It is a month since my last blog update, and I am now settled back into my summer home at the Iceberg Lodge. Since leaving New Zealand, I spent five days in West Virginia visiting family, and a hectic week doing pre-season training all over the Kenai Peninsula and the Mat-Su Valley, getting my sea kayak and wilderness first responder certifications renewed before my guiding job started. My first week back in the US, I was in seven different airports and four different time zones; it was a little exhausting.
(The flight attendant on the flight up to Anchorage asked us to kindly turn off and stow our personable electronic devices in preparation for landing. Does that mean that if my electronic device is introverted and unfriendly, I can keep it turned on for longer?)
Once I got down to the Kenai Peninsula, I was able to see for myself the epic, record-breaking amounts of snow that have been blanketing the state of Alaska over the winter. On May 5, my Subaru was still buried in snow up to the level of the hood. It took three hours, four people, and a plow truck to extricate my car, (including the time it took to dig out the plow truck when it got stuck trying to clear a path to my car). There are a bunch of new scratches on the hood from the snow shovel, and the roof is now dented from the weight of the snow, but it’s running fine. In other words, it’s all ready to sit in the Seward seafood truck lot for another four months until the end of my guiding contract.
The first part of my Alaska training week was three days of kayak training on Kenai Lake, getting dumped out of kayaks and practicing how to get back in them, and how to get other people back into them. It went OK, but I am always a little worried that when we practice this stuff, we are practicing on other kayak guides, who are sort of ideal victims – reasonably athletic and coordinated, who know how to balance on the boats when we’re clambering around them trying to get people back in their seats. Also, they do as they’re told – something that actual, panicked, cold guests may not do. It was very cold, even though we were wearing drysuits, and it was sort of a constant battle to stay warm, and to stay focused on what we were doing, and try to ignore the fact that I couldn’t feel my toes. At the end of the day, my hands looked like they had been beaten with meat tenderizers – all red and swollen. The day after the boat training finished, I woke up at 4AM to drive up to Palmer for my medical recertification. It was snowing on both of the high passes, and it was cold enough that the snow was sticking to the road – I was passing snowplows on Turnagin Pass, which was a little surreal for May.
Fortunately, there was no snow in Palmer itself, which was good since I was camping out. Unfortunately, the campsite was very exposed to the wind, and I went to sleep every night to the sound of my rainfly flapping against the tent wall like some sort of deranged bird. It felt like the tent was going to carry me to Oz.
After the kayak training, the medical recertification actually felt like a break, since although we were outside quite a bit, we were dry the whole time, so I was pretty happy.
Two days later I left for the Iceberg Lodge. Like the rest of Alaska, the Lodge got slammed with snow this winter. I had always wanted to see the Lodge in winter, as I have never been out to Aialik Bay any later than September, or any earlier than April. Now having seen the Lodge covered in eight feet of snow, I feel that my winter bay-visiting ambitions been satisfied. A lot of the first week was spent digging out things – water tanks, cabins, boardwalks, and access to maintenance buildings. It’s amazing how long it takes to set up our essential systems (power, water, septic, kitchens) when everything you want to work on has to first be dug out of eight feet of snow. The weight of the snow actually crumpled a few of our boardwalks, and messed up the siding on a couple of window frames, but, fortunately, there was no structural damage to any of the buildings themselves. Also, part of our septic system froze. It was a challenge to figure ut where some of the stuff we needed to dig up eve was. When we first arrived at the lodge site, we hadn’t finished plowing the road out to the beach, so we loaded up our gear and groceries into sleds and snowshoed in, dragging the sleds behind us, kind of like those pictures of ill-fated Antarctic expeditions back in the 1900s. Our maintenance team was snowblowing the road with a Bobcat from about 4am until 2am, working in shifts. Thank goodness for lots of Alaskan summer daylight…
Currently, we can drive vehicles out to the boat directly – no snowshoeing involved – although we are detouring onto the beach for the last half-mile, which we normally don’t do. Depending on where the tide is, there isn’t always a lot of room to turn the ATVs around on the beach – and one of the ATVs doesn’t go in reverse anymore, so once you start turning, you are kind of committed. Turning them always involves an unsettling moment where I am driving downhill directly towards the ocean, but so far, no one’s drowned any equipment. We have been breaking equipment left and right (mostly snowblowers), but our maintenance guys have so far been able to resuscitate them in a day or two. Also, the snowpack has been melting out – the little snag tree in front of the lodge is slowly being uncovered, and judging by how much is visible now compared to last week, I estimate we’ve lost about two feet of height since we got here. When we were first plowing the road, the snow canyon was so high that you couldn’t see over it – there were concerns that an ATV could inadvertently run into a pedestrian – or worse, a bear – because you couldn’t see around any of the bends. It’s also nice to be able to see out the windows, instead of facing an imposing wall of snow.
Now that we’ve cleared the road and the boardwalks, the bears, recognizing a good thing when they see it, are back to wandering through camp. There’s not a lot of food out there for them right now. We’ve had one bear on a nearby beach, who seems to be methodically shearing off every single sprouting plant on the entire shore, probably for lack of anything else he can get to. Also, the half-tame porcupine who lives under our generator shed apparently moved into the vehicle garage over the winter, and chewed up the upholstery on our ATV seats. D, one of the maintenance guys, has declared that the porcupine’s days are numbered; the rest of the staff have been trying to keep the porcupine away from D, as the critter is probably the closest thing we have to a pet out here. One staff member successfully kept the porcupine hidden under a workbench for about half an hour before D left and the porcupine could be safely shooed off.
The company president was out here for over a week. He flew by helicopter, and brought with him a replacement hose for a busted hydraulic on our ASV, which is possibly the fastest broken part turnaround in the history of the Iceberg Lodge. He stayed out for a week, running the snow blower, and assessing the damage.
A few days later, a group of our company’s tour escorts arrived for their pre-season orientation trip. We put them to work shoveling out some of the site – they had to shovel paths to the cabins they were staying in – and also did some training with them on how to steer our canoes. We still have over a week before the first guests arrive, and I think we are actually on track to be ready for that deadline. When we first got out here, it didn’t seem like we would be able to open on time. It helps that for my particular department, all of the staff are returning, so we don’t have to spend time training anyone from scratch. Now that the road to the beach is open, more or less, we’ve even been able to snowblow paths in the staff area, so that we can get around our half of camp without having to use snowshoes. I even get a day off tomorrow; life is looking good.