Thursday we headed into Fairbanks to get Willow (our Arctic Cat ATV) serviced and winterized, as well as to run various and sundry other errands. Of course, as luck would have it, we got a decent amount of rain the previous night and the low cloud layer trapped the smoke from the forest fires in the area. On the way out, the smoke in several areas was so thick that you could barely see the road, but those areas were only a few hundred feet and mostly at the highest elevations. We’d been following a Maintenance and Operations truck out of the village, and when we turned out to empty Gungnir’s walnut bladder, we actually saw the M&O guy give up and turn back… maybe we should have clued in! Oh well, it sucked, but we dealt with it.
Unfortunately, we 1) got a later start than we wanted because we forgot to fill up Sonja (our Dodge pickup) at the Trading Post before Bob and Sabie closed up for the night so had to wait until almost 10 to get enough gas to make it back into Fairbanks, 2) the smoke always seemed to be worse on the windiest parts of the road so we made slower time getting into town than normal; and 3) it seems you can’t do anything in Fairbanks in less than an hour (so 6 errands = 6 hours). Adding all that up, and a short visit with Kari & Eric and a diner dinner at Hilltop before heading back out, we didn’t actually get started back properly until almost 9 pm.
Keeping in mind that the sun doesn’t really set up here until midnight or so this time of year, I had plenty of light to drive through the smoky parts for the first leg of the trip (ok, I’m one of those evil people who sees quite well in the dark, so I cut off my headlights in smoke and fog to avoid the horrible refraction that blinds most people). But it was kissing midnight by the time that we made it to the highest ridge outside Minto, where the worst of the fires is burning. Boy howdy, but the smoke was thick and almost solid white even with the headlights off and just running the amber fog lights. We’d already reached the point of no return when it got really bad so we either had to continue through it, or find a pull off (not easy when you can’t see squat) to sleep a few hours until dawn hoping the conditions cleared up. Needless to say, we pushed on.
I was driving, so Gungnir rolled his window down, stuck his head out and basically marked twain for a good 30 miles. For anyone not familiar with “marking twain,” it’s a riverboat term for checking water depth and locating sandbars, often used to navigate rivers at night or during inclement weather. And that’s basically what the G-man was doing… letting me know how close I was to the right-hand ditch (or drop off – yikes!) by calling out “a little to me” or “a little to you”. Sometimes this was easier because I could see a foot or so beyond the nose of the truck or at least enough to tell where the left-hand ditch or drop-off was or I could feel that road was climbing, falling or curving through the steering wheel or back tires.
Yes, of course, the worst of the smoke was on the worst part of the road… the steep and windy bit that is mostly gravel which had been rutted by previous travel during the rain by vehicles with a much narrower wheel base than Sonja’s. It’s not easy controlling her under those conditions when you can see, even more of a thrill when you’re blind. Luckily, we had Willow in the back so the added weight kept her from being too squirrelly in the ass-end like empty pickups are known to be.
We made it home alive and in one piece. We never went off the road, or got stuck in a ditch, and certainly didn’t pull a Thelma and Louise off a cliff somewhere into the night… although the Mama & Baby Moose running up out of the smoke in front of us was a definite Sphincter Factor Zero. It took us about 2 hours longer than normal to get home and we were frazzled and grumpy toward the end. But we survived and worked fairly well during that little team-building exercise… just so long as G-man remembered not to say “right” or “left” and use “to me” and “to you” instead (seriously folks, I suck at the right and left thing under duress!). I’m not sure if that was a totally boneheaded cheechako (greenhorn, tenderfoot, newbie) stunt, or a major feat of prowess that earned us a hole-punch in our Becoming a Sourdough ticket… but the main thing is that we made it home alive and sound! Life is good :D