Shutting the door can be a major project in the Bush

Around AlaskaDecember 10, 2011 

KOTZEBUE -- This Saturday morning I had a long list of things to do. I finished my coffee and jumped up to stoke the stove before getting started. "What about the door?" my wife Stacey said. She was still drinking her coffee. "Nome is already blowing."

Oh crap, the door!

I realize there's that expression about opportunity and success -- something about opening doors -- but much more of my life has been spent trying to get the darn things shut.

When I was a kid, our sod house was buried in the ground and the north wind blew fairly constantly and we'd open the door in the morning to a vertical wall of snow; no view of the world at all, just smooth white snow. We had to cut a hole, crawl out and shovel out the whole thing to haul in wood, water and caribou meat and check the dogs.

We'd dig fast, the wind drifting in more snow and coating our faces with masks of ice. We'd chop with the hatchet at the ice along at the floor and sweep with our mittens, then shovel more and scrape and -- Whew! -- finally the door would shut again.

In summer that door had to shut too, tight and fast; a million mosquitoes wanted in. We nailed up strips of caribou skin to keep the bugs out in summer and the cold out in winter and screwed in eyebolts to keep bears from shoving it open.

Here, now, on the coast, we're in the path of another blizzard. The Lower 48 weather channels aren't hyping this one -- I guess we're no longer the cool terror of the moment -- but regardless, another storm is coming.

Our door hasn't been latching since that last blow. During that one, I tied everything down outside and then pounded wedges in to keep the door from ripping open. We're on the second floor, on the edge of the lagoon; our only door faces right into the wind.

Since then conditions have been calm, clear, cold -- what we call Fairbanks weather -- the kind of weather where the inside of your snowgo is not a white smooth drift when you lift the cowling, and in the morning your cross-country skis are not a hundred yards away under someone's four-wheeler. "Calm" on the coast, of course, does include some chilly 18 mph breezes, but still, it's been a welcome "breath of fresh air" not to have drifting snow.

Our doorknob was iced up, so I went out to the conex to get my heat gun. The padlock was frozen, my blowtorch too cold and low to light to thaw it -- that same old stuff everybody deals with. I finally got to the heat gun and got the conex closed and thawed the doorknob free, but the latch no longer lined up with the striker plate. It's a new door, but water had frozen in the rubber strip at the bottom and lifted it. I forced the ice out of the stripping like a popsicle, but it still wouldn't latch.

By then I was cold, and the battery went dead on my drill. I took the plate off by hand and moved it higher. It still wouldn't latch, and the knob froze up again.

The wind was picking up, ice blowing off the sides of the house. I put on more gear, got my snow-go running, and went and bought six lag screws. Except I forgot my wallet and had to leave them on the counter. And then my snow-go didn't want to start. I spotted my neighbor, Larry Schweigert, coming from the P.O. on his buzzing Bravo snow-go. We blocked our faces from the wind, shouting at each other.

"Hey!" he said.

"Hey, how about loaning me $6?" I said.

He shielded his wallet from the wind, handed me a twenty.

Back home, I paused to haul in wood and restack my woodpile, move sleds and tie them down, pick up shovels and lash the cover down on my snow-go. Finally, I cut a board and notched it and sank lag screws on both sides of the door frame, sawed big wedges and rammed them in. That would hold during the storm, although the door still wouldn't latch for going in and out.

Outside it was already getting dark, visibility dropping rapidly, and the wind starting to roar and whip gusts of snow into the house. I went out and got a chisel and hammer and, using the heat gun again, and Tri-Flow and a drill and some professional cuss words, I got the door to close.

Putting my tools away, I lost my grip on my shop door. The wind caught it and flung it open. The hinges bent. It was kind of depressing; I had to force it to shut using the hasp.

I'm not complaining, though, about all these years and efforts to shut doors -- not a bit; it's all part of a good life here where the wind blows. And actually it's probably tougher in Shishmaref or Kivalina or any number of coastal villages, and certainly tougher in cities where they have to bar their doors against other humans. It's not like being stuck in traffic, and I've spent almost none of my life looking for a parking spot -- I guess it's good enough to say, so far today I'm a success, I got the door closed.


Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives with his wife and daughter in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com. His column runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts & Life section.

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