Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Humbling Experience

Tuesday March 2nd, 2010

It was a dark and stormy night . . . o.k. So it wasn't dark, but it was pretty stormy. It was definitely too stormy for planes to land in Brevig Mission.

Tuesday morning was when C.O. and my parents were expected to complete their journey that began in Minnesota the day before. One look outside filled me with disappointment knowing I’d probably have to wait another day or two to see them.

I had been single working mom-ing it for a week and a half and was pretty anxious to have C.O. home for a little support. I had worked too many days in a row and had had too many interrupted nights of sleep. Harold kept waking up in the middle of the night for various reasons and the exhaust pipe on our monitor heater kept frosting up. The monitor would start making obnoxious humming noises at random times during the night. I would bundle up, go outside at 3 o'clock in the morning in the freezing cold and scraped off the frost with a butter knife. It’s a great way to go from a deep sleep to wide-awake in about 25 seconds. But I digress, back to the story.

By the end of the school day, I had come to terms with the fact my husband and parents would NOT be arriving today. A babysitter was lined up for the following day and supper was getting started when . . . I received a message on my phone. C.O., Mom and Dad were all hopping on a plane to Teller and I could pick them up there. Wahoo!!!

A frenzy of activity: Traveling from Brevig to Teller

Step 1: Find someone to watch Harold. The weather was too cold and stormy to bring him along.

Step 2: Get someone stronger than me to start the snow mobile (I'm just not strong enough to pull that rope to start it up, especially when it has been sitting for ages in the cold.)

I called on the help of our neighbors, Sally and Allen. I asked Sally if she'd watch Harold and Allen if he'd start the machine. They willingly and kindly agreed to do both. First two steps completed.

Step 3: Gear up and pack bags.

It was a little tricky to do step three on my own. The snowmobile was cold and needed someone to tend the throttle so the engine wouldn’t quit. Fortunately, another person arrived at the scene and was willing to lend a hand. It was someone I had happened to be very critical of that morning. She had agreed to baby-sit Harold and then fell through at the last minute. She was very apologetic and proceeded to apologize and make sure I wasn't mad as she help me get the snow mobile warmed up. While she did that, I got my parka, snow pants, boots etc. on and packed some extra warm gear for C.O. and my parents to use on the trip back from Teller. My helper tied my bags into the sled and watched as I took off toward Teller.

Step 4: Drive 8 miles across sea ice to Teller.

At this point I was thinking about how well things were working out, how I was managing to get all these things together that C.O. usually does, and about how lucky he was to have such a tough, competent wife. I was so busy thinking these things I didn't pay close enough attention to what I was doing and where I was driving.

There's this thing that happens with sea ice, sometimes it pulls away from the shore and leaves large, deep cracks between the land and ice. Because of this you have to be careful where you make that transition from land to ice. I THOUGHT I saw tracks that led onto the ice. It's generally safe to assume that if someone else went a certain way, then it's safe to follow his or her lead.

The light was flat, I was not in the best frame of mind, I was going too fast and either there really weren’t any tracks or the ice had moved since someone had gone that way. Anyway, it was too late by the time I realized that there was driving off a small cliff in my future.

It all happened so fast but it went something like this:

Oh shoot!

Me fly through the air on the snowmobile.

The front end of the snowmobile hit the other side but didn’t clear the gap completely.

Upon impact on the other side, I flew through the air without the machine and it somehow flipped over.

I landed on the ice but didn't feel hurt. The upside down snowmobile ran for a bit, smoked and then quit running.


I called C.O. to let him know what had just happened. All he cares about is that I’m okay and he then makes a plan to get someone down to help me.

Step 5: (An unexpected step) Get the machine flipped over and running again.

C.O. called his friend J.J. down to help me out with my little mishap. Jay is always joking around and has some kind of smart remark to make about everything, so I was just imagining what he would say to me once he arrived.

He came in less than 5 minutes. Stopped, surveyed the situations, here it comes I thought . . . “Are you okay?” (His tone had deeper meaning “Holy smokes, I can’t believe you’re not seriously hurt.) Phew, no jokes, no criticizing, just genuine concern. “Ya, I’m fine, you think you can flip it back over on your own?”

It took about 15 minutes but he got the machine righted and eventually started. Turns out snow machines don’t like being upside down very much. After that, they are a pain to get started again. But J.J. did it and once again I was on my way.

Back to Step 4.

I arrived in Teller without any further problems. It was stormy and difficult to see, but fortunately the trail across the ice is well marked with willow bushes every 100 feet or so. When you first see the guys marking the trail you think it’s strange that the trail markers are so close together. But when you're driving in a white out situation, you’re suddenly thankful for each and every tree.

It is very important at this point to note that about a half mile away from Teller, the trail markers suddenly stopped. But I could make out the buildings in Teller so I continued on my way without any present worries.

It was a happy reunion with my husband and parents at the Teller church and within a few minutes we were packed up, baggage was tied down and we were driving back to Brevig.

Step 6: Get back to Brevig

I the meantime, the storm had gotten worse. There were higher winds, more blowing snow and was a significant decrease in visibility. At this point I was also starting to notice some sore places on my body. Hmmmm, maybe I did get hurt from my little accident.

I mention to C.O. that the trail markers ended quite a ways outside of Teller, but we should be able to find them easily enough. Turns out finding little trees in a storm is a much harder task than finding the numerous large buildings in Teller.

We only drove a little way before we could no longer see Teller behind us and we could not see the trail ahead of us. Not knowing which direction is which or where you are heading is a very scary feeling. We had no compass, no GPS and were basically driving blind.

So, we turned around and followed our tracks back to Teller. In Teller, we made a surprise visit to some friends. Nicole and Jason welcomed us in, let us use their bathroom and agreed to help us out.

While at their house I receive a call from Sally. Sally didn’t mind watching Harold, but I had been gone way too long, and with the raging storm, Sally was getting pretty worried. I explained everything much to her relief.

Jason came to our rescue by leading on his snow machine to the start of the trail markers. We would be fine from there on.

Let’s try Step 6 again.

This time we made it home without any trouble. Tired, cold and hungry. I was a bit banged up but everyone was home safely.

I was both humbled by all the folks that helped us out, as well as by the weather and landscape out here. Getting hurt or getting lost in extreme cold and storms is a serious matter in the arctic. It doesn’t take long to go from feeling safe to getting yourself in a potentially life-threatening situation.

The bruises on my legs started showing up that night. For a couple days I couldn’t stand to have anything even lightly touch my legs. Now, two weeks later I still have some lovely green and yellow marks that remind me of my adventure and very humbling experience.



Eluciq said...

You gotta love Alaska! The people are absolutely the best to be found!

Glad you were not seriously hurt...

oh and btw...these types of things always happened to me when rick would be traveling...always made for an exciting life in bush alaska!

Nancy M. said...

Wow! What an adventure! I'm so glad you were okay and not hurt too bad! It's wonderful you had such great folks to help you out!

James and Charity said...

I thank God you are okay! What a story!