December 3, 2006

frozen aspen

We climb out of the truck, stiff and a bit sore after the 4 hour drive from Anchorage. It’s after midnight and there are no clouds to obscure the sky. Sometimes the Milky Way is a suggestion, a smudge of lighter sky. Out here it’s a gash of light across the night. There is no moon and the stars throw shadows of their own. It is cold, and we add layers quickly: pac boots, gloves and liners, down pants, balaclavas. The snow squeaks underfoot, and our breath fogs in the bright lights of our headlamps. Between the foggy exhaust from the idling truck and our breath, it is hard to see what we are doing as we unload the snow machines from the trailer. They’re cold-soaked and we struggle with balky starters, try to get them to fire. Simple two-stroke motors are pretty dependable under almost any conditions, and this struggle to start them is a good indication of how low the temperatures are. We don’t have a thermometer, but numbing fingers and burning cheeks are telling us to get moving. We stuff packs and coolers (to keep stuff warm) into the sleds and hitch them to the finally idling snow machines. Zooming through the woods on these things is like trying to run in the dark with just a flashlight, the headlights pointing all over the place as we pound over bumps and ruts in the frozen trail. The air rushing past freezes our cheeks, and draws a line of solid tears running back from the corners of each eye. Runny noses and beards create their own unique formations; the less said about snotscicles the better. Thankfully, the ride is short, just a few miles and we are quickly at the cabin. Chet breathes fire into the wood stove, and we add twigs and tinder till the chimney draws hard and huffs with the rising heat.

There is a thermometer nailed to an aspen outside, the standard mercury tube mounted on rusty tin plating, a freebie from the local hardware store. Park’s Place – Happiness is -50 in Glenallen, Alaska. Tonight it reads 36 below.

the thermometer reads 36 degrees below zero.

Knowing how cold it is makes it seem more real. We stand in the cabin and shuffle our feet, keeping the blood moving. We measure the rise of the temperature inside against how much of our breath we can still see. We force-feed dry spruce to the stove, and gradually the room warms from the top down. It’s late, early morning actually, but the icy ride through the woods killed the torpor that the long drive had settled over us. We are wide awake, and start rummaging for snacks and spirits. Tommy rummages in the cupboard – whiskey and Tang (good enough for astronauts – good enough for us) is the official Copper Center Cocktail. But the whiskey is actually frozen, or at least the consistency of a wicked slushee. Cocktails will have to wait. Everything in the cabin is bitterly cold, and I set mugs on the stove to warm so our drinks won’t freeze as soon as we pour them. I uncork a bottle of pinot I kept warm in my coat on the ride in. Tommy cuts sausage, slices cheese and bread.

All heat in the cabin is hovering near the ceiling. The floor is frozen where varmints have eaten away the insulation underneath the cabin, so we pile extra blankets and padding to sleep on. It is very close to being tomorrow, and more wine won’t help that. Chet stokes the fire one last time. I awake at 9 am to the sounds of the cabin creaking as it cools. The stove is nearly out but a few smaller logs and a wide open flue get it going again. The thermometer outside reads -30. I set the kettle on for coffee and gratefully climb back into my down bag. With hot coffee and the cabin warm again, we crack eggs over the skillet and fry up far too much bacon and caribou sausage for just three people. At least enough to make my cardiologist start perusing Porsche catalogs. We’ll be outside for the most of the day, and in these temperatures the more fuel you have in you the better. Before layering up and heading out, we stoke the stove up high and turn the damper low. It should burn all day and give us a warm place to come back to. I pile the food and drink high on a shelf, the warmest part of the cabin, so that it won’t freeze.

The snow machine clutch plates squeal and protest at the cold, but eventually we coax them into gear and head down the trail. The sun only rises about 25 degrees this time of year and it’s right in our eyes, making it hard to see. Chet has two cabins fairly close together, a fitted-log structure with a bad foundation that we are here to shore up, and an insulated plywood cabin that we stay in. We work hard, but things move along slowly. By six that evening it is well past dark and the temperature has plummeted. Just about anything edible or drinkable we could have brought with us to get through the day would be frozen solid, and we are left thirsty, hungry, cold.

Back at the other cabin we coax the coals in the stove back to life with a few handfuls of dry grass and a bit of bacon grease. The cabin is well insulated and has held some heat after the stove burned low. We down lots of water and start back in on the sausage, cutting chunks of cheese and bread to heat over the fire. Chet slices potatoes, chops onions and garlic, adds a little olive oil and sets the skillet on the stove. I cork a bottle of wine, and we toast the thermometer and damn the cold. Chet just returned from an elk hunt in Montana, and has brought some choice cuts along. He cracks a pile of whole peppercorns with an empty wine bottle and coats the elk cutlets. Throwing them in a hot skillet to sear for a minute or so on a side throws up a spicy cloud that stings the eye. A comment is made about the chef’s ability to make us cry, even before we eat his food. Removing the meat from the skillet, the cook deglazes the pan with a bit of whiskey, adds red wine to reduce. After a few minutes the sauce has thickened, and Chet adds in a bit of cream and butter (ok, enough to make the cardiologist still happier). The fresh elk is cooked rare and sliced thin, piled over crispy potatoes, ladled with the pan sauce. No one makes any more fun of the cook.

After dinner we sit fat and happy, lounging and just enjoying the heat in the small cabin. Tommy quotes Robert (Bobby) Service, some 15-year old scotch appears. The fire in the stove hisses and pops as burning chunks of black spruce give up the last of their moisture. We talk and read until the oil lamps along the walls start to flicker and burn low. It is time for sleep, and I walk outside one last time. The thermometer is hard to read in the fog of my breath. I breathe in and hold it, peer close in the dim light of my headlamp. It is 39 degrees below zero. I head back inside, to fire and friends.

Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold…

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 The County Clerk December 3, 2006 at


2 Cathy December 3, 2006 at

A BRRReath taking adventure

3 The County Clerk December 4, 2006 at

I keep coming back to this.

Do you happen to know what kind of tree is in the photo?


Jared says: The tree in the photo is an Aspen – a big one.  The cabin is in a grove.  More pictures of this special place here: 

4 Brandon December 4, 2006 at

An amazing, lovely, evocative post.

Right now I don’t think I could feel farther away from Alaska than in my ever-so-slightly chilled Virginia landscape, less than an hour away from Jamestown (and therefore, by that definition, in the longest settled part of the country). We complain about the winter rain and mud, but have never even had an inkling that whiskey could freeze to slush or that the temperature can make lunch irrelevant. I look forward to reading more.

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