So here’s how it happened.
Last Spring, when I was trying to write a book and not really paying attention, an old college friend suggested that our small circle of chums go snowmobiling in Alaska. The last of these trips involved surfing in Morocco, a week from which we limped back with injuries including bruised ribs. Nonetheless I agreed, in the spirit which says “That’s ages away, and therefore not real”. Then in February this year, shit suddenly got real. The other two guys bailed, but I somehow wound up still committed.
So three weeks ago I flew up to Anchorage, met up with my pal Will (arrived that day from the UK), and off we went. First there was a three-hour drive to the landing, where civilisation abruptly ends (truth be told, there hadn’t been much sign of it for the previous hour or so). Then, after donning layers of warming and protective gear, balaclava and cumbersome helmet (of which more later), we were given a training session that went: “Here’s how you make it go, here’s how you make it stop. Okay?”
Thus tutored, we steered the machines out of the lot and slid down a 40 degree slope the height of a three-story building, straight onto a frozen river — to embark on the seventy mile journey to the lodge that would be our base for three nights.
It was, all in all, quite an experience. And here are some things that I learned: warning — it’s pretty long. Save it for when you’ve got a moment, and/or are unusually bored.
1. You don't want to be a poorly cat in backwoods Alaska.
Why? Because when you have cause to visit the vet — never a banner moment in the feline calendar — you'll be getting there the same way everything else travels to the nearest town: a 140 mile round trip along an iced-over river, by snowmobile. Go on — try to picture how happy a cat will be about that.
The lodge was nestled into a forested hillside, with living space downstairs and six bedrooms above. Power came from a generator that was turned off between 10pm and 6:30am, making attempts to find the restroom in the night quite the adventure in sensory deprivation. Soon after we arrived, still vibrating from five hours of hectic snowmobiling, I observed a wild-haired and unusually-attired man striding out of the woods toward the porch. He closely resembled the kind of person you generally cross the street to avoid, but turned out to be our host — and he and his wife and children (and grandchild) were truly excellent company throughout. On the second evening we discovered that the mink, squirrel and otter pelts on the wall were our host’s own work, and that he had trapping lines stretching from the lodge out into the snowy backwoods. We were shown a very-recently prepared coyote skin of remarkable size, and offered the chance to watch an otter be skinned. We politely declined the opportunity. Don’t lie — you would have too.
He trapped not for the hell of it, or as a lifestyle statement, but in order to make hats and other items: because that’s the kind of thing you do when you’re living a long, long way from Target. Just as you spend the winter months repeatedly doing the trek to the landing and back, week after week — plus an hour's drive at the other end — to stock up on provisions for the summer months, which you then schlep back the same way. Come the Spring, when the river thaws, you can’t do this any more, and bringing things in by boat is punitively expensive. There are no roads. It's snowmobile or nothing. The flour in the cookies had come that way. So had the half-and-half. The toilet tissue. Everything. Maybe this doesn’t seem a big deal to you, but it made me acutely conscious of the value of things while I was there, and how little you need to get by. This point had already been made by the fact we only had a 30 litre bag on the snowmobile to carry our stuff for the four-day trip. That’s not a lot — Will and I wound up leaving most of our clothes in the back of the truck back at the landing — but it turns out it’s enough.
Anybody out there worrying about the cats will be relieved to hear that, said animals having been frank in their lack of relish for repeating the snowmobiling experience, this year our lady host had organised for the vet to come up the river for a night at the lodge instead, in exchange for giving the cats a once-over and their shots. All the cats had to do was stay put. Cats are like that. Sooner or later you’re going to be doing it their way.
Speaking of the cats, one morning I was up well before the rest of the house, drinking coffee and trying to warm up and shake off a night of weird dreams. I blearily noticed that one of the cats was playing with a mouse. I wasn’t sure what to do about this. When the lady host arrived she came over, got the rodent away from the cat, and threw it into the wood stove. Still squeaking. Again, no big deal, probably. But it doesn’t happen in my house.
2. Everything is relative
This is well-known, of course: there’s a joke about how a hundred years sounds like a long time to an American, and a hundred miles a long way to an Englishman. Distance is indeed relative. I can tell you that 30 mph feels pretty fast when you're careering along over ice, and 280 miles a very long way when driving something that feels like riding an antique rollercoaster. If you’ve ever been on Santa Cruz’s venerable Giant Dipper (third oldest in the nation, unnervingly), it’s like that. For hour after hour.
Comfort is relative too. The little things — like not being dead, and being warm, and being able to take a shower, even just the availability of coffee — seem bordering on the extraordinary. And when you’ve been rattling around in the freezing cold for seven hours on a machine you know for a fact is being driven by an incompetent, pulling round a bend in the river as daylight dims and seeing the tiny sign pointing up the slope to the lodge feels like you’ve been shown the way to some miraculous haven.
The insight fades, of course. You don’t have to be back home long before you start huffing when the line in Starbucks is a little slow, or the supermarket has run out of capers. But it’s good to be reminded not to take the small things for granted.
3. The road takes many forms
Basically, snowmobiling terrain breaks into four types. Best is fresh powder, soft and flat and a joy to race across. During the powder parts I felt part-Bond henchman, part-The Guy Who Delivers Milk Tray Chocolates In Those 1970s TV Adverts, and even — dare I say it — somewhat "cool", all of which are very rare sensations in my life. Snowfall is way down this year, however, and we only saw powder about 3% of the time.
Far more common were the paths of previous progress through the snow, which are sort of okay except when they've melted in the days or weeks since last used, refreezing into icy ruts as hard as bedrock, which are difficult to escape and have a tendency to make the machine tilt alarmingly from side to side, occasionally pitching you over. Then there's the miles of extremely bumpy and unpredictably twisty forest hillside sections, which actually suited me best: I could get behind the short-term goals of making it over that bump, and then that bump, and then that bump, and suddenly round an abrupt bend without smacking into a tree, and then over that bump... and thankfully I also have a strong stomach. Two hours of this on the third day reduced Will — a far more competent and bullish rider overall — to an intriguing shade of green. (To be fair, he was very jetlagged, and there was also an issue over beer. In making the initial arrangements via email, Will quipped that as Englishmen we'd need at least ten pints of beer a night. Our guide had taken this quite seriously, and gone to a lot of trouble to ensure plenty was provided — putting us under some pressure to step up to the plate each evening. The night before this ride, I'd sensibly switched to coffee after four or five unpredictably-strengthed Alaskan craft beers. Will went the extra mile. That's one of those mistakes you make only once.)
Then... there's patches of pure ice, over water. Sometimes its presence is obvious — wide aqua sections (complete with ominous cracking) right in the middle of the river you’re hacking along. So long as you maintain a gentle line and a consistent speed (which, as our guide felt drawn to remind me several times, didn’t have to be “very slow”), you’ll probably be okay. If it doesn’t crack, of course. Our cheerful and patient guide had not only laid half the forest trails himself, but worked as a kayaking guide in the summer and a fireman the rest of the year. Yes, okay, settle down girls (and boys) — close questioning revealed he knew barely anything about the early work of Chagall, so, ha. I win.
At other times the ice was more stealthy, hiding under a thin layer of snow. On the very first day, thirty miles in and daring to hope that I'd got the hang of it, I was unexpectedly confronted with a patch of ice while attempting to make a sharp left turn up a steep, six-foot bank. I'd already spun the machine in a graceful 360° on an earlier (thankfully flat) stretch, and thus was developing something of a respect (and nervousness) for ice, but this came out of nowhere and, to be frank, I rolled the thing. Luckily I was thrown off with sufficient force that I landed well clear of the snowmobile, cleverly using my head to break the fall.
The impact was enough to enable me to confirm that yes, you really do see stars if you bang your brain hard enough, and to dislodge a bolt from the helmet. Our guide soberly observed that without the headgear it would have been "Humpty Dumpty time”, which was probably supposed to be comforting but actually wasn't, at all. I climbed back on the machine and the next thirty five miles passed without incident — despite my now having a bent steering column — though I spent much of it muttering darkly to myself within the confines of a helmet I was now intensely grateful for. While snowmobiling, incidentally, it appears you may end up having long internal dialogues with yourself: some of which suggest that I’m a misanthropic bastard with unacceptable opinions on many subjects. One afternoon I had such a serious argument with myself, in fact, that we wound up on non-speaking terms for the rest of the day. (Speaking of helmets, it's almost impossible while wearing one to not smile if someone takes your picture, even though your face is invisible. This is a free, bonus piece of wisdom. Make of it what you will. There's probably something about how hard it is to step outside ingrained cultural responses, but do the work yourself.)
That evening at the lodge our guide discussed the best ways of handling ice patches, which were going to feature prominently on the next day's sixty mile ride up river to see ice caves in a glacier (a mission eventually stymied by the ice cracking in such a major way that we couldn’t get across, for the love of God). The problem was that every comparison he attempted to draw merely provided further evidence that I’m a hapless effete who’s spent his life avoiding butch pursuits.
"You know what it’s like when you’re riding a motorbike fast down a wet road?” he said. "No," I replied. "Okay — what about when you're hammering your truck along a dirt track in the dark?" “I’m afraid,” I admitted, “that I am equally unfamiliar with diversions of that type.” He looked a bit nonplussed. "Oh, but wait," I tried, "Is it like when you’re making a chicken liver parfait, with Madeira and a hint of Thyme, and you realise near the end that the bain marie didn’t go high enough up the terrine?”
They all just stared at me. Our host glanced at his knife, as if wondering what my pelt might fetch.
4. Snowmobiling is a rich source of metaphor
I bored Will senseless about this in the back street bar in Anchorage where we threw back local ambers for several hours, giddy with exhaustion and relief, on the final night, but you weren’t there, so… Snowmobiling up a river is a pretty perfect analogy for life, it turns out. There’s the infrequent patches of powder where it’s all easy and incredibly good fun and everything's simply glorious. Far, far more of life will be spent in ruts, however, the journeyman sections of existence, from which there may be no safe way to escape. Then there’s the scary ice sections, when you have to carefully work around thin patches and open cracks, and keep a consistent speed and your concentration levels extremely high.
Snowmobiling helps explicate the mechanisms of metaphor, too. Verbal communication is inherently metaphorical, as Guy Deutscher points out in "The Unfolding of Language", but languages have been around a while and their references are often archaic. You get the gist, but don’t grok it as viscerally as you would when the metaphor was first deployed. Case in point — being in a rut. It’s easy to get into a rut — and often that’s where you need to be. It’s going where you want to go. But ruts are restricting, of course, and can be hard going, psychologically wearing after a time. Any given rut can only take you only in one direction, whereas by leaving it you can head somewhere else entirely or at least have a brief spell on smooth powder to the side. Getting out of a rut can be very hard, though. It requires courage and strength to yank yourself out of a well-worn track toward new pastures. The rut may be there in the first place because there’s thin ice only a few feet either side. You may also roll the machine trying to escape, in which case you hope you can right it and start again, but it's not guaranteed. You may have a humpty dumpty moment of your own.
I won’t belabour it further, but my point is that in the old days people would have had an immediate understanding of what was meant by the metaphors inbuilt into common thought (through encountering ruts on muddy tracks, or when ploughing fields) — and so they had immediate emotional resonance. In modern life we sometimes have to go through a very unfamiliar experience in order to understand the meaning of a very familiar phrase.
So — can I recommend backwoods snowmobiling? That would be a qualified “hell yes”. There’s an awful of lot of actual snowmobiling involved, unsurprisingly, so it’d best suit the kind of person who totally gets off on riding an unusual motorised vehicle in iffy conditions for extremely long periods. I tended to find that after fifty-odd bumpy miles I’d had enough snowmobiling for one day, thank you. This did however enable me (while my more gung-ho companion was off with the guide having an extra ride one afternoon) to take a long solitary walk in the snowy woods and explore an abandoned lodge, which is about as me-centric experience as I can imagine. I also loved the strange, utterly dream-like experience of being adrift in hundreds of miles of snowy, forested nowhere, seeing nobody for day after day, but then I am notoriously anti-social.
The place we stayed — Talvista Lodge, which I can recommend without hesitation — provided comfort, very congenial hosts, and remarkably good food. I loved the bleak grandeur of Alaska, and the people there. And experiences like arriving at a tiny isolated lodge on a frozen lake in the snow and chatting to nutters doing the Iditarod on foot (two of the only four lunatics doing it this year happened to pass through while we were exhaustedly mainlining coffee, the only other people we saw in the entire four days, which was surreal in itself), or of cautiously progressing down a river in a mini-blizzard, or rattling at high speed across a frozen swamp with nothing but open space for a mile either side, or of hearing total and utter silence for a change, or finally arriving back at the landing at the end of the trip, somehow still alive and in one piece… yeah. It was a good thing to do. I can recommend it.
Now, having done it, I shall go back to sitting quietly in my study and making stuff up until the end of time. Unless Will comes up with something daft and dangerous to do next year, in which case I’ll probably not really listen, and say “yes".
Thanks for reading. Oh, while you’re here — on an unrelated note — there’s now a lonely and needy Facebook author page which could do with some friends. It's here. Go and Like it, why dontcha. I know I should probably have put this bit at the top of the page but I’m putting it here. If I couldn't get you to read this far down, then what kind of author am I?
Plus, I’m a wild man of the backwoods now. Untameable. Don’t even try. I skinned a banana only yesterday.