Cautionary Tales is an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors. This week's installment is a slight departure from the usual offering.
It's been six years since I've spent Christmas with my family.
I'm OK with this. Christmas isn't a huge deal for my family, and we don't have much in the way of Christmas traditions.
There's a giant meal, of course, because we're all about food. That feast typically happens on Christmas Eve, yielding enough leftover ham to last the week. We open presents on Christmas morning. Afterward, we head to the movie theater, where we seek out the film that raises the fewest objections and my parents fall asleep and start snoring about 45 minutes in.
In the six years since I've spent the holidays with the Ho family — we have a terrific last name for this merry season, as decades of jokes have taught me — I've developed a Christmas tradition of my own: skiing.
It started back in Colorado. Even in a town filled with diehard ski bums, the slopes on Christmas morning would be quieter than usual. Hit the right run, and you'd feel like you had the mountain to yourself. Whether it happened Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, I didn't feel like I'd hit the peak of the holiday season until I snuck in a Yuletide ski session.
I've carried that with me to Alaska. So when a friend, Francine St. Laurent, invited me to spend the holiday with her family in North Pole, I was ready to drop my ski tradition for a year. How could I say no to Christmas in North Pole?
Then she told me we would ski at Moose Mountain. My joy level shot through the roof.
At 750 acres, Moose Mountain bills itself as the largest alpine ski area in Interior Alaska. Skiers and snowboarders hop on school buses, instead of chairlifts, for a 10-minute ride to the top of the mountain, then cruise downhill for 1,300 vertical feet.
When we arrived, it was 3 degrees below zero at the base lodge, and 36 degrees warmer at the top. Even without fresh snow, the skiing was a dream. The runs were fast, magic winter light filtered through the trees, and the temperature inversion kept us going back for more. We had layered up that morning to ward off subzero chills. Instead, we found ourselves ditching balaclavas and hand warmers after the first run.
The resort's website says it's the only known ski area with a fleet of school buses as its primary lift system. The novelty was not lost on me. Riding the school bus gave us ample time to warm up and soak in the views, and provided a dose of nostalgia that seemed just right for the holidays.
Christmas Eve dinner brought together two North Pole families — the St. Laurents and their longtime friends, the Hoxies — plus a couple of Christmas orphans, including me. I ate too much food, which instantly reminded me of holidays spent with my own family. They shared hunting stories that left me in stitches, and with a strong urge to write about practical jokes pulled by hunters. (If you've ever pulled a fast one on a friend, I'd love to hear about it; shoot an email my way at firstname.lastname@example.org.) We played a board game that was as brilliantly fun as it was frustrating. To cap off the night, we watched holiday movies until our eyelids drooped, and then we drifted off to sleep.
On Christmas morning, I helped play Santa, handing out gifts to their intended recipients in the St. Laurents' living room. A stocking crammed full of goodies was given to me. The Hos aren't stocking people. This was a moment of pure joy.
We headed to the Hoxie house for an early Christmas dinner that featured more than 20 pounds of ham and so many side dishes there wasn't an inch of table space to spare. The table boomed with more stories, and even more laughter.
A post-meal walk led us to the edge of the frozen Chena River, fringed with trees reflecting the last of the day's pinkish light. Everything was eerily still in a snow-damp hush, and even in this mild winter, the sharp, frigid air cut into my nostrils.
I flew back to Anchorage that evening, warm with the cheer of a Christmas spent with family — even if it wasn't my own.
The way I see it, my Alaska family just got a little bigger. And the vacuum-sealed bag of leftover Christmas ham tucked into my ski bag on the flight home was a reminder: Family is what you make it, and you can find a taste of home anywhere if you look hard enough.
Vicky Ho is the night homepage editor at the Anchorage Daily News. An avid hiker and skier, she's also a mediocre runner, terrible biker and part-time employee at a local outdoor retailer. Contact her at email@example.com, on Twitter @hovicky or Instagram @hovcky.