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Just a normal winter drive to town… Alaskan style

March 13, 2017

With the news now shifting its main focus from Russian hacking to repeal of oboma-care my disgust at the in-fighting between Trump/Ryan with the conservative republicans over the replacement health care bill, hardens my unwillingness to resurrect the ‘old curmudgeon’ and write about the insanity of the new administration and its apparent siding with the established old school big business side of the republican party. Instead because the urge to write is ever present I thought a glimpse into a normal winter day of my life in the wilderness, may garner some interest.

….like a drill burrowing into my head the alarm buzzed its way into my consciousness. 4:30 am is way to early to be up but today I was driving into Fairbanks to buy supplies for the coming month and with the temperature at -26 I had to run my generator for a few hours to warm my truck up before starting it. Normally one would think you could go back to bed after starting the generator, but after having to fully dress for the cold and carry the generator outside that was more than enough activity to bring one fully awake… even at 4:30 in the morning.

The truck ‘resting’ on a winter day when I didn’t go to town

So what is one to do at five am while waiting the three hours before starting the truck? With only my headlamp to cut the pitch blackness throughout the cabin I boil water for the first of many cups of tea and coffee and turn on the radio to listen to Art Bell and his overnight talk show ‘Midnight in the desert‘. This early start is also warranted by the fact that the normal hour and a quarter ride will take over two hours because the roads this time of year are now solid ice.

Of course we have a great road crew who keep the road open with their plows and trucks that spread gravel in particularly dangerous spots but remember with the temperature staying this far below zero the heat from the many truck tires turns the fresh snow into water which within minutes freezes and thus for months in the winter we have over 60 miles of ice road between my cabin and town.

As the time to start the truck nears it is time to load up the “emergency’ gear, of a snow shovel, extra parka, sleeping bag, water, snacks and a couple buckets of gravel. Then because it is a supply run there is always some empty five gallon water jugs that will need to be filled and of course a number of bags of trash to take to the dump. While loading these last minute items its time to start the truck and let it warm up the interior to ‘take the chill off’ so my hands don’t freeze while I am driving.

Finally after almost four hours since that alarm went off I am in the truck and slowly pulling out of my driveway. Slowly because it has been between -24 and -36 for the past week and one wants the trucks suspension and body to ease its way to flexibility. Plus the tires now have flat spots on them because in cold they loose air and freeze solid so for the first mile or so one can feel the whack, whack of those frozen flat spots as the tires turn and start to warm.

If my timing is right I should get half of the trip done before I see daylight as I crest the top of Wickersham dome, a 2,226 foot hill, 23 miles from my cabin, because at my cabin in winter I get about 4-5 hours of true daylight when the sun weakly rises high enough to show itself. When I first turn onto the main road from the homestead I check the road conditions by doing an emergency stop, and see how far the truck skids across the ice before fully stopping. If it is cold enough and there is very little traffic then the ice shouldn’t be that bad and I am good to go.

Descending Wickersham dome

I know most think that four wheel drive does not help on ice but I have found that keeping the truck in it does provide better traction, especially in turns, so for four months a year it stays there. I have also found that for the entire drive I endeavor to never ‘tap’ the breaks and instead downshift to slow the truck. In fact there are many ‘hills’ on the drive on which I descend in second gear and though solid ice I have never run off the road.

Switchbacks however are another story altogether especially on the first few trips of a new winter. Those first years after I moved to my cabin were very interesting as far as getting used to driving on ice and the mountain switchbacks were my nemesis. In the beginning of winter when the temperatures still fluctuated above and below freezing those hairpin turns especially in downgrades bit me on the ass a number of times. The last time it happened I took the switchback too fast, in too high a gear and I stupidly ‘tapped’ the break and instantly the truck did a 180 and I was pinned against the railing overlooking a hundred foot drop. However the drop was not what scared me but the fact that almost at the same instant a tractor trailer carrying a full load of drilling pipe went past me blasting its air horn.

A 120 mile round trip three times a month on an ice road
may indeed sound nuts to most
but one has to live here
to understand
that even in winter
is a magical place.

Still slick but snow free roads and the magical beauty of Alaska when the sunset touches the tree tops

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Jon permalink
    March 13, 2017 3:35 pm

    Pics of the Elliot Hwy,.& your homestead brought back memories of our trip in ’15 & of course meeting you & Trish.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Del permalink
    March 14, 2017 4:38 am

    yea I remember too Pete… The road to Eureka wasn’t maintained after Livengood… Boys those were fun trips…. Most of the time having to chain up…. And others they were a breeze….. Thanks again for the memories……

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kris permalink
    March 14, 2017 11:00 pm

    A whole different world than the Alaska I live in. I love it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 15, 2017 9:44 am

      Indeed there is a whole world of difference Kris between the weather in the interior/far North and that of almost anywhere else in the state… Only the majestic beauty and wonder is the same across our great state….. Alaska!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. djandess permalink
    March 21, 2017 9:11 am

    Family and friends in the lower 48 often think we’re nuts to live in “a frozen wasteland”. I don’t think we’ll ever convince them of the raw beauty of this place. Enjoyed the pics, we’ve been talking about visiting the Fairbanks area. We’ve never been north of Talkeetna. Really enjoy reading about the life of an ‘old curmudgeon’.


  5. Mike Hohmann permalink
    April 12, 2017 5:30 pm

    A long winter up there. And it can be very unforgiving. Nice to get those doses of reality now and then, Pete. Nice to see the sun climbing higher.


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