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What I’m thankful for: Safe travels and gear well-suited for enduring Alaska’s frigid cold

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: November 24, 2018
  • Published November 24, 2018

I can’t help but chuckle when we sing the classic Thanksgiving song “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go.”

Sure, we sang it. And we’ve enjoyed wonderful gratitude-filled meals with friends and family over the years.

It’s just that in Alaska, the idea of going “over the river and through the woods” often means so much more than it does to our brothers and sisters in the Lower 48. Set aside the idea that you’re flying thousands of miles across the country to see your family.

Right here in Alaska, your Thanksgiving journey can bring some special challenges. The bonus? Many more things to be thankful for.

Our friends Fran and Carl were caretakers for a lodge on Lake Clark one winter. They said, “Why don’t you come for Thanksgiving?” We said, “Sure.”

On a cold November morning, we loaded up some fresh produce, wine, beer and our cross-country skis and headed out from Merrill Field to Port Alsworth, on the eastern shore of Lake Clark. The flight was smooth and the boat ride to the other shore was uneventful. It was cold, but the water was smooth and everyone was looking forward to a fun weekend.

A good time was had by all, huddled around in the little cabin to the side of the fancy lodge. We shared stories, ate good food and even went skiing in the woods.

When it was time to go Saturday, it had gotten colder. And the wind had picked up.

Down to the boat we went. We noticed there was a little chop on the lake, but not enough to swamp our 16-foot open skiff.

When it came time to start the motor, nothing happened. We decided to take the motor into the cabin and warm it up, starting it inside a 55-gallon drum. This strategy worked. The motor was re-attached to the boat, and off we went to Port Alsworth.

The wind picked up a bit more and it was a little colder, maybe 5 degrees Fahrenheit. There were four of us huddled in the front to balance the weight when the motor started to sputter. Carl wasn’t driving; it was his friend’s boat from another cabin on the lake. All of a sudden, I started praying that he knew how best to marshal his motor and the boat as we were buffeted by the rollers in the middle of the lake.

The motor missed a little bit more, but the skipper was able to adjust the choke and get us to the other side of the lake without incident. Nobody said a word. But I was thankful for the skipper’s cool hand and for the little motor that could.

November days are brief. But out on Afognak Island, just north of Kodiak, if you get an early start you might get a good shot at one of the deer wandering around. And if you can get it to the boat before the bears find you — all the better.

My son Drew and I had cut short a Thanksgiving dinner to pack up and fly down to Kodiak for a deer hunt. Our friend Marty Owen has a beautiful boat called the Sea Breeze. (OK, it’s a yacht.) We set out from Kodiak and made our way north to Afognak Island. We anchored in one of the bays on the south side of the island. The next morning, a fresh coat of snow blanketed everything, including the skiff to get to shore.

On shore, we set off in different directions. It was thrilling to see the first set of impressions in the snow. Bear tracks. Not just one bear, either. No, there was one set of big prints, followed by another smaller set. Lovely.

We took our guns for a walk all day. It snowed some more, but visibility was good. Then the sun started to slide behind the trees and I started to ponder our return path back to the boat.

“Dad! Look!” whispered Drew.

Up on a pile of torn-up logs and stumps was a beautiful deer. Drew was already lining up the shot, while I was concerned about making it back to the boat before dark.

It was then that I was thankful for my son’s sharp aim. But it definitely was a team effort to retrieve the deer and make it back to the beach.

Right then, I was thankful that Marty could see in the dark. It may have been dusk for about five minutes after we got to the beach. We still were huffing and puffing as we crawled on to the Sea Breeze from the skiff. Howard, Marty’s hunting partner, quickly piped in, “Is dinner ready yet?”

If you want to hunt for deer from a boat in Kodiak, two local companies offer trips to the south end of the island: Ninilchik Charters and Alaska Coastal Adventures.

Other wintertime adventures in Alaska have made me thankful for equipment that works in extreme weather.

Eric Denkewalter flew a group of us up from Fairbanks to the village of Beaver on the Yukon River. Just beforehand, I donned every piece of warm clothing I owned and went for a stroll near the Chena River. It was 44 degrees below zero. Crink-crink-crink went my ski pants. But my fingers and toes were warm. At check-in, Eric looked at me and, without saying a word, walked back to his office to retrieve another jacket. He instructed me to put it on over my clothes. I didn’t complain, although seven of us in the plane with full winter gear fogged up the windows nicely.

After arriving in Beaver, Eric said it was around minus 68. He got out and put a blanket over the engine, then walked us around town and down to the Yukon River. At that moment I was thankful not just for the plane that started back up but also for a pilot like Eric who knew how to take care of folks when it gets really cold.

While many of us are thankful for Mom’s super-special candied yams, many Alaskans are grateful for the basics: a well-tuned motor, proper gear for a cold-weather mission and a warm cabin.

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