We got up at 5. I had actually been awake since 3, knowing that I would have to be up so early. I changed the bed sheets for the house sitter, made some bacon, and collected last minute items to go in the truck. Jerry is in charge of organizing all things. Right after we were married, when I was putting groceries in the trunk of the car, he said, “You could never pack an airplane”.
We were out of the house at 5 minutes past 7, so we missed the 7 o’clock ferry, and took the 7:20. At the border in Sumas they didn’t look in the truck, so there was no problem with the quantity of frozen meat we had in the cooler. They asked about guns (we don’t drive around with them) and they wanted to know how we know each other. When we said we were married they smiled happily.
After a while I remembered that we forgot shampoo.
Jerry knew there was a Tim Horton fast food donut and coffee shop just over the border. He loves Tim Horton. The coffee is good and we get a thing called a “breakfast sandwich” which costs about $3 Canadian. It is enough grease to last all day, so we don’t need anything to eat until dinner.
The trip north begins with a steep and spectacular road that winds up the narrow Frasier River Valley and gorge. The terrain gets progressively drier, until at the end of the gorge in Cache Creek the landscape is desert-like. By the time we stopped for the night in Quesnel there were patches of snow on the ground.
We stopped at a motel that had kitchenettes so that I could cook dinner. It was run by an Asian woman wearing a turban, like the ones Sikh men wear. The cost was $67 Canadian and the room was comfortable and clean. As we drove north the snow became deeper, and we were saddened to see the number of trees destroyed by beetles.
The second night we stayed in Fort Nelson; not a pleasant place. The same sort of motel as the night before cost $107 Canadian and was not clean. Gas was more expensive than at any other place on our route. Fort Nelson is an industrial town with a gas processing plant and several mills. Stopping there is almost unavoidable, since there is no other town for hundreds of miles.
In a remote part of northern British Columbia we saw wolves. I was driving, and at first I thought there was a dog crossing the road. As I slowed I realized it was not a dog, but, I thought, “coyote,” then, “too big for coyote,” and finally, with excitement, “wolf!” The wolf turned and ran back to the side of the road, and I saw that there were 3 more wolves near the trees that lined the road. I slowed the truck to a crawl, and the big wolf hesitated and turned to look at us. It was a beautiful creature, almost all white with its heavy winter coat. Ears, nose, tail and some of the longer fur were tipped with grey. Then all the wolves turned and loped off in the deep snow into the woods.
Later that day we saw many buffalo along the road. They were pushing the snow aside with their feet and muzzles, grazing on stubble. Several buffalo carcasses were partially buried in snow with ravens feeding on them. Finding enough food in winter must be hard.
We spent the night in Whitehorse, and were disappointed that a nice little French restaurant we like has closed, I guess a casualty of the economic downturn.
The scenery north of Whitehorse is spectacular; vast stretches of white deep snow with dark silhouettes of fir, spruce and naked birches scattered up the sides of mountains to the tree line. Above the line there are icy snow covered crags of mountain tops. In the valleys are many frozen, snow covered lakes and rivers. Hours passed, and we saw few other cars on the road.
The third day we crossed into Alaska. The border guard was a cheerful, friendly young man who chatted with Jerry about Alaska. There were so few cars going north that he probably found little to interest him in his work day. We spent the night in Tok, and had dinner at Fast Eddy’s, where there is a good salad bar and pleasant service.
On the road to Fairbanks we saw caribou. Jerry said they were small, like the ones on the North Slope. In Fairbanks we shopped for vegetables, boots for me, and 2 snow shovels. Then we stopped at Barns and Noble for latte and found the book, Don’t Sleep, there are Snakes, by Dan Everett, which I can read to Jerry at bedtime. It’s about the steaming hot Amazonian jungle. We spent the night in Fairbanks with friends and started early in the morning for Manley.
The drive from Fairbanks is about 4 hours. Our friends in Fairbanks told us that the snow in Manley is waist deep, and that proved to be true. We arrived at our house at around noon, put on our boots and began the job of shoveling a path from the road to our house, since the snow was too deep to walk through. The temperature was about 5 below zero, but after 4 days of inactivity in the car it felt good to get some exercise. It took about half an hour to shovel our way to the back door of the house.
Next we began the tasks of unloading what we needed immediately from the truck and getting the house warm.
Another pressing problem was plumbing. When we closed the house up last summer Jerry purged the pipes of water, and starting that up again takes time. We both needed to pee. Not a problem for a man, but I was not keen on the idea of squatting in the snow at 5 below. We have an outhouse in addition to our indoor plumbing, but it is some distance from the house and we would have to shovel a path through the waist deep snow to get to it.
Last summer we had purchased a camp potty for use upstairs at night because our only bathroom is downstairs. I never used it; I found I preferred to negotiate the stairs at night. In present circumstances, however, the potty was the solution.
Jerry started a fire in the wood stove in the living room. Next he turned his attention to the oil burner in the kitchen. Although there was some suspense involved in getting each system going, the oil burner responded fairly quickly. The house was beginning to warm up.
Next he hooked up a small propane tank to the connection for the gas cooking stove in the kitchen. That didn’t work, even after some messing around with it. We carry a 2 burner Coleman stove with us, and that would come in handy for cooking dinner.
The toilet proved to be a tougher problem. Jerry had uncharacteristically neglected to empty the tank last summer so the water had frozen and cracked the tank. He undid the tank and with its block of ice threw it over the deck rail into the snow. He hooked up a hose to the well pump so we could get water to flush the toilet with a bucket.
Then he went to the community well to get our big plastic dispenser filled with drinking water because the water in our well is a sort of brown-orange color and tastes of rust.
I cooked dinner on the Coleman stove and washed the dishes in about 3 cups of drinking water. We found that the sink drain didn’t drain, and Jerry undid the trap. Dirty water spurted out all over the kitchen floor. We cleaned it up, put on our boots and warm clothes, walked the dogs, and went to bed exhausted.
During the next 3 days Jerry got the drains working, the stove going, removed a cracked filter on the water intake system and repaired the pipe (it took some time to thaw the glue used to splice the pipes). He filled the hot water tank and we were able to take showers. He split firewood, and felled a dead birch tree for more.
At this point, or perhaps before this, my reader friends may be asking the same question I asked Jerry. Why do you choose to do this? When we left our island flowers were beginning to bloom. Birds were building nests. Sometimes we could go outside with only a sweater for warmth. Why are we here in sub-zero temperatures spending all our time coping with simple living necessities like keeping warm and maintaining running water. Jerry said, after a moment’s thought, “Well, I don’t know. I guess it reminds me of the past.”
Jerry spent his prime years in this place. The army sent him here from California, where he grew up, and although he disliked the army, he was captivated by Alaska, by the contrasts of the seasons, the challenge of extremes, the possibility for freedom that comes with the isolation and vastness of Alaska. After the army he came here to study. He homesteaded in Fairbanks, studied the aurora borealis, flew airplanes commercially, built a well functioning electric company, started a telephone company, and occasionally prospected for gold.
I’m here because it makes Jerry happy, and I find it interesting. In 3 years we will both be 80. I wonder how long we can keep it up.
I think it’s a test.