Many of us have a favorite Thanksgiving story: getting together with friends or family or reuniting with school chums.
For me, one wild, spur-of-the-moment Thanksgiving adventure always stands out: a combination of near-death moments, a frontier feast, a little bit of skiing and wonderful company.
When I first came to Alaska, it was in the company of several friends. We roomed together that summer and had great times. But as fall approached, they returned to the Lower 48. I’d met some new friends, tho’, so they were my “Alaska family.”
“Do you want to visit Carl and Fran in their wilderness lodge for Thanksgiving?” asked Meg, as we were fixing coffee.
Meg was one of my roommates. Carl and Fran were friends from around the corner who were caretakers for a lodge on the shores of Lake Clark.
“Sure,” I said, not knowing what I was getting into . But, hey, I didn’t have any plans. And this sounded like a big adventure.
Meg and I went shopping for some supplies to take with us, including a turkey. Then we loaded up our stuff, including our cross-country skis. and headed to Anchorage’s downtown airport at Merrill Field.
There were a couple of other folks on the plane, a Cessna 207, but it was mostly Meg and I and the groceries. This was my first flight out of Merrill Field—so it was exciting to take off right over downtown Anchorage!
I didn’t know enough to be concerned that we were flying through Lake Clark Pass on the way to Port Alsworth, but it was a calm flight. After we landed, the pilot helped load our stuff into a pickup truck and took us about 800 feet to the water’s edge. There, we loaded our gear into a 16-foot open skiff for the ride across Lake Clark.
Lake Clark is an impressive body of water. Long and narrow, it sits between two mountain ranges and the wind loved to howl across the surface. But today, it was calm—so off we went.
As we got close to the other side, I could see a huge A-frame lodge with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the lake. “Wow,” I thought. “This is beautiful.”
We pulled the boat up on the snow and started walking with our stuff right past the lodge. Back behind the lodge was an old cabin, sunken into the ground, with no windows. Carl opened the door, bent down to walk out and said “Welcome!”
The big lodge building, of course, cost too much to heat in the winter. So Carl and Fran set up shop in the root cellar. Carl is tall like me, so I also had to bend down to enter. Fran was inside, cooking something. It smelled delicious.
As the sun started to set behind us, Carl and I walked down to the water and looked across to Port Alsworth. It was beautiful.
Thanksgiving dinner was a wonderful feast. Another couple joined us from a lodge up the lake. They proposed a combination ski trip/moose hunt in the morning. They left after dinner as we enjoyed a second helping of dessert.
The next morning we waxed up our skis and set off to join our moose-hunting friend for the outing. Let’s just say it was much more ski tour and much less moose hunt. But a good time was had by all.
There were plenty of leftovers in the root cellar for everybody. Our new friends headed up the lake to their place, since they had to pack. They were headed back to Anchorage with us the next day.
The wind was picking up.
The next morning, there was a little bit of fresh snow coating everything outside. But much of it had blown away because of the wind. It was about -5ºF outside. I could see some whitecaps on the lake.
It didn’t dawn on me how precarious our position was. That would come later. In the boat.
Everybody loaded up in the skiff, along with the skis. Because it was a little breezy, I asked about life jackets. Everyone laughed. “Oh, you won’t need those,” said Carl’s neighbor. “You won’t last long in this water, altho’ the vest would make it easier for the Coast Guard to find your body, I suppose.”
Both Carl and his neighbor tried repeatedly to pull the cord and start the motor of the fully-loaded skiff…but nothing was working. Finally, they pulled the motor and went inside the root cellar to warm it up.
We tried to stay warm.
After about 25 minutes, the warmed-up motor was mounted on the skiff and BEHOLD, it started up. We all got back in and off we sent into the 1-2 foot seas.
Carl’s neighbor did a good job steering the boat until the motor sputtered.
He hit the throttle and fiddled with the choke a little bit….and the motor started working again….until it sputtered again.
I looked around—we were pretty much smack in the middle of the lake. There wasn’t another boat on the water. We had no radio. I started to pray.
Looking at my skiff-mates was not encouraging. They were all stone-faced. Not saying a thing. Carl and his neighbor were working hard to keep the motor running. The motor kept resisting. I looked around for a paddle. Nothing.
So, I didn’t exactly lay hands on the motor. It was the boat-skills and ingenuity of Carl and his neighbor that got us to the other side of the lake.
I thought about kneeling down and kissing the ground…but decided not to.
The plane was waiting for us in Port Alsworth.
As I recall, the plane ride was a little bumpy going through Lake Clark Pass. But that was nothing compared to our boat ride across the lake.
What I didn’t know at the time was how this adventure would affect me. Not just the harrowing boat ride. Rather, being thrown together with friends and strangers on an uncertain course. In the midst of fierce and beautiful natural surroundings. To express our gratitude and give thanks.
This adventure was a wonderful Alaska Thanksgiving.
And even tho’ this year’s celebration will be unusual, I wish you and yours all the best
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