06 March 2009

Making a Beer Run, Part II

At 5:15 a.m. the alarm on my cell phone goes off.  Being that I don’t get any cellular signal out here, the device has become a glorified alarm clock and note pad.

I arise, climb down the stairs in my cabin, throw a few logs in the wood-stove, and begin to apply layers of clothing.

Polypropylene union-suit, polar fleece sweatpants, blue jeans, wool sweater #1, wool sweater #2, polar fleece hoodie, insulated Carharrt over-alls, polypro socks, wool socks….and I’m good to go.

Before I actually pull out of the yard, I’ll add a polypro face-mask, beaver fur hat, thin wool gloves, and fingertip-to-forearm fur mitts to the ensemble.  Lookin’ good, lookin’ sexy.  I’ve also got chemical heat-pads in the toes of my boots and in my gloves.  No sense being cold out there or anything.  And frost-bite really sucks, trust me on this one.

Three cups of coffee later, I’m outside in the dark, starting my snowmobile.  If it’s a clear sky, there’s enough moon and star light reflected off the snow that it’s no worries in the seeing things area as I’m walking around and loading the machine.  If it’s a new moon or overcast, then it’s pitch-black time, and I’m using a head lamp to light my way.   With the advent of LED’s, head-lamps nowadays are tiny, sporty things, and they’re a godsend…..but part of me wishes I had one of those big-ass old style coal mine lamp helmets.   Anybody spots one of those on Craig’s List lemme know.

Mike meets me outside, fires up his machine, and we hit the trail.   If we’re out of the yard by 6 a.m., barring any bad weather or mechanical difficulties, we can be at Deshka Landing by 8-830 a.m.

Weather conditions, as you’re reminded daily in the AK, you have no control over.

Mechanical difficulties, on the other hand, you can at least try to see coming.   So part of yesterday’s preparations (post trail grooming) included a snow mobile tune-up.   Fueling up, checking oil & fluids, looking for busted parts (replacing those parts), looking for parts that are on their way to being busted (replacing them just for kicks), checking nuts & bolts, etc, etc.

DK as grease-monkey, you say?     Indeed.    Cracks me up every time as well. Early on I learned that living out here means that whatever you break, you'll be the one fixin' it.   No mechanics, no repair shops.   Necessity is a helluva teacher & motivator.   And you learn not to break things.

At times though, regardless of how many ounces of prevention you pour in, shit just breaks.

Some of the mechanical difficulties we’ve run into with the snow-mobiles when making a run include: broken skis, broken suspension parts, dead spark plugs, burning out an engine cylinder, a wheel actually flying off, and my personal favorite…the moment when I looked behind me and saw that the sled I was hauling had actually ripped the hitch out of the back of my machine.

Those are the things that turn a 3 ½ hr ride into a 6-12 hr ordeal.   Fixing a machine on the fly, with make-shift parts (because no matter what tools & spare parts you’ve packed in the snowmobile that day, you won’t have the ones needed at that particular moment), in the middle of a frozen river, with your hands icing up, & then limping home.   Not good times.

But those things won’t happen this time.   So we run out on our freshly groomed trail, drop down onto the Yentna River, roll down the Yentna (which runs roughly East-West) for about 10 miles until it hits the Susitna River, head North on the Su for about 10 miles until it hits the Deshka River, then shoot up the Deshka for about a mile until we hit the landing.   Deshka Landing is a boat-launch in the summer, and a snow-mobile staging/launch area in winter.   Drive the machines up off the river into the parking lot where the truck awaits, and the morning portion of the trip is done.

Another note on nomenclature in the AK: So, the point where the Yentna River runs into the Susitna River is referred to as “Scary Tree” by 90% of the population up here when relating trip stories, giving trail directions, etc.   This is due to a huge, spooky old tree being located on the shore right at the point.   Or it was located there, until it fell into the river 10 years ago. Apparently, creativity and “if it ain’t broke…” go hand in hand up here.   Hearkening back to myPittsburgh days, I like to refer to the point simply as “The Confluence”…. until the blank stares become too annoying…and I say “Scary Tree”.

So, the snow-mobiles are parked and the truck is warmed up.   All that’s left now is to drive 60 miles into Anchorage(the ugliest city in the state, and possibly the hemisphere), pick up mail, go to Costco, go to Wal-Mart, go to Home Depot/Lowes, pick up any needed meds at the Pharmacy, pick up any needed meds at the Liquor store, fill up a few 55 gallon drums with fuel, fill up a few 100 lb Propane bottles, do any other errands my sister has put on the list (who knows? maybe today is the day we pick up 1,000 lbs of chicken feed), drive back out to the Landing, load everything onto the sleds, drop down on the river and do this morning’s 42 mile ride in reverse.

Because we don’t go to town that often in the winter, when we do go, we haul as much as possible to make the trip worth our time.   We have 3 or 4 different sleds we’ll use depending on the loads, and each of our machines can haul about 2,000 lbs max. (we try to keep it around 1,800 to avoid punishing the machines, but we’ve pushed it to 2,200 – time was running out on the rivers staying frozen)

So, what does that look like?

plywood and a giant sack o' miscellaneous (I wouldn't recommend stacking a load quite so tall, as the sled do get a bit tippy.....)

below is a shot of about 1/2 of the 9 tons of cement we hauled in two winters ago....18,000 lbs....in 60 lb bags....loading & unloading them 2,000 lbs at a time....good times....it's really good times when it's 1 a.m., you're in the middle of the Susitna river, and the sled breaks down. So you unload each one of those bags, fix the sled, load up and roll on. Awesome times. That was also the night, however, that I witnessed the most amazing display of Northern Lights that I (or Mike) had ever seen. We just stopped dead and sat on the river for 20 minutes watching the dance. So I got that going for me.

plywood, lumber, insulation

the sawmill ( I can't say enough good things about this gem...it'll get it's own entry soon enough)

can you ever have too many pallets? (that's Kobuk the Dog in the foreground, the new cabin we're building in the background)

somebody order a spiral staircase?

the shots below are at Deshka Landing, on the absolute final run of the season last year. the "big melt" had already begun, and no one in their right mind was hauling anymore. perhaps the grass & mud peeking through, as well as the fact that we were the only vehicle in the parking lot shoulda been a tip-off. We were about to be isolated for 2 months though, and we needed beer, fuel, groceries, and (of course) plant fertilizer.

fixin' a sled on the Yentna

On a normal run, if we’re home before Midnight, the trip is considered a smashing success. Another reason why we only go to town once a month or so in the winter. As well as the fact that it’s far, far prettier out here in the woods.

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