The sum of cross-country skiing is traveling the trackless. It is a pursuit of happiness without profit motive or machinery, a gentle quest for serenity in chaos. One seeks fresh places, spacious places. One seeks hills with no barbed wire, woods where no engines can be heard, unwrinkled blankets of snow. One seeks another planet. One seeks—Alaska.
The two tenderfeet from a town in upstate New York arrive in Anchorage late in the winter. Though both of them are absolute cheechakos by Alaskan standards (the modern-day use of the term refers to anyone who has not wintered up there), the two New Yorkers are not utter dummies when it comes to cross-country skiing. They have glided many idyllic miles through orchards of twisted pear trees and bare vineyards in their own home countryside. They have skied the gray woods of the Catskill Mountains and trekked on snowy banks above the cement plants that scar the Hudson River shore.
The cheechakos are not tyros. However, it is true that when they ski they are accustomed to the whine of chain saws, barking dogs, the gnashing of garbage-can covers in the distance. They are accustomed to the sight of houses, ice-cream stands, mailboxes and antique stores. They have long ago perfected techniques for climbing fences and crossing paved roads on skis.
Still, it must be said that even cross-country skiing past billboarded barns and sign-posted trees is not entirely lacking in spiritual resuscitation. Even with a cement plant lurking at the corner of an eye, the cross-country ski addict's heart sings and his spirit is fixed by the chance to stride on any carpet of new snow.
January 6, 1974
But no upstate apple orchard comes close to Alaska's Chugach Mountain Range, which is forbidding and bleak, nor is the Hudson River any match for Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm, those black sleeves of water that reach into Alaska from the north Pacific Ocean.
The New York visitors are smitten from the start by Alaska as they fly into Anchorage at sunset one evening. The elder of the two, an excitable 42-year-old who is overblown in his enthusiasms, sees the Chugach peaks for the first time, a row of great somber teeth ringing Anchorage, and he says reverently, "Good Lord, it is a dreamscape. The summits of the moon. The peaks of Eden. The mountains of Zeus."
The younger cheechako, who is 13 and not so caught by the intimations of mortality, says, "It's really cool."
At the airport they are met by a tall, rawboned, talkative fellow. His skin is tanned and seamed from the brief Arctic sun; his stride is strong and obviously he has covered much muskeg in summer, lots of snowy tundra in winter. He has a confident smile, a relaxed swagger; here, clearly, is a man who is skookum (knowledgeable). The name is Mike Hershberger, a native of Reno who came to Anchorage 10 years ago. Just into his 40s, he is jack of myriad trades and pastimes: a professional fishing guide (his brochures described him modestly as "The Fisherman"), pilot, biweekly columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, former Marine Corps survival instructor, failed poet, holder of a Master's degree in English from Kansas University, local figure-skating judge, tackle-store proprietor, originator of the Dame Juliana Berners Fly Fysshynge Association, president of the Anchorage Hunters and Fishermen Association and—most significant for this day—tour director of the Anchorage Nordic Ski Club.
Mike Hershberger grins at the newcomers. They are standing outside the terminal with their suitcases, gawking at Alaska like a couple of apple knockers just off the bus in New York City, agog at the sense of brute nature all around. They are clumsy in its presence. And so there arises something of the hayseed-city slicker relationship between them and skookum Mike Hershberger. It may not have been the first thing Mike says to them or even the second, but he is a consummate talker and soon enough he says, "Say, have either of you ever had a drink cooled with glacier ice?" The visitors shake their heads numbly; their eyes, shining, are fixed on him, and Hershberger says easily, "Nothing like it, fellas. Glacier ice is so concentrated it'll sit in a drink and never melt all night long. That is, if the drink lasts all night long."
Hershberger waits a while, then says, temptingly, "Ever eaten caribou sausage? It's like candy, not a bit gamy because caribou feed on moss and lichen all winter." The newcomers are very still. They swallow together and gaze in mute adoration at Mike Hershberger. He says, "Ever drunk homemade lowbush cranberry liqueur on a mountainside? Like nectar of the gods. Ever built your own igloo for a night in the bush? It's like snoozing in your own living room. Ever take a drink of whiskey at 40 below? I guess not. You'd be dead on the spot, because the stuff turns to ice the minute it hits your gizzard and you'd be stabbed to death with an icicle down your innards. Ever seen a glacier worm? Sure, they exist...little squirmy things scientists find on the ice...."
Possibly Mike Hershberger does not really loose such a waterfall of Alaskan lore and outdoor trivia right there at the airport. But, as they would recall it later, the visitors were hooked, convinced for all time as they stood there on the first brink of the Last Frontier in the U.S. that Mike Hershberger showed himself to be an extra special friend, a truly splendid man who might possibly even know as much about wild Alaska as any ancient Indian chief.
Meekly, the newcomers trailed Mike out of the airport, determined to follow him to the deepest lair of the fiercest glacier worm.
Alaskans refer to everywhere beyond their own state as "Outside"—as if they were somehow living in somewhere snug and warm. They are not. Alaska is a frozen, brooding place in winter, God's own meat locker. The place is scarcely settled at all, with one person for every two square miles. So chill and bitter is the soil that sometimes the mountain timberline ends no more than a few hundred feet up from sea level. The rugged land is inhabited mostly by graceful caribou and clumsy moose wallowing neck deep in drifts, by bears, porcupines and furry-footed ptarmigans, by seals and large ravens that flap and squawk like sinister black roosters in the bare boughs of trees.
The Chugach Mountains that ring Anchorage rise in steep leaps directly out of the waters of Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm. Both names were coined in dark circumstances: the inlet was named after Captain James Cook, who first charted those waters in the summer of 1778—the last place he explored before he returned to Hawaii five months later to be murdered on a sunny beach by angry natives. Turnagain Arm was so called because Cook's expedition sailed ever deeper into its 48-mile length in the enthusiastic assumption that they had, at last, found the legendary Northwest Passage of water between the Atlantic and the Pacific. When they were finally blocked by the wall of mountains at the end, they dispiritedly turned again. The waters of Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm are steel gray and filled with ice cakes when the tide is in; when it is out, the bottom is revealed and blocks of blackened ice stand littered across the broad trough like crude Neanderthal statuary.
On clear days Mount McKinley's regal 20,320-foot peak peers at Anchorage from 187 miles away across a ripple of mountain ranges. Anchorage is not much to peer at, a new town built on mud flats along Ship Creek with a plastic boxy skyline of motels built in hopes of an oil boom. The population of Greater Anchorage is 126,300, far the largest city in Alaska. The city lies 350 miles south of the Arctic Circle, 1,500 miles north of Seattle, 3,500 miles east of Tokyo and barely east and 2,800 miles north of Honolulu.
Anchorage has almost no history at all, no legends, little charm. In 1915 the town was laid out in grids, a repetitious though efficient set of intersecting right angles. Even the street names are from geometry: there is no Klondike Kate Street, no Evil Alice Avenue, no Sourdough Lane, only A, B, C, D, E, F Streets intersecting with First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth Avenues, and on and on. The oldest building in town was put up in 1915. It was a general-store owner's house and today it is a good restaurant, a warm and homey refuge with lacy tablecloths and a walk-in closet where you can hang up your sheepskin coat and take off your galoshes. It is called Myrtle's Club Twenty-Five.
Winter in Alaska is hard. It is only fully light from 9:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. in December and January. Bizarre moods prevail throughout the land. Perhaps it is the worst in the tiny villages isolated out in the bush. Suicides are common and constant. Drunkenness from December until April is not unusual; whole towns do it. Odd and vicious feuds develop. In the village of Wiseman (pop. 6) the population became divided in anger one winter; one faction took its vengeance against the other by perpetrating what is perhaps the most dastardly of all tricks known to men living far from civilization: they hid the mail.
Even in bustling Anchorage there is a desperate quality to the winter, a frantic search to find something to do. There are bowling leagues that meet at 4 a.m., curling competitions at 4 or 5 a.m. and many marathon bridge tournaments. Sometimes the old city dump is aswarm with snowmobiles cruising happily over snow-covered humps of garbage; the dump is the only place within the city limits where snow machines are permitted. There are five-mile snowshoe races and 1,000-mile dogsled races. Mount Alyeska, a good bald-mountain ski area 35 miles down the road from Anchorage, sometimes has weekend lift lines more than an hour long, literally hundreds of Alaskans queued up five and six abreast to force some recreation—any recreation—into the dark days of midwinter.
But best of all, there is the Anchorage Nordic Ski Club, an organization that has 1,800 members—the largest of its kind in the U.S., it is thought. As Mike Hershberger sums up the whole thing, "We have nine months of winter up here and people got to have something to keep busy. They'll join anything."
The Anchorage Nordic Ski Club is not just anything, of course. Not only is it large, active and full of good sports, it has its own song. The tune lies somewhere between On Wisconsin and a Tlingit Indian war chant:
We are the Nordic skiers of Alaska.
We wear our knickers down below our knees.
We don't sit in a bar at Alyeska.
We're on the trail and running on our skis.
Now we don't need a pair of fancy downhills.
Or boots that cost $100 a pair.
All we need is fortitude and courage.
And a dang good pair of legs to get you there.
The cheechakos find that the company of Mike Hershberger continues to be full of lore and information. They are out skiing with him their first afternoon, near dusk in a section of thin woods at the edge of Anchorage. Twisting trails, laid by the cross-country ski club, take them through a woodland that is silent and wild even though they are less than a mile from a split-level development. They ski easily. Mike talks of many things.
"The Alaska state flower is the forget-me-not. It should be reindeer moss. That'd be perfect. The state bird is a willow ptarmigan.... Ever seen a porcupine trail in the snow? There's one, looks like one track from a snowmobile, doesn't it.... I once saw a porcupine migration crossing a highway in Wyoming. Thousands of the little buggers...I also once saw a migration of tarantulas across a road in Nevada...got slippery as melted butter...."
They glide through the forest, gazing at the Arctic moss hanging from the trees, watching for wild animals—a bear, an elk, a moose.
"Ever hunt moose? They stand still in the woods, hardly ever move, it's like shooting a two-story house. They're fierce, though, if they have calves. Most dangerous animal in the woods with a calf...moose meat is good eating though.... A friend of mine uses a chain saw to clean and dress the moose he shoots. He drains out the motor oil and puts in Mazola for lubrication so the meat doesn't taste like petroleum. Takes about half the time with a chain saw that it would with a knife and hatchet...."
It is a relaxing trip. The sun is beginning to set and the snow is turning pale yellow, the shadows deep lavender. There are a couple of hills to climb. The older cheechako breaks a slight sweat. Mike Hershberger is at ease, certainly not short of breath.
"Know what a fool hen is? A fool hen is so dumb it'll sit in a tree and won't move no matter what. Cross-country skiers have been known to tie a rope noose on a ski pole and pluck a fool hen right out of a tree.... I have a friend who's a taxidermist and his name is Hunter Fisher—Hunter Fisher, can you believe it? He has a state permit for dressing moose killed by cars along the highways. He cleans 'em and brings the meat to orphanages and hospitals...There's hardly any land left to buy in Alaska anymore. The sheiks of Kuwait have been moving in and they own something like 60% of all the unsettled lands left...for oil exploitation, I guess...."
The cheechakos are smitten by this dazzling stream of miscellaneous facts pouring from Mike. "He knows everything," gasps the younger one. And so it seems as the ski trails wind on and on in the dusk.
"Hundreds of Eskimos cross the ice illegally from Siberia every year to visit with their relatives in the U.S. Kind of Eskimo wetbacks—'icebacks,' you might say.... Skis were never much use in Alaska except for recreation. The trappers used snowshoes or dogsleds and the gold miners couldn't work in the winter anyway. To pan for gold you had to put your hands in water and if you did that in winter—forget it, you're dead.... Evil Alice was a public health nurse in Anchorage during World War II. Her job was checking prostitutes for disease. She wasn't really evil at all.... You know what the very best cold-weather mukluks are? Human urine-cured sealskin mukluks. Sunshine Tuckfield, an Eskimo lady in Point Hope, makes the best of all. They're great when it's cold, but when it's warm—watch out. Phew! They can find you in the movies if you're wearing a pair of urine-cured mukluks, I'll tell you. Actually, most people buy rubber-soled mukluks made here in Anchorage by Mexicans and Japanese...."
Mike Hershberger and companions glide out of the woods in the gloaming. The weather is warm, about 28°, and the sky is hazy. There have been moose tracks everywhere along the trail, deep half-moon dents in the snow. But they have not seen a moose—or even a fool hen this day. Still, the skiing was exhilarating, and the educational aspects of the afternoon overwhelming.
That night the New Yorkers have dinner at Myrtle's Club Twenty-Five and they ask for moose meat, though it is not on the menu. They are told that, no, it is illegal to sell the meat of wild animals in Alaska. They speak lazily of cabbages and kings, of moose meat and fool hens and Sunshine Tuckfield.
It is morning in Alaska, a clean day, bright and light blue. There is Mount McKinley gazing at Anchorage from across the wilds. The cheechakos are up at 6 a.m., the older one proudly pulling on a pair of newly purchased knickers, the younger stubbornly sticking with blue jeans, disdaining knickers as being ostentatious and uncool.
Mist is rising off Cook Inlet, and the Chugach peaks are peach colored in the sunrise as the two leave their hotel and head for the Anchorage railroad station. This is to be a once-a-year occasion for Alaskans, a once-a-lifetime for the upstate New Yorkers: a train leased by the Anchorage Nordic Ski Club is climbing to Trail Glacier this morning, a magnificent lonely place high in the mountains along the rail line between Anchorage and Seward. At no other time of the winter is the glacier accessible to cross-country skiers unless they make a hard and dangerous overland trek of 80 miles or more; today more than a thousand enthusiasts are going to make the trip—civilization transported for a day to a primeval place.
The station, a gloomy sprawling heap, is almost empty when the cheechakos arrive. No train, few people, stillness. Soon the train rolls in, a sparkling blue and yellow caravan of two dozen cars, oddly enough a kind of sprightly, fun-looking railroad. This is perhaps even more odd because the Alaskan Railroad is owned and operated by the Federal Government, the only one of its kind in the U.S. The conductors are smiling, courteous fellows and the newcomers, accustomed to the churlish mien of trainmen around New York City, stand in awe. One conductor has a pair of splendid thick sideburns like a pair of red squirrels' tails, and through his smiles he says that 1,096 tickets have been sold for the morning's trek into the wilds. He seems happy when the crowd begins to cluster on the cobblestone apron by the tracks, almost gaily boosting children up the steps into the train, joyously hoisting up skis and rucksacks for awkward arrivals. He makes the morning even brighter than it is.
Soon the station is swarming with skiers, a mixture of suburban matrons and bearded collegians, scrubbed children in snowsuits and crew-cut Air Force men in knickers, grizzled old fellows who might be latter-day sourdoughs but are probably life insurance agents. The train rumbles out of the station precisely on time. Every seat is filled. There are children frolicking along the corridors and in the vestibules between cars. Newspapers are opened, Thermos jugs uncapped. Soon the entire train settles into a kind of Saturday morning coffee klatch with clear echoes of suburbia all around. The talk tends to drift toward children's arithmetic problems and the price of onions, to the state of potholes in the roads and the cost of car repairs. The New Yorkers are bent upon a once-in-a-lifetime experience, however, and they do not find that gossip along the back fences of Anchorage meets their expectations this morning. They drift to the vestibule between two cars where the window is open and the sweet icy air runs freely.
The train route, about 75 miles, runs down the length of Turnagain Arm, which is resplendent in the brilliance of the day, then up fairly steep grades into the mountains and glaciers of the Alaskan interior. The tracks are usually closed all winter, except when they are cleaned for certain freight shipments between Anchorage and Seward and, for today, the only passenger train to make the run in winter.
The cheechakos are exalted, their eyes glistening with tears in the cold and their faces turning ruddy. They are watching out the open windows for wildlife, specifically moose, along the way. They are optimistic. They have been told that this train is known as the Moose Gooser and, now, as it begins its ascent from the end of Turnagain, they are full of expectations. Suddenly the train slows, halts jerkily, and the word runs back through the cars like a telegraph line that there is a moose on the track. The cheechakos lean out the window to peer ahead. They see nothing. No moose. No goose. The train starts up again.
Then, 10 miles or so along, another electric current runs through the train, a message: there are moose off the starboard side. The strangers stare and—yes—they are there. Perhaps eight or 10 of them. They are churning in obvious terror in deep snow, up to their massive necks in the stuff, galloping along with hooves swimming six feet under the surface. Their majestic-ugly heads, familiar from a thousand barroom walls, are leaping ahead, their antler racks tossing about like crazy furniture above the snow. It is a frantic picture, a moose's nightmare.
Soon the moose are behind. The visitors continue to gaze, spellbound, at the mountains beyond the tracks. They are climbing steadily now and the train clatters through a number of tunnels braced with beams thick as a man's waist. In some places the mountains rise like sheer walls from the edge of the tracks.
The conductor comes through the train, smiling between his squirreltails and says gently, "Got to close the window, boys, in case we get hit by an avalanche. We don't want no one struck flat with a hundred tons of snow, now do we?" No, we do not.
The visitors stand meekly behind glass for a time, two popeyed New York fish in an Alaskan aquarium.
The crowd poured off the train into the fresh snow; the winter province of ravens and ermine and bears now filled with wives carrying Thermoses, of blonde children, of IBM men in lederhosen. The blue and yellow train is toylike in the sun and there is an oompah band tootling, tubas and trombones catching the reflection of mountains in their glistening brass.
Along the tracks the crowd teems as at a subway station, a scene of commuters from civilization to the wilderness. The New Yorkers look at each other, narrowly. Here they are, in God's own emptiness, thousands of miles from the nearest skyscraper, where there cannot be found a total of one million people within 2,000 miles in any direction. Yet here is a bigger crowd than they had ever seen cross-country skiing at one time in the Catskills, which are within 200 miles of 25 million people.
Slowly the crowd unknots and begins to unravel along the tracks in both directions, down the banks toward the fiat lake surface. Some sprint boldly, others tumble in the snow like kittens, some swoop out toward Trail Glacier as if they are being chased by a bear. Soon, from the train above the valley leading to the glacier, there can be seen dozens, hundreds of skiers, tiny in size like ants, busily crisscrossing the lake's surface, vanishing into the woods, squirting between trees. The cheechakos and Mike Hershberger and a lawyer named Walter Cardwell, a native of Texas, tool easily down the bank in a shallow traverse, quickly cross the lake, stride rapidly into a woods, out the other side, past a gurgling creek, past a porcupine's trail and—most importantly—past hundreds of other skiers who have strung out like a great colorful length of string along routes leading toward the glacier. In some places the skiers are backed up like Sunday traffic, waiting for the fallen to rise and let everyone go freely.
Eventually, the Hershberger group moves ahead of the lines. Many from the train simply disperse into the trees and trails and disappear. Not many continue the drive to the glacier but the cheechakos do—this is why they are here—and soon they have covered two miles, three perhaps, and they are swinging along the floor of a flat white valley. High on each side are blunt peaks and precipices and—ahead, at the end of the valley spilling down between the low summits and rocks and plunging snow drifts—is the glacier. It is a majestic sight, rolling out of eternity as it has for who only knows how many millions of years, wheeling beneath its cream-smooth surface such force as can crush boulders into loam and grind deep canyons out of cloud-high mountains. Once upon a time, that is; Trail Glacier is now in a suspended state, no longer quite alive, no longer insuperable in its strength to shape the planet.
The small party stops to rewax. Mike Hershberger passes around a chunk of reindeer sausage, brown and sweet. The older visitor opens a bottle of Beaujolais and hands it around. Walter, the lawyer from Texas, squints at the crystalline bowl overhead and breathes in a mighty lungful of the biting air of eternity and takes another swig of the wine and sighs a sigh. He says, "I cannot remember at any time in my life a day that was better than this one."
The cheechakos and friends ski to the spilling-buttermilk base of the glacier, then climb into the cool violet shadows, up several hundred yards, steep enough to herringbone. They do not climb to the top but well up onto perfect snows beyond the middle. They stand there and look back, down across the long valley floor from whence they came. More than a thousand people here? Crowds on the snow of this beautiful desolation? Of course not. There are a few people moving about in sight. The crisscross signs of tracks in the snow show there have been more. But nature has swallowed up the sense of civilization's presence already, smothered the crowd's talk and made the encroachers invisible in the immensity of the mountains, the brilliance of the snow.
"Where are the glacier worms?" asks the younger cheechako.
"You see them mostly in the morning," says Mike Hershberger. He laughs. Everyone seems exultant, high on the ecstasies of the steeps. Mike bellows into the crystal air over the four or five miles back to the train: "Hey! Hey! Everyone! We're waxing with peanut butter and jelly today!" Then he laughs some more.
The party sips more wine before riding the glacier snows down, floating through the soft stuff, buoyant as if they are surfing some understanding wave. They sun themselves again for a while on the glacier lip, then sprint back across the valley. The snow turns steadily to a warmer yellow, then toward amber, then to a subtle russet pink in the later afternoon. They cross the darkening valley, stride through the woods, across the open lake and up the bank again to the train. In deepening lights it leaves for Anchorage promptly at 5 p.m. It is filled to the baggage racks with a population of flushed and perfect people.
Now it is a pewter-colored day. The visitors are up early once more, heading out of Anchorage and down the Turnagain Arm highway in a car with Mike Hershberger and another skier, a kinetic woman named Judy Spivey. They are bound for an overnight trip into the mountains beyond the tip of the Arm, a cross-country ski adventure to be capped, it is hoped, by spending the night on the mountainside in an igloo of their own construction.
They are not going into the bush with the tough old gold prospectors' hard and meager provisions, a ragged blanket and a fist-sized chunk of sourdough to make bread. No, indeed. They have goosedown sleeping bags, cameras, a banquet of food. As Mike says, "This is the steak and strawberry shortcake excursion. We aim to please." The New Yorkers are a trifle embarrassed by the sense of luxury about their camp in the mountains, but they do not complain. It is only for one night and as the older one says, "There's nothing wrong with a little strawberry shortcake in the woods, just as long as it's skookum strawberry shortcake."
In addition to the strawberry shortcake they have brought steak, onion soup, croutons and breakfast bacon, the makings for French toast, a couple of bottles of wine, some apricot brandy, a half-pint of Chivas Regal Scotch and a container of homemade lowbush cranberry liqueur. This last is a miracle drink, tart-sweet, and when it is sipped and carefully rolled about the tongue and then swallowed while relaxed high on the side of a silent mountain as a few snow-flakes float down—well, at such a time it seems as if lowbush cranberry liqueur were something mixed by Merlin to cure all modern maladies. Mike, of course, has the recipe for lowbush cranberry liqueur ready at tongue tip:
"On the first day, pick the cranberries. On the second day, rest. On the third day, grind three quarts of cranberries and set in a cool place for 24 hours. On the fourth day, pour one fifth of 180-proof Everclear into the ground berries and set aside for another 24 hours. On the fifth day, sieve and strain the berries. Boil five cups of sugar in three cups of water for five minutes. Let the sugar and water get very, very cold. Mix the berries and water, then bottle in stone jugs. Age three weeks. Drink on mountainside glaciers and beside icy cold streams...."
Mike is in a communicative mood today. "You cannot make a mistake in Alaska in the winter. It means death. When it's 30 below zero, you can freeze something and never know it. I've had my hands so cold I broke into sobs when they thawed out. You never know. A little boy I knew of forgot his overshoes in school and walked one mile from the bus stop to his house in his oxford shoes. Both feet froze and had to be cut off. Alaska kills the innocent. You can die of thirst in winter because your body sweats and you can't get enough moisture back into it...."
Well, it is not below zero today (more like 30 above) and no one in this bunch is going to die of thirst. No, indeed. At last they arrive at the foot of their mountain. They are in a parking lot filled with cars, trailers and—sad to say—snowmobiles. There is a raucous roar all around, riders of the iron dog are at play everywhere. The place is labeled SNOW PLAY AREA and Mike explains that one side of the road is set aside for snow machines, the other for skiers—"and never the twain shall meet," he adds fervently.
Hastily, the newcomers and friends shrug into their packs and cross the road to where the skiers play. It is about noon, the snow is thick and sticky, there are only half a dozen skiers in sight, scattered over a couple of miles of mountain above, and Mike decides on purple wax with an overlay of red under the bindings. They begin their climb up the mountain. It is called Tin Can Mountain, no one knows quite why, although there is a Tin Can Creek at its base. Though it is bleak, there is promise in the climb ahead and Mrs. Spivey, Mr. Hershberger and the New Yorkers begin to ascend, leisurely, easily, up a small knoll that is crisscrossed by skiers, then over a fiat area, up some more past a growth of tamarack trees, on and on upward toward the place where the Tin Can peak meets the tin-can-colored sky.
Because of the sticky snow, the climb is quite easy; the skis don't slip backward. The packs are nicely balanced, not heavy. The older cheechako is humming Winter Wonderland, a song from his youth. The younger is whistling something tuneless. Judy Spivey is chirping delightedly in anticipation of the day, the climb up Tin Can, the igloo, the strawberry shortcake. "Isn't it great? Isn't it terrific?" she says. And Mike....
"There are about 15,000 polar bears in Alaska. People used to shoot about 300 a year.... It's a fiction that bears sleep all winter. They're up and around by now.... There's still gold in these hills. It hasn't been feasible to mine it, too expensive. But there are new ways now and there could be a new gold rush up here.... Do you know that the cost of living in Alaska is 148% what it is Outside?"
Snow packs onto the skis and they must stop to scrape it off. They munch fresh snow and a handful of raisins. Mike passes around the lowbush cranberry liqueur.
"If you mix a little crowberry juice with this it gives a rich purple color to the liqueur, esthetically very nice...."
They climb some more, the packs still only comfortable weights; the snow remains thick as porridge and fine for climbing. Steadily upward; they have been on Tin Can for two hours now and are able to look back down across the valley they drove up. Then they reach another point where Hershberger stops.
"Yep, this is the place. We dug a snow cave here a month ago. Cozy as a house. You dig into a snow bank, make a little corridor, then turn and hollow out a room. With benches for sleeping. It was 35 below outside, but it was above zero inside and a couple of candles made it snug as could be...."
Mike had left a light snow shovel there on his last trip and now he digs into a mound that looks like several hundred other mounds around and, yes, comes up with the shovel. He ties it to his pack. They pass around a plastic squeeze bottle of peach brandy, nibble on some cheese and begin to climb higher...higher...through black spruce decorated with gray-green Arctic moss and pillows of snow.
At last it is about 5 p.m. They are more than halfway up, almost to the timberline, and now it is time to stop to begin the job of building an igloo for the night. Mike picks a spot beneath a sheltered cover of tamaracks. Judy Spivey is excited about the prospect. Mike takes his shovel and begins to clear off the soft surface snow until he reaches a point where the snow is solid and cohesive enough to begin cutting blocks.
"Actually the word igloo does not refer just to a snow house. It means any house in Eskimo language. In summer they make igloos of sod or skins...."
The New Yorkers ski off from the place of their igloo-to-be and arrive, through a dark corridor of trees, at the brink of a precipice. They gaze out over the edge—and catch their breaths in awe. For far off, far below, they have come to possess in the gloaming of the day an unforgettable view of Alaska—a panorama that reaches all the way down Turnagain Arm, black and ice-speckled in the dusk. Above and beyond the waters is the imprint of a brass sun behind the gray overcast. A carpet pattern of black trees against the snow leads to the edge of the sleeve of water, then the slopes of the Chugach range spring up on each side like sentry giants. The silence of the vista is absolute.
The cheechakos simply stand in awe. They say nothing. This is what they have come to Alaska to see, to do, to be.
Eventually they return to the construction site. Judy Spivey is singing snatches from the Anchorage Nordic Ski Club anthem...
"...we wear our knickers down below our knees...."
Mike is busily digging snow blocks.
"When we set these on each other, they'll bind together, almost like cement if the weather's just right. It might be a little warm now...."
The cheechakos are told to scrape a circle in the snow about 12 feet in diameter. As Mike digs out blocks, they set them along the line. The first row is easy, the second row is exciting—the bricks are slanted slightly inward and at least the idea of an igloo appears. As Mike digs, he sinks steadily down into a pit of his own making. As each block is set atop others, the older man rams it tight against the adjacent one. He is supposed to hold it briefly until the blocks bind with frost. But it is quite warm. The blocks do not stick together as they should. Judy Spivey and the younger cheechako line up to hold blocks for several minutes at a time until they adhere.
Soon, half an hour later, the igloo wall is three blocks high and Mike has dug a wide pit about six feet deep outside the wall. He now moves inside the igloo circle with his shovel. Thus, as he digs out blocks from inside, the igloo wall rises a foot or so with each row of blocks added and the floor inside sinks about the same amount because of blocks subtracted. It is exciting to contemplate such progress.
Yet it is growing dark and the snow is still mushy. Soon Judy Spivey and the two cheechakos are standing in a row, arms stretched out desperately, holding up much of the fourth row of blocks. The blocks are slanting precariously, beginning their arch inward to make the classic igloo dome, but they will not stick. It is a difficult time; Mike Hershberger is optimistic.
"See the patterns the blocks make, a pretty mosaic. When it's finished and we light candles inside, we can come out here in the dark night and look at it. It'll be translucent light, glowing through the snow from inside. The patterns of the blocks will show up like cracks and designs in an upside-down gold cup...."
Ah, but even then, with the fifth row scarcely begun, it is plain that such a beautiful work of winter art will not be available here this night. The snow is too soft; it will not bind, and the blocks fall in again and again. The newcomers and Mrs. Spivey try, spanning their arms, bracing and embracing the newly placed blocks for many minutes at a time, praying, wishing that they will hold up until the demisphere is finished. But, no, they fall and smash to chunks.
With fallen blocks scattered around his feet, Mike Hershberger at last heaves a sigh, throws down his shovel and resigns from the project. "Dammit, it won't work," he announces. It is now 9 p.m., and the moon has risen behind thin clouds. It is a three-quarter silver coin within a blurry halo. The snow is fluorescent in the moonlight. Mike Hershberger is a little grumpy, distinctly displeased that there is this unfinished igloo, but there is nothing to be done for it. The group skis off into the woods to find firewood. Mike quickly builds a blaze in the snow pit outside the igloo wall and begins to prepare dinner.
The cheechakos find they are simply in the way during the meal preparations in the narrow flickering confines and they slip off, step into their ski bindings and glide away into the chill darkness, far beyond the circle of fire. The moonlight is tantalizing. As they move through shaggy black trees, the snow seems to glow like a silvery floor.
There are no other tracks here, no other people, nothing but themselves and the cold tranquillity of the great mountain and the moon.
They climb some and ski some, but soon the pervasive moon spell is shattered by a shrill whistle from Mike. They return to their hearth outside the igloo. It is cozy. They dine on steak, onion soup, wine, strawberry shortcake. It is nearly midnight when they finish. The cheechakos and Mike crawl into the roofless igloo and stretch out beneath a few brave stars. Judy Spivey sleeps by the fire. Shortly after dawn it snows, wet flakes the size of butterflies, but everyone stays in the damp bags until 8 a.m.
It is another gray day, dank again and they have French toast and syrup and coffee made from fistfuls of melted snow. The fire is smoking heavily and there are a few spruce needles floating in the coffee water. Eyes are puffy and no one feels like singing the Anchorage Nordic Ski Club song.
Breakfast over, they ski some, climbing a couple of hundred feet more up the mountain. Then, toward a tin-can noon, the trip is deemed done and they shrug on their packs once more to ski down. It is a swooping ride, through shin-deep new snow, back and forth in feathery traverses, whooping and shouting as they float down. What took three or more hours to climb takes perhaps half an hour to ride down. It is hair-raising and heartwarming, a journey on lightly controlled, thin slats of wood with winged boots. There is no resemblance to the heavier, more fashion-conscious game of downhill skiing in big rigid boots and iron-maiden bindings and skis made of metal.
At the bottom of Tin Can Mountain all are flushed and panting, happy after the long ride down. The trip home seems tedious, but not too long and by 5 p.m. they are back in the hotel lobby in Anchorage. The cheechakos have left Judy Spivey at her home and wished her all the best. Now they are about to say goodby to Mike Hershberger and this Alaskan adventure. They are shuffling around a bit, trying to say exactly what they feel, when suddenly Mike extends his hand and widens his grin.
"You know something? I expected you two to be something pretty different from what you are. I expected some New York fat guy with a big mustache and a big mouth coming up to Alaska for a big time with his little fat runny-nosed kid who whines every time he falls down. I didn't think you'd be able to ski or climb a mountain or any damn thing. Cross-country skiers from New York? A couple of marshmallows, I thought. Well, I was wrong, fellows. You guys surprised me. See you later and thanks a lot."
He leaves the cheechakos standing in silence. They grin at each other. They shake hands. They go up the elevator to their room and they bathe the Tin Can Mountain smoke off their skin and they brush the spruce needle bits out of their teeth. They put on clean dry clothing, neckties and soft shirts, respectable jackets. They slick their hair, put on city shoes with hard heels and even polish the toes a bit. They go down to the lobby, cross the thick carpet past bellhops, and enter the restaurant. There they order a house salad to be tossed at tableside, a chilled bottle of Pouilly Fuissé for the elder, a glass of cold milk for the younger. They have the house special entrée—Alaskan Crab Legs Voltaire, a delicate, sauced concoction that also is prepared at their table. It is splendid, and they so inform the waiter. To top off the meal, they have Baked Alaska set aflame at their elbows.
Now the meal is over and they wipe their mouths with white napkins, sip water from crystal glasses and grin at each other in satisfaction. They overtip the waiter and leave the dining room—cheechakos no more. They feel like two wilderness-aged grizzled old sourdoughs come to dine in elegance at the best hotel in town after striking it rich in the bush.
They are definitely skookum fellows now—no doubt—though each has yet to sight his first glacier worm or finish his first igloo.