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Vacation has different meaning at Lake Minchumina

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Posted: Sunday, April 17, 2011 10:58 am | Updated: 12:49 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska - “Uh-oh.” Julie and I stared suspiciously upriver at a wide bend of glaciered ice. Breaking trail up the lovely willow- and spruce-lined slough, we’d been dodging open holes where shifting water caused 50-foot sections of ice to cave in. While only kneedeep here, dangerous areas of deeper water elsewhere demanded caution.

Taking off our skis, we eased onto the glassy blue surface, hard-soled ski boots slipping on the rumpled ice. “If we can just get past Sulfur Creek, it should be better,” I said. The incoming drainage added most of the water, often leaving the main fork of the Twelve-Mile Slough bone dry above the confluence. Seven miles upstream, the slough would hit a large glacial river, a highway to the foothills of the Alaska Range.

Work around the Twelve-Mile trapline cabin would eat up most of our two-week March vacation. Julie had already built a new outhouse and I’d made a “woodshed,” just a roof of old stove pipe tin supported by two poles nailed between a couple of trees. With a big blown-down spruce to mill into boards for new dog houses and a new door, we had plenty of work to do, but we did hope to spend a night or two under the mountains upriver.

The bad ice and now this overflow made that look a little doubtful. Up ahead, fresh sheets of new water flowed slowly over the frozen surface. At first we splashed through inch-deep water, but soon we were breaking through a thin layer of ice. Ankle-deep water sloshed into our low boots, soaking our feet. “Let’s go back!” I said.

Only a mile from the cabin, we were in no danger of losing any toes. Nine big huskies tied in the yard greeted us happily as we scrambled up the six-foot bank. Built almost 20 years ago, the small, low cabin nestled below tall spruce on a bench above the river, its sunny yard opened up by the frequent blow-downs that occurred in this spot.

When sub-zero temperature froze the ongoing overflow, I ventured upriver again, finding the glaciering limited to the influence of Sulfur Creek, with nice going on up the slough. I skijored on another mile, only to be turned back again by a section of ice that had collapsed bank to bank into the creek. Although I suspected shallow water lay under the tenuouslyrefrozen spot, I didn’t want to tackle it alone.

During warm afternoons, Julie’s chain saw mill buzzed incessantly, turning out rough-cut boards, 12 to 15 inches wide. As fast as she turned them out, I banged them together into a couple new dog houses.

We tore down the remnants of the old outhouse as well as the decrepit 20-year-old horse corral.

We spent several evenings pushing out one of the old trails. Although we trapped the first mile of the spur, unfortunately we’d never located the rest, as it short-cut right to the glacial river, bypassing all that bad ice. When I turned back just at dark one evening I could hear the popping and cracking of freezing water as it glaciered on the big river.

The next day I reached an overgrown sand bar of the river, only to find a foot of water standing beneath the two-foot-deep snow pack, a worse-case scenario for sledding. With that option for reaching the river eliminated, we concentrated our efforts on the slough.

Day after day, cold mornings, warm afternoons and brilliant blue skies greeted us. Chickadees hopped about the yard, ravens called joyously overhead and a squirrel with a striking white-tipped tail laid claim to a tree in the yard. Any battles must have already been won; no other squirrel ever approached Mr. Whitetip’s cone-laden perch. Late evenings, great horned owls hooted to a full moon hanging brilliantly in the sky.

One morning two lead dogs, Clarence and Jiles, left on a brief walkabout.

Clarence returned alone, soaked to the skin head to toe, right up to the base of his ears as he cheerfully slopped his big furry wet body against me. Chaos and panic ensued: was Jiles trapped in a hole in the river ice that Clarence had escaped from? By the time we had boots on and ax in hand, the smaller dog cheerfully jogged in, perfectly dry. Back tracking the pair a few hundred yards, we found Clarence’s big tracks galloping across the creek, ending midway where he had crashed through hollow shell ice, falling into four feet of flowing water.

My over-sized lead dog didn’t seem to appreciate how lucky he was to have escaped with his life. We kept the dogs tied up after that.

On a beautiful sunny day we pushed farther on up the slough, skiing ahead of the dogs, finally leaving the bad ice and overflow behind.

Tracks of moose, lynx and rabbits sparsely dotted the creek. Sometimes we found snow shallow and windblown enough for the dogs to break their own trail instead of following a skier, but the leaders kept getting distracted by a distinct set of tracks.

A wolverine passing through had been packing a load in his mouth, perhaps a long bone or narrow strip of hide, one end trailing to leave an even drag mark in the snow, an inch wide and about that deep, off to one side. Once in a while a dip mark on the other side told us that his bounty was over two-feet long. He had a plan, too, because those tracks covered over four miles and were still traveling when we last spotted them.

As the dogs surged forward across hardpack and wind-blown ice, Julie and I reveled in the view. Straight river banks lined with tall spruce receded toward the foothills of the Alaska Range, the half-mile-wide flood plain interrupted here and there by driftwood — whole uprooted trees scoured and left behind by the current. Ten miles upriver, a low bald dome rose on the left, backed up by jagged 8,000-foot peaks.

To the right, low spruce hills abruptly gave way to the 17,000- and 20,000-foot sheer bulks of Foraker and Denali.

With another day or two of vacation, we could have been camped at the lower dome in a couple of hours, but we’d need our one remaining day for closing up and finishing off projects, leaving this just a day trip. After letting the dogs scamper gleefully for a couple miles, we reluctantly called a halt. Picketing the team, we lounged about, admiring the view while snacking on salmon strips, hot tea and chocolate.

As the afternoon sun slid north and west, it began to hit highlights on the shadowed north face of Denali, bringing ridges into sharp bright delineation against the blue-gray of shaded snow and granite. I longed to stay through the alpenglow, knowing how the lowering pink-gold sunlight would slowly deepen as it left behind the lower peaks and concentrated a final blaze at 20,000 feet. But we wanted to get through the glaciering, the overflow and the bad ice before full dark.

Reluctantly, we turned our backs to the mountains, and hit the trail for home.

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

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