Last Frontier Magazine -


Our Perfect Christmas


Mike Nickols

Our first couple of winters living in the bush were a bit hard, no question about that. While we have done without on more than one occasion, we've found that by shifting, modifying, or simply making do, we have never suffered living here. It's been an adjustment but we've never done without to the point of physical pain of any kind. Oh, smashed fingers, cuts here and there, disappointments, the mental stress of nature caused by things like 80 mph winds and drifting snow for days on end, rotten thin ice when we need thick solid ice to fly out on. But things have always worked out. We learned quickly to work with what nature gives us, to use what we have at hand, and make the best of it. Winter always has added challenges, most of which many people never think about, but when we do it right and with a bit of luck, the rewards are well worth the effort. Simple things can have large rewards.

Over the years we have had many guests spend time here with us. It is not uncommon after a day or so for some of our guests to get kind of a questioning far away look, then turn to us and slowly ask, "What do you do out here all the time?" It is a sincere question, you can see that in their eyes. They are really wondering what we do with all our empty hours. Especially during the long winters.

Their question lets us know that they don't have a clue about living away from civilization. Maybe even no clue about living in civilization. Most people think electric power comes when you plug in the cord, or from the simple flip of a switch. Water comes from the tap. Right's cold, left hot. All you want, just turn the handle. Food? It's all as close as the store, pretty much unlimited. Need a couple of two by fours? Fuel? Clothing? A bolt or nut? Pizza? It's all pretty handy for most folks, and some things you can get it delivered right to your door. Most of it takes no thought or planning, just a bit of time (very little in most cases), and a quick pull of your wallet.

What do we do with all of our time? Well, for most folks heating their home is as simple as adjusting a lever. For us in the Bush, it requires a lot of equipment, saws, axes, snowmachines (in our "Old Days," we used backpacks to get our firewood) and a LOT more of just hard work. Power requires a generator, fuel/oil, and maintenance. Don't forget to go out and start it before you "flip the switch," doesn't matter if the snow is five feet deep and it's twenty below. For water we head for the lake with buckets. Food takes most of a day, if we're lucky, to fly a load of supplies in here and a lot of times longer than that depending on weather and the season. It all gets handled about three to four times before it's stored away. I think you get the picture. There are always things to do out here. Many things to meet just our basic needs, simple things for the most part that most take for granted. And it becomes easy to really know and appreciate many of the simple things of life.

That said, once the chores are done and needs are met, it becomes very easy to get into a big part of why we choose to live out here. It comes down to having our own personal space and room, the time to enjoy and appreciate the simple things of life, time with family, evening cribbage games, maybe a game of chess, pickin' the guitar a bit or reading a good book, maybe even one shared with the whole family. It's about quality time and it doesn't get much better than that. We work for it a bit more than others, but we've learned to depend on ourselves, and that is a good feeling.

Those early, "tougher," years also had many simple rewards. I recall well our first Christmas. The tree was easy enough. Or as easy as finding "The Perfect Tree" ever is, especially after several miles on snowmachine and snowshoes in a pretty harsh environment, one that doesn't lend itself to growing the perfect tree. We found one, if not perfect, it was close enough. We hauled it home in a sled just like the "olden days" and then remembered we had no decorations. We spent a few evenings constructing strings of popcorn to drape around the spruce boughs. The bottoms of old pie tins cut out nicely into little stars and reindeer. Pam made up a dough out of flour, water and something else which once formed, dried and painted, made dandy little ornaments, and it was not long before we had ... well, the perfect tree. Pretty close anyway. And one like no one else's for sure.

Most of the time Christmas gifts came mail order. We searched and shopped the catalogs, a good bit of fun in itself, planned and ordered gifts for our son, then discreetly ordered gifts for each other as well. Always keeping in mind, not only does it have to reach the post office in time through the hoards of Alaska Christmas mail ... but we needed sufficient time and good weather to fly out to pick them up and get them home in time for Christmas. Once home it's a bit difficult with a plane load of packages, as Pam and Aaron were always there to help unload ... "What's in this big box Dad?" Aaron would ask. "Ahh ... it's a new bag for the dogsled," I would lie. "Here, unload this fuel and go put it in the store house." It was fun. Once all the packages were home there was always the late night wrapping as all parents do, but the main thing was, it was all here, we were ready for Christmas. Let it snow, blow, or whatever, our Christmas would be good.

Our first Christmas unexpectedly turned out to be very special. About a week before Santa was due we had all the prep work done, tree all up, and presents all stashed. I was out shoveling a trail through the deep snow down to the plane tied on the lake ice. There is very little airplane traffic in this country in the winter and it was almost non-existent years back, so I was a little surprised to hear the faint drone of an aircraft off in the distance. As it got closer it was apparent he was headed right for us, and as he flew over low I looked up and recognized the small bush plane of one of the local flight services we knew well. Nobody comes out here for nothing, so I walked into the lodge, grabbed our little hand held aircraft radio, called on the standard frequency, and heard our local pilot ask, "How's your strip down there?" I told him it was good, well packed under a foot of fresh snow, no overflow, just stay between the spruce boughs. We always use spruce boughs to mark the airstrip. It can vanish in an overnight snowfall and without them on gray dark flat light days it can be the difference between a nice safe ordinary landing ... or a tense scary "Where in the hell is the airstrip!" landing. He replied, "Ok, see you in a minute." In about that time he came taxiing up, we were wondering what was going on. It was very unusual for a plane to just drop in. We could see the pilot and a passenger both bundled up as normal for cold winter flying. As he pulled up and shut down we walked up to the plane as the passenger door opened and ... out slid my Dad, totally unexpected, from over three thousand miles away.

My Dad was very short but stocky. As he slid from the seat, the back of the heavy coveralls he was wearing caught on the seat lever, and he just hung there about half way to the ground, feet dangling in midair. We all laughed, I grabbed him in a welcome hug and lifted him free and onto the snow. It was a big surprise for us all, and we had our second load of airplane gifts in the form of Dad and Grandpa for Christmas.

It was an awesome Christmas, one we won't forget. Plenty of food, water and firewood, the "Perfect Christmas Tree," and family. All snug in our wilderness home.


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