Alaska recreationalists are in mourning. Skis are waxed and ready. Sled dogs look back at the roaring ATV they are pulling and shake their heads. Snowmobile enthusiasts stand in the garage by idling machines and dream longingly of the snow that should have already been.
Everyone is ready. Or are they?
A few days ago I was pulling a trailer out of Anchorage loaded with three tons of salmon destined for home and the dog team. I was ready.
Then the trailer blew a tire. I changed it. A few miles later I lost one on the other side. I had one more tire, but it was not mounted. My tool kit, which should be top of the line, didn't have much to break down a flat, nor did I have one of the handy little plug-in compressors with me. It was also 1 in the morning. There isn't much help on the road on late October nights.
I limped along for 60 miles on a single axle, until I found an all-night place with air. I spent an hour with a big screwdriver, a hammer and a few innovative words. The tire was mounted and I made it home that night.
I wasn't ready. Right now, while the snowmobile is under cover and the skis are on the rack, is the time to get prepared. Think about where you are going and the tools you need -- not to get where you are going, but what you must have to get home. A little thoughtful preparation will keep your trip from becoming an adventure that you would rather forget.
There are certain basic items that should go whenever you leave the house. Matches, a couple of paper towels, wire, electrical tape, dry socks, a headlamp and -- I thought I'd never say it -- a cellphone.
Then, depending on your choice of transport, a few more specialized items. I am not as familiar with skis as I should be, but I know that if going on a cross-country trip, it might be nice to have something to tighten binding mounts. The first trip of the season might require an ace bandage -- if not for you, for your partner. It is easier to bind an ankle or knee that is slightly sore than to fix one after it becomes an issue.
For dogsledding -- a subject I can speak to with some knowledge -- I may carry more than necessary, because I know how many things can go south. Don't leave home, even on a 10-mile run, without small visegrips, a flat screwdriver and pliers. A small bow saw is invaluable. If you're on aluminum runners, a runner repair kit and a decent selection of sled bolts should be standard. Take an extra gangline section, or at least a repair section. Two six-foot sections of line with snaps on both ends will save a lot of time on an unplanned stop. You could fill a sled with items that may become necessary, but these things will cover the more common circumstances.
Snowmobiles are another subject entirely. Machines, whether they are an ATV or snowmachine, can get in more trouble more quickly than anything yet invented. To fix everything that might occur, it would be necessary to tow a trailer. However, I have more than 100,000 miles on snowmobiles and I can count the times I've had to walk. Most things can be repaired on the trail, though it may cost a bit in destroyed parts to get back home.
In addition to the items I've mentioned for skiing and dogsled trips, snowmobiles require some more specialized tools. A quarter-inch-drive metric socket set and a pull rope or strap that can be wrapped on the clutch are no-brainers. Spark plugs, extra headlight bulbs along with the tools that came with the sled are also a given. Take a hand axe and a small shovel. Overflow is a real possibility, so one of those endless rope come-alongs is handy.
Should these tools and the big roll of baling wire fail, a pair of teeny metal snowshoes that are otherwise pretty worthless will let you walk back along your fresh trail without sinking.
Automobile trips can become adventuresome in the winter. Cold-weather gear is a must. And non-mechanics still need to have a good basic tool set with them. If you are on the side of the road with your hood up, it is pretty likely that some old dude in a beat-up pick truck will stop and know how to use your tools. He will only have some wire, a pair of rusty visegrips and maybe a hammer. Even though it has yet to snow for real, this is still Alaska.
John Schandelmeier is a life-long Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a two-time Yukon Quest champion and a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman.