05 March 2009

Making a Beer Run, Part I

or……..”How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love Trail Work”

or……”Getting Around on the Ice-Planet Hoth”

So, a trip to the grocery store.

The simplest way to explain it is an 84 mile round trip on snowmobile from the lodge to Deshka Landing, where we keep the truck in the winter.

The devil, as always, is in the details.

The details begin the day before, when Mike (my brother-in-law) and I go out on snowmobile and groom the trails we’ll be using the next day to haul on.

We maintain two trails from the lodge.

One is referred to as “the Susitna” or “the Iditarod” trail, as it follows for the most part the Historic Iditarod Trail (a national landmark, btw). It’s a 15 mile run to the Susitna River that involves a lot of twist, turns, and hills; most of it running through heavily wooded areas. This is not the course the Iditarod sled dog race currently follows, as it involves far too many twists, turns, and hills. It’s also fairly inaccessible to the general public, so until they get towards the interior of the AK, the racers mainly run on the rivers – wide, open, mostly flat, and relatively easy to get masses of spectators to. Those same factors (except for the spectators part) are why we only use this trail to go out from the lodge, hauling no weight. We’ll also completely abandon this trail early in spring, as it’s a major headache to maintain when the world starts melting around us.

The second, main trail we use is referred to as “the Yentna” or “Alexander Laketrail, as it runs to the Yentna River, crossing Alexander Lake in the process.

{You tend to notice a lack of linguistic creativity in nomenclature in the AK. There are at least three “Trail Lakes”, two “Susitna Rivers”, and half a dozen “Sheep Creeks”. I’d like to believe that it’s due to the overwhelming, awe-inspiring force that is Nature’s creativity encountered on a daily basis that humbles man into this meekness. Or possibly an inherited “simple Midwestern talk” trait, as it seems 70% of the people up here came from Michigan or Minnesota. Or, regarding the preponderance of “Sheep Creeks”, merely an asinine attempt at humour. Whatever the reason, I’m surprised I haven’t come across a peak called “Mountain Mountain” at this point.}

Anyway, the main trail is a 22 mile run from the lodge to the Yenta River. While being longer, it’s a much easier trail to run. It’s flat and open, crossing over frozen lakes and marshes for the majority of it.

On a clear, sunny day it’s a beautiful run. You have large mountains (Susitna, Beluga, Foraker, Denali) and mountain ranges (the Chugach range, the Alaska range – there’s that creativity again) in 180 degrees of your field of vision, and at points 360 degrees.

here’s some trail pics:

On a bad day….it has white-out potential. There’s been a few times coming home in snow-storms, heavy winds a-blowin’, when I honestly couldn’t see more than 5 feet in front of me. You slow down, hope you’re on the trail, and strain your eyes to pick up the next trail marker.

{Trail markers are 4 foot wooden stakes painted high-visibility orange with a reflector attached, stuck in the snow on the side of the trail every 100-200 yds. We put these out at the beginning of the season when we first put in the trail. Slamming a stick into the snow, every 100 yds, for 22 miles, so that you can find you’re way home again, like some 21st century Hansel. These are the moments that cause reflections along the lines of “this is as asinine as it gets” and “livin’ the dream, Dave, livin’ the dream”. But whaddya gonna do? It does not behoove you to get lost out here. Oh, yeah….at the beginning of each season I also re-paint the high-viz orange on each stake. Takin’ NO chances on getting my ass lost.}

here’s a pic of that inanity:

A side note: I don’t think I’ve gone through a single month over the past few years where I haven’t been doing something and had the thought, “No, I was wrong….this is as asinine as it gets.”

My life is ludicrous. But at times it’s a surreal comedy that would make Fellini jealous, and I really wouldn’t have it any other way.

So….we try not to run on bad-weather days. Mother Nature can be a B, though, and oftentimes a morning that began sunny and clear has turned into an evening of snowflakes. When the choice is between spending a night in Anchorage (the ugliest city in the state, and possibly the hemisphere) or enduring a snowy, frozen, twice-as-long-as-normal trek back home, however, I’ll take the possibility of frostbite every time.

Once we hit the river (either the Susitna or the Yentna), the trails we maintain end, and we simply drive up the frozen rivers. These are snowmobile and dog-sled highways in the winter. Picture the Schuylkill, triple the width, and then freeze the whole thing with 3 feet of ice. After we hit the rivers, it’s another 20 miles or so to the landing.

So, back to getting to the liquor store. The day before, as I said, Mike and I will go out and “groom trail”. This involves hooking up a groom to the rear of the snowmobile & running the trail to smooth it out, cut down moguls, fill in the holes a 1,200 lb moose makes when it decides your trail is much nicer to wander on then slogging through snow drifts in the woods, & pack it down - prepping it for our run. This can take between 4-7 hrs, depending on whether were hitting one or both trails.

A groom is essentially a collection of flat-iron bars welded together at angles into a 4ftX10ft frame.

Here’s a couple groom & trail pics:

So….I’m running 22 miles out, 22 miles back, dragging a glorified coat-hanger, the day before I’m going to the store. Why? Because the next day I’m going to be dragging 2,000 lbs across that trail, and getting a ton of anything stuck in the snow sucks big-time.

Tomorrow: Actually going to town.

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