Alaskan Adventure Continued

Having worked so many hours on computers that my eyes were starting to play dangerous tricks on me, I wanted to get away from it all. I was determined find a cabin in the Alaskan woods where I could be by myself, surrounded only by nature, with no distractions, books, or cameras, and especially no computer screens. An extreme get-away-from-it-all.

I drove from Boston to Seattle, where a friend took me shopping at REI to get outfitted for sub-zero temperatures — thermal underwear, sock and glove liners, tall wool-lined boots, and heavy outerwear. Even though it was going to be dark most of the time, I even purchased sunglasses with side flaps to help prevent snow blindness. Lastly, the salesperson recommended a strong balaclava, which I declined. I had purchased so many pieces of specialty clothing, I was sure I’d be secure from the elements.

I eventually found myself in Coldfoot, Alaska, asking everyone I met where I could find the aforementioned cabin.

One night, a man I didn’t recognize appeared in Coldfoot, sitting in the common area of the building where I was staying. We made small talk, and when I told him I was from the Boston area, he unzipped his overcoat to reveal his MIT sweatshirt.

He introduced himself as Dmitri, a Russian who had grown disenchanted with communism. He had travelled to the U.S. to experience capitalism and became disenchanted with that as well. He ended up in Alaska to mine gold, which was still a thing.

I told Dmitri of my quest for a cabin in the woods, and he said he knew of a cabin I could use. It belonged to a friend of his who was away and would be glad to know that someone was making use of his cabin.

Dmitri offered to take me to the cabin as soon as he finished loading his supplies from the restaurant in Coldfoot. He said if he had known he was going to have a passenger, he would have brought more dogs for the sled. (!)

I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but a dog sled ride through the wilderness to a remote cabin seemed like it would be quite an adventure.

However, contrary to my image of standing on the back of a sled while a team of dogs pulled us along, that’s not how it works in the wilderness.

In the woods, there’s no real path for the sled to take, as everything is covered by several feet of snow. The path is just snow that has been matted down a bit, created by the dogs as they run. The dogs are running to pull the sled, but it’s up to the driver (and passenger) to steer the sled. That means holding onto the sled from behind and adjusting it to the left or right as necessary. Running through deep snow, at the same speed as a team of dogs, at -30º, for hours.

I did my best to keep up, but at one point I stumbled in some waist-deep snow and let go of the sled. Dmitri stopped the sled and walked back toward me, asking what was I doing? I fell, I said. He said, even if you fall, don’t ever let go of the sled. Let the dogs drag you until you can pull yourself up. The dogs are eager to get home. You can’t just shout “whoa” to get them to stop. They’ll just leave you behind. Point taken.

We eventually made it to Dmitri’s cabin, where he unharnessed the dogs and we rested. For the rest of the journey to his friend’s cabin, he said we’d be walking down the river.

As it turns out, “walking down the river” was literal. We headed out onto a frozen river covered with several feet of snow. This time Dmitri brought just one dog who ran ahead of us to pick out the best path. Dmitri went next, trying to follow wherever the dog had been. I followed last, trying to match Dmitri’s footsteps to avoid sinking deep into the snow, still at 30 below, for another hour or so.

At long last, we reached the cabin. It was a small one-room wooden structure with a bed, a chair and table, a window, and a stove which doubled as a heater. Perfect! I was excited — it was just the kind of extreme remote getaway I had imagined. Dmitri pointed out the shovel that I could use to dig holes in the snow for answering the call of nature.

After resting there a bit, Dmitri said we don’t have to go all the way back to his cabin — we could make a shortcut back to the original dog sled trail. “Make a shortcut” was another literal term, meaning you walk up to a bank of snow that’s almost waist-high and then use your body to push the snow out of the way to create a semblance of a path. For another hour or so. Did I mention it was 30 below?

We finally reached a clearing — the dog sled trail. Dmitri pointed to the left and said his cabin was that way, and Coldfoot was to the right. He said I could follow the trail back to Coldfoot. Then I should pack my clothes and a sleeping bag and get some supplies from the restaurant. He suggested food, a pan or two to cook on, an ax for cutting firewood, and maybe some logs to get me started. Then I’d need to carry that all back with me, following the trail, keeping an eye out for the shortcut we had just made.

By this time, I was thoroughly spent. The thought of doing all that by myself was overwhelming. Dmitri, I said, I really want to thank you for all you’re doing for me. I truly appreciate all your efforts and help. The cabin is just what I was looking for. But I just don’t have it in me to walk all the way back to Coldfoot and then carry all those supplies to the cabin.

Dmitri studied me for a minute and then said, that’s fine. If you were intending to move here, I would take out my gun and force you to do it — because surviving out here requires pushing yourself to the limit. But you’re really just a tourist. No hard feelings. I enjoyed meeting you. So, all you have to do it walk down that trail to Coldfoot. You’ll have a good story to tell.

I thanked him again and we parted. I made my way back to Coldfoot.

I went inside to my room and sat down to rest. I knew enough not to remove my hat, coat or boots until I had thawed out. There was a chance that my sweat had frozen my beard and hair to my hood and my skin to my clothes. I was so cold that I wouldn’t notice until I had hurt myself.

After I thawed and changed, I went to the restaurant to get something to eat. I told the proprietors my story and said the only odd thing was that, even though I was inside and had warmed up, I felt freezing air in my chest every time I breathed, like I was still outside.

They jumped to attention. They told me to stop talking immediately, to breathe slowly, and warned me not to cough or sneeze. They told me to eat or drink whatever they put in front of me, no questions asked. Then they brought me water, soup, and tea; more water, soup, and tea; and — dare I repeat — even more water, soup, and tea — until I gestured that I couldn’t take any more.

They asked whether it still felt cold when I breathed in. I shook my head no, to indicate that I was ok. They said I could talk again, so I asked what that was all about.

They told me I had frozen my esophagus. If I had spoken further, coughed or sneezed, that could have been the end.

It was too dangerous to wait for my esophagus to thaw so they brought me warm liquids to heat me up from the inside. Now that I was breathing normally again, the danger was past.

Remember the balaclava I didn’t buy at REI? The benefit of a balaclava is that it warms the air as you breathe out, so that the next breath in isn’t freezing.

Not having the final item in my repertoire almost did me in.

And Dmitri was right. I do have a good story to tell.