FAIRBANKS - Sometimes, especially in the cold, harsh confines of winter in the Interior, you do what you have to do.
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Such was the case for Andrea Hunter and Kyle Larson during a trip into the White Mountains National Recreation Area earlier this month that happened to coincide with the season's first cold snap.
Even though it was 25 degrees below zero when they arrived at the 57.5 Mile Elliott Highway trailhead last Monday, Hunter and Larson didn't consider bagging their planned weeklong snowmachine/skijoring trip in the White Mountains National Recreation Area.
"We were like, 'OK, we can handle minus 25,"' recalled Hunter, who was the skijorer of the two. "We had warm weather gear. We were pretty prepared for it."
Hunter, 30, and Larson, 45, had made similar trips into other cabins in the popular two-million acre recreation area just north of Fairbanks so they knew what they were getting into. This time, they had rented six different cabins and were planning an 84-mile trip. She wanted to skijor while he planned to do some exploring on his snowmachine.
They made it into Colorado Creek cabin, about 14 miles, in good shape. The trail was rough, more so for snowmachining than skijoring, but it was passable.
They spent the day and night doing what most people do when they rent cabins in the White Mountains - stoking the wood stove, lounging in the cabin with their dogs, playing cards, gathering firewood, reading old entries in the cabin log book, melting water for both them and their dogs, cooking dinner and sipping on Sneaky Pete's, a frozen concoction of vodka, cranberry juice, lemonade, orange juice, 7-Up and powdered sugar that Hunter made for the trip.
By Tuesday morning, the temperature had dropped. There wasn't a thermometer at the cabin so they didn't know how cold it was but Larson's snowmachine, a new four-stroke 800cc Ski-Doo Tundra LT, put up a bit of a fight when he tried to start it. It relented, however, and the couple headed for Wolf Run, about 10 miles away.
It was too cold to skijor so Hunter rode on the snowmachine with Larson while their two dogs, Kiwi and Mango, ran free. They didn't seem to mind the cold. Each wore a pink coat to help keep warm and they enjoyed the freedom of running free, especially when they caught sight of a big bull moose in the distance.
The trail was "pretty rough" by Larson's standards. There wasn't enough snow to cover up the tussocks and it was a bumpy ride. They flipped the snowmachine at one point in a particularly nasty spot and the fold-a-sled they were towing flipped several times.
After the cold, rough ride, the sight of the cabin at Wolf Run was a relief. They fired up the wood stove, unpacked their gear and fell into the same cabin routine they had at Colorado Creek.
One of the first things that Larson noticed when he got to the cabin was how wide the front door was, he said.
"I made the comment when I pulled up that it was the widest door I'd ever seen on a cabin," he said.
Judging from the lack of entries in the cabin's log book, it appeared they were the first ones to spend the night in the cabin this winter, Hunter said. As was the case at Colorado Creek, there was no thermometer at Wolf Run but it felt colder than it had at Colorado Creek, she said.
Fortunately, there was plenty of firewood to burn. A wildfire that burned down the original Wolf Run cabin in 2004 - a BLM crew rebuilt it last summer - had left behind a plentiful supply of dead wood to burn and it was only about 20 feet from the cabin, Larson said.
When they awoke on Wednesday morning, the two got packed up for the nine-mile trip to Windy Gap cabin. They were looking forward to seeing Windy Gap for the first time. The cabin is regarded as the most scenic of the backcountry cabins in the White Mountains.
But when Larson went outside to start his snowmachine, it only growled at him.
"It just went, 'Rrrrrrr, rrrrrrr,"' he said, imitating the sound a dead vehicle makes when it won't start. "It was very stiff."
The snowmachine is supposed to start down to 40 below, he said.
"It was definitely colder than 40 below," said Larson. "I'd have to say it was 50 below."
At that point, Larson broke out a heater he was carrying that screws onto the top of a small propane tank and attempted to heat up the snowmachine engine. The only problem was that it was so cold the propane gas was freezing up and the heater wouldn't put out enough heat to do much good. Larson tried using a small torch he was carrying to heat the propane bottle to get the heater to work better but he still couldn't produce enough heat to make a difference.
"After two bottles of propane we gave up on that," he said.
By this time, Larson had cranked on the machine enough that the battery was worn down. He tried pull starting it but the four-stroke engine was too big and stiff to even think about that, even after taking the drive belt off, he said.
"I honestly don't think you can pull start those 800s," said Larson. "It about jerks your arm off every time."
It was about then that Larson remembered the door. He made some quick measurements and came to the conclusion that the machine would fit through the cabin door if he removed a strip of 2 x 2 that served as part of the door jamb.
The board was screwed on and the tool kit in Larson's snowmachine just so happened to have a screwdriver in it.
"Thank goodness they screwed that in there," he said.
With the door wide enough to squeeze the snowmachine inside, Hunter and Larson wrestled the 500-pound machine up the steps of the cabin and pulled it inside. Then Larson screwed the door jamb back on and they shut the door. They spent the rest of the day stoking the wood stove to thaw out the frozen machine. As long as they had the fire stoking and the stove vents open, the gas fumes inside the cabin weren't bad, Hunter said.
It took them all day and night to warm the machine, Larson said.
"That liquid-cooled four stroke has got a lot of steel in it," he said. "They don't warm up like two strokes."
The next morning, Thursday, they pulled the snowmachine out of the cabin and turned the key. "It started on the second revolution," Larson said. "Just warming the battery up gave it enough juice."
Colin Cogley, an outdoor recreation planner for the BLM, has heard of similar stories regarding ways to thaw out a frozen snowmachine in the White Mountains.
In one case, at Moose Creek cabin, the door wasn't wide enough to get a snowmachine inside so the renters built a "pseudo arctic entry way" with a mattress and sleeping bags, Cogley said. They left the door open, stood the snowmachine up and tried to enclose it as best they could.
"That was kind of an interesting one," said Cogley. "They couldn't get the snowmachine to heat but they got heat to the machine."
Longtime Two Rivers trapper Marty Meierotto, who teaches cabin building classes for the Alaska Trappers Association, makes a point of making the front door on any trapline cabin he builds big enough to fit a snowmachine in.
"Sooner or later you're going to have to bring a snowmachine in there to work on it," Meierotto said during a clinic he taught last month.
While Cogley acknowledges that sometimes you do what you have to do, the BLM doesn't necessarily endorse taking doors on cabins apart to get snowmachines inside.
As he put it, "Sometimes people take things apart and don't finish the job when it comes to putting them back together."
That wasn't the case with Hunter and Larson. They screwed the door jamb back into place when they got the snowmachine outside and left things as they found them.
Cold as it was, combined with the fact that the trail wasn't broken open beyond Wolf Run, a fact they discovered while walking around waiting for the machine to thaw out, Hunter and Larson wisely decided to bag the rest of their trip. They hopped on the snowmachine for the 24-mile trip out, stopping at Colorado Creek cabin to warm up on the way out.
They made it out to the trailhead safely, where a dead, frozen pickup truck awaited them, a fitting end to their trip.
They did what a lot of other people in that situation do - covered the hood of the truck with whatever they could find, i.e. sleeping bags, sleeping pads and blankets, and fired up a propane-fueled weed burner they had brought along specifically for that purpose. They stuck the weed burner under the front of the truck and heated it up for about an hour while running laps around the parking lot to stay warm.
The truck started without a problem and they loaded their snowmachine and gear and drove back to Fairbanks.
Despite the cold temperatures and the fact they had to cut their trip short, Hunter and Larson said it was a fun trip that they won't ever forget.
They plan to do it again sometime when it's not so cold and are hoping to receive some cabin credits after cutting their trip short because of the cold and lack of trail.
Next time they'll bring a generator, too, Larson said. The Tundra 800 is equipped with a heater plug-in, just a like vehicle, but you need something to plug it into, he said. Larson also said he'll probably pack along a trickle charger to charge the battery.
"You can't start that motor without the battery," he said. "If you're battery goes bad you're down."
And just in case somebody else ran into a similar predicament at Wolf Run cabin, Hunter and Larson left a present for them.
"There's a big tub of Sneaky Pete's on the porch," Hunter said with a laugh.