Eklutna Midwinter: Life, Love, and the Merits of Suffering

A few weeks ago I was emailing with another photographer who integrates his art with wilderness travel. Near the end of one message I received, he described adventure as art, life, love and the merits of suffering. I smiled when I read it; the words resonated deeply.

In the days after Christmas, my good friend Nic and I decided to realize a longtime dream of attempting to ski across Eklutna Lake to the Serenity Falls Hut, a 10-mile trek from Eklutna’s parking lot. Tor Edvin and I raided the house for ultra-warm sleeping bags, energy food, and puffy layers of every variety. From the shed we unearthed the pulk, a Norwegian-made covered sled attached to a harness which my parents had used to take me skiing as a baby. We loaded the pulk and two large backpacks, and in the morning, were ready to go. The forecast was for about 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Nic picked us up and we marveled as the sky dawned clear.

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To our surprise, the temperature began to drop as we neared Eklutna, eventually settling around -10 below zero. Not the plan, but nothing we couldn’t handle – we all donned an extra layer and rigged ourselves up to the sleds. Excitement filled the air.

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We were off! We had decided to create a shortcut by skiing directly across the lake, bypassing the longer trail through the trees. For the first few miles, a pre-packed track lay ahead of us, broken in by skiers who had come before.  I couldn’t believe my fortune – out skiing, with two of my best friends from opposite sides of the planet, together, in the sun. Going on an adventure. It was impossible not to be in a good mood.

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It was cold, though. Deep cold. My hair emerged in silvery frozen strands from under my hat; Nic’s back was white with frost where his body heat seeped from his sweater. Three miles in, we stopped for lunch at a little public use cabin whose occupants had only recently left. Warmth still lingered from the fireplace, and relieved by the heat, we feasted on our frozen sandwiches and chipped holes in the ice forming in our water bottles. I stared out at the lake. Seven miles more was a long way to go. Even inside, I began shivering uncontrollably, realizing that without noticing it, the cold had crept into my bones. For a few minutes there, I silently began to panic. The cold was intense and darkness would fall soon. I was wearing all my clothes. In desperation, I hitched myself up to the pulk, insisting that Tor Edvin ski ahead with just a pack. The sled was easier to pull than I had imagined, but the effort was real, and to my immense relief, I was comfortably warm again after about half an hour.

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Unfortunately, shortly after the cabin, the existing trail came to an end. Darkness began to fall; Nic and I started to analyze the situation, diving into risk-assessment mode. Tor Edvin just smiled calmly. Nic and I had biked to the cabin before, in the summer – once we reached the end of the lake, still in the far distance, at least two more hours would await us through the forest, in the dark. If we could find the real trail before nightfall, we thought, maybe. We were tired, though, and reaching the edge of the lake seemed to take forever. We found ourselves faced with a steep slope of sharp, contorted lake ice disguising a hill of icy boulders. How would we even get our sleds up?

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Nic and I carefully crawled up to the trail, which I’ll admit I was slightly surprised to discover was actually there. Far from the well-packed snowmobile track we had been hoping for, it seemed only a single skier had passed before us through deep, dense snow, the trail littered with tree branches. I rejoined Tor Edvin on the ice, which inexplicably seemed to be shifting under us, some strange overflow beginning to flood the ground under our feet. We needed to get out of there. Nic, unaccustomed to trail-free winter travel in the dark, was panicked, which worried me. His homemade sled, heavily laden with firewood, had been far more arduous to pull than the rest of our gear.

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We made a new plan. We knew that the smaller cabin we had stopped at for lunch was reserved for the night, but we could follow our own tracks back to it and beg its occupants for an hour of warmth in which to cook dinner. It wasn’t the fun decision, but it was the right one. Tor Edvin harnessed himself to Nic’s sled; I took the pulk. We sacrificed some firewood to the lake gods. By some mistake we only had two headlights, but no problem – “It’s okay, I can see in the dark!” exclaimed Tor Edvin. I believe this is actually true.

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The trek back to the cabin was arduous at best. On mile eight, still dragging heavy gear through the snow, we were exhausted. Somehow, though, the situation was thrilling. To our relief, a wave of warmer air settled over the lake, and despite my increasing fatigue, I grew more and more elated as time progressed. This is the LIFE! I thought. Nowhere but through this suffering does one reencounter life’s true priorities: food, water, shelter, warmth, and the well-being of one’s companions. That clarity of perspective, I find, is hard to come by in day-to-day life. Overwhelmed with zest for life, with love for my friends, with the exhilaration of being outside and feeling my body working and feeling alive, I marveled at our amazing fortune of being here, now. I smiled as I skied through the dark, focused on the back of the sled being dragged in front of me.

And then – something amazing happened. Arriving, utterly destroyed, at the cabin, we discovered to our amazement that it was unoccupied. We were saved! It was 8 PM – the chances of someone else arriving that night were so slim, we moved right in, rejoicing and cooking up a delicious salmon dinner and drinking beer and celebrating the immensity of our luck. The tiny cabin heated up to sauna-status within half an hour.

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Only once did we hear voices out on the lake – I ran down hurriedly, ready to apologize and pack our bags, but the jovial voice in the distance explained that they were headed for the Serenity Falls Hut – the very one we didn’t think we’d be able to reach, and it was 9:30 PM! I couldn’t believe it, but let it go.

Dinner was only half-eaten before our exhaustion hit full-force. Discarding all hopes of making a party out of it, we collapsed onto our bunks instead. We slept, in the words of Barry Lopez, like bears in winter.

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The next morning was stunning. I don’t know what to write besides that. I wandered with my view camera; Nic cooked breakfast. The temperature hovered at a pleasant 10 degrees or so.

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Tracks on the lake. 

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Our home for the night. 

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Nic in kitchen-mode with my 4×5 lurking outside the window. 

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Tor Edvin’s legendary morning hair. 

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Breakfast accomplished, we packed up and headed back out onto the ice. The day was beautiful, bright, and significantly warmer than the day before. Our bodies ached, but we were delighted.

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We skied happily to the parking lot, brainstorming some amazing lunch back in Anchorage and praying that the car would start.

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Rewaxing, as the temperature had changed. 

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We stopped for portraits!

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With a warm feeling of complete and total success, we returned happily to Anchorage. The car started just fine; we soon feasted on chicken-tortilla soup at one of my favorite restaurants. We couldn’t believe how alive we all felt. Let’s do it again! Let’s go! Let’s ADVENTURE!, I exclaimed mentally. I could tell we all felt the same. Nowhere else but out in the land, moving, seeing, breathing, can you ever feel more alive.

One thought on “Eklutna Midwinter: Life, Love, and the Merits of Suffering

  1. Great writing Acacia along with good photography. Respect for Mother Nature and the elements is the key to survival in the wild. You guys made the right decision and us moms and dads are glad you did!

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