Growing Up Alaska: The Bed Unmade

When I was 5, my family returned to Alaska on vacation so that my two older brothers could see where they were born. Through a series of events, that vacation turned into staying over the winter and I never left.

One of those events that allowed us to stay here was the fact that my dad took on a carpentry project of restoring an old hotel at Arctic Circle Hot Springs. All the kids were put to work doing chores around the hotel and one of my duties was to help clean the rooms after the few guests that we had left.

The overall winter was quite boring and I don’t remember a whole lot except for a few events that have been seared into my brain.

At night, when all of us kids gathered in the lofts to sleep, the older kids would tell stories that of course made it difficult to sleep. Many of these stories were centered around things that went bump in the night, including the ghost of Mrs. Leech, the original owner of the hotel.

One thing that I noticed when the stories of Mrs. Leech came up, there was no laughter or loud screams to scare you, they were all done in hushed tones. The older kids would turn pale and grow quiet whenever her name was mentioned. Even the adults wouldn’t exactly deny the existence of something strange at the hotel.

It seemed like everyone had a story. Most were of strange sounds or the feeling of being watched. Some ranged to manifestations or things being moved, but they were often scoffed at, but never denied.

This is mine.

We’d had three rooms vacated and the linens needed to be changed. The manager had three daughters, and I honestly don’t remember their names, except for Brook. I was assisting the oldest daughter who was 16 I think and I don’t remember her name, but I will refer to her as Brook.

The rooms were on the second floor of the hotel and we methodically were cleaning them. Brook would pull the covers and sheets off and bundle them before setting them in the hall. I would then carry them downstairs to the cart where we would later wheel them over to the laundry.

While I was doing this, which was a chore since I was only 5, Brook would vacuum each room. On each return trip, I would grab the new sheets and blankets for the bed and deposit them in the room before taking down the next load.

There was a communal bathroom for the floor which was luckily someone else’s job, so we put fresh towels and washcloths in the chest of drawers in each room.

We had finished the cleaning and were putting the beds back together. I’m not sure how much help I really was, but Brook was always kind and was one of the few older kids that seemed to genuinely enjoy my assistance.

All the rooms were next to each other and were on the front side of the hotel, so we started with the one farthest away and worked our way towards the stairs. We finished the first room and Brook marked it off the checklist and we moved on to the next room.

We were almost done with the middle room when we heard a thump. I finished tucking in the blanket while Brook stuck her head out into the hall. She came back in and shrugged and we finished up the room.

We had just moved into the third room when Brook’s mom came upstairs to check on our progress. Brook indicated we were done with the first two rooms and we were moving on to the last one.

I was putting the pillow cases on while Brook was laying out the fitted sheet when her mother yelled for Brook from down the hall. Brook rolled her eyes and looked out into the hall.

“I want both of you to come here now!” she called.

I followed Brook down the hall and followed Brook’s mother’s very agitated gaze into the room. My jaw nearly hit the floor and I looked to Brook.

The blanket on the bed was pulled down and hanging off the front side of the bed. I also noticed a towel on the floor and the top drawer open.

Brook’s mom stared scolding her for not doing her job properly, but I was trying to figure out who did this. We’d heard a thump. There was only one stairway, and we hadn’t heard anyone walking up and down the halls. Besides, kids weren’t allowed on this floor unless we were working…

I bolted for the common bathroom and busted through the door, expecting to find my older brothers in there. But the room was empty.

I started back down the hall and checked the next two rooms on the backside of hotel. They were empty as well.

“Matthew, what are you doing?” Brook’s mom demanded. “Those rooms haven’t been used in over a month.”

I looked up at her and I could hear the whispers of the older kids at night and the hair on my neck stood on end. “We made the bed.”

Her eyes narrowed for a second, then she responded, “Obviously not. I don’t know what game you are playing, but it isn’t funny.”

She grabbed Brook by the arm and the walked to the second room and I ran to catch up. She opened the door and stood there. I peeked around and found the room perfectly fine.

“Now go back and do the first room right,” she said herding Brook down the hall. “And you go finish what you were doing in the last room.”

I scurried off and went back to fitting the oversized down pillows into their way to small pillowcases. The whispers kept haunting me. I could sense something and my little heart raced.

THUMP! THUMP! BANG!

I screamed and threw the pillow and spun around expecting something to spring out at me.

There was another thump and I ran for the open door.

Brook and her mother had come out of their room and her mom glared at me. “What were you doing?”

I looked back into the room and stammered, “I was ma-making the the b-b-bed.”

She started for me and I was ready to bolt, but she stopped in front of the middle room and slowly opened the door. She stood there and I could see her hand tremble as she paled.

Brook reached her before I did and she gasped. I slid under her mom’s arm and looked inside. The mattress was turned and both the blankets and sheets were in a pile on the floor. Both pillows had been tossed across the room and all four drawers were pulled out of the chest of drawers, the top one on the floor.

She carefully pushed us back and closed the drawer. She seemed like she was going to say something, but then she closed her mouth and herded us down the hallway. “Never speak of this,” she whispered.

She excused us from our chores and waited a couple of hours before going back upstairs and fixing the rooms.

At first we didn’t say anything, until the kids began to ask question after we were banned from doing our chores on the second floor for the week. The other kids began to ask questions and Brook finally broke and told them what happened.

Of course the others laughed quietly and played it off as a joke. But I will always remember how quiet they would get when something would thump or knock on the wall downstairs.

Was it a guest or was it Mrs. Leech examining the rooms?

Growing Up Alaska: Don’t Feed the Wildlife

Whenever I was 16, I spent the summer on Kodiak Island with a survey team of four. It was an interesting summer in the wilds of Kodiak and I have multiple stories from that summer, but this one comes from the near end of my time there.

We were in Olga Bay and had travelled by boat to do the third and final job in that area. We had been there for nearly 8 weeks with limited food supplies that had run out a few weeks ago, and we didn’t have communication with the outside world.

This job was an easy one and took us less than a day, so Sam and I went to go catch some fish while our boss tried to get the radio working at the abandoned Ranger Station there. Two large creeks flowed into the bay here and they were both filled salmon….and bears.

The creek literally teemed with fish and Sam decided we should have some fun. Most of the silver salmon pooled up in the bend in the creek to allow the salt from the ocean to wash from their gills and Sam challenged me to catch a fish with my bare hands.

We waded out to the bottom end of the pool and the fish scattered, but after standing there for a few minutes, the fish started swimming around us again. More fish came up stream and there were so many that they began bumping into us.

We stood perfectly still, then Sam slowly lowered his hands into the ice cold water and snatched up a salmon! He held it up as it flopped about, sending the other fish scattering again. Now that he had the fish, he didn’t know what to do and tried to wade across the stream. He didn’t make it and the fish eventually wiggled free and plopped back into the water.

It was all very funny and we went back to try again.

After a couple of minutes, and my feet starting to go numb, the fish returned. Sam scooped up a second one, but this time, instead of trying to carry it to shore, he tossed it up on the embankment just above our heads. It cleared the edge and we heard it flopping around in the grass.

Laughing, we noticed the other fish hadn’t been spooked and Sam announced that the score was 2-0. I hadn’t realized that we were keeping score and it took me a couple of tries to scoop up my first salmon. I didn’t get it to shore and as I tried to toss it, it wiggled free and plopped back in the water.

We decided that each fish we grabbed was one point and each fish we landed was two points. It took us a few more tries before Sam was able to toss another up onto the bank taking a commanding lead of 7-3.

Now we really only needed the two fish for dinner and breakfast, and our hands and feet were growing numb, but it was now a contest and there were so many fish I figured on scooping up as many as I could and not worry about the bank.

After about another fifteen minutes, Sam was still in the lead, though neither of us had landed another fish and I could feel my body starting to shake from the cold. Sam announced that the next person to land a fish would win the game, so I waited for a good grab.

The fish swam right between my boots and I scooped it up and tossed it before it could react. Sam caught one at the same time and tossed it too, cascading me with cold water. We watched as the fish sailed through the air and over the bank….

…And into the mouth of a waiting Kodiak Brown Bear. He lay there, his front paws dangling at the edge of the embankment, shredding one of the first fish we’d tossed up there. He continued chewing and watched nonchalantly as two more fish landed beside him. With a mouthful of fish, he looked down at us as we splashed to the other side of the creek.

We only paused long enough to grab our gear and stumbled numb footed back to the boat. And as we hurried away, I looked back at the bear who I could have sworn had a disappointed look on his face.

Growing Up Alaska: Who’s Driving

When I was fifteen, the last year that we ran our gold mine, we were operating on Harrison Creek in the interior of Alaska. We were reaching the end of our last season, of which we were unaware of, and my uncle Jim came to visit.

Harrison Creek sits in a narrow valley with a one lane road that snaked up the north side of the creek to the only other mining camp of two old men who had already given up for the year. The upper end of the creek was above the tree line and the low bush blueberries painted the tundra in a swath of red and purples.

And most importantly, this attracted both bears and caribou.

Everyday, uncle Jim would drive this old Jeep up the valley in search of something to shoot. The Jeep was outfitted for driving off road with massive mud tires and a low transmission that barely allowed it to reach 40mph wide out. He loved driving it and we could hear him coming from a mile a way, especially in that narrow valley, and I wondered how he ever saw any animals.

But he did. They would often be up on the ridges and seemingly oblivious to the noisy Jeep. A small part of the Fortymile caribou herd had come up the next valley over and my uncle was excited about to very promising bulls that he hoped would linger in the area until the season opened in a few days.

Uncle Jim loved hunting, but a series of accidents meant he couldn’t get around well, so he needed something close to the road to hunt as there was no way he was going to be climbing those steep, slippery slopes.

The morning of hunting season arrived and my uncle was as giddy as a school child. It was cold and frost had covered the grass, so we bundled up and climbed into the Jeep. My little brother was only six and this was going to be his first “hunt,” so we sat in the back of the Jeep, me holding the rifles, while my dad and uncle sat up front.

The Jeep didn’t have a cover on it, so the wind chilled my ears causing me to flip up the collar on my jean jacket as my uncle drove a little faster than comfortable for the narrow road.

We parked at the upper end of the valley while my uncle and dad scanned the hillsides for caribou. We spotted a couple of cows high up on a ridge, but we didn’t spot either of the bulls my uncle had spotted the day before. So we sat for nearly an hour, hoping they would show up, before we decided to head back to camp since my dad and I had to work.

We drove back much more slowly as my uncle was keeping an eye out for caribou. We reached a section of road that was extremely narrow and cut into the mountainside with the creek dropping off below on the other. I hated this part of the road since there was no room for error, so I focused on the mountain ridge above me in hopes of spotting a caribou.

The road was bumpy here and my brother and I got jostled back and forth. I ducked to keep my head from hitting the roll cage and the small willow trees that grew over the road from the creek below. We were picking up speed, though we were coasting, when a branch smacked me behind the ear and I turned to yell for my uncle to slow down.

Do you ever have those moments when the world slows down as your brain tries to figure out what’s wrong? I mean, it knows something is wrong, but you don’t really comprehend it or believe it?

I watched as my uncle held onto the steering wheel of the Jeep, only it wasn’t in front of him, it was between him and my dad who was pushing it back to my uncle. They were yelling, but it was all a jumble and hard to hear over the Jeep and the sound of the wind whipping by as we continued to pick up speed.

The next couple of moments, which seemed to be at least a minute, was a scene from a Laurel and Hardy sketch as my uncle yelled and waved the steering wheel around, my dad with one hand on it and trying to get my uncle to put it back in place as the turn in the road ahead quickly approached.

“Jump!” my dad yelled and the world snapped back in to motion.

Sadly, this was not the first time I would have jumped from a moving vehicle, but in one motion I grabbed my little brother and tossed him screaming onto the embankment where he landed on the springy tundra. Then I tossed the guns up there as well before planting my foot on the edge of the Jeep and jumped as well.

The embankment made a quick height change and I didn’t clear the edge, so my feet struck the loose dirt and I twisted my ankle as I rolled and grabbed for the brush and the tundra in an effort to keep from sliding down the embankment.

I partially failed and landed on my butt and slid part of the way down the bank as I watched in horror as my dad and uncle continued down the road. My dad couldn’t easily jump clear because of the trees and the drop-off to the creek and my uncle wouldn’t be to jump because of his condition and the embankment.

They were still pushing the steering wheel back and forth when I saw my dad take the steering wheel from my uncle who seemed to be looking for a way to jump. The Jeep’s tires caught the embankment and it started up before jumping back down into the road and appeared to be heading over the side and down into the creek.

Then it suddenly jerked back towards the embankment before the brake lights came on and the Jeep jerked back to the right before coming to a stop.

I checked on my little brother who was crying, more out of fear than any bumps or bruises, though he did skin his knee. I helped him down to the road before returning to the Jeep, limping on my twisted ankle.

My dad was searching the floorboards for the nut that had come off of the steering wheel and my uncle was laughing and holding up a pair of vice grips that he had clamped onto the steering column in an attempt to steer the Jeep, or in the least, to keep it from veering right when he applied the brakes. The vice grips had been used on the instrument panel to keep it from vibrating since one of the screws had been stripped.

My dad found the nut and they used the vice grips to reattach the nut. I loaded my little brother into the back, along with the guns and decided to walk back since I had to go start the pump for the wash plant anyways so we could start mining.

Now, every time I see a Jeep, I think about that comedic scene of my dad refusing to take the steering wheel from my uncle and wonder how I ever survived my childhood.

Growing Up Alaska: A kid, a briefcase and a hundred drunk people

Every business in Central, Alaska had some sort of bar attached to it. Of course, we really only had three businesses and consequently had three bars. And by law, kids were not allowed in unless accompanied by a parent.

This also meant that there wasn’t much else to do in a small community like this, especially during the winter, so weekly dart games popped up at the establishments as a means to get people out and of course, to spend money. Twice a year, there would be a tournament in which people from Fairbanks, 125 miles away, would come for the weekend and give our little community an economic boost.

The kids would often hang out and play, and if we were lucky, we could step in to fill an empty spot on a team. Few of the kids liked to play and some of the older kids weren’t allow to play because they weren’t liked very much because of their attitudes.

Fortunately, most of the adults liked me, or at least tolerated me, and as I grew older, I was asked to play more frequently. Also, as I grew older, fewer families brought their kids, so I was often left to read a book in the corner.

One night, while reading, I found a National Geographic on the little round table I was sitting at. Picking it up, I found a darts magazine that had been left behind from the last dart tournament. Looking through it, I found a cool set of flights for my darts and wanted to order them, but the fine print said I had to spend a minimum of $25 to ship to Alaska. The flights I wanted only cost 75¢.

The owner of the bar said that I could take the magazine, so I brought it home and a plan started forming in my head. Now mind you, I was only 12 or 13, but I decided to a little business where I sold dart supplies.

I showed my plan to my dad and he said he would loan me the $5o I planned to use as my start up. I had the money saved in a bank account in Fairbanks and promised to pay him back the next time we went to town.

I stocked up on flights and flexible shafts and flight protectors, most of which no one in our community had ever seen before, or if they had, it was at the big tournaments in Fairbanks or Anchorage. I calculated the price and purchased $43 in supplies as shipping was nearly $7.

In a couple of weeks, my dart supplies had arrived and I created an inventory, placed it all in my school bag and took them to the next dart night. The place was crowded and I was going to play very little this night, but as I went to sell my goods, I realized that I was in a business and didn’t have permission.

Dad tracked down the owner and I went to his office to propose my business venture. After my spiel, he agreed that I could sell my dart supplies. Behind the bar, he too sold some flights for darts, but those sales were rare, so I don’t think he expected me to do that well.

I offered him 10% of my profits for the night or 5 sets of flights. He sold his flight sets for $2 a pieces, so he took flights, not expecting me to make much money.

I’d brought about half of my supplies and sat at my table in the corner and laid some of them out. It was still early, so my dad, mom and I all threw darts while we waited, and many of the players commented on the new flashy flights we were using.

I made a couple of sales and the night proved it was going to be slow. That is, until my dad and another player were in a shoot out for control of a game and my dad’s dart slid right next to the other player who’d blocked the bulls eye with his own dart. My dad was able to do this, partially because of skill, but more importantly, the flexible shaft on his dart.

This was followed up by another throw that would have impaled my dad’s dart, but I’d given him a set of flight protectors that deflected the tip of the dart. People were amazed at the display of accuracy the two men were putting on and in the end, my dad lost, but it took five darts to do it.

His opponent joked that my dad had cheated with his dart upgrades, but he immediately came over and bought some for himself.

And by the end of the night, I had sold all the supplies that I had brought and walked out with a little less than a hundred dollars.

I paid back my dad and brought the rest of my supplies to the dart games the next week and nearly sold all that I had leaving me with nearly $125 and promises of orders.

I sunk all the money back into my business, paying a little extra for expedited shipping so I would receive my supplies before the next tournament.

The day before the tournament, my dad came to my bedroom with a leather briefcase that he kept in his office and told me I needed something better to keep my things in. He helped me set up the things so that they displayed well and I spent all day arranging and rearranging things and making signage and price sheets.

It was very rare for a kid to get to play in the tournament, though sometimes we could fill in for non tournament games, so I made a plan to sell. I checked that my agreement was intact and the owner said it was, but I had a curfew.

Over the weekend, I turned my $125 into nearly $4oo and another $200 in advanced sales for darts and specialized designs. I took $40 and set aside as spending money, gave $40 to the owner of the bar, put $160 into savings and purchased $160 in dart supplies.

There was only a month left in that season’s games, but by the end, I took that $50 dollars and ended with nearly $800. I’d put aside nearly $350 and had the same amount in supplies for the next year.

Not every place let me sell, but when I did, most nights I did well. I became the go to guy for dart supplies in the greater area. The dart supply magazine stopped charging me extra for expedited shipping and I became their top seller in the Pacific Northwest after securing a contract to supply new dartboards and backboards for one of the larger statewide tournaments.

After two and a half years, I had enough in savings to purchase a new snowmachine, remembering at this time a good work sled cost less than $5000.

Life was going well until I qualified for the Youth Dart State Championships and came in second which included an invitation to the Nation Dart Championships being held in Las Vegas that year. One of the rules was that you had to have a national sponsor.

I thought to myself, why wouldn’t the supplier that I have been buying from want to sponsor me?

I sent them off a letter and prepared for the tournament that was occurring at the end of the summer before school started back up. I practiced every day between my chores and work at the mine.

Then the letter came.

“We are sorry to inform you that we are already sponsoring two players in the youth tournament and are not permitted anymore.”

“Furthermore, we have to cancel our partnership with you as you are under the age of 21 which is a requirement per company policy.”

I had a big order in for a tournament in Fairbanks, so I called to make sure that the sale would not be compromised. I had a direct line to the sales office manager for the company and he assured me that they would complete the order, but that it would be the last.

They’d assumed that I was over 21 since “everyone” in the business was. I’d explained my business plan after my first couple of orders and they’d offered me a distribution discount as a representative for them assuming that since I was selling in bars, I was old enough to do so; though they would like to have me back when I turned 21.

Sadly, I never secured a national sponsor, so was not able to go to nationals. The next year I qualified third in state and played enough tournaments to qualify in the men’s category as well, but the youth national tournament was cancelled due to fears that drunk people were getting hurt playing darts and lawsuits.

I didn’t like the new plastic tipped darts and moved to Anchorage where youth couldn’t play, so I walked away from the game and never returned to dart sales. But I will never forget those two fun years of being the top salesmen in the Pacific Northwest; a kid with $5o, a briefcase and a roomful of drunk people.

Growing Up Alaska: Easter Best

For Easter, you never knew if you were searching for eggs wearing your Sunday best under a snowsuit or tucked into your rubber boots. One year we trudged through six inches of mud and another year we had nearly eight feet of snow!

But of all the Easters, two stand out the most to me, one because of total fun, the other because of total terror. Today, I will tell you the former.

It had been a snowy year, especially that spring. Crabb’s Corner, our local cafe/laundry/motel/grocery/bar/etc. was putting on an Easter egg hunt with a couple of grand prizes; a huge easter basket and $50.

They’d painted and filled hundreds of eggs and hired a couple of guys to hide the eggs over night in the park across the street from their place and to keep an eye out to make sure no one started early.

It was a sunny day and the whole community had come together to join in. The little kids went first to their area and collected the plastic eggs from a packed down spot. Then the rules were announced and the boundary set. There was one real egg with a star on it, find it and you win the large basket. Find the golden egg, and you win $50.

There was about a dozen older kids and a handful of younger kids who all lined up and waited for the signal to start. In years past, the best thing to do was follow the paths made through the snow and look for the eggs, so that was once again the plan.

The signal sounded and we took off running into the park. We ran down the starting path and it didn’t go far before turning into a trail where the men who’d hidden the eggs had trudged through eight feet of snow.

The made dash suddenly became shoving and pushing as all of us were trying to go down the same path. The older kids muscled their way through and waded down the trail only to find it went a little ways before turning back.

Unlike in years past, there were no clear trails through the park to follow and only a couple of eggs were visible near the beginning of the hunt. One of my friends spotted a hole about ten feet off the trail and we suddenly realized that the guys had walked a single path and chucked the eggs into the snow.

Kids began floundering through the snow looking for eggs, or more precisely, holes that showed where eggs had entered the snow.

After a half an hour, we were lucky to find a handful of the hundreds of hidden eggs. Kids were wet and cold and started giving up.

Adults began helping and trying to figure out where the eggs might have landed when one of the men who’d hidden the eggs brought out his secret weapon, a homemade potato gun that he had built to launch the eggs into the snow. We’d assumed most of the eggs were within thirty feet of the trail, but with the potato gun, the eggs could clear a hundred feet.

The search went on for nearly an hour before the owners put an end to it and awarded the basket to the kid who found the most eggs. People were perplexed though about the golden egg as it was too large to fit in the potato gun, but no one had found it.

The second man laughed and pointed to the top of 50 foot birch tree in the park. He grabbed his climbing gear and clambered up the tree and chucked it off into the snow causing a few bumps and bruises as kids scrambled for it.

It seemed that the Easter egg hunt had been a disaster, and as the owner of the park said, “I guess that is what you get for hiring a drunk mechanic and lumberjack to hide the eggs!”

It turned out to be the longest Easter egg hunt in history. As the snow melted, every Sunday you would see kids out there looking for eggs, after all, they still hand candy and money in them.

We never did find them all, but we slowly found most of them, including the one with a star on it, though it was so rotten no one wanted to pick it up, but it earned me a chocolate bar.

Growing Up Alaska: Ski Meet

Far North School in Central, Alaska, rarely had more than a dozen students. Since our school was small and mostly white, we didn’t get extra funds so we didn’t have an indoor gymnasium or dedicated P.E. teachers. But sports was required and the only sport that was universally supported was skiing.

So each year we would have a period in the week to practice skiing in preparations for the district wide ski meet, and sometimes a regional or state meet as well. By practice, I mean that we were assigned a set of cross country skis and told to go to a spot and return or take a loop around the school over a measured distance.

There are many issues with this as 1) we had little motivation because we almost always got beat because our gear was old and heavy compared to other schools, 2) we didn’t have anyone training us so there was little competition or chance to improve ourselves, and 3) our trail was mostly a snow machine trail over fairly flat terrain and they didn’t match the groomed and diverse courses we raced on.

But everyone was involved, not for the sport, but it was one of the few times that we were out of school and could travel for these meets.

A victory for us was to simply come in the top ten, which didn’t happen often. We knew that schools like Minto would always win because they trained for it and had Olympic skiers coaching them and they had the latest equipment.

Skate skis were still fairly new so most competitions saw a mix of skiers in the same heat as they had not yet distinguished between the two in smaller competitions like ours, like it was really a competition.

This year, one of the state trials was going to be held in Fairbanks at the Birch Hill Ski Area, so our Principal/Teacher thought it would be a good idea to enter. We even had a local woman who skied recreationally who decided she would be our coach and help prepare us for the meet.

We trained three days a week and we even got someone to build a sled that could be pulled behind a snow machine to create groomed trails for us. We trained hard in our winter gear, challenged to beat our own times.

As the meet drew closer, we learned about waxing skis and trail conditions and pacing and sprinting. We were starting to believe that we actually stood a chance at making the podium.

And our Principal told us he had a surprise for us.

We piled on the bus and climbed into cars and headed 125 miles south to Fairbanks. Along the way, the bus broke down and didn’t have the power to get up the final mountain, so we took the opportunity for extra ski practice and skied up the mountain. If we could do that, we could do anything!

The next day, after renting a bus while ours was repaired, our Principal took us to a sports shop and had us all fitted for skate skis. They weren’t top of the line, but they were sleek and beautiful compared to the wooden traditional skies many of us were using.

Excited, we took our new skis out to Birch Hill to do a practice run. The bindings were different from our old skis and it took many of us a bit and a little help to figure out how to put them on. Those that did figure out, tried to take off and fell down because the skis didn’t work like the old skis.

Other teams showed up to practice and laughed at us. Many of the coaches came over to help us, but as we watched the teams take off, our spirits hit an all time low. They looked so graceful on their skis in their special outfits in school colors.

After watching that, most of our team threw down their skis and refused to even try. There was no way we could win, with our without our new skis.

At the hotel that night, we decided that we would use our old heavy skis. No one talked of podiums or even doing well, just doing our best and beating any old personal records from prior meets.

The longer races started early in the morning and none of us were competing in those. We were sticking with the shorter 10K and under races, many of us racing in two.

The teams gathered data from the early morning runs. It was spring, so the weather was nice once the sun came up and reports came in for a soft course with melting snow, so teams waxed up appropriately.

We were the only team running traditional Nordic skis which drew the attention of a few, including an Olympic coach who helped us wax our skis and showed us an easier way of getting the job done. He gave us words of encouragement before he walked away.

I and my schoolmate were lined up for the 5K start and we were placed in the back so we wouldn’t get run over by the skate skiers. They raised the flag to indicate we were about to start when a call came over the radio of moose on the back of the run and we had to delay the race.

We made our way back to our designated school areas and while we waited, clouds moved in and blocked the sun. The temperature dropped ten degrees easily and we saw the coach who had shown us the waxing secret come over to us.

“Strip the wax,” he said in hushed tones as he approached.

We gathered around puzzled and he informed us the track was hardening and getting slick. The rules stated that during a delay, wax could not be applied, but wax could be removed. Our skis were old enough and made for recreational skiing, so removing the wax would give us ideal skiing surfaces.

We scraped the wax and about a half an hour later, the course was declared clear and we lined up again. Knowing the others had the wrong wax didn’t mean we could win, but it gave us hope.

The air horn blasted and we all started. The teams with professional coaches started off well and those without slipped and stumbled. Those of us on traditional skis shot off, but were blocked by all the sprawling skiers.

Out of the chute, me and two of my schoolmates jumped out in front of over half the pack and charged down the trail. By the time we reached the first hard turn, we had put some distance between us and them, but a gap had opened between us and the leaders. We overtook a couple who fell in the turn as the trail was fast and their skis didn’t have the edges to make the corner.

The course wound through the woods before coming to a steep section that rose over a hundred feet. The first thirty feet were extremely steep and many of the leaders worked hard to get up the hill since their skis didn’t have the edges on them.

It was a difficult climb, but with edges on our skis, we walked at an angle up the first steep part and then skied up the rest. We watched as other skiers lost their edges and slid back down the hill, often colliding into other skiers.

A few of the leaders beat us to the top of the hill, but we were hot on their heels. They had the advantage in speed, but we had better control. As we finished the first of two laps, one of the parent volunteers held up a chalkboard that showed me that I was nearly a minute faster than my last meet and that was in spite of the nasty hill climb.

With a new surge of adrenaline, we pressed on and caught two more leaders when then crashed at the first turn. I wasn’t sure what place I was in, but looking behind me, I only saw the two skiers who’d crashed and one other skier.

Panting hard, we came around the corner and all chaos broke loose. Nearly forty skiers were still trying to climb the hill. By the rules, you couldn’t remove your skies to walk without being disqualified, so many kids were sitting on the sides of the trail crying while other still tried to climb the hill, some on their hands and knees.

We wove our way up the hill, often having other skiers slide down and collide with us. The lead skiers on skate skies were easy to spot because they were assisting one another up the hill in tandem pairs. Some of their teammates who were still stuck from the first lap helped them out too.

There was nothing in the rules against it and we all moved up the hill.

I spotted one of my classmates clear the first steep rise just before two others. Once I cleared the top of that first rise, it was clear and I knew only a handful of the kids that had reached the top were in lap one.

I crossed the finish line to cheers and discovered that I was overall ten minutes slower than my last meet, but had placed sixth! One of my schoolmates took third and the other took fourth.

For the first time ever, our school had two representatives that qualified for the State Championship!

It was nearly a half an hour before large numbers of skiers made it through the chute to finish just their first lap. As it turns out, officials finally let them all remove their skis and climb the hill before putting them back on and finishing the race.

That evening, at the medal ceremony, I watch as my schoolmates both received medals. It turned out that the kid who took first had changed his wax during the delay and was disqualified. That meant I moved up to fifth and qualified for State too!

It was also decided that since the course couldn’t be completed by more than 50% of the contestants, and those that did qualified well under their normal time, that meet was being disqualified as a qualifier for State, so despite our school’s best performance because or our old gear, we didn’t make State.

We did try another meet, but the highest skier got was 11th, which was good considering we were still on old skis.

I did beat my best time by nearly a minute at that meet too, but I came in 26th.

We all looked forward to the next year when we would have time to practice on the new skate skis and see how some of our top skiers would do. Unfortunately, that would be the last meet in a long time as we only had 8 students the next year and they closed down our school.

Growing Up Alaska: Walking To School, Uphill Both Ways

Growing up in the small rural community of Central, Alaska, our school didn’t always have enough students to remain open. And when it did, the students were spread out over a large area.

My family was eight miles at the end of one of three roads, and with one bus, it made our commute rather long. There were a couple of families that lived near us and we all used the same bus stop. So each morning, Clint and I would walk about 3/4 of a mile up the hill and meet with the other kids while we waited for the bus.

It was springtime and we were in between a constant thaw/freeze cycle as temperatures during the day would get just above freezing and drop below at night. This particular morning it was already barely above freezing and the road was covered in slushy ice.

We trudged up the hill, Clint constantly encouraging me to keep up. It was cold enough we needed a coat, but warm enough that we didn’t zip it up. In fact, it was warm enough that most kids had their coat tied around their waist.

Like every other day, we rode to school. Only, today at recess, the temperature kept rising and we were near 50 degrees so no one wore a coat.

After school, we climbed onto the bus and prepared for the long commute home.

I noticed that many of the creeks, which were still frozen, had lots of water flowing over the tops of them and many low places in the road had standing water. All the meltwater had no place to go.

We dropped off everyone else and were nearly home when the bus driver stopped and told us we would have to walk the rest of the way. On this side of the hill, the creek had washed out the road and cars could not get across. Someone had set up a temporary footbridge so that people could cross.

We all climbed out and the bus driver walked us down to where the road had been washed out. The footbridge turned out to be a series of 2x6s and 2x8s that has been laid out across the downstream end of the culverts that had pretty much washed out.

One at a time we crossed the fifteen foot segment of washed out road. It was both thrilling and terrifying, but we all made it across safely and continued the walk home.

The bus driver lived up the road this way too, so she left the bus parked along the road so that we could get picked up there in the morning. Since we had parked on the other side of the hill, she started laughing as we walked along, nearly all of us complaining about having to walk so far.

“Well, at least you can tell your children that in your day, you had to walk uphill both ways to school,” our bus driver continued to laugh.

Our driver walked us all to the bus stop before heading back down to her house with the promise that she would contact our families about the pick up time for the next day.

As it turned out, we didn’t have school the next day because flood waters had washed out multiple bridges and repairs would take a few days to make the road safe.

But, for that one day, we can say that we walked uphill both ways, if not to school, to our bus stop; which I think counts.

Growing Up Alaska: Honeybuns

For those of you who do not know what Honeybuns are (other than that cute name you call your significant other), I will tell you they are not an Alaskan thing. They are a pastry that I would say is a cross between a cinnamon roll and a donut.

Back when I was seven, about the only way you could get these in Alaska was to have someone ship them to you. They were popular in the south and midwest, so when we had one of our rare calls to our grandmother in Oklahoma, my oldest brother Shane told her he wanted honeybuns for his upcoming 14th birthday.

She probably spent twice as much on postage as she did on the four dozen honeybuns, but she mailed them and I won’t forget the day that medium sized brown box arrived with my brother’s name on it. You would have thought we had just won the lottery.

Of course that excitement quickly died when our mother informed us that this was Shane’s birthday present so they were his, despite the note that my grandmother had written saying they were for the family. We each got one for breakfast, but the other 3 1/2 dozen went to my oldest brother.

You can eat them straight from the package, but the best way is to cook them on the griddle with a little bit of butter. This caramelizes the sugar and warms it up creating a decadent, gooey taste of heaven.

After breakfast, Shane took his box and went to hide it. We were on the mine site living in a small trailer so we didn’t exactly have personal space, but we all had our “spots.” Shane’s spot was an old Korean War era ambulance that my dad was planning to convert into a mobile processing lab for his new drill rig.

Mom gave us a stern warning not to bother Shane because they were his honeybuns. If we wanted some, we could ask grandmother to send some for our birthdays. So you can imagine her irritation when Shane entered the trailer and Clint, the middle brother, asked if he could have another.

We were sent on our way as the trailer was too small to hang out in and besides, we all had our jobs to tend to. I finished my chores quickly, being too small to have a “job,” and went to play with my cars in the sand pile.

While I was playing, Clint walked by as if heading to the trailer when he stopped, looked around, and sprinted for the ambulance. He disappeared through the driver’s door which faced away from the camp and since I knew what he was up to, I jumped up to follow.

I found Clint standing on a bucket in his search of the upper compartments and he shushed me as I climbed up. I closed the driver side door with a loud thud which was louder than a normal car door since it was made of multiple layers of steel.

Finding the right compartment, Clint pulled down the box and hopped off the bucket, sitting the box on one of the fold out stretchers. I climbed up next to him and we looked down into the box full of honeybuns.

Clint grabbed a couple out, putting one in his pocket and gave me the other. “Don’t tell,” he said, which was a common ploy of his when he was doing something wrong. He would try to get me involved so I would get into trouble too if I tattled.

It didn’t always work, but this time it did. I grinned as I tried to open the cellophane wrapper as Clint took one more before putting the box back.

We sprinted from the ambulance and ran behind a dirt pile to enjoy our spoils. I still couldn’t open my package, so Clint opened it for me and I dove in, shoving as much in as I could, expecting any moment to get caught.

Clint didn’t eat his as quickly, and I supposed he didn’t have to since he had two. “Slow down,” he told me as I took another big bite. “Save the rest. You won’t get another.”

I took another bite, then, as instructed, I folded down the wrapper and put the rest of the honeybun in my pocket. Clint wiped the evidence from my face and we merrily went back to our activities.

I hid the remainder of my honeybun in the tin that I put my toy cars in and thought about it all day.

The next day, as we set about our jobs in the morning, I saw Shane head to the ambulance. I held my breath and watched as he went in. But he emerged a couple of minutes later with his hands in his coat pocket and marched off to work without even a sidelong glance.

I was contemplating where I could take my honeybun to eat it and not get caught, when my mother called for me to ride with her into town. This journey took up most of our day and when we returned, my dad and brothers were working in the gold room where I had stored my toys so they wouldn’t get rained on.

It would be another day before I could savor the last of my honeybun, so I waited until the next morning, and as soon as my chores were done, I snatched up my tin box and went behind the dirt pile and devoured what was left of my honeybun.

While I was doing that, I heard the door to the ambulance squeak open and spotted Clint climbing out, a honeybun in hand. He ran off towards the woods and I snuck over to the ambulance.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t reach the compartment, even when standing on a bucket, so I gave up, sure that at any moment Shane was going to walk in and catch me.

I heard mom calling for me and realized it must be time for my next set of chores, so I sprinted as quietly as I could from the ambulance. Being as smart as I was, I wound my way around the camp so I came from behind the trailer and not so obviously from the ambulance.

Mom was waiting with two empty five gallon jugs that I was to use to gather water from the spring on the other side of camp. She set them on the ground as was about to head up the steps into the kitchen when she stopped and asked, “What did you get into?”

I looked down at my pants as I usually have crawled in the mud or something, but mom grabbed my face and wiped at it with a dish towel. It came away sticky and dirty.

“You have been eating honeybuns. Did you steal one from Shane?” She squeezed my cheeks so hard I couldn’t respond if I wanted to, so I shook my head no which only caused her to squeeze a little harder.

She let go and I said, “Clint gave it to me!” which wasn’t a complete lie.

Mom stood up and yelled for Clint. I saw his head duck down behind the embankment along the road. Mom yelled a couple of more times before Clint emerged from the woods about a hundred feet from where I had first spotted him. He walked over sheepishly and glared at me the whole way. He knew I had ratted on him.

Mom ordered us to go sit next to the trailer and called for Shane. He came running and mom instructed him to go get his honeybuns. When he exited the ambulance, he was fuming. “There are at least six missing!”

“I only had the one Clint gave me!” I blurted which got me an elbow in the side from him.

Mom lectured us about stealing and how we were not allowed to have any more of Shane’s honeybuns without his permission. Clint pointed out how unfair that was since Shane wasn’t going to share and my mom responded that he didn’t have too, especially since we stole from him.

She instructed Shane to find a better hiding place and took Clint and I around to the other side of the trailer to give us a spanking. When we were done, Shane had gone and so had the honeybuns.

Two days later I was sitting back in the sand area playing with my cars when I spotted Clint slinking off. I went out front by the oversized gravel parking lot and watched as he moved between the vehicles, watching something.

That is when I spotted Shane who had sprinted across the lot to where the mechanics worked on the heavy equipment from the mine; one area that was completely off limits to us kids. Shane disappeared into the scrap yard at the edge of the work area and Clint sprinted to a dirt pile nearby.

Clint climbed the pile and looked down, then flattened himself as Shane reappeared. Shane looked about, then sprinted across the lot and down towards the mine where he was supposed to be helping dad today.

Clint disappeared into the scrap yard and emerged a while later, his hands in his coat pocket. He looked around to make sure no one could see him, then sprinted for the woods.

Clint repeated this multiple times over the next two days, and on the second day I followed and repeated Clint’s actions from a few days earlier and spied on him from the dirt pile. I couldn’t see into the scrap yard, but I did see him climb up into the back of an old fire service truck that one of the mechanics had hoped to fix up and make his service truck.

Clint didn’t spot me as he ran to the woods. As many times as he had taken honeybuns, I wasn’t sure how Shane didn’t notice. I could only assume that Shane really was making his honeybuns last and hadn’t gotten another one yet.

The next morning, Shane started for the scrap yard and this time Clint stood out in the open. Shane saw him and stopped. He wandered down the road away from the honeybuns and Clint followed as if he wasn’t sure where Shane was going.

They played this cat and mouse game for about 5 minutes before dad came out and honked his horn, letting Shane know it was time to go to work. Shane came running and glared at Clint who only grinned back at him, his arms crossed.

As soon as the truck was out of sight, Clint sprinted for the scrap yard only to emerge a couple of minutes later and sprint for the trees.

I’m not sure if I was more upset with Clint stealing from Shane or the fact that neither of them was sharing, but that’s when the plan started to form in my head. I waited until all my chores were done and that Clint had gotten called off to work before I set out.

I knew the scrap yard was off limits and I could get into serious trouble if I got caught, so unlike my brothers, I skirted the edge of the woods rather than run across the open lot. When I got there, I climbed into the back of the fire truck and it was easy to spot where Shane had hidden his honeybuns since everything had been coated in dust.

It took me a few tries to open the compartment since I didn’t know how to use the latches, but when I did, I was surprised to find only about a dozen honeybuns left. I took one out and set my plan into motion.

After dinner, Shane said he needed to go use the bathroom and took off. He returned a few minutes later calling Clint’s name. Clint’s eyes went wide and Mom met Shane at the door.

There was a whole lot of yelling before mom drug Clint and I out of the trailer to face Shane. This lead to more yelling as Shane yelled that all his honeybuns were gone.

Clint tried to play innocent, but his glances at me told my mom he was hiding something.

“Matthew–” my mom started.

“I took them and hid them so Clint would stop stealing them!” I replied before she could say my whole name, a sure indication that we were in trouble.

This got me a glare from both of my brothers, Clint for ratting on him, Shane for taking his honeybuns.

“Clint followed you on the first day and found your hiding hole. He’s been eating them everyday!” I continued quickly. “I haven’t eaten any!”

“Where are they?” mom asked.

“I hid them someplace safe.”

They all looked at me, waiting for me to tell them where this safe place was.

“I think that I should get a reward.”

“What!” Shane bellowed.

“Just one honeybun.”

“No way!”

“Matthew! Those are not yours and you will give them back immediately!” my mother demanded.

I pressed my lips together, indicating I wasn’t going to respond.

So she spanked and grounded Clint, then told me she wouldn’t spank me if I told Shane where his honeybuns were.

I got spanked.

“Fine!” my mother protested, “We will let your father sort this out.”

So we all sat in the little trailer glaring at one another for an hour until dad came in. Apprised of the situation, dad took Clint out and gave him a spanking with his belt and left him sitting outside while he sorted out the rest of the problem.

“Where are they?” he asked as he came in, hunching over to squeeze his tall frame into the tiny trailer door. Being my dad already made him formidable in my eyes, but this caused him to loom over me and my resolve melted.

“I put them in a safe place.” I replied, afraid to look up. My dad let the silence linger and I finally said, “Shane is sitting on them.”

Shane sprang up and pulled up the cushions. Under it was a small storage compartment and when he opened it, there was his box of honeybuns. He pulled the box out and his face dropped when he opened it. He turned and yelled at me, “Where are they all at?”

Dad took the box from him, then asked him, “How many have you had?”

“Four since they stole them! There should be twice this many!” Shane wailed.

Dad turned to me and I held up my hands, “I haven’t eaten any! Mom said we couldn’t have any unless Shane gave them to us.”

Anger burned in Shane’s eyes and I knew if he got Clint or I alone, we were in trouble.

Dad placed his hand on Shane’s shoulder and said, “I think Matt deserves a reward, don’t you?”

That seemed to rattle Shane as he shook his head and stared in disbelief up at dad. “But…”

“If he had’t hidden them from Clint, you would have even less now. He could have eaten them, but he didn’t. He could have taken some, but he didn’t. He could have not told you were they were, but he didn’t. Losing one for the right reason is better than loosing them all for the wrong reason.”

Shane reluctantly took a honeybun out of the box and tossed it at me. I picked it up and smiled from ear to ear.

Dad looked at me and winked before he usher Shane out with the promise of a box with a lock on it.

I savored my prize over the next couple of days, making sure to keep it hidden.

It would be nearly two years before I got to eat another honeybun, but now, each time that I do, I remember that summer at the mine and the lessons learned.

Growing Up Alaska: The Candy Bar

Growing up in a rural town in Alaska meant things were done differently. People didn’t lock up their houses or their cars. A neighbor was more than someone who lived next to you. And all of this was based on trust.

I was around eleven when this next story occurred and it was one of those rare occasions that I was selected to go alone to help my dad. In reality, both of my brothers were likely occupied with something else and my dad took the next available son.

That sounds worse than it really was because I was 6 years younger than my oldest brother and when my dad went out to do something, he tended to take someone that he could depend on that already knew what to do. I was a bit of a dreamer and admittedly was not the best of “just knowing” what to do.

But today was my day. I honestly don’t remember exactly what we had gone to do, but I believe we’d gone to pick up my dad’s drill rig. We were successful and were on our way home when my dad stopped off at Crabb’s Corner, the local one stop convenience store/gas station/laundry/hotel/cafe/bar/etc.

My dad filled up the fuel tanks on the truck and drill rig and gave me a few dollars to go in to get a soda to split and a candy bar. Now this was something special as we didn’t do this often and I was quite excited.

I ran in and looked through the limited selection of candy, trying to decide what I wanted. I picked out a Hershey Bar with almonds for my dad and finally selected a Butterfinger for myself, not because it was my favorite, it was simply because it was the biggest.

When I went over to the fridge to get a Pepsi for us to share, I noticed a strange man standing in the dark near the laundry just staring at me. As you can imagine, this gave me the creeps, so I quickly grabbed the soda and went to the counter up front and rang the bell.

The store was often unmanned and the bell next to the register was used to alert someone upstairs in the cafe/bar to come down. Only no one came, so I waited and rang the bell again.

I looked out the window and could see my dad was finished with fueling the vehicles and was climbing into the cab to pull the truck around to get us ready for the road. I knew that if Jim was managing the bar, he didn’t like it when people rang the bell, so I ran to the steps and peered up into the cafe/bar.

I wasn’t allowed up their without one of my parents, so I craned my neck as much as I could and looked around. The place was empty. There weren’t even any customers which was odd.

Movement in the dark room to my left made my hair stand on end as the stranger had moved and was now standing in the middle of the room, staring at me wordlessly. I couldn’t see his face in the dark, but I imagined it to be something sinister.

My dad honked the horn and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I ran to the counter and in a panic, didn’t know what to do. Normally, if someone doesn’t answer, you fill out a slip on the notebook with what you purchased and the cash. If you are owed change, you picked it up the next time you came in. If you had a line of credit, you could simply write and IOU. Remember, we were a tight knit community and trust was everything.

And that was the problem. I didn’t trust this stranger. So, in a most grown up way, I decided not to leave the cash behind, but rather wrote an IOU and rushed out to my dad waiting in the truck.

I bound in and had barely closed the door before my dad started off. I handed him the soda and Hershey Bar before buckling my belt as we turned out onto the road.

I pulled my Butterfinger out along with the $3 he’d had given me and was pleased with my split second decision that I was sure my dad would be proud of it too.

“Here’s the money! I left them a note because there was no one there but this strange guy.”

My dad just turned and stared at me without taking the money. “Why didn’t you leave it on the counter?”

I beamed up at him. “I didn’t see anyone in the bar and afraid the stranger would steal the money, I decided to leave a note instead.”

Rather than the familiar pride on my dad’s face, a look I seldom saw darkened his eyes. He stuck out his hand and I handed him the money. He set it on his seat next to him and stuck out his hand again. I looked at him confused, then reluctantly handed him my Butterfinger.

He set it wordlessly on the seat as well and drove down the narrow road until he found a place that he could turn around with the trailer and we headed back to Crabb’s Corner.

“I understand why you thought that was good, but I want you to remember that the people around here have to earn each other’s trust. People can take your home, your bike, even your life, but one thing they can’t take from you is your good name.”

We pulled back into the parking lot and as we stopped, he continued. “You have not earned their trust to leave them a note. Though you thought you were doing the right thing, it isn’t your responsibility to make sure anyone else is. It would have been better for you to leave the money counter and have the man steal it than to steal something with a promise.”

“But what if–” I started before my dad held up his hand.

“Trust can not be built on what ifs.” He picked up my Butterfinger and handed it to me before fishing another dollar out of his pocket. “Now, return it and apologize. You will pay double for your candy when you return it. If no one is there, leave a note and apologize.”

Crestfallen, I took the money and my candy and trudged back into the store. When the chimes on the door rang, I was greeted by the cheerful voice of Ms. Sandy, the owner. “Why there you are dear! I got your note. Did you forget something?”

I shook my head and placed the Butterfinger on the counter along with $4. I felt the tears burning the corner of my eyes as I felt ashamed. “I’m sorry I took the stuff without paying.”

“Why that is okay, dear? I got your note,” she said picking up the money. “Hun, here, you gave me too much,” she said scooting the extra dollar back towards me.

“My dad said I had to pay double for what I stole since I don’t have permission to leave an IOU.”

I turned for the door as Ms. Sandy replied, “That’s silly. I don’t let kids write IOUs, but I know you are good for it. Besides, I heard you ring the bell, but I was….busy.”

I pulled open the door and she called out, “You forgot your candy!”

I felt the tears well up again and I left before she could see me crying.

My dad stood next to the truck waiting and when I came out, he motioned for me to get in and then went inside to talk to Ms. Sandy as well.

He came out less than two minutes later and climbed into the truck before pulling out onto the road.

Once we had driven for a minute, he said in his low solid voice, “I know that must have been hard, but I want you to know that I am proud of you. I’m proud of you for making a good choice, even if it wasn’t the right one. I’m proud of you for standing up and apologizing even when you didn’t feel you were in the wrong. And I am proud of you for listening to me and not complaining or arguing.”

He reached into his jacket pocket and I looked up in anticipation, wiping the tears from my cheeks. He handed me the rest of his Hershey Bar and for a flash of a moment I was disappointed until I realized that this was his treat, something I knew he looked forward to and he had given it to me though I was the one at fault.

It was one of my most humbling moments in life and it has always stuck with me. I can’t look at a Butterfinger without thinking of him and remembering the pride on his face as he gave away his treat to soften my blow. And I will always remember how sweet it was to share that treat with him as we drove home.

Growing Up Alaska: The Tale of the Tail

Winters are cold in the interior of Alaska. We can see the temperatures plummet to below minus 60º Fahrenheit which can be painfully cold. One of my prized possessions was my fur trappers hat that I wore to keep my head, ears and cheeks warm.

I was traveling by snow machine with a friend to clear and mark the trail for The Yukon Quest, a thousand mile sled dog race from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory to Fairbanks, Alaska, that literally went through my backyard. It was late in January, so we didn’t get much sunlight, and most of our trail breaking was done in the dark.

Luckily, the temperatures had risen to just above zero and along with that, it brought fresh snow. That meant that in places it was difficult to find the trail and we spent a lot of time creating new paths.

A sliver of a moon had already risen, even though it was early in the evening, casting silvery shadows in open spaces and leaving the trees as dark splotches against an even darker sky. The headlight from the snow machine cast a bouncing yellow light that reflected off the drifts and left long chasms of shadows the seemed to move on their own.

I was kneeling on my machine to help keep it stable in the soft snow as I followed my friend who had taken the lead since I was hauling the sled with the trail markers and reflectors. The sound of the engine and the rushing wind drowned out most sound and caused a hum in my brain that tried to lull me to ignore the world around me.

We pulled out of the woods and dropped down onto a wide creek and after taking a right, I noticed that my friend had stopped not far up the creek. We frequently stopped to mark the trail or simply to warm ourselves up or let our machines cool down.

I stopped and marked the trail showing the mushers that the trail was about to turn and leave the creek. Finished, I climbed back on my machine and sped along the trail to my waiting friend.

As I approached him, I could see he was sitting on his machine and drinking from his thermos. I was thinking about how cold I was and looked forward to taking a break and drinking hot chocolate from my own thermos being kept warm near the exhaust manifold.

He turned and looked at me as I approached and I saw his eyes go wide and his jaw drop open in either surprise or trying to yell something. Of course, even if he had yelled, I wouldn’t have heard him.

And that is when something struck me upside my head causing me to shift on my machine and go off the trail and sink into the snow.

In that moment, my brain slowed down as it tried to process all the information. One part tried to keep my machine from sinking while another part processed the pain at the side of my head and yet another part tried to process what had caused the pain.

My machine slowed and immediately sunk as I tried to stay on and I knew I was going to get stuck, so I turned my attention to my friend who was frantically pointing behind me.

I swung my head around and watched a huge dark shadow fly up and disappear into the trees. As the snow machine stopped, I turned it off and felt the side of my head to see if I was bleeding.

Luckily I was not. I pulled my hat off and found a large scratch along the leather on the earflap. I checked my head again and found that pain was coming from just over and behind the ear.

“Holy cow! Did you see it?” my friend yelled as he ran to me. It was hard to understand him as my ears still thrummed from the roar of the vibrations of the snow machine. He point to the trees. “That was a huge owl! Are you okay?”

I checked the side of my head again and was relieved to find I still wasn’t bleeding, though it hurt enough that I was sure there should be some kind of gash there. As I spun my hat around, I saw that I was now missing the last four inches of my prized fox tail that tended to flutter in the breeze behind me as I rode.

“Man, it got your tail!” my friend said as he inspected the side of my head. “It came out of nowhere and WHAM! It must have thought your tail was food!”

I spent a few minutes lamenting my hat and my head before spending the next twenty minutes getting my machine and the sled out of the soft snow.

As we continued down the trail, more than once I was sure I spotted phantom shadows out of the corner of my eye causing me to duck.

Even today, if I am walking near woods or working in my yard, when a shadow passes overhead, my instinct is to duck and I think of that great horned owl that took the tip of my tail.