Life in Alaska
Thirty below four days before Christmas, and I am trudging through drifted snow along an old snowmachine trail that makes a thin, mostly obscured line across three miles of the frozen lake. A heavy snowfall last week weighed the two-foot-thick ice. Despite the bitter cold, water swelled through cracks and holes in the sinking ice, flooding the layers of insulating snow to lie hidden the drifts.
My father follows me slowly with his snowmachine as I walk the trail to see if the water buried underneath is deep to weaken the trail’s surface.
If the machine falls through the packed snow into the water flooding over the ice, it will freeze instantly in the slush, accumulating ice until it can’t move. By walking ahead, I can watch for this danger, and if the water gets too deep we will go home rather than risk soaking our feet and wrenching our backs trying to extricate the machine in the cold weather.
We don’t want to give up, because my brother will be on the weekly mail plane when it lands oil the tiny airstrip across the lake. He is coming for Christmas, and we are trying to make a safe trail so he can cross the lake to the home in which we grew up.
If the machine can’t get through, I will try with our dog team. The light wooden dog sled glides easily above most of the slush, and the huskies will go through the water, although they don’t like it. My twin sister and partner, Miki, and I usually travel by dog sled instead of snowmachine, but today the dogs are resting. They have pulled our sled more than 650 miles since the fall freeze-up—about 240 miles in the past three weeks—and they have earned their Christmas vacation.
For most of the winter, my sister and I use the dogs to travel along remote trap lines, catching furs, which provide our main income. Usually we set out 60 to 100 miles of trap line, with cabins or tents every 15 or 20 miles, and the dogs make a round trip every week or 10 days. Although slower than snowmachines, the dogs are less likely to break down, are quieter, more versatile, better company, and they do not bog down in overflow.
Now, as my boots sink through the crusted trail into water with a sickening sensation, I wish my dog team was here on the lake instead of the snowmachine. “There’s some bad stuff here, I call out. My father guns the machine, guiding it sately across the soggy slush before stopping so we can trade places.