With an arsenal of two snow machines and household of two people, our Winter transportation situation was looking pretty darn good. We were sitting pretty on two machines that while imperfect, were perfectly fine.
We came home, anxious to ditch four wheels for two skis and ditch them we did, promptly upon our return to Alaska.
That was, until we fell of our high ponies and onto our feet.
And even though I knew not to be surprised, I still was. Actually stunned is more appropriate. Surprised, no. You see, living here, we are used to the breakdown. This place can be hard. Hard on clothes, hard on the body and hard on vehicles. And so, when things fail (which they surely might) you aren’t surprised. You are, however, encouraged by necessity to find the next best option.
This past Summer, both of our trucks failed. Oh joy. Thankfully, we could get pretty much get by without them. They were a help, a treat and apparently too good to be true. Before their demise I often chose to walk instead of drive anyways, but the lack of a choice made me suddenly wish I had one. I took to walking or riding little Bluebell or…riding our new to us four-wheeler (!) while The Chief patrolled with the fire truck. We were both covered, until we weren’t. Without a truck of our own, we were at the mercy of the elements and in a place like Alaska where the weather changes faster than you can say “Look at that thunderhead coming in…” I can’t count how many times I was caught in a downpour.
Time to walk or ride or drive the 4-wheeler a little faster. Shelter awaits at home.
And so, it was quite the relief this Winter to come home to a snowglobe like magical land where the roads were covered in 16 inches of snowpack over which it was preferable to travel by snow machine.
And we had two.
Too good to be true.
The first month was flawless. While both machines had some steering issues (the Polaris I mainly ride takes all the muscle I have to turn and braking? Well, that’s more of a suggestion than a reality. The Tundra The Chief mainly drives has more play in the steering than a Kindergarten class at recess but still, she drove just fine as long as she had a vigilant rider ready to dig her out) we were feeling beyond lucky. The Chief fired up the machines first thing the morning after we arrived. They started right up and he looked like a kid with a Christmas Day toy driving circles around the property making trails for us so we wouldn’t have to trudge through the hip-deep snow to get everywhere.
That was then.
And, in fact, that is now as well, sort of.
But the in between? Well, that’s where the story and the game of Musical Machines, for which we didn’t sign up, begins.
It was a sunny day in February amongst a string of solid grey weeks. Those days call to the Locals as if they were summoned with a bullhorn. Get up! Get out! And so, before we had even gotten through our first sip of coffee for the day, the phone started ringing.
Within minutes of the first call, the yard started filling up with willing participants. A few machines were stopping for mail or whatnot on the way over on the other side of The River and so we waited and caffeinated up and packed snacks for a day out on the ice. The plan was to head down The River trail to The Confluence and then head upriver to the wide open wilds of the even Bigger River nearby. It was a scouting mission. No one had gone up yet (that we knew of). Talk turned to years past, predictions and approaches and the excitement and anticipation grew.
The Tundra had been having trouble the week before, stuttering ceaselessly and so badly that The Chief would have to stop every minute or so to turn off the machine and restart it, making his 30 minute drive home from work closer to an hour in the sweet sub-zero temperatures of February in Alaska (I made a lot of stew and other warm hearty meals that week to try to take the chill off of him when he walked through the door). However, after many a discussion and just as much input from others, The Chief thought he had it narrowed down to bad gas. I swear, I heard the term “bad gas” more times in that one week than I have in my entire life. The Chief didn’t mean an odorous situation, he meant water in the gas due to temperature fluctuations but I giggled every time nonetheless. Our friends who filled our yard had brought a gas treatment (ha!) with them to rectify the problem and so, after gassing up and adding treatment the machine started up just fine.
We were stoked to have the machine back to normal. The problem had been going on for a week already and the frustration was mounting, especially since The Chief had just made his final payment on it. The machine was ours and…suddenly, it didn’t work.
But all of that was behind us now.
The day was calling and soon, everyone was there. The final layer process started. Gloves started going on, face masks and hats and hoods were arranged and lastly, goggles and ear protection. Everyone was suited up and ready to go. The Chief went to start our machine and I jumped on. Amongst the roar of the 7 or so other machines around us, I couldn’t tell what was wrong but I knew it was something as I saw The Chief’s face change from excitement to a furrowed brow. I took off my ear protection to a very particular sound:
Our machine was the only one not rumbling.
The ready riders were looking around, giving thumbs up or head pats to signal readiness, but slowly word got around via signals. We were grounded.
It wouldn’t start.
Out of nowhere.
Ten minutes earlier, it was fine. Now, nothing.
And so, ten heads came together to try to figure out the latest problem with our problem child machine. Tools came out and cowlings came off. Battery tests were done, inspections completed. Hoping that the battery was simply low due to the constant stopping and starting it had taken to run the machine the week prior and thus, in its weakened state couldn’t power the starter, we got out the gas. We filled the generator and proceeded to lose layers as the cold machine would refuse to start. The Chief pulled and pulled again and again. We traded. I shed layers and took a few turns. Tired out, we traded again. He finally got it started. It died. He started it again. One minute of running. It died again. The next fifteen minutes continued in this fashion until finally, she was purring away. Hot and tired, we then hooked her up to our charger, hoping a simple bit of battery juice would have us up and running in no time. The River Trip was still a reality.
We rotated with the sun, trying to stay in her rays as she moved across the sky, each step bringing us closer to no trip than the last despite how much we wanted to go.
In an hour, the battery read charged but still, nothing.
Words like “the starter” began to get thrown around.
Ruh roh (obviously said in a Scooby Doo voice).
Just hearing that word made dollar signs appear in my eyes. We opted to hope that the battery was in fact reading ready when in fact it was not. We decided to leave the charge on.
The sun was starting her final descent and the fervor of the day was dying down but instead of lose the day completely, we decided to all pile onto the working machines that we did have and head down to The River to catch the view and have a snack. Adventure time would come again but for now, it was time to warm up in the sunshine. Despite our attempts to follow the sun, she was an elusive lady, weaving in and out of our grove of Spruce. We were chilled and antsy and so, we headed out for a little bit of adventure in the little bit of day left.
It was gorgeous and the sheer excitement one feels when riding in a group en masse down to The River makes even a short ride feel like an epic adventure.
A few hours later, dark was upon us and as we settled into the cabin, an exhausting list of potential problems for the machine ran through our heads but the word “starter” circled most prominently. We crossed our fingers and cozied up for the night.
The machine, it turns out, cozied up for the month. After further tests and dollar signs that seemed to be multiplying we finally weeded out the problem. It was the starter. We hoped. We waited for the part, praying it would be the one to solve the problem. But, in the mean time, reminded ourselves that we were lucky: we had the Polaris.
The trusty old steed had gotten The Chief through many a Winter and had been the first machine I had ever ridden or drove. We both had a soft spot for her and her very 90’s pink and blue bedazzling. Riding around together we felt nostalgic and grateful to still be up a machine while also down one. Things could be worse.
What did you say?
Things could be worse?
Well, yes, they certainly could!
A few days after the Tundra gave out I was at our neighbors’ house. They were just getting in for the season and we had spent the few days prior breaking trails around their house, first by snowshoe (sidenote: I thought that snowshoeing was some sort of leisurely stroll through the woods. Something people in Norway do with sweet pink cheeks and holiday-ish sweaters to boot. I assumed it was followed by a picnic. Wrong. Very wrong. Within minutes I was shedding layers and still sweating. My whole face was red instead of the adorable blush I had pictured. Leisure? No. Lots of work? Yes. Still fun? Yes.) then by our trusty machine over and over again until they were packed down. The Chief and I had ridden the Polaris over to greet them and grab our goodies. The Chief left to help the guy neighbor and another friend get settled in the driveway while I talked with the lady neighbor, one of my best friends. An hour went by before we realized that, well, an hour had suddenly gone by. The boys still weren’t home. Where were they?
A few minutes later they pulled into the drive. I heard what I thought were the two machines and I saw the right amount of faces to go along with those machine and so I thought nothing of it. That is, until I saw The Chief’s face (it’s pretty telling).
“I swear, I wasn’t doing anything too ridiculous.” (a clear sign, later to be proven by confession, that he in fact had been doing something a little ridiculous, thought not too ridiculous)
The boys then relayed their tale.
The machine had broken down. Our trusty steed, grounded. The track had essentially been stripped. She couldn’t even get home. She was stranded on the road, he hadn’t even made it all the way to the neighbor’s house. It was dark and cold and our friends had been traveling for months. A rescue mission was in order but not tonight. It would have to wait for the sun to rise.
And rise she did.
We awoke the next day to the realization (which perhaps should have sunk in on our walk home) that we were now completely without any machine and all the while quickly approaching the best month for snow machining: March.
Aside from adventure, our machines are highly utilitarian. Hauling firewood? Machine, please. Hauling goods to and from mail? Machine, please. Going anywhere not nearby or that will carry over into the evening.? Machine, please.
Oh, and then there was the slight issue of caretaking.
Yup. As perfect Alaskan timing would have it, we were at the very beginning of a two-week house/pet caretaking stint. The house was a little over a mile away and by snow machine the whole process of turning on lights for the ducks and chickens, collecting eggs, filling their water bowls, cuddling the pup, scooping poop and shoveling fresh snow, feeding him breakfast or dinner and watering him as well, turned into a 40 minute escapade if I was rushing. Without a vehicle, this twice daily early morning and late evening set of tasks was about to be daunting.
I set off on skis that morning, our second day of caretaking. An hour and a half later I returned. It was 20 below that morning. Before I was even awake I was out an into the elements. Thankfully(?) the cold slapped me awake. My eyelashes were clumped into icicles and my hands were so cold that I had broken an egg because I couldn’t feel how tightly I was gripping it. Thankfully, it was so cold that the yolk froze almost immediately and I could break the little yolk-cicles off of my gloves in clumps. What an adventure. And in about 12 hours, we were set to do it all over again. Double days. I felt like I was back in high school soccer hell week.
The Chief phoned another neighbor, not yet in Alaska for the season and asked if pretty, please with sugar on top could we use his snow machine until we could get one of ours working? Thankfully, he gave us the green light.
Borrowing things in the lower 48 is one thing. Sure, I’m still careful, but there’s a less ominous feeling around it. Borrowing things out here is completely different. You break it, you buy it still may hold true but when things are hard to come by, waiting for a replacement is less than ideal. With the mechanical luck we were having, I started to feel a bit like we were snow machine cursed and the idea of borrowing our friend’s only machine when he was coming home in just a few short weeks terrified me.
What to do…?
We used the machine delicately and brainstormed for a solution that involved us only and didn’t risk anyone else’s property. In the middle of our mental thunderclouds we remembered: a couple of friends had found an abandoned snow machine a month or so back. They had eventually found its previous owner who wanted nothing to do with it and so, a running snow machine was suddenly in the valley, a sort of traveling workhorse with no home that might fit perfectly in our suddenly abandoned stables.
A few days and some figuring of whom it was we actually needed to contact about the machine, a handshake and an exchange later and we had a running snow machine again! The Chief spent the next few days fixing the beauty up and before long, she was as good as new.
Suddenly, a weight was lifted. We high-fived one another, giddy with disbelief at our seemingly intertwined mix of good and bad fortune.
We had a working snow machine.
The Winter again opened up in front of us. There were rivers to cross, trees to haul and trails to put in. And suddenly, we could go.
Finally, one day, the part for the Tundra was due on the mail plane. The Chief and a neighbor had gone to mail and, surprise, surprise! It had shown up. I was at the neighbor’s home, visiting with my girlfriend when I heard the good news. I headed home to see how it was going.
We had been invited to a dinner party across the river that night but since I was still nursing a neck injury we had planned on staying home.
Yet, in the excitement of the part arriving and the potential for yet another working machine, I got riled up. “If we can get it working, we will go” I thought to myself as I walked home and…
She fired right up.
The whole debacle took little more than ten minutes and that was mainly to get through the packaging. Within the hour, we were suited up and off to dinner on our newly working machine. The ride home became a bit more treacherous as we tried to navigate the windblown path. Our tracks were almost gone and the night was dark and the trail rutted. The starter had fixed the mechanical mishap but the steering was still off and the ruts tipped us over.
Thankfully, we made it home all in one piece but something was off.
But the machine was sputtering again.
All that work, a month of trial and error and hundreds of dollars and hair-pulling hours out in below zero temperatures and the initial problem was back.
The next day, The Chief went to inspect it further.
Same thing. Still sputtering.
And so, we were back down to one machine of our own and one to borrow.
Up one, down one. Up two, down to nothing. Two steps forward, one mile back.
It felt like an awkward dance of two stepping that neither of us had signed up for. When people would come by, they would count the machines to see if we were home. 4 was the new magic number. Our front yard was quickly starting to look like a junkyard with the old Polaris towed home, the new Polaris parked proudly, the Tundra in a constant state of undress and the Bravo ready to save us. Our little arsenal was a rag-tag team but hey, it was a team nonetheless.
In all honesty, sure it’s frustrating, but going into the Winter equipped to the nines with a snow machine for each person? What were we thinking? Of course something had to go wrong, we just weren’t prepared for everything to go wrong. Nonetheless, the lesson still rings clear.
Each day the machine starts up, I feel a little sense of relief, but I also know that if it doesn’t, we will be O.K. In the midst of everything, when we were down to zero machines and our neighbor with whom The Chief often goes logging had zero working machines as well, we still were O.K. Another neighbor had offered his machine but not before we had already started planning our neighborhood log hauling party. We would divide into two teams: one team to clear brush and carry back lengths of trees to the houses, the other team would take down the trees. We would Hi-Ho Hi-Ho ourselves in Seven Dwarf fashion back to two full wood sheds together.
Thankfully, the next day the neighbor’s machine magically started working again and he spent the day with The Chief hauling firewood back and forth for our wood shed. Sure, he could have done one tree for him and one for us but instead, he focused on setting us up because he was now the one with the machine.
It’s things like this that make me feel like I truly landed in the right place. There’s no question. Everyone helps. There’s no need for tit for tat tab keeping, heck, there’s rarely even a need to ask. Everyone jumps in. We are family.
Thank goodness for a valley that provides random snow machines and those ready to rescue them, to the kindness of friends and the necessity of neighbor-family. And thank goodness for a place like Alaska that puts it all in perspective. I’m trying not to take it for granted.
Thank you for Winter transport and for the trials. They’ve put it in perspective.
That being said, perspective intact, can we please, please can we have a Summer vehicle this year?
Pretty please? Sugar on top.
Only time (and some serious mechanical fenagling) will tell. Until then, fingers crossed and snow machines savored.
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