Wednesday, January 20, 2010
THE DEATH SLED
It was only about fifteen degrees below zero...and windless...downright balmy for this time of year in Alaska. Pastor Bruce has three snow machines, but only his oldest, smallest one would start. Iran and Pastor Bruce spent over an hour trying to get the others started, but it was just too cold to get them started. In the end, Iran borrowed the small, old machine that would run even when the newer, fancier, nicer machines would not! He also borrowed a sled designed to be pulled behind the snow machines. One of Lisa's co-workers has a cabin on Banner Creek (about 15 miles out of town) that she had offered to us to use for the week. We were planning on going out there on Sunday afternoon and not coming back to Nome until Wednesday evening...but plans change (OFTEN!) in Nome...as I will explain later!
Iran brought the snow machine and sled back to his house, while Lisa and I packed the Mariner with everything we thought we would need for our stay at Banner Creek. (Iran had taken some supplies, like MRE's, water, and inflatible mattresses the day before.) You cannot drive all the way to the cabin. The five or six cabins situated on Banner Creek all have an electrical outlet up on the road where they can plug in their cars. Then, they take their snow machines the last mile or so down to Banner Creek. Lisa's co-worker had lived in that cabin for years with her husband and two boys. They always had to bring their groceries and other supplies by hand or snow machine or 4 wheeler the last mile to the cabin as there is no way to get a car down there. It looks like the handful of families living on Banner Creek are all mushers. They have their dogs there with him. Some of the "cabins" there, are really nice...nicer than any of the homes you would find in town...though they don't have any running water. Banner Creek is the furthest you can go outside of Nome and still have electricity. The electric poles end at Banner Creek. I guess the mushers go as far away from town as they can get, yet still have electricity! There is no cell signal out there...but, one of the cabins out there has a satelite phone for emergencies. Iran and Lisa's co-worker had gone out on Saturday to shovel a path into the home. The snow around the cabin didn't look deep at all, but looks are deceiving! Sunday evening, as we were walking to the cabin, I made the mistake of stepping just a foot off the snow machine trail and instantly, my foot broke through the crust and I found my right foot up to my knee, stuck in the snow. The snow is like SET concrete around your feet when you punch through the crust like that. You can't even rotate your foot and it is horribly difficult to pull it back out again. Lisa tried to help pull me out, but she couldn't get me out, either! And I only had ONE leg stuck! I thought, "Man, if I were alone, I could die of hypothermia just trying to get out!" Finally, to my humiliation, I had to just flop over on my belly and wriggle across the ground like a fat snake to inch my leg out! From then on, I was always careful to STAY on the more densely packed snow machine trail! (Until the next day when I raced out of the cabin to photograph a porcupine and managed to fall through WAIST DEEP, BOTH LEGS in snow that I thought was only ankle deep! But I am getting WAY ahead of myself...leaving out other mishaps!)
One of my more memorable mishaps occurred en route to Banner Creek from Nome. Iran, all excited about the snow machine and sled had suggested that Ransom and I could ride to Banner Creek all the way from Nome in the sled. Lisa was livid at Iran for even suggesting such a thing. Her arguement was that there was no POINT in the dog and I riding in the sled instead of the car. We were all planning on riding the last MILE of the journey in the sled, but that it was ridiculous to ride the first 15 miles in the sled when she was driving the Mariner and we could just as easily ride in the car. She told Iran, "It's not SAFE! I can't believe you would even SUGGEST that!!!" Meanwhile, I was thinking it sounded like fun! To Lisa's infuriation, I sided with Iran and a few minutes later, Ransom and I were sitting happily in the back of the sled, awaiting our fun adventure! Lisa, quietly smouldering, was sensibly loading Gabby into the back of the Mariner and Iran was happily adjusting his goggles!
From the moment I called Ransom up into the sled, she was not at all keen on the idea. The exhaust fumes from the snow machine were enveloping us and Ransom had enough sense to know that was not a good idea! As the snow machine began slowly winding through the streets of Nome, Ransom repeatedly tried to jump out. TOTALLY unlike her (she is the dog that weathers new experiences without so much as batting an eye). Iran had told me ahead of time to raise my hand if I needed him to stop. Lisa was following in the car to retrieve us if we needed to bail from the sled. Ransom objected strongly and continued to register her complete disapproval of the entire situation. That should have been my clue! God tried to talk to me through Lisa, but I turned a deaf ear. So, then He tried to talk to me through my dog, but even THEN I wouldn't listen! Instead, I raised my hand to have Iran stop, but only off-loaded my kill-joy dog into the car. I, the only one in the group (except for Iran) with any sense of fun at all, remained contentedly in the sled. Since we had to stop to put wimpy Ransom in the Mariner, Iran took the time to remove the snow claws off the wheels of the Mariner since you cannot travel faster than 30mph with the snow claws on (and it is an extremely rough ride, even at very slow speeds, with the snow claws on). (see picture in previous post if you don't know what snow claws look like!)
With Ransom safely stashed in the Mariner, we resumed our journey. We had just reached the edge of town when I had raised my hand for Ransom to be taken out of the sled. What had not crossed my mind was that TOWN traveling speed on the ice caked roads and out of town traveling speeds (OFF ROAD, next to the highway, especially now that the Mariner's snow claws were removed) would be DRASTICALLY different! Up until that moment, the ride in the sled had been uncomfortably bumpy, but not enough so to outweigh its novelty. The SECOND our journey resumed I realized I had made a HORRIBLE mistake! Even though Iran never went over 40 mph, the trail along the road, though clear in places, was really rough in other places...especially since there is an unusually thin covering of snow this year. Even in the smoothest parts of the trail, I was being bounced about mercilessly in the back of the sled. There was NO PLACE to hold on to, even if my hands hadn't been crippled by the ungiving stiffness of Lisa's treasured seal skin mittens. Making it worse, the sled was about two and a half times as wide as my hips, making it impossible to brace myself onto the bench. I was being thrown airborne over the bench's surface over and over as we hurtled through time and space. Maybe eight seconds had elapsed since Ransom had made her escape from the sled! In sheer self-preservation, I slid off the bench down into the FLOOR of the sled. I wedged one foot against one side wall and the other against the other side wall, extending my thighs uncomfortably, and wedged my seal skin clad hands, best I could, (elbows extended toward each side of the sled) in the lip of the sled's top (the part that would usually cover one's legs). Still, I was bouncing so violently that each new bounce nearly sent me hurtling out over the top of the sled. Every muscle in my body was tensed, straining, trying to escape certain death or at least probable quadraplegia/comatose-inducing head injury. Meanwhile, Iran, true to his word, kept standing up every few moments and turning back to look questioningly at me over his shoulder to make sure I was still game and doing okay. Since I was not raising my hand, he would turn back, each time, certain that I was doing dandy and still happy as a lark. Mind you, all of my face was covered to protect it from the wind, and it was hard to see much of my eyes through my goggles...and there was no way he could have heard anything over the roar of the snow machine's engine. Unable to see my mouth, wide open, gasping for life...unable to hear my hoarse voice screaming in terror...not realizing that I wasn't raising my hand because to have done so would have resulted in instant, sure death (as I would have instantly been hurled from the sled if I had even momentarily lost the precarious, life-saving wedge of my stiff hands in the narrow lip of the sled's top)...Iran could only see my eyes, wide, behind the goggles...and, naturally assumed that my eyes were wide with the eager excitement, not sheer terror! It had not crossed his mind that if the SNOW MACHINE was going airborne, surely the SLED (with no shocks) was really taking a beating. I honestly had come to terms that this was the time and place I was going to die. I remember just feeling so guilty that I had let Grant down. Before I had left for Alaska, he had begged me, "Don't do anything dangerous! Don't even go outside! Just stay in their house and play cards and visit!" I had been unwilling to promise not to go outside, but, I had, with complete integrity of heart, promised him that I would not do anything dangerous. (At the time, I had made the promise knowing that what I consider dangerous is drastically different from what HE would deem dangerous, but, since he had not made me DEFINE whose definition of "danger" I was making my promise about, I had hopped into the sled, just minutes before without feeling much of a tinge of guilt.) Now, though, I felt the full weight of my guilt. I was okay with dying...but, I so regretted that I was going to die only BECAUSE I had not listened to my husband's warning. I did think this was the end. I prayed, but, I know that God allows us to weather the consequences of our decisions. I was resigned. And, just at that moment, Iran came to a turn in the road. Normally, he would have slowed but continued without actually stopping, but, because I had said at the start of the trip, "Sure, I'll ride...but if it gets too rough I'll bail out, so watch for my hand!", instead of merely slowing (which would have necesitated me continuing to use every ounce of my strength and BOTH of my hands to keep myself wedged in the sled), he actually came to a complete stop and turned around to look at me. He could not hear my then-hoarse screams (which had began as "IRAN!!! IRAN!!! IRAN!!!" and had degenerated to "STOP!!! STOP!!! STOP!!!" and had finally died down to hoarse screams of, "HEEELLLPPP!!!! HEEELLLPPP!!! HEEELLLPPPP!"). Iran could not hear me. He could not see the contortion of my mouth. But, he saw that seal mitten clad hand SHOOT into the air and WAVE FRANTICALLY. I was terrified, that I would not get my hand unwedged quickly enough for him to see it before he turned back and around and throttled the engine once more! But, God is gracious, and Iran saw my hand. He killed the engine and I sprang from that death-trap sled as fast as my fat old bones could take me!
On shaky legs, I meekly slinked over to the Mariner, where Lisa sat behind the wheel with her jaw still set in fury over my stubborn insistence at doing what she considered a stupid, risky thing. She had been so aggravated with me, that, after seeing me go airborne numerous times (in spite of crouching as low to the floor of the sled as I possibly could), she had given up FOLLOWING us and had gone on ahead so that she would not have to witness the spectacle Iran and I were making. In retrospect, I hope SHE realizes that racing on ahead of us, probably kicked in the "prey" drive in Iran (inherent to all men) egging him to even greater speeds! (All men have that inherent (God-given) need to be IN THE LEAD, you know!) Lisa, forgave me enough, though, to stop when she saw in her rear-view mirror that the sled had stopped and I was staggering disorientedly down the road. As I waddled up into the car, Lisa made some retort to the fact, "I TOLD you so! I have heard MORE stories of people getting KILLED when sleds like this flip over!!! I TOLD you not to ride in it!" I was thinking, "Well, gee, LISA, it would have been NICE if you would have TOLD ME that you have heard actual stories of people being KILLED in these things. You never MENTIONED that little fact! You just kept saying it was 'dangerous' and 'stupid'...you never backed it with actual case stories. I would have LISTENED to that! Some friend YOU are!" But, I didn't say any of that, because I was just so grateful she was letting me up in the safety of the Mariner with her!
That is the only moment I remember in my life when all the spontaneity was genuinely sucked right out from the marrows of my bones. In that moment, as I gratefully fastened my seat belt, I honestly thought that I would NEVER again EVER even be the slightest tempted to throw caution to the wind. The rest of my stay in Alaska, I was going to listen to EVERYTHING Lisa advised and I was going to be even MORE prudish than my husband would have asked of me!
As though God was driving the point home indelibly, less than two minutes after I climbed up into the car, to Lisa and my horror, the sled bounced once too hard, flipping it violently first to one side and then to the other...the impact so hard that the welding of the right ski broke and the entire ski flew off the sled. Iran, unable to HEAR anything or feel anything (and without any rear view mirrors) was totally unaware of what had happened! Lisa raced past him, honking her horn and waving her hands to get him to come to a stop. By the time he realized we were signaling something was wrong, he had already traveled several miles with the sled being drug upturned on its side.
Iran unhooked the sled from the snow machine and then retraced his path to retrieve the broken ski. Ransom and Gabby, happily chased each other over the frozen tundra as we waited for Iran to return with the broken ski. A little bit later, when Iran returned, we all three lifted the sled up onto the top of the Mariner and tied it down with what little rope we had. In the picture, you can see the broken ski, lying on the ground behind the Mariner. Thus we journeyed on to Banner Creek...a subdued Missourian and broken sled. I had been in Alaska a mere 20 hours...and already the frozen landscape was changing my very psyche.