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String of strange luck runs through Lake Minchumina

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Posted: Sunday, February 6, 2011 4:27 pm | Updated: 1:55 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska - You know those stupid little things that make you want to groan and laugh at the same time? Like when your Pilot Bread cracker breaks and the peanut butter lands upside-down? Or you go to the wood lot with a new saw chain, only to realize you put it on backwards and forgot to bring a tool to fix it?

Well, that’s been happening a lot around here, starting with the Snake Saga.

Our drain has been known to freeze occasionally, but not early in the winter. Since the flow slowed and then stopped altogether right after the November rain, I doubted that ice was the problem.

“I think it’s been collecting silt,” I told my sister Miki. “We need a snake.”

Samson’s Hardware obligingly sent out a 100-foot coil of stainless steel and I read up on snaking drains. “If the plug is between the house and the septic tank, get a professional,” the book insisted.

Undaunted, I squeezed into the tiny room where the pipe exited the basement and shoved the snake into the vertical opening. Almost immediately it encountered resistance that felt like silt.

With a few jiggles the end of the snake broke the clog and I triumphantly watched the water flush away.

The first load of laundry revealed that the drain could only dispose of 15 gallons before up-chucking, so I sent the snake slithering back into the hole. It jammed and wouldn’t advance more than two feet. After several tries over a period of days, the thing turned a crucial corner and began to advance!

I shoved the slinky spring steel band deeper and deeper, growing increasingly excited.

With some 50 feet in the pipe, it must be closing in on the underground hole that held the household runoff.

Then I heard the upstairs pipes rattling. The snake had lost its way and was going backwards.

When I tried to extricate the reptilian monster, the sliding grip thingy on the band suddenly dropped into pipe and got stuck. I tried repeatedly to extricate it, using a big spoon and other long skinny tools to ease the floppy handle past a lip in the pipe. Each tool was meticulously wired to my hand lest the pipe fill up with assorted kitchen implements, but all efforts failed. Then I went trapping.

Weeks later, after a few more tries, a poker finally wedged the grip up the hole, freeing the snake at last.

The drain is still regurgitating with each laundry.

This snake incident wasn’t the only thing tripping me up recently. I was kicking snow into a gully so the sled wouldn’t jam in the tussocks when my foot broke through a layer of moss into a hipdeep hole and I couldn’t get out.

No, actually I did get out, or I wouldn’t be writing this. But for half a minute, I wasn’t so sure. I pulled and twisted and pried, but my big boot had folded up to slide into the hole, and then wouldn’t back out. Rather like the snake grip in the sewer. My dog sled, parked a few yards away, held an ax that could have chopped open the hole, but I couldn’t reach it. I also thought I could slide my foot out of the boot, then fetch the ax to extricate it, but while trying to do just that, the moss broke away and my boot popped out.

Now that hole as well as the ditch is packed full of snow.

Another annoying cascade of events took place at the rough Spruce Creek crossing. I anticipated my sled crashing four feet down and 45 degrees sideways to slam onto solid ice, then snaking around a tight corner and climbing a double embankment on the far side.

But instead of speeding up when they hit the slope, my dogs slowed down and began to droop. My heart sank as I stopped the team and walked up, suspecting water in the creek. Sure enough, a flood had run down the creek and now looked half frozen — wet along the edges, maybe an inch of ice down the middle.

I turned my leaders, Jiles and Keta, loose to see what they thought of the ice. Jiles went down and checked it out; he could walk around on the fresh ice, but fell through into foot-deep water a couple of times. That ice would never hold up under my loaded sled, especially when it crashed down the bank.

Jiles came back to his lead position, sat down, and looked at me as I debated whether to attempt the crossing. I would certainly get wet, but I had spare foot gear, and it was above zero.

I also wasn’t sure if the sled would break the ice and push through it, or jam under it, leaving us all stuck and standing in the water. Finally, would the dogs go smoothly out, or would they get tangled and clogged up, stalling out in the creek?

I looked at Jiles. He looked back, and in his clear eyes I saw him say “Yes.”

Walking back to the sled, I turned my wheel dog, Diesel, loose so the sled wouldn’t run over him and pin him underwater below the bank. “OK, hike!” I called.

Down we went, crashsplash into ice and water. My boots filled immediately but Jiles led the dogs forcefully over the breaking ice, around the bend, up the bank. The sled did not get wedged, but shattered the ice as it jolted forward. I really thought we would emerge triumphantly on the far side, but we didn’t. The snow ramp we’d built to keep the sled from ramming the overhanging hummocks had softened to slush. The sled squashed it, slammed into the hummocks, and stopped abruptly.

Diesel hadn’t followed me across the creek. Keta and old Coco, also loose, were nowhere to be seen. I didn’t know if my remaining five dogs could jerk the sled out, but we had to try. My wet feet were definitely cold now.

I grabbed the towrope in front of the sled and levered it sideways, forcing the dogs backward a few inches, then let go with a loud “Hike!”

The dogs hit their harnesses in unison with a mighty jerk as I heaved on the sled.

Nothing happened — or so I thought.

When I turned back to face the dogs for another try, they were gone! The towrope had snapped, leaving me stranded. I groaned and tried not to laugh, but I actually had to make a critical decision. Did I race after the runaways to extricate them from the inevitable tangle that could hurt them? Did I salvage my survival gear before it got wet? Or fetch Diesel from the far bank so I could get out of these wet boots because now my feet were pretty cold?

First things first: I swiftly unloaded my heavier gear from the sled and with help from Keta and Coco we pried the bow over the hummock and partway out of the water.

Then I waded back for Diesel, my feet now seriously cold.

Finally I sat down to put on warm, dry mukluks. I was half done when Jiles came galloping up with the other four dogs in a big tangle of tugs and towline, bowling me over into the snow.

“You came back, you came back!” I shouted. “Good boys!”

The sled, heavy with frozen slush, weighed a ton now but we only had five miles to reach the next cabin. The last two rivers were not flooded, but given my run of luck, I decided not to have Pilot Bread and peanut butter for supper!

Julie Collins is a trapper and freelance writer who lives near Lake Minchumina.

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