When I first pictured Winter in Alaska, it was during the heat of Summer and the question of whether I would stay for the Summer had shifted to whether or not I would stay for the Winter.
In Alaska (just to clarify).
I looked at my bearded boyfriend in these times and would laugh it off, hoping the questions would stop. I was terrified of Winter and despite wanting to stay, my California blood was telling me I wouldn’t make it. And I had, what I considered at the time, to be proof of my Winter inability. The Chief and I had taken a trip into the backcountry that Summer and by dusk I was already donning three layers on top, three layers on bottom, two pair of socks and sheepskin slippers.
And still I was cold.
It was the middle of Summer.
Winter, as I pictured it, was 20 times worse. I envisioned myself shivering in the cabin, eyelashes frozen and teeth chattering while dressed to the Winter nines a la “A Christmas Story”. I didn’t see how I could ever be warm in Winter if I was barely surviving the Summer. However, needless to say, the bearded boyfriend and I were bonded and as I’d already done a lifestyle 180 since meeting him I figured I should stop now. And so, we set off for Winter together.
It seems my notions of Winter forewent reality. In my imaginings (read: terrifying daydreams), I had altogether forgotten about our workhorse of a woodstove and thus the heated haven that our house would provide from the never-before-known-to-me-cold levels of Alaska in Winter. And so, it comes as little surprise that when asked where I live and how cold it can get here and I reply that 35 below zero is common, the first question usually asks how in the hell I ever get warm? I guess it’s not so uncommon to forget about the woodstove.
In these times I always assure people that we are cozy-toasty-wamer-than-Summer-warm in the Winter. In fact, most nights we heat ourselves out of our comfort zone and end up in our skivvies with the windows cracked to cool the house from the sweltering 90 degrees the woodstove has brought our interior temperature to. The other heat tidbit I throw out is our dry cold. “It’s a dry cold” I say. And it is. That’s why I was colder in the Summer and I’m often colder in California than I am here, even in Winter. And then, I provide the following fated little add-on: “Plus, there’s never wind.”
“Hello, Alaska speaking.”
“Did you hear that? She just guaranteed no wind here. Shall we remind her?”
“Yes. I think yes.”
I have never lived in a place where I can expect such succinct and exacting karma as I experience here. It’s as if Alaska has a secretary with a notepad leaving memos for each of her inhabitants listing their foibles as they go:
“I haven’t fallen down the ramp in weeks!”
“It’s been so warm lately.”
“The ski conditions are perfect.”
For each time I uttered the above sentences, my statements were almost immediately met by evidence to the contrary: my next quick trip down the stairs (with perhaps a bit too much confidence) ended in a swift trip onto my backside. The warm weather would immediately be met by a cold front resulting in a shift of 65 degrees so fast that it gave us the spins. The perfect ski the night before would be a distant memory to an eerily icy endeavor the morning after.
Yet despite this reality, that what I state is so often immediately contradicted by a following shift, I still find the nerve to make such statements because, well, honestly I forget. Or perhaps I think I can get away without the Secretary reporting it.
And so, while quieting fears of cold and mentioning our lack of wind to concerned questioners, Alaska’s secretary must have taken note and filed that one away for later.
And then, later came.
One morning, I awoke to a text from my girlfriend: “I hope you all didn’t get blown away! Hang in there.”
I looked outside.
Nothing too ominous.
I asked The Chief if he had felt anything.
And so, I went about my morning ski with my dog team of two (at the time we were watching our neighbor’s dog who is Cinda’s brother. We adore him).
Before we had even dropped down onto The River Trail I saw what all the fuss was about.
From our standpoint I could see the swirling winds on the peaks of the mountains surrounding us and as we dipped down onto the river trail the winds hit.
Like a slap in the face, the winds picked up all around us. And just as fast, they died down. Then started again. It was abrupt and jarring and cold to say the least. The dogs gave me the same look I gave them: this isn’t pleasant but I think we should investigate.
And so we did.
The obvious place to go in the middle of a Winter Wind Storm? Well, the least covered place possible!
And so, we headed towards the vehicle bridge and the middle of The River.
On the ski there we were fighting the wind the whole way. The dogs had their heads down and we all buttoned up for the battle forward. Each stride took forever and I leaned into the gusts as if going uphill. Within minutes my face was utterly frozen and my ears were ringing from cold. The ski which would normally take me 30 minutes had already taken 45 and we weren’t even there yet. The dogs and I had a powwow at the last straight shot before the turn for the bridge and we all decided to trudge on to the destination (What? You don’t have these conversations?). As we continued on the winds picked up again and soon we were dodging huge chunks of snow that were being blown out of the trees down towards us.
We were under siege.
Finally, a few close calls later and we had made it to our destination.
I immediately wondered why in the world we had chosen this end.
The winds, which had picked up before, seemed to have rallied all of their wind buddies and they descended upon us in a frenzied attack. As if the other side of The River had the shelter we craved, the dogs ran ahead of me and out of sight. I followed suit but in the middle of my crossing, the winds (which had barely died down) again picked up to their raging selves. The fixtures on the bridge blew rapidly in the storm and made an eery sound. I looked down to see snow rushing about me and as I followed its trajectory downriver I suddenly felt enveloped in a sensation: The River was flowing.
And I was in the middle of it.
Without turning around, I skied backwards to the slight shelter of the drop down to The River and no sooner had I arrived than a gust of wind came from nowhere and knocked me face flat down in the snow. My already chapped face got an extra burn as the snow beard I now donned set the chill in.
Again I looked at The River. I knew it wasn’t actually open but as I watched the snowflakes move in perfect harmony like a school of fish the sensation came over me again.
The River looked like it was moving.
That coupled with the eery sounds paired with the whipping winds and the sudden lack of my two dog team (dogs out here give you an unjustified sense of safety) made my stomach turn. I hollered for them to come back but they wouldn’t budge. The safe haven of the other side had proven fruitless but they weren’t about to cross the completely unsheltered River again if they didn’t have to. And so, despite my tumbling tummy and the vertigo The River incited in me, I crossed.
The winds again tried to knock me down but I skied leaning upriver at a 45 degree angle and was able to combat them. Being knocked over by wind into the snow? No biggie. Being knocked over onto ice? Ouch.
I met the dogs on the other side and they were hell-bent on heading into Town but I was able to sway them otherwise. We took the bridge this time and were nearly knocked off of it by a swift gust. Heads down, now crouched below the metal rungs we made it across.
Like horses to stable, we were quick on our feet, rushing to the quiet and calm of home. The less windy side of The River on the trip over had become equally as windy as the opposite side and we seemed to constantly be dodging huge chunks of compacted snow with each step (or in my case glide). The dogs kept checking back with me to see if I was still making it through the gauntlet. My face was chapped and burning so I pulled my hair around it to create a mask. We skied the remaining miles in a canter, the dogs running ahead and me following as quickly behind as I could.
The snow-covered trees of our side of The River which had been completely unfettered by the windstorm my friend had experienced the night before, were now stark naked from the battering bursts of wind. We raced to their cover as we turned off of the River Trail and into the haven of the Forest Path.
No sooner had we gotten home did the winds follow suit. They whipped through our trees, flinging snow clods about and rustling birds out of their perches. The forest was abuzz with the redecorating Mother Nature had in store for us. The dog team of two and I scaled the icy ramp and burst through the door and into…
a warm and cozy cabin for two (well, four with the pooches). The woodstove was roaring and quickly chipped away the chill the previous two hours had set into my bones. The woodstove: the Winter protector.
It quickly occurred to me that I had been caught in a guarantee:
We never have wind.
I couldn’t help but laugh as I found myself caught in my own trap. It’s as if I had called The Secretary myself to make my proclamation: no wind here. Not ever, not never.
If last Summer had been any indicator of the potential for Wind, I should have known better. Yet, alas, I did not.
I guess the only guarantee out here is that there is no guarantee. Since that day, the Winter has been, well, windy. Not every day, not every minute but I can no longer venture to guarantee that “it’s not so cold because there is never wind”. It’s just not true and it never was. I can guarantee the benefits of a good woodstove and the strange quality of cooking in one’s underwear while the temperature inside is 100 degrees different from the outside. 70 above inside. 30 below outside. It’s as bizarre as it is delightful and makes me grateful for shelter and heat with every stir of the spoon.
Despite the inhospitable outdoors, the indoors was a welcoming haven. Perhaps too welcoming. By the evening we were far from our chilly morning, but one of us got a little too warm…
And so we took a walk again to cool off and air out the singed fur smelling cabin we all were now choking on. The winds had died down but the snow was still swirling about, finding where it would settle next and creating a pastel sunset.
You never know what you’re going to get but a guarantee will certainly come back to surprise you.
Cheers to you Alaska for always having the upper hand and a surprise in store. Perhaps one day I’ll remember that nothing is for certain. Until then, I’ll try to stay on my toes, leaning uphill.