I was 6 miles into my first skiing trek in Alaska before I realized that I’d probably gone about 5½ miles too far. I was on a pair of cross-country skis on a snow-clogged road in 13.2-million-acre Wrangell St. Elias National Park, and I’d either overestimated my abilities or underestimated the challenges of the terrain. Or maybe both. My cheeks were frozen and my eyelashes were stuck together. My destination for the day was a friend’s house that loomed 4 more long miles away—a distance I’d easily skied before in milder winters, and in less intimidating places. But now? The landscape around me felt overwhelmingly remote and vast, all 18,000-foot mountains and glaciers, where caribou outnumber people. I became acutely aware that in mid-winter there were few other human beings nearby, and in that pre-cellphone era, not one of them was reachable if I twisted a knee or wandered off track.
I wondered, not for the first time, how I’d managed to wedge myself into a tight spot first and only think to ask questions after.
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A week earlier, I’d moved into a cabin near McCarthy, 8 hours northeast of Anchorage. I’d come at the invitation of a dog-musher friend, Mark, who offered to teach me the Alaskan lifestyle in exchange for some labor. Each summer the town swelled with “seasonal folk” who scattered come October, leaving behind 25 rock-hard souls who pushed through six-plus months of winter. Snow falls from September to April there, the precipitation usually measured with yardsticks, not rulers. Temperatures dive well below zero. I had experienced winter before—I was an Idaho girl—but I wasn’t remotely ready for this, physically or emotionally. I was a two-time college dropout and a refugee from a hard childhood. My stepfather had abused me from just before my eighth birthday until I ran away from home at 14. That stopped the physical harm but didn’t do much for my pulverized heart, and I battled bouts of depression and helplessness.
Now I was 23 and not quite sure what I was doing with my life. I guess I was still looking to escape some things, or to discover in myself the outdoorswoman I’d always fantasized about being. But what a place to go looking. Because it was January and we were so far north, our remote location far atop the rotating earth received little more than 6 hours of daylight. My friend’s house was like many Alaskan cabins—no running water, no electricity, no indoor plumbing. Nor was my winter skill set any match for Alaska. I’d skied slopes at a variety of resorts; skied cross-country in forests with well-marked trails; winter-camped twice—once getting lost and needing a rescue. I’d also participated in a handful of college search-and-rescue operations. During all of this, I convinced myself that I knew more about cold-weather survival than I really did.
That day on my 10-mile outing, I made it to my friend’s house, but not without panicking to the verge of tears. The next day, Mark and his dogs towed me back to his cabin, where I crawled into the loft and burrowed into my sleeping bag, my mind flooded with thoughts that I was overmatched here, that I should catch the next flight home. I could feel an old tendency seeping in to retreat, curl up, and let my roommate—at 37, a “real adult”—take care of me.
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But Mark had other plans. After letting me hibernate for a few days, he asked me to come with him to the nearby pond to get water. Near the inflow, where a creek met the pond, the ice measured a foot thick. Mark showed me how to strike the ice with a lightweight axe to chop through it. The first time I swung the axe, it rebounded hard, just missing my head. I kept hacking and flailing until Mark took over. Another failure—but at least I was outside, doing something positive. And Mark, in his wisdom, found other ways to keep me busy.
The next time it was splitting logs. I’d never held a maul, but I wanted to try because of how badly I wanted to be a true Alaskan woodswoman. Plus, the chopping area sat at the north end of Mark’s dog yard. Whenever I looked at his pups, lounging in the cold like they were vacationing in Cabo, I couldn’t help but smile. They kept me company as I assumed a lumberjack stance: feet wide, back straight, stomach muscles engaged. Then I eyed the target—the center of a round log—hoisted the maul, and wham! It took time to find my rhythm, but soon I was chopping wood. The pieces piled up, my body grew limber, and I found that after a little exertion I was able to shed a few layers even at 10 below zero. First my hat—steam whooshed off my damp hair. Then my gloves—my fingers wiggled with their new freedom. Then—God forbid—the puffy jacket I’d barely removed since arriving in Alaska.
Firewood stacked, I didn’t need any more suggestions from Mark. From the time of my childhood, skiing had always been my go-to activity. When we were young, my brother and I hopped the ski bus to the nearest resort, rode one of the two lifts, and flew back down the mountain, whooping through the powdery goodness. I’d kept skiing ever since, especially after a boyfriend gave me a pair of cross-country sticks at my boarding school in Michigan. They traveled with me to my first and second colleges. This time, I’d try something more manageable than a 10-mile trip.
I found the skis just where I’d left them, along the outside wall of the cabin. I clicked in and peered down the dog trail just past the kennel. I headed cautiously onto the trail, the huskies yapping, and soon I was gliding. The air had warmed up considerably, and my skis zipped along near effortlessly. Mark’s trail was easy to follow, and soon I was sweating. At the top of one climb, I stopped to level off my breath and look around. So much beauty fanned out beneath me. I was on a small bluff overlooking the Nizina River. It was caked in snow, except for a thin, electric-blue line of ice. And much farther off in the distance, the impossibly formidable peaks of the St. Elias Mountains towered over the park. This new view gave my heart a jolt, and I forgot, momentarily, how blue I’d been feeling. I kept going, completing the 4-mile loop that encircled the cabin, and then, physically and mentally flushed, headed home.
Days later, I skied the very same loop after chopping firewood. This time I took more breaks so I could see deeper into the frozen world around me. The snow was warmer, so my skis moved even more easily. I schussed through spruce, aspen, birch, and willow. The trees held common ravens that cawed as I slipped by, calling to what I would never know. After that, utter silence. Can silence have sound? In Alaska it was so big I could hear it. It echoed off the clouds, the valleys, the mountains, and entered my thrumming chest. I decided that I wasn’t leaving Alaska until winter was over. I wanted to prove to myself that I could flourish here.
When I returned to my loop, I noticed that others—animals—had used it. A moose had tromped holes down the center. Other creatures had walked here too—a fox, a snowshoe hare, a dog, or maybe a wolf. The thought of the last made me stop again. Wolf sightings are rare, even in Alaska. But maybe one was watching me. I didn’t know why, but that thought was comforting.
That was how it went, day after day. My confidence grew, and soon my loops out of the dog yard grew wider and longer. No outing was ever like the one before it. Sometimes I went hard and fast to release pent-up feelings. Other times I skied lazily, just enjoying the whoosh of my strides, the freedom. Gliding silently along, I had plenty of time to let my imagination go wild. Every big-enough mound of snow was a black bear in hibernation. Every footfall on a downed branch was a grizzly trailing after me. I don’t know how it worked, but these imaginings also lifted my spirits—especially when they all proved imaginary. The hugeness of the landscape felt like a gift, not a trap.
Soon, I was ready to try the 10-mile trek to McCarthy again. I skied out of the yard and hopped onto the road. Skiing alone still wasn’t necessarily smart, but I had developed a better sense of distance and direction, and I successfully skied to town, spent the night, and skied back. Excited now, I planned an even longer outing: I went to McCarthy and tacked on another 4 miles, to a friend’s house in Kennicott. By now I was more attuned to my environment. Alongside the road to the 1930s-era ghost town, I traced the edge of an enormous ice mass. The Root Glacier sits beneath Donoho Peak, and all summer long it’s riddled with crevasses. Those same features exist in winter, but now, covered in snow, they were hidden from me. I never skied on the glacier—even I had more sense than that—but my proximity to the creaking monolith was exhilarating. After a steep climb up several switchbacks, I reached my friend Marci’s place, where she had tea and cookies waiting. I spent the night and headed back to Mark’s cabin, where I was feeling far more comfortable.
Which was good, because as winter waned, Mark took a two-week-long job across the valley building a cabin. That left me alone to tend to the tasks of survival. Then the thing happened that made the entire winter perfect.
I ran out of water. Down at the pond, I knelt and placed my hatchet blade against the ice. Somewhere along the line, Mark’s lesson about the proper way to chop ice had taken hold. I started hacking away, and soon the pond water burbled up, clear and frigid. I used a coffee can to ladle it into my bucket, feeling as if I had mined some precious and heretofore undiscovered natural resource.
None of this would make me completely whole—that would take years more. But I felt some of the old darkness slipping away. When the pail was full, I didn’t rush back to the cabin to get out of the cold that had once felt terrifying. Instead, I knelt on the ice again and tried to peer through into the world below. I wasn’t expecting anything to be alive, so when I saw something flicker, I almost toppled over. But then I realized what I was looking at. It was a broad, flat, silver, shimmering beetle, and it was swimming.
It reminded me of another unlikely creature who’d learned to thrive in a hostile environment.
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