Step 58: The Hand-Off
Thirty minutes later, you’re outside again, handing Lou off to her Uncles (three came to collect her post work). It feels like you’re dropping her off at daycare. Puppy eyes and all, but in a few hours you’ll be home with her again.
Step 59: The Last Journey Home
And before you know it, you’re suiting up again, ready to hit the road and head home. You approach the river crossing but by now, near 9pm, it’s dark. You have sound and intuition to go on because your lights cast more of a shadow from up on the hill than provide information.
You decide to go for it.
In the few hours since you skied over you notice a chunk has collapsed in and so you pick up speed and evaluate the route ahead as quickly as you can as you race towards solid ground.
You make it.
A few more twists and turns and slips (since you packed your running shoes for work because a. your backpack couldn’t fit boots and b. it sounded fun to wear something other than boots for the first time in months, but it turns out they aren’t the best snow machining shoes. Grip is key. Duly noted) and slalom-esque tree avoidance and you’re home, sweet home.
Step 60: The Wind-Down & Reboot
The house is cold since the afternoon fire burnt out (The Chief is away for his post-op appointment, not just home letting fires burn out at home) and the has temperature dropped but you’re warm from the ride (you tried a different squat maneuver this time that was a real workout). Thankfully, you chopped wood during your break so that you wouldn’t have to chop it upon returning home and you build a fire in no time. Doubly thankfully, you’ve been fed at work because the idea of making a meal from scratch right now sounds like building the Wall o’ China (or something else equally difficult). You settle in with a good flick and cuddle with the pup and congratulate yourself on having taken care of the house solo and gotten to work twice without incident and settle in to do it all over again tomorrow.
So yes, going to work in the winter in Alaska is a little different from what I’m used to. It feels like three days wrapped into one by the end of it and the steps are far more involved and plentiful than I could have ever imagined (geez, I used to balk at having to stop for gas once a week where the pump pumps for you and the trucks deliver the fuel to your fingertips). But although I do miss the luxury of stopping for chocolate at a health food store or meeting a girlfriend for a glass of wine, I’m grateful to return to our little house in the woods, warm or cold, where the wine is often in a box (all the better for transporting to share with neighbors) and the chocolate is shipped in via care package (thank you Katinka). It’s funny to think of the parallels this life has provided, for every reality we are used to is what we come to expect and now, in this new life, I never really know what to expect. I guess that is my new reality.
Cheers to the unknown and to that which will become known.