Last Frontier Magazine -


No Man's Land


Mike Nickols

Lake in front of Caribou Lodge still frozen in June.

By the time June rolls around, depending on what latitude you live on, you could easily be swimming in warm waters. Move farther north, in Alaska, and it's a different story. If you live in the southeast there is a good chance your garden might be up, and for those along the valley floors, where temperatures are warm, summer is usually in full swing. You're probably not going to be doing a lot of swimming though.

We live just a short flight from the valley floor, up in the mountains, maybe fifteen minutes by airplane, but it's a long walk, a world away from civilization and we have a very different climate and lifestyle. The difference between "down in the valley" and here at home in higher elevations is like night and day.

Where we live, with anything short of a helicopter you're not getting in or out of here during "break-up." This is the time of year between the end of winter and the beginning of summer, during the meltdown of seven months worth of snow and ice. The ice on the lakes, while thick where we live, at the same time is poor and thin in the lower elevations, making it unsafe to land with a plane on skis. We start into what we call no man's land, the period between flying on skis and waiting for the lake to thaw so we can switch our airplane to floats for the summer. Most years the ice is not off of our lake till early June. Two years ago the ice did not go out till after the middle of June when we were finally able to travel ... to fly again. When late break-up is in full swing, it makes me feel as if I'm living on an Island-with no boat.

Our delayed spring break-up affects gardening as well. Oh, we have plants up here too, but ours are all inside our lodge home, looking out the window at the greenhouse less than a hundred feet away, wishing, I suppose, they were out there. The reality is, until June, one night out and they are usually toast, frozen in the night's just below freezing temperatures. So it is a different world for us ... and our plants.

While travel in winter is easy on a snowmachine, fun with a dog team, and work but still doable on snowshoes, each year we reach a point, usually in May and sometimes into June, when travel, even short distances, is next to impossible. As I mentioned before, there is no getting in or out to town, and with soft and punchy snow, walking anywhere outside just around our property can be a major chore. While the skies are mostly clear, the sun has heat again, days grow long and working or just being outside is a welcome change. Much of the time as break-up progresses, by afternoon the heat has taken the morning's frozen crust that will support your weight on the snow, and what was an easy minute trot out to the shop, the cellar, down to the plane or outhouse, is an adventure that can take SEVERAL laborious and frustrating minutes. We've noticed as we age, sometimes those minutes are even a little painful. It goes like this... You're just kinda walking along on the surface of two to four feet of snow (maybe more on a heavy snow year), heading for the shop or the hot house. You know the snow is getting soft so you try to walk lightly, gingerly... It's all going well and suddenly the expected unexpectedly happens and your one leg drops out from under you, plunges from a few inches to three feet straight down in a nanosecond, and comes to a bone jarring stop. Conveniently, your other leg folds up under you jamming your knee under your chin. So if you're like me, a couple of quiet not too nice words are mumbled, you haul yourself up and out and ... try again. You might make ten steps, or maybe just one, before you plunge through again. It's like Russian Roulette, except not quite so serious. But sometimes after getting dropped half a dozen times in a hundred foot distance, the humor of the situation fades quickly. Your movements are limited. You might get up early and if it was cold enough to freeze the top layer of snow ... you could cover five to ten miles in your tennis shoes. But, by 10 a.m. or so, when the bottom drops out of the snow ... that's about where you're gonna be, till the next night's freeze ... if it freezes.

So, getting around in spring, which usually lasts clear into June, is a challenge. Years back, even running our sled dogs over morning snow that was as hard as concrete after a night's freeze was an adventure. I remember thinking we were pretty smart, living up here and running our dogs from October into late May. Poor folks down below had no snow, and had to wander around on bare ground by late spring while we still had tons of it. I would hook our dogs up, yank the snow hook and with snow as hard and smooth as pavement, we would shoot out of the yard like a rocket. Talk about a wild ride. The dogs were always in great shape from running all winter, and could run like the wind with the hard conditions. They loved every fast passing mile of it. I did as well, but there was always apprehension on my part before each run. We were a wreck in progress every time. It was kind of a relief when it got too soft to run anymore and we gave up mushing for the season. The dogs had (unwanted) "summer vacation." They would lie on their doghouses in the sun, sound the alarm when bears got too close, and get a fair amount of "romp time" through the summers.

The timing of break-up and the amount of snow that has collected over winter may vary from year to year, but each spring it's the same. To hasten the snow melt, we start spreading ashes from our woodstove that we have saved all winter (little goes to waste out here) on top of the snow where we want trails around the place-to the dog yard and so forth. The ashes paint the snow dark, and in a week or two, depending on snow depth, the sun will burn out a slog trail, not great, but it's a good start. We're that much closer to walking on ground again. And we shovel a LOT. Anything is better than continually post holing through the snow to get anywhere.

We are always trying to beat the big thaw gathering firewood and the "perfect logs" for cutting into lumber with our chainsaw. In the early days, before we had snowmachines, we would backpack our firewood. It is a tough way to get wood so now with our snowmachines we get wood throughout the winter, but the best conditions are the firm top layers of snow in late spring. But there comes a point where you're bogging along, the machine pulling hard, and you feel the snowmachine drop into deep soft snow. You put the power to it and hopefully gain some traction. If not, you're stuck, and it can be a lot of work getting out, let alone getting your load home. We eventually reach a day when we can't get anymore wood because the conditions are too poor. It's one of the reasons we keep a two year wood supply. We're not interested in backpacking firewood any more.

Mike Nickols

Pulling our plane off the lake ice near the first of June. It wasn't until after mid-June when we shoved it back in the water on floats.

In the middle of all this, the bears come out of hibernation. My wife, Pam, misses few of them. Many times throughout the day, as she passes the spotting scope sitting by the window in the kitchen, she takes a scan out the window, looking for tracks mostly. Once the tracks are found, you start sorting them out, backtracking a few times will pick up a little black dot over on the mountain in a sea of snow. The tracks lead to the left ... lead right, but don't really go anywhere and after watching for a while, "Yep, it's a bear, there's his den right by where he's lying." Many times we've watched them as the sun goes down. They rise slowly, walk to their den, turn backwards, and wiggle their way butt first back into their winter den (only a fool would go in head first), for one more nights sleep, before summer. Which is kinda the way we feel about this time of year as well ... one more good night's sleep before break-up is over ... and another busy summer begins.


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