My friend Daniel from San Francisco visited me this week, and we gave him a week he won't forget.
When he was getting ready to come up, I told him, “It is cold. Colder than you can imagine.” I explained he could bring all the clothes he owns and still wouldn’t be warm enough. With that in mind, Daniel went shopping in SF to prepare for the trip.
I meet up with him for the first time in Anchorage where I was at the Iditarod Rookie meeting. We met at our hotel called, Lake Side located on the largest float plane landing lake in Anchorage. The first thing he said was, “It’s cold.” I quickly replied, "Hell yeah it's cold. It's -15 out!!"
We spent the night in Anchorage catching up and flew to Fairbanks later the next day.
While back in Fairbanks I wanted to make sure I took him on a longer run and camp out with the dogs for the night. Daniel being from the city has never been camping before and certainly not winter camping. I was thinking about taking him on a dog run to a cabin 50 miles away. This one room log cabin has seen better days; however, it has a wood stove, and because it is so far out there, Daniel will get the feeling of Alaska's openness.
Ken suggested we do a shorter run first to get Daniel use to being on the 4-wheeler and of course the cold. We did a 20 mile run both sitting on the 4-wheeler while the dogs pulled it. Daniel for sure got cold; however, the next day we went to Beaver Sports to buy some new gear to ensure he doesn’t get too cold and avoid the serious frost bite.
With the new gear, we decided it's time to attempt the camping trip. Keeping the dogs overnight requires a lot of packing including, hay for them to sleep on, blankets to put over them if it's too cold, lots of extra food just incase, a device to heat up water (cooker) to give with their meals and lots of methanol to run the cooker. Some of the stuff we packed included enough food for the day, a smaller meal for breakfast, -40 sleeping bags, and extra fuel and oil for the 4-wheeler.
Ken decides to join us leaving about an hour afterward on his sled. The route to get to the cabin is pretty straight forward. We were on dirt roads for the first 2/3’s going to the highest point in Fairbanks, through 6-foot high snow drifts which making us feel like we were in another world. Finally dropping down into the Mento flats where the temperature drops and additional ten degrees. The last third of the journey is pretty bumpy, going through single lane trails surrounded by snow covered spruce trees with bows hanging down making natural archways. This trail is seldom used and is overgrown in many sections with tree limbs that need to be ducked under. As Daniel can speak too you can not dodge them all.
When we got about an hour away from the cabin, I stopped to put more fuel in the tank. I got off the 4-wheeler and walked back to the gas can and noticed it was on its side and I could smell gasoline. Realizing it has been slowly leaking out over that past several hours, we were left with a fraction of what we started with. Pouring the remaining fuel into the tank, it didn’t take long to realize we were not going to have enough fuel to return home the next day. Trying to get that out of my mind and continue with the journey proved to be tough. I kept going over scenarios on how we are going to get the 4-wheeler back the next day. Ken did mention in the past they have put the fuel used for the cooker into the 4-wheeler, and it didn’t cause any harm. However, we are going to need a lot of cooker fuel to make it home.
Once we arrive to the cabin Daniel started to get the dogs harness and booties off so they could sleep comfortably and I lite the cooker and the fireplace in the cabin. Soon after Ken arrived and I was still feeling like an idiot for losing fuel. Wasn’t sure how I was going to tell Ken. Once we were all done with the dogs the three of us were in the cabin cooking our food on the wood stove and I lightly touched on the fact that the fuel leaked out and I wasn’t sure if we would have enough fuel to get home. I also followed that up with confirming it would be ok to have Josh place a can of fuel on the trail for us to get on the way home. Ken was clearly tired and didn’t think too much of it, and we all went to bed.
Morning came fast, and after Ken had looked into the 4-wheeler tank, he explained there is no way we were going to make it back home, and we would have to stay in the cabin until he can get more fuel down to us. He left his remaining dog and human food, survival gear including jumper cables for the 4-wheeler, phone charger, and a device with a button you can press if you are ever in trouble. He also suggested trying not to use any of the cooker fuel and heat water on the wood stove.
With Ken now gone, Daniel and I filled all the cooker with snow to melt into water. While Daniel was napping, I went to the frozen over creek behind the cabin to try and cut a hole in the ice to get water. After clearing snow, it took me about 20 minutes to cut about 18 inches into the ice and was surprised that I didn't hit any water. I figured the creek has to be frozen right through and we are not going to be able to get water this way.
I began chopping more firewood just outside of the cabin. As I was bringing it into the cabin, Daniel woke up, and he said he wanted to learn how to chop wood. After demonstrating a few times, he picked it up pretty quick. We also had a serious conversation concerning how long we could be down here for and that we should conserve our food.
Ken also asked us to clear some of the trails of overhanging tree limbs. With a hand saw ready to go we cleared the trail for about four hours.
Once we got back to the cabin, we turned my phone back on to see if we go any text messages from Ken or Josh. We got a text saying Josh was going to stash fuel on the trail and suggested pouring one can of the cooker fuel into the 4-wheeler.
With limited food for us and the dogs, we decided it would be best to make an attempt to leave now vs spending another night.
Being -35 C out we are unsure if we can get the 4-wheeler started. First off we had to put the battery back into the 4-wheeler which we brought in overnight to keep warm. When we were reinstalling it, we noticed that both the positive and negative sides of the battery had two wires that look like needed to be attached. When trying to do so, we just couldn’t get them both put back on. Now unsure if both of them were originally on we decide to fasten the most important looking one and see if that works. Secondly, Ken suggested the day before to take coals out of the fire and place them into a metal dog dish underneath the 4-wheelers engine. Then cover the engine area with blankets to keep the heat in.
Pulling the choke and hitting the starter the motor started to turn over. With high hopes, we continued trying prying the engine would start. To our amazement it did! Holy crap! Everything went into high gear at this point. There was a lot of work that needed to be done for us to leave. We let the engine run for about 10 minutes to heat up and then started it once again about 30 mins later as we were packing things. Once we had all everything ready to go and we fired up the engine one last time. Once again, it started!!!
We are off! We quickly moved through the section of the trail with all the tree limbs that needed to be dodged and onto the smooth trail. I was keeping track of the time and the amount of bars on the fuel indicator. With only three on there and a 4-hour journey to the stashed fuel I roughly knew how far we needed to go per bar. After about an hour one of the bars disappeared. Completely let down and disappointed I knew we would not have enough fuel to make it to out. To add to the feeling the 4-wheeler just turned itself off.
I knew it wasn’t because the fuel tank was empty so I figured it must be the cables we didn’t hookup to the battery. We took the seat off and figured out a way to hook the other two cables onto the battery. The 4-wheeler fired back up! This was a win that we needed.
Daniel asked me a couple of times if we would have enough fuel to make it. I told him. “Yes, I think so.” Knowing there is not a chance in hell. I started thinking of ways we could still make this happen as I turned on my phone to see if we got any other text messages. We got one from Josh. It said he couldn’t put the fuel where he hoped, and he placed it additional 2 hours away. Now there is for sure no way in hell we are going to make it.
Trying to think of solutions I remembered there were a couple of summer cabins we passed on the way out, and we are not too far from them. Knowing we could make it there I could hunt through their sheds and see if they have any extra fuel. When we arrived at the cabins, I told Daniel to stay with the dogs as I went searching. I searched the three cabins that were in sight and couldn’t find any fuel. I went back to Daniel as he sits taking in one of the most impressive northern lights display I’ve ever seen and laid out the options. Firstly we could see how far we can make it on the fuel we have leaving us camping in the snow or a 5% chance we would make it to the fuel. Secondly, we could try to get into one of these cabins, spend the night and see if Josh can bring fuel to us the next day. I reminded him we are out of food for us and only have a limited amount for the dogs.
We made the decision to try and get into on of these cabins and spend the night. As we tried the first cabin, everything was locked other than a sauna which we could probably sleep in. At that moment off in the distance, we could see a silhouette of a fourth cabin. We decide to check it out. Walking through the snow, Daniel would check the doors to see if they were unlocked and I would walk around looking for fuel.
I heard Daniel yell, “Success!” Coming around the conner expecting him to tell me the doors unlocked he said he found the mother load of fuel. We walked up to the little shed, and there were six red jugs. We dumped a little out of the first one to ensure it wasn't mixed. “Crap, it's red!” We grabbed the second jug, and sure enough, it was the right fuel. We filled our 4-wheeler up and returned the jug. Knowing we had enough fuel to make it home we started the 4-wheeler back up and went on our way.
Not knowing what time it was both Daniel and I was having a hard time staying awake. As we made it back onto the dirt road, I started seeing tree branches and would dodge them with my head. Knowing we are on a two lane dirt road there really were not any tree branches, and I was hallucinating. That, along with my hands being very cold, I knew we needed to get home asap.
As we arrived home, I was surprised to see all the light on in the house. We stopped the 4-wheeler and jumped off to find Ken there saying he was happy to see us return. I asked him what time it was, thinking it was 2:00 or 3:00 am only to find out it was 7:00 am and Ken was awake to start his day.
We put the dogs back into their houses and went to bed.
We got through what could have been an awful experience with only a little bit of frost nip on our fingers. We only did this by working together, and if I could do it all over again, I would choose to do it with Daniel again. Thanks for the great experience!!