After finishing school, my first position with the US Forest service was on the Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington State. We had just purchased our first home. We had two little boys that were the delight of our families and we were beginning to settle in to what we anticipated was our “life”.
My primary duties were centered in timber management but in the winter of 1971 I was asked to get involved in the winter sports side of the work at the Crystal Mountain Ski Area. Avalanche forecasting and control along with ski lift and slope safety were the focus of the job. I had much to learn, including how to ski. In the summer of 1973, I found myself teaching a portion of the required annual recoilless rifle training at the army’s Yakima Firing Center. These 75mm and 105mm recoilless rifles were used to shoot down avalanches for public safety at ski areas and along the state highways. One of the students was from the Chugach National Forest in Alaska. He had been sent for two reasons; to be qualified to shoot the recoilless rifles and to recruit a qualified candidate for the vacant Snow Ranger position on the Chugach. I had always wanted to go to Alaska and had a number of lengthy conversations with him about living and working there. I briefly fantasized about the opportunity but summarily dismissed the idea because I believed I lacked sufficient experience to be seriously considered.
I had only been back at work for a few days when the District Ranger called me in to his office one afternoon. He had received a call from the Forest Supervisor of the Chugach asking him to encourage me to put in for the job. I didn’t understand at the time, but he was really looking after my best interests and strongly encouraged me to apply for the position. I submitted an application convinced that it was an effort in futility. Both my wife and I immediately forgot about it and went on with our lives.
Two weeks later, the Ranger once again called me into his office and informed me that I had been offered the position as Snow Ranger on the Chugach National Forest. I was so dumbfounded you could have knocked me off my chair with a feather. My wife picked me up from work that day and from the look on my face she thought something terrible had happened. She said I was a white as a ghost. When I told her about the job offer she joined me in the state of shock
Six weeks later on December 12, we boarded the ferry in Seattle in route to Anchorage. We had sold the home we had just bought 3 months before, sold a new car recently purchased, packed our belongings into large wooden crates, bought what we could anticipate as hard-core winter clothing, and bid a traumatic farewell to our families. Everything we owned went by barge while we traveled by Alaskan Ferry as we slipped through the wintry beauty of the Inside Passage.
We were no strangers to adventure and the unknown; a hitch in Naval Aviation, living overseas, and a war had taught us to be seasoned and confident adults, but this was different with two little ones to care for, and a job that was going to require that I hit the ground running at full tilt in an environment that I knew little about. These things kept my mind occupied. As we churned north into an ever darker and colder world my wife and I oscillated between extreme anticipation and extreme dread. We realized that this was not just a transfer to a new job but a transfer to a new life.
We were stunned as we stepped from the comfort, safety and luxury of the ferry to the harsh reality of Hanes, AK. Blizzard like conditions and 15 degrees below temperatures, while fairly normal for Hanes, awakened us to the peril we were entering and the weather forecast was for far worse. I scampered around town inquiring about road conditions and anything else useful as we prepared to drive through the Yukon. The old-timers said we should just hunker down till the cold spell ended. Hunkering wasn’t an option. We had yet to learn that only greenhorns and the foolish don’t accommodate the extremes of Alaskan weather when making travel decisions. I like to think that we fell into the former category rather than the latter.
The next morning, dressed in our warmest winter apparel, we headed out across the Yukon Territory in our two-wheel drive, half ton, Chevy pick-up with the boys perched on seats I had made so they could see out. We pulled into Beaver Creek just shy of the Alaska border about 6 pm. It had been dark for 3 ½ hours and the temperature was -60 degrees. Our daylight hours had been filled with a black and white world of rime covered Black Spruce Trees and ice
The tallest tree was 15 feet.
In spite of the heater running full blast, large accumulations of ice had formed around the door seals and windows inside the truck.
White-out conditions had often made the road indistinguishable from the landscape. In 12 hours of driving we had seen only five other rigs.
I had installed a block heater in the truck prior to leaving the lower 48 and understood the wisdom of that as the next morning at 60 below the truck barely growled to a start in spite of being plugged in all night.
The vast landscape and isolation were exhilarating on one hand and intimidating on the other.
We had been traveling for hours the next morning when a weak grey dawn greeted us. The few hours of twilight was just one of the things that would take some getting used to. This was a dangerous trip for as we learned later we were the last vehicle through before this section of the Alcan Highway was temporarily closed. Late the second day, with a real sense of relief, we pulled into Anchorage, our home for the next 5 years.
In our wildest imaginings we could never have foreseen the incredible experiences and opportunities that awaited us.<-->
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