Yukon River, Alaska
Have you ever experienced cold? Deep, bone chilling, you can’t get warm for anything cold?
Well, this wasn’t that.
The day was bright and sunny. The blue sky stretched to the horizon, not a cloud in sight. Sunlight reflected off the snow to the point where you had to wear sunglasses or risk being blinded…Blinded by the light!
Snow is still piled in drifts up to my knees, and where it’s been scraped away, the sun has slightly melted it, leaving it slick and dangerous. I’ll take fresh snow any day over these paths. Where possible, gravel and sand has been scattered, but there’s too much ground to get it all, so they concentrate on the spots just outside the doors and for a few yards around.
I’d guess it at about 35*F, so quite warm—until you leave the protection of the buildings and get hit with the wind.
I’d already decided to take a walk down to the Ice Road today, so once I had breakfast, I set off. The only way to walk on ice if you don’t have studs, cleats, whatever—which I don’t—is to waddle like a penguin.
Lift your foot straight up and set it down again without pushing on your standing foot. It’s when you try to accelerate by pushing yourself forward that life becomes…hazardous. I know, you’re thinking that you definitely don’t ‘push’ on your standing foot when you walk.
I’m here to tell you, you absolutely do.
It’s only obvious when you’re walking on something as treacherous as packed snow that’s been melted and refrozen time and again, but you do.
Making my way to the river wasn’t long, or arduous, but it did require some level of concentration. Paying attention to each step, noting if my foot slid at all and shifting to rougher ground. The majority of the road is smooth and slick, worn down by snow machines and the sun.
At the bottom of the slope, right on the Yukon River, there lay two trails. One was twice as wide as the other, snow rising in a ridge to either side where it had been cleared and marked with three temporary warning signs:
NOT A PUBLIC ROAD
ENTER AT OWN RISK
I can’t remember the third.
This road, while wider, also showed more signs of ice and melt, so I went with the narrower one, clearly made more recently by snow machines. The snow was pleasantly rough, which made walking easy, though I couldn’t wander off the path.
I already know from experience that a couple feet away from the trail, the ice is merely a thin crust and I’ll sink to my knees. The worst part is the ice and snow that gets caught in the tops of my short boots that are NOT designed for these conditions, but they’re what I have, so I wear them anyway.
Balancing on one foot, attempting to sweep snow off your socks and dump the remainder out of your boots is not something you go through more than once.
As I walk, all I can hear is the wind whistling around my ears and the crunching of snow under my boots. After a few minutes, the wind begins to cut through my thick beanie. In Alaska, the first few dozen rules that women usually try to obey that have to do with appearances disappear with the cold and wind.
Here, survival is more important than looking cute. Hats are thick and tugged down, around your ears. Hoods are worn, no matter how it might make you look, because frostbite is often a worry. I wasn’t particularly worried about it on a warm day like today—otherwise I would have brought my scarf—but it made life uncomfortable, and my face was getting numb, so I zipped up my thick sweatshirt and jacket, then pulled both hoods over my head.
Thus insulated, I looked more like a distant cousin of the Michelin Tire Man, but I was warm enough to keep walking.
It doesn’t look very far to the bend in the river, but after half an hour, I still haven’t made it. I’m close, but not quite there. Having already decided to only be out for an hour, I turn back.
The bridge is still in sight. Well, half the bridge, anyway. I’ve gone further around the corner than I’d thought, certainly passing the point I’d been aiming for. The edges of the river look fairly uniform in this area, not offering many landmarks.
The shores are dotted with a few small cabins and outbuildings, homesteads settled by a hardy few. These people regularly use snow machines, getting over to the road and around their properties. Some, like a homesteader I met a few days ago, keep kennels of sled dogs and prefer to get around that way.
While I wouldn’t care to keep 40 dogs, I have to admit, always having giant, happy puppies around is wonderful. This precious boy was living up at Coldfoot, not near the Yukon River, and he’s not a typical Alaskan sled dog, but his exuberance and love of cuddles certainly is.
Making my way back up the slope to Yukon River Camp takes some time, and the wind has died down to the point where I need to unzip both outer layers or risk sweating. So close to camp and warmth, sweating is no more uncomfortable than usual, but in the middle of nowhere and especially on cold days, it can be deadly.
Once you stop moving as vigorously, sweat can form a thin layer of ice in your clothes, against your skin. It might make you hypothermic or cause frostbite, so it’s avoided as much as possible.
Thank goodness most active wear is moisture wicking, and why most base layers are made from wool.
Let me know, is Alaska on your bucket list?