snowmachining

Life Off-Grid: Getting Stuck

The day started off like any other unassuming Sunday: sipping tea in bed while journaling away through the dark morning dawn. A breakfast brunch as the day finally broke through the darkness and then…plans. What would the day hold? While there were chores like hauling water and running the generator, it was Sunday. The day of rest, right?

The Chief had, unfortunately, forgotten his phone at the Lake where we put in our first trail to our property(!) the day before.

Alaska
It doesn’t do justice to the ditch or the incline but you get the gist. Booyah!

So…his day’s agenda was set. Mine, on the other hand? Free as a slightly chore-laden bird. Still, I knew what was coming next.

“You should take The Beast out for a couple laps when I go out to the Lake. Pack down this new snow, you know?”

I knew.

The night before had laid down a beautiful layer of fat, fluffy flakes. Six inches of snow graced our valley. Suddenly, all of the well-trodden trails we’d grown accustomed to in the last month were covered. Every trek a tromp through calf-deep goodness. The trail to the generator, the outhouse, the sheds, all now a bit of a slog, overnight. Not only were our personal trails changed but all of the exterior trails were too. Without a quick pat down by the snowmachine it would be post-holing for Leto and I on our afternoon walk. The best plan, the pre-emptive plan, would be to take a few laps, prepping the trail for the oncoming week so it could setup. The best plan, however, was normally The Chief’s job.

In secret, I’d always wanted to be the one who laid first tracks upon the trails here and often I would but solely with my skis. Not once had I been first to set tracks with my machine. Even if our household was first out, we’d be riding in tandem and I always found myself riding in second place. Scratch that: I always positioned myself in second place and with Leto aiming to lead the way, I’d find myself a solid third.

Off-grid Alaska
Riding third-y

While it would be easy to blame The Chief for taking on these duties so as not to have to look at myself and by providing excuses like “He’s typically free when it snows and I’m typically working” or “He enjoys it more”, I finally let my guard down and came face to face with with the truth: I’m scared to get stuck.

The truth is, yes, sometimes The Chief is home and I’m working when the trails need to be put in. Sometimes not. And yes, The Chief does enjoy it but what’s also true: I love it too. There’s nothing like breaking first trail (even if it’s merely 6 inches atop an old trail), or so I’ve been told. Growing up, I used to love to drive my Grandpa’s riding lawnmower, back and forth in the summer heat, until the lawn was perfectly flat and uniform. Setting trail is the winter version of this (also somehow sweaty). So why all the hubbub?

Getting stuck.

I’ve done it before. Stuck, stranded, using every bit of I Don’t Want to Have to Call My (at the time) Boyfriend Strength up. Sweating. Panicking. Losing then regaining my senses.

Alaska snowmachine
Lassoed to a tree. Woman-powered reverse only.


Getting stuck. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
At least the view that day made it worth it.


The reality? Getting stuck actually is a truly important lesson out here. You wouldn’t drive a car without knowing how to operate it and getting stuck is just a part of operating a snowmachine. Still, there’s one issue: I’m a perfectionist. Perfectionist. The title seems harmless enough, unassuming, almost…dare I say, cute? In reality, it’s anything but. Being a perfectionist, for me, means doing things right the first time or…doing nothing at all. You’ll notice by my lovely array of dust-laden instruments in our cabin that I fall prey most often to the latter (doing nothing at all), than the often impossible former (doing it right the first time). Did even young Mozart have to plunk about on his piano for a bit prior to conducting his masterpieces? Me thinks not.

Truly, deep down, me knows so. I know there’s plenty of plunking about we don’t see behind the Insta-worthy lives we show. So, as The Chief gently challenged me to dust off my piano, per se, I met his gaze and said “OK, but I’m a little scared I’ll get stuck.”

McCarthy, AK
Stuck like a spruce in an ice bog



“You might! That’s all part of it.”

Ugh, sage advisor that he is, I wasn’t having it. Again, I’ve gotten stuck but only twice have I been completely alone and they were relatively easy fixes (thanks to the I Don’t Want to Have to Call My Boyfriend adrenaline). The other times, when I’ve gotten really stuck (I mean REALLY stuck), I’ve luckily been in the company of friends. What if I got REALLY stuck?!

Kennicott, Alaska
This photo does zero justice. Taken 10 minutes in, post packing down waist-high snow on a steep incline.

The Chief would be 45 minutes away. What if I needed him? Our neighbors were all gone. The closest call for help would be a long way away. I’d be a burden. Perhaps that’s the greatest fear: not just doing it imperfectly, but having an audience.

So, dear audience, here’s my confession: get stuck I did. I got stuck “damn good”, as my Mother would say.
See?

Polaris Snowmachine
Whoopsie daisies!


After two hours of miles-long loops around the local trails, racing back and forth and off into sub-trails, I arrived back at home sweet home. In my laps, I’d veered off into our yard and flattened out our home trails quite well but I thought to myself: “Why don’t I do one more lap to the fire pit?” I’d had a little trouble paving my way through the terrain with a turning radius that just wouldn’t take hold and I wanted a third run at it. It had been the only part of the last few hours that had given me pause, wondering if this would be the place I’d get stuck. Still, I had made my way through it twice already and today was about facing fears! Another voice sheepishly tapped me on the shoulder: “Excuse me, umm, I think maybe you’re pretty tired? Maybe, umm, maybe you should call it quits?” Even Leto, The Meandering Malamute, had thrown in the towel a few laps before. It would be totally honorable to do the same.

I didn’t.

Instead, I went full-bore. I was going to make the turnaround in one fell swoop instead of employing my wussy reverse again! Straight ahead or nothing!

I drew the nothing card.

In the last moment of the turn (which I was, in fact, totally nailing), my track caught on a previously unseen mini-boulder and…over she went!

Polaris trail
Look at my belly!


I heaved and ho-ed like no other. Just when I would get some momentum, my feet would slip out from under me, towards the machine. While I wanted it upright, I didn’t want it upright on top of me. I slid the back end away from the rock as best I could but the going was tough. I flattened the snow all around the machine in the direction I wanted to move it but still, I’d only get it an inch or less at a time. Until I purchased my latest machine, I’d always had lighter ones, ones I could lift. This one, weighing in at over 500 pounds, I couldn’t (which plays a great deal into a fear of getting stuck). No matter of momentum was proving to help. I was…

Stuck.

So, I did what I aimed not to: I called my husband. Somehow, despite being in the middle of chainsawing his way through our new property, he felt the phone buzz. He answered. The spotty service only swelled my frustration.

“I got stuck!” I finally yelled, angelically, of course.
What I wanted him to say in return was: “Don’t worry! The machine will be totally fine on its side for the next hour until I can get home.”
What he said instead was: “Well, no, babe, the machine shouldn’t just sit like that. You need to figure it out.”
“This is all your fault” my less than adorable side thought (thankfully not aloud).
“Maybe look up come alongs on YouTube? Or create a pulley system?”

I thought back to my 7th grade science classes. Pulley systems…yep, I had definitely been class clowning my way through that lesson. Nice work, Jules! But, he did have a point. I had the internet and a ton of tools (I didn’t know how to use) at my disposal. Perhaps I could cook up my own rescue. I said a grumpy “Thank you. Be safe.” and got off the phone. Time to brainstorm. To the back of the truck, Batman!

Ford F-350
It was full of supplies. Thankfully not this full though!


The thing about “packed down” snow (aka the snow I had been riding back and forth across for the past few hours) is that it needs to set up, meaning it needs time to settle and ideally, cold temperatures to turn it into a little mini-highway. This snow had not done that in the last 30 minutes of my trying to right the wronged machine. The audacity! So, back and forth I trekked, slipping calf-deep to the icy surface below, shedding layers as I went. Gloves on. Gloves off. Fingers frozen to metal. Gloves on. Repeat. After an embarassing and inaccurate first attempt (“I’ll use a tie down!” aka a ratchet strap) I finally agreed with myself to consult the YouTube oracle. “How to use a come along” I queried. The first video I saw had snow on the ground and a big truck. It looked like home so I clicked on it. Actually, the first video I saw said “Finger Pincher”. Rude. So I clicked on the aforementioned second one. The gist was the same: Do NOT use this if you don’t understand it. You will snap your fingers off. Fear mongers!

So, I watched the video over and over until I knew the subject back and forth, right?

Nah. I skimmed through it and looked for the main cues (i.e. which side is “Up” and which end gets attached where). A few more trip-laden tromps back and forth to the truck and I had everything I needed. I thought. And…it turns out I was right.

How to use a come along
Nailed it.

After some fenagling the pieces over the most secure junctions and a wish of good luck for my fearful fingers, I started cranking back and forth, back and forth until…I saw movement. The snowmachine was finally coming upright.

Ratchet strap
Come along, little doggie

I gave a few more cranks and gently tipped it the rest of the way down to the snowy surface.

“Hell yes!” I shrieked to myself. “I did it!”. I was in shock. I’d done something that gave me paused (riding alone in fresh powder), met my fear (getting stuck) and found my way out (upright).

Now, trust me, I know that to an experienced rider, this whole conundrum likely seems trivial. Well, trivial at best, perhaps closer to pathetic. To which I would say, “I get it.” Yet, I would also venture a guess that there might be things that make a brap bro pause that might be easy peasy to others. I can write an essay in my sleep but driving a stick shift makes me feel as if I should have a Caution, Teen Driver sticker on my bumper. Maybe you’re amazing with a chainsaw but can’t imagine a moment onstage. Perhaps you can draw life-like portraits but tremble at the thought of swimming in the ocean. Who knows? The point is, hopefully, small or large, insignificant or essential, we find a way to stride past our fears and get to the joy of just trying…and maybe getting stuck.

So, get stuck I did and unstuck to boot and now, my machine, was upright again.

Polaris
Homeways is rightways now.

Sweating and thoroughly exhausted, I put my coat and gloves back on, fingers crossed, in anticipation of a ride. She started right up, purring away loudly. “Yes!” I yelled again. I took her for a final lap through the local trails and she hummed away, happy to be back on track. I thanked my lucky stars.

By the time I returned home, it was almost 5. The Chief arrived soonafter, whooping and hollering for me as well. “This is what I mean! It really is good for us to get stuck, even if it is scary! I’m so proud of you, baby.” He then proceeded to tell me about a time he too had gotten stuck in our own backyard, years ago, during his first winter. He heaved and ho-ed and stomped down the snow around him for hours, all the while watching the lights go out at the friend’s house he had been on his way to visit (there weren’t cell phones here back then. Kind of amazing, right?!). Finally, hours later, sweating and exhausted, he had made it the couple hundred feet home.

Kennicotto River, McCarthy, AK
Plus, it had been a gorgeous day.

So, a restful Sunday, it was not, yet, it was exactly what I needed and I’m grateful for it.

In the end, getting stuck was the best part of my day. OK, getting unstuck was the best part of my day but it wouldn’t have come without first getting…stuck. I think in this time of online perfection, it’s important to show the less elegant, less photo-worthy moments. Maybe, just maybe, it will help us all see that perfection is limiting, at best, and that we all struggle and thrive in different ways. Moving here has forced me to face my fears, fears I didn’t even know I had, head on and while, in the sweating, exhausted moments of meeting them, it’s not always fun, in the aftermath, I’m always grateful. And so, I share those moments with you. The nitty, gritty, not always so pretty version of life (off-grid or otherwise) that force us to face ourselves, head on. It’s not always the shiny parts that need the most light.

Cheers to you in your triumphs and in your moments of defeat. May they both bring you closer to who you want to be.

With love,

from Alaska

Julia Chester
Grocery getter.


P.S. Can you relate? What are your hangups others might find easy?