Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Winter Roadtrip

As usual, we lost track of what day it was and couldn't get the truck started on Friday (it was -43F) in time to make it into the Manley Trading Post before they closed up for the long weekend. We were out of dog food and some other supplies, so decided if/when we could get the truck started, I would just drive into Fairbanks for a major stocking run. Well, we spent all day Saturday charging the battery (in fits and starts since the generator doesn't like running when it's below -30F) and lit the charcoal chimney under the oil pan to warm up the engine compartment. It still wasn't turning over by Saturday afternoon, but we kept trying. Round about 2 a.m., the truck finally turned over, so I had to make an executive decision: leave in the dark while it was very windy, or wait until daybreak and hope it didn't get colder or start to snow. Needless to say, I wasn't banking on the truck starting again or the weather holding off... so I left at 2:30 a.m (8 hours prior to sun-up).

The actual road conditions weren't bad on the first leg of the trip; but the wind was blowing snow everywhere and there were a few places on the flats where I really couldn't see the road at all with the icey fog and snow blowing around. I just slowed down to a crawl and drove by the sound of my tires crunching in the plow berm, and prayed that I was actually still on the road. I definitely was not going to stop and risk not being able to get going again. Of course, driving in the dark with the wind howling and snow blowing all around really started to give me the wiggins! Seriously, you get this weird visual effect with snow and fog blowing around the headlights and it's really spooky. I swear it felt like there were "things" moving around out there just outside my vision, at the corner of my eye... wraiths and ghosts in the snow. I was definitely regretting reading so many Stephen King novels, especially on the sections when the fog and snow were drifting so deep that it literally looked like I was under water... you know how it looks when you're caught in a wave breaking and it's all foamy and tossing you about?! You start feeling like you're on another planet or something.

Well, toward the end of the first leg, I was praying really hard for that radio tower outside Livengood signaling my turn off onto the paved highway. I was so wigged out by the swirly "otherness" that when the radio tower signal lights finally flashed up out of nowhere, I nearly peed myself because I thought it was an oncoming car or something (hehe - or maybe a Close Encounter?!). Talk about jumpy!! But hey, I had just passed a truck abandoned on the side of the road with the front-end completely crumpled in... guess they must have hit the snow plow coming in the opposite direction. I can't imagine what else they could have hit on the road to fold up the engine compartment so neatly and perfectly -- not the kind of damage you get from a tree, another car or a moose. So me having a heart attack to suddenly see lights in front of me wasn't totally over-active imagination!

Unfortunately, the paved road conditions were actually worse than the gravel road conditions, even if the snow drifts and wind were less. There were a few areas that were really slick and I thought I was going to lose it on the curves despite my slower speeds. But, hey, I managed to keep her on the road and didn't even graze the guardrail. Yay me!! But it really sucked when the semi's would pass me in the opposite direction because they kicked up so much drift that I could barely see the road and the wind effects tried to throw me around like a fishing bobber... not what you want when there is tons of black ice on the curves and passes!! But I did manage to safely make it into Fairbanks around 6:30 am. Way to early for me to just show up at Kari's since I couldn't call ahead to let her know I was coming. So I checked into the Westmark (great hotel - highly recommend it!) and took a quick nap before heading out for a day of combat shopping.

So what's "combat shopping" you ask. Well, you see, I loathe shopping and truly detest crowded stores and driving around in traffic. It's one of the big reasons I got the hell out of the urban/suburban scene! So, we tend to put off trips into town until we're desperate and have tons of errands to run and supplies to pick up. I don't mess around, I don't window shop, I descend on stores like Unholy Vengeance and bust my way through the list as fast and furious as possible! Total combat-style, take no prisoners and show no mercy! This was made even more vehement by the fact that it was Sunday and some of the places I needed to go have short hours, and Monday was MLK Day, so I didn't know if they were going to be open. This was made worse by the fact that I have an open bed on the truck and things would either freeze or get stolen. Theft is a really bad problem in the winter since a lot of folks are out of work for the season and spending atrocious amounts of cash just trying to stay warm (our heating season is longer and harsher than the rest of the country and we typically have the most expensive fuel and electric rates, too -- so unfair!). I was racing through stores, stocking up the truck, hauling it all back to the hotel and up to my room, and then racing back out to the next place. It was truly exhausting! Especially since it was about -11F, windy, and some of the gear I was hauling around was 50 lbs or more... not fun trying to load that into a lifted pickup with my gumby gloves on!!

I did manage to get most of what we needed, and get the laundry done because Westmark has a coin laundry for guests while the stores were closed. We had about 8 loads backed up since there's not enough space in the tent to hang things to dry if we could manage to wash it all by hand; and the two washers and dryers in the Washeteria in Manley take forever. Even if you do manage to get there on a day when no one else is using them and they're working properly and have hot water (it's a near miracle to get all three at once!). Of course, this also meant I didn't get much sleep while I was there! But, I did get to take a lovely long hot shower and wash some of the funk off. Which is good, since I haven't had a proper bath/shower since Thanksgiving! I really feel sorry for the poor maid who had to clean that shower out after me!!

Of course, as luck would have it, I had just finished up my errands and started loading the truck up for the return trip when it started snowing. I really put the hustle on at that point because I did not want to get caught on the road if it started snowing heavily, or get stuck in Fairbanks for however long it might take for the plows to actually clear my entire route home. Good thing for me that Alaska weather is so freaky and there were only a few places along the road where it was snowing heavily enough to make me concerned, and several areas that just had some light flurries... no major accumulation anywhere. Whew!! But the wind was still ferocious, flinging the truck around. At least the new dusting of powder did improve road traction a bit on the slippy spots.

Caught a few pics of a really cool ice rainbow for you guys. The snow clouds starting breaking up right as the sun was beginning to set, and the windblown ice crystals in the atmosphere formed this really awesome circular rainbow around the sun. My sucky camera doesn't do it justice, but you can at least get a little taste. You can also see a bit of the snow drifts blowing across the flats and the road... it's really weird to see, looks much more like flowing water than wind or snow.

And here's a photo that illustrates another aspect of winter driving treachery up here... when everything is white your depth perception gets really hosed. In this pic, you're actually looking at a flat, three hills, windblown snow, a fog bank, some snow clouds and two mountains a couple hundred miles away... but you really can't tell where one starts, another begins and how far any of them are from you or each other.  Also, take a look at the road in the foreground... there are tons of these random sharp turns on the remote part of Elliott Highway and they can sneak up on you pretty fast since there aren't that many road signs. At least this one is the flats, where you have a better chance to see it coming or at least have somewhere "safe" to drive into if you miss it. Most of the others are in the hills, at the top or bottom of steep blind curves where there's nothing on the other side but a drop-off down a cliff through the trees if you happen to miss the turn or start skidding. You definitely have to keep on your toes!

I also tried to take some pics of the huge snow drifts that were carved from the wind... but it was too windy and none of them really came out since the lens was getting pelted with snow and I couldn't hold the camera still even leaning up against the truck. We're talking serious wind folks -- I was actually getting pushed along and would have been blown over if I wasn't hanging onto the truck for dear life; even the truck was getting pushed a bit sideways when stopped on the ice... and she's one heavy truck!!

But, all-in-all, the trip was successful and we're stocked up for another few months. I pulled up to the tent just as the sun was as it was kissing the horizon and we had just enough light left to unpack everything. G-man was happy to see me home safely, and the fur-kids  were their normal boisterous and chatty selves. Especially Charlie, who gets "not-the-momma" syndrome when left alone with Dad for long periods. Hopefully we won't have to make another trip into Fairbanks until the Spring. Of course, the gravel sections of the Elliott may even more treacherous to drive on during Breakup when everything turns into a muddy, swampy bog! We shall see :D


Anonymous said...

Oh boy what a trip! How far is it from Hot springs into Fairbanks? and then with the conditions where you can't drive 75! Should give all those in the lower 48 a true appreciation for how easy their life is. I am glad that you were able to make the trip out and back. I was not aware of the severity of the theft issue. Hopefully you are insulated from that problem where you are. Granted you will have the four footed thieves to deal with this spring. At least they have a legitimate reason.

Plickety Cat said...

Hi Tom - we're about 150 miles from Fairbanks. So, around 3 hours in summer and around 4 hours in winter. And, no, you can't drive 75 anywhere on the gravel section of the Elliott, not even in summer, unless you like skidding all over the place. Besides there are way too many dips and curves (most of them blind) on both the paved and unpaved section to really get your speeds up too high. Plus, well, there is usually HUGE wildlife on the roads that you have to watch out for... hitting a 1-ton moose at 75 MPH would be disastrous!

Theft is really only a major problem in the cities during the winter. Not too much of a theft problem out in the sticks at any time of the year, although there is a fair amount of "appropriation" if things are left unattended for too long (like a year or two). It's more of a perspective that things shouldn't go to waste just sitting there when someone else could use them... of course, that doesn't make the vacationer people happy when they finally return to their cabin and things have sort of walked away in their absence!

Plickety Cat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeremy and Jenny said...

Know that feeling all to well- can't see anything, everything swirling, just driving by feel, and sometimes your not sure if your still moving or not. such is mountain life.

Anonymous said...

I will never complain about my (60-mile) commute through an inch or two (or 3 or 4) again. LORDY. It's like I'm tougher just *knowing* you guys.

Viva -- Sager