The following appears in the March issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY KRYSTIN AND BIXLER MCCLURE
Be prepared. Those are the best two words of advice we can offer anyone planning a trip in Alaska.
Most of the time, our fishing and hunting adventures in the wilds of Alaska run smoothly, making us wonder why we cart around so many extra supplies. Then we have one of those adventures, the type with compounding problems where we make it out safely due to our preparations and a bit of Alaskan ingenuity.
Our trip to Tolovana Hot Springs was one of those adventures. The area is a remote wilderness resort some 105 road miles north of Fairbanks and 10 miles down a difficult up-and-down trail. There are three cabins to rent and three tubs fed by natural hot springs in the area. The setting is extremely remote and the trailhead is simply a turnout at Milepost 93 of the Elliot Highway. Surprisingly, though the hot springs are popular, we managed to squeeze in a midweek reservation in early February. And the die was cast.
BIXLER AND I brainstormed potential problems we might have while loading up our truck. Our new-to-us snowmachines were Polaris RMKs, circa 2000, that were running great. Bixler grabbed extra coolant, two-stroke oil and tools, just in case. I checked the weather.
Fairbanks and the area north was forecast to be about 0 degrees F or slightly below, so we packed warm clothes and grabbed a generator for the block heater on our old diesel truck.
We grabbed our satellite phone and GPS. We packed guns and snowshoes and a shovel. Bixler checked over our snowmachines and trailer. Everything looked good and soon we found ourselves on the 10-hour drive north to Fairbanks to stay with friends before heading to the hot springs.
Somewhere on the highway near Cantwell, the windshield on my snowmachine broke off. Not a big deal since I have a full face helmet, so we simply ripped it off the snowmachine. After a night in Fairbanks, we headed north to the trailhead through the remote and lonely wilderness of the Steese and Elliot Highways. The Elliot Highway was rough, but the trailhead was easy to find since the turnout contained the only other cars on the entire road.
Bixler unloaded the snowmachines while I prepared the trailer. Because of the cold, much of our food that I did not want to freeze went into a cooler inside the truck, along with our water and other clothing. For some unknown reason, while I was packing the sled I felt nervous, as if I was having a premonition of things to come. Bixler felt the same, especially when he warmed up his snowmachine and realized it was idling high.
“We are going anyway,” Bixler said as he packed snow on the rails of the snowmachine to help with the cooling, and then hitched up the sled.
As we hooked up our gear, another couple who had been to the hot springs before came up and said, “Good luck.” Bixler and I looked at each other, wondering what they meant.
I felt better as we zipped down the trail, well-packed and easy to follow. We stopped a few times to repack snow on the cooling system since Bixler’s high-revving snowmachine was overheating. Our last stop was when we climbed to the top of the dome towering above the hot springs.
We were greeted by sweeping views of the Interior – the powerful sight of Denali shining on the horizon. A few other hot springs users were enjoying the view, but gave us the odd comment of, “You came all the way from Seward for this?”
The comment churned in our heads for the duration of the trip. Was it a premonition or a curse?
AS WE HEADED downhill, the brake on Bixler’s snowmachine overheated and started seeping brake fluid since the idle was so high. We stopped on a downhill slope to rest the snowmachine while the fluid returned to Bixler’s brake lines.
He was frustrated by the high idle. Since we were less than a mile from the cabin, we decided to push onwards. Bixler used the choke switch to control speed and stopped when his brake was acting up again. Thankfully, we made it safely to the cabin. Bixler inspected his snowmachine and realized the throttle cable was caked with ice, causing the cable to not release all the way. A quick removal of the ice and the snowmachine was back to idling properly.
The cabin was a one-room wonder, well-stocked and comfortable. We spent four days leisurely following a regimen of eat, sleep, soak, read, view the northern lights and snowmachine. The weather was bitterly cold and made worse due to fierce winds, so we dressed warmly in our Arctic coveralls (used by oil workers on the North Slope) and brought our satellite phone everywhere when venturing far from the cabin.
Ever since El Niño arrived in Seward, our snow has been dwindling, so we took advantage of the many snowmachine trails in the area. We followed a trail and Bixler shot a sharptailed grouse, the first of that species for us. We followed the trail onward to a frozen riverbed and stopped to look for more birds.
When we returned to our snowmachines, I found that mine would not start. No amount of pulling the pull-start would get it to budge. We carry numerous spark plugs and a toolset in the seat of our snowmachines, so we started pulling spark plugs.
Eventually, we got the thing started, but then I got it stuck again and it stalled. We repeated the changing of the spark plugs and the clearing of the excess fuel and I sped back to the cabin.
Bixler did some light maintenance and found some ice caked around the kill switch. My snowmachine fired right up the next day with no problems. Bixler took his up to the top of the dome to look for birds and returned, noting a coolant leak in his snowmachine.
“I left the coolant in the truck,” he said with a big sigh. His coolant was low, but the leak abated. We contemplated how to get my excess coolant out of my snowmachine into his and headed back inside when we were too cold and windblown to continue.
Sitting inside the cabin, I noticed a bottle of Windex sitting on the shelf. I grabbed the bottle and removed the squirting part of it, cleaning out the excess Windex. We dipped the tube into my coolant and squirted it into a cup. Bixler fashioned a funnel out of a paper plate and evened out the coolant between the two snowmachines.
The problem seemed to be solved, but both of us still woke up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat (for once, not caused by overloading the wood stove), and worrying about the ride out.
WE DID ONE last check over the snowmachines and hooked up the sled. Everything appeared to be working as we headed back up the steep hill to the top of the dome. Bixler and I sped up the trail with little problems, though I swore my snowmachine was struggling in places. Bixler got ahead of me and stopped on the trail to wait. I came up behind him and threw on the brake.
My snowmachine died.
Bixler continued ahead and got stuck in a snowdrift and realized I was not behind him. He walked down the trail to try to help me restart my snowmachine. No luck. I walked up with him and got his snowmachine unstuck. After digging out his mode of transport and dragging the sled uphill by hand, we started to devise a worst-case plan. Bixler would drive our gear back to the truck while I tried to restart my snowmachine. If I could not get it started, I would walk back towards the truck and meet him on the trail when he came back.
I grabbed water, food, ice cleats and something warm for my head – hiking in a helmet is impossible – and gave Bixler one last push uphill.
I walked back to my snowmachine and managed to get it restarted. It struggled for power and died again in the same snowdrift. It would not restart. I took off my helmet, put on ice cleats for traction and a hat and facemask to combat the weather and started the walk out.
When I reached the top of the dome I again ran into Bixler, who had dropped off our sled and topped off his coolant. He planned to try to unstick my snowmachine and ride it up to me so I could ride it out.
He sped downhill and I followed on foot. Bixler unstuck my snowmachine from the drift, but it died again. He restarted it and sped uphill, screaming at me to run after it. My trek to the top of the dome wore me out and I ran as fast my legs could push me. As soon as I reached my snowmachine, it sputtered and shut off.
As a last resort, we tried to use our tow straps to tow it out, but Bixler’s snowmachine could not pull it up the steep icy hill. We made the executive decision to abandon it in place with a note stuck in the brake handle, still 9 miles from the trailhead.
We rode two-up on Bixler’s snowmachine back to the truck. During the trek, we ran into a family from North Pole on snowmachines and explained the situation. They offered to try to get mine out since we had to return to Fairbanks.
“Oh yeah, we’ll help. We’re all Alaskans, right?” he joked as he explained that their touring snowmachines had enough power to tow just about anything.
We returned to the truck and loaded the one snowmachine into the trailer. Bixler went to start the truck, which was sluggish.
“Will anything go right today?” he yelled through the fierce winds at the trailhead as we wrestled the generator out of the truck. We plugged the generator into the block heater and 20 minutes after warming the oil we had the truck started. It was that kind of a day.
DRIVING BACK TO Fairbanks, we contemplated what to do about the abandoned snowmachine. Bixler decided to call our friend Neil, a student at University of Alaska Fairbanks and a snowmachiner, to see if any of his friends wanted to rescue a cheap and abandoned snowmachine in the wilderness. Neil jumped at the idea, and while we nursed beers at Silver Gulch brewery, Neil organized a lightning-strike rescue operation with some fellow friends from UAF.
The next morning, we loaded up Neil’s new Polaris RMK on our trailer and headed back to the trailhead with Neil and his friend, Adam. The four of us drove up to the trailhead, laughing at an abandoned trailer parked in the middle of the Elliot Highway with a broken axle.
We parked back at the trailhead and went to pull the snowmachines off of our trailer. Bixler stepped out of the truck and spewed a string of expletives. Our axle had cracked on both sides of the trailer, causing the tires to lean inward. At this point all we could do was laugh because everything could go wrong did go wrong in a classic case of Murphy’s Law taunting us.
I stayed behind at the truck, restarting it every hour for about 15 minutes to circulate the oil. Bixler, Adam and Neil started down the trail. A few hours later, the family from North Pole arrived and updated me on the situation. They had ridden my snowmachine up and over the dome and the guys had taken over from there. Bixler arrived first on my snowmachine, which made it back to the trailhead after a combination of towing using Neil’s new Polaris RMK, and the fact that it started for the final uphill trek to the trailhead.
Adam followed on Bixler’s snowmachine, which had broken a ski strut and was held together with a piece of rope that we also carry with us during these adventures. Neil came out last and inspected his snowmachine, which had a slight crack because he had run into a tree.
“This trip is cursed,” I said when the three arrived back at the truck, which was warming up.
Contemplating what to do with the two snowmachines, we decided to load them onto the broken trailer since our trailer was insured. Bixler used our satellite phone and called his mother, Sue, who went to our house to check over our trailer policy. Roadside assistance was covered.
Before loading Neil’s snowmachine into the bed of our truck, we had to get the trailer hitch off the ball. I suggested we lock it up for safety and we struggled with the frozen lock. The antifreeze did not do the trick, so out came the trusty generator. We used the exhaust to thaw out the lock and dropped the trailer in its final resting place.
Bixler talked with the insurance company and arranged for the $500 tow to a trailer repair shop in Fairbanks (the tow truck driver spent 10 hours towing our broken combination back to Fairbanks thanks to a rough road, so he wasn’t spared either). We organized a shuttling mission with Neil and Adam to shuttle our broken snowmachines to Adam’s house, where they would be put on sale on Craigslist.
We loaded up our truck with the remaining gear and had a flawless drive back to Seward. We all came out of the ordeal unscathed – less a trailer and two snowmachines, of course – because of proper planning and anticipation of what could go wrong.
In Alaska, be prepared for anything. It helps to have some great friends, too. ASJ
PREPARING FOR THE WORST
Alaska can be a harsh place, and it’s hard to anticipate what can go wrong in a cold and remote wilderness. We got out of our situation because we were well-prepared for a variety of scenarios. If you are planning an adventure in Alaska, consider some of these preparation tips, especially if you’re adventuring in the winter or going remote:
TAKE IT FOR A TEST RIDE
Before we left Seward, we tested our truck and snowmachines and checked essential fluids in both. Oftentimes, a problem will present itself with a simple test ride.
We had two snowmachines similar in size, two tow hitches, two tow straps and eight spark plugs for a reason. Redundancy allows for a safe return from the wilderness, because if one thing goes wrong, you have a backup to work with. If you are a snowmachiner and want to go remote, bring a friend with one or be prepared for a long walk out.
BRING TOOLS, FLUIDS AND ROPE
A basic set of tools, a few feet of rope and essential fluids can save a snowmachine trip. Most snowmachines have a small storage place for these items. If not, throw these into a backpack. You never know when you might need them.
CONTEMPLATE THE COLD
Cold makes everything infinitely more difficult, especially with a broken snowmachine or sluggish truck. Check the weather before you go and dress accordingly. Bring clothes for all parts of your body, including your face. If you are carrying water, consider an insulated container or zipping up your water bottle in your jacket. If you are worried about your car starting, a generator and extension cord can do wonders (it also unlocks locks, too!).
INVEST IN A SATELLITE PHONE
Alaska does not have statewide cell service like most places. Satellite phones can be rented or you can purchase one with an Alaskan-specific plan to cut down on costs for minutes.
BECOME AN ALASKAN MACGYVER
Use your brain and the supplies you have. You’d be surprised what you can fix with rope, a Leatherman and the weirdest of items, like a Windex bottle and a paper plate! –KM