One of the unseen aspects of running the most remote lodge in Alaska is what I like to call the “Gathering Season”. With the lodge dormant in the clutches of the long Alaskan winters comes one of our best friends for gathering – namely – snow. With the use of snow machines, or what people from the lower 48 may call snowmobiles, we are able to move firewood and logs quickly and efficiently over the several feet of accumulated snow.
Cliff, JD, Nick, and I have just returned from our early springtime adventure out to the lodge. The primary focus of this expedition is to first check out the lodge to assess any damage that may have occurred over the winter. Sometimes this can be as simple as a stove pipe being broken off due to the overwhelming snow load on the roofs, or it can be as dramatic as a bear break in. Last year for instance we were unable to make it out to the lodge early in the spring so we were taken off guard when Nick and Cliff arrived at the beginning of May to find that a Sow grizzly bear and her cubs had decided to make the lodge their winter den causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage. But that is a story for another time.
This year as we set out from Anchorage on that sunny March morning the temperatures out in Anvik were still in the sub-zero category. We arrived in the village of Aniak then proceeded on to Anvik on the local milk run Cessna Caravan with longtime pilot Ron as our captain. Upon arriving in Anvik we could definitely tell that the winter had not yet given up its grasp in western Alaska as much as it had in south central. From there we had a longtime local friend fly us out to the lodge in his bush plane. It took several loads in the plane for all of us to make it safely to the lodge. On our initial entry back to the lodge we always take more than we need because we never know what may encounter.
Upon a quick hot lap of the grounds we realized there was no apparent damage which was a huge relief. We then proceeded to begin building fires in all of our woodstoves and firing up the Toyo-stoves. Because the weather on the Anvik River had been quite frigid this winter it took a day or two just to bring the log walls up to a temperature to where the inside of the building was warm enough to no longer need heavy wool sweaters. When you find a bottle of anti-freeze that was in fact frozen, you get a perspective as to how brutally cold it must have been.
Once we established all was well and good we began to plot out a project list of what was needed to be accomplished over the next couple weeks of our stay. We knew we had to gather as much firewood and lumber wood as possible to avoid the mud-fest that comes with early summer logging. Cliff made an approximate materials take off list so we knew time was of the essence to accomplish our goals before we needed to leave.
Now, if we were able to just fire up the snow machines and head off into the woods to begin our task it would be one thing, but this is not the way things are in the bush. It always seems it is the small details that become a time sink. For instance, when our generator batteries had died and froze it makes the process of getting it to run a bit more involved. There wasn’t enough juice in the solar charged batteries to run things for long due to the long dark days earlier in the year. But we were able to get the generator going with only a couple hours of a heat gun and some Cliff “MacGyver” techniques. The same goes for the tractor which we would need to use to plow all the snow away from the buildings so when the thaw occurs we would not have to deal with a small sea of melted snow around the foundations of the buildings.
After a couple days of “housekeeping items we could finally focus on our main task, gathering wood. It always takes a few runs to get back in the groove and make the process run more efficiently. The snow was deep so when we would dismount from the machines it felt a lot like wading the river. JD made some comment about his spirit animal being the T-Rex and how he was not built for these conditions.
For several days it was a constant rotation of finding proper trees, dropping them, limbing them, cutting them into moveable portions, loading them on sleds, and transporting them back to the lodge. Although it could be -20 degrees in the morning it would warm up to a blistering 15 degrees during the day. With every load it seemed to become easier and more streamlined.
We definitely would work long days, but occasionally we would find time to go out and be swashbucklers. We mixed in a little ice fishing
and some overall exploring during our little breaks between work. On one of our adventures we found where a pack of wolves had killed a moose no more than a few days before we had arrived no more than 300 yards from the lodge. Although we saw tons of wolf sign we never encountered one on this trip.
Another important task is to be able to go through what supplies we have at the lodge and double check everything we may need for the upcoming season, so we can meet the barge deadline in early May. We’ll talk more about this whole process in another blog post.
However, after a couple weeks it’s time to leave and head back to Anchorage. In typical fashion we quickly gathered our belongings, reattached our electric fence, boarded up the windows and awaited our friend’s arrival in his bush plane to transport us back out to civilization.
In closing I’d just like to comment that no matter how much time we spend out at the lodge, it never seems like enough. But once the snow melts and the ice vacates the river we will be back for Anvik River Lodge’s “hell month” when the real work begins – stay tuned.