Riding the Frozen Yukon
“Hey Dan, you wanna go somewhere cool?” asked the deep, smiling voice on the other end of the line.
I only know about a dozen people in the 907 area code, and only three of them would ask me that question. The jovial, middle-aged voice belonged to Rocky Pavey, who owns Rocky’s Heating Service, in Fairbanks, AK.
“You know I do, Rock, what did you have in mind?” I replied, moments before learning that he intended to send me to Tanana, AK, on a snowmobile. Now, that call came in February, and he wanted me in Fairbanks in early March… so when he said “go somewhere cool,” he meant it quite literally.
It turned out that Rocky needed to install a new boiler at a public building in the remote, native village of Tanana. That came as no surprise, since Rocky’s business motto is “Anytime, Anywhere!”
Despite only having 230 residents, Tanana is quasi-famous thanks to the TV show “Yukon Men.” In the summer, there are two ways to get there; fly 280 miles northwest from Fairbanks, or take a boat out the Tanana or Yukon River.
But when you’re hauling a 400-pound boiler, flying isn’t cost-effective. And in the middle of an Alaskan winter, the water tends to get a little hard… so scratch the boat idea. That left one option.
Rocky planned for us (myself and three of his technicians - “Super” Sam Mullen, Jason Cevasco, and Jon Neil) to load a box van, pickup truck and trailer with three snowmobiles and everything needed to replace the boiler. Then we’d drive 160 miles northwest of Fairbanks, though the wilderness, to the village of Manley Hot Springs. There, we’d load everything onto the snowmobiles and sleds, and ride out the frozen Tanana River, to the Yukon River.
Calling Manly Hot Springs a “village” is being generous. We saw two people in Manly. One was a burly blonde dude wearing a knitted, Norwegian flag beanie. His accent matched his cover. The other was an Alaskan State Trooper, who stopped to shoot the breeze. But when he slowed down, he slid off a bank at the side of the road.
After a half-hour delay – we were kind enough to pull the Trooper out of the ditch – we had the sleds loaded and we were on our way.
Hit the ice
Rocky told me he’d have a really nice sled for me to ride. Honest as an Alaskan summer day is long, he didn’t disappoint. There was a freshly broken-in Polaris PRO-RMK with a 155-inch track, ready for me to take to Tanana. The other two snowmachines would be pulling cargo sleds.
I had imagined riding snowmobile on a river would be like riding on a lake… flat. That wasn’t entirely the case as we spent the day riding out to the confluence of the Tanana and Yukon rivers. Some places were jagged and broken up. Other areas windswept to the bare ice, and you could see straight down into the green water. That was very unnerving at first, especially when you looked down and saw logs floating swiftly by, four feet beneath your feet.
When riding on bare ice, we had to deploy carbide-tipped ice scratchers, which claw ice fragments up, throwing them onto the track, lest the machine overheat. For the most part, the scenery was flat spruce barrens, broken up by a few high banks and mountainsides.
Every once and a while we’d cross a wolf track. I’d follow it a mile across the river, only to watch it disappear into the frail-looking spruce trees on the other side. We’d take turns riding the RMK – the only machine not tethered to a cargo sled. There was ample opportunity to really let it breath. I forget how fast I got it going, but it definitely made you thankful for a face shield and heavy gloves.
One of the coolest sights on the river was watching distant clouds of snow and dust roll across the ice. From miles away, it was almost like witnessing a storm roll across the Prairie Pothole Region. The majority of the ride followed the course of the Iron Dog race, which is the longest snowmobile race in the world. Markers from the 2,031 mile-long race, which had gone through a few weeks before, were still all over the river.
We only had one mishap, when the biggest sled in the bunch dropped off a shelf and landed hard. One of the shafts underneath snapped, allowing the suspension to flip upside down and press against the inside of the track. We’d have been completely out of luck if not for quick thinking on Jason’s part, and the fact that boiler components can sometimes be MacGyvered into half-decent snowmachine parts.
A length of threaded rod, typically used to pull cast iron boiler sections together, ended up making a perfect replacement shaft. After picking a sturdy spruce log up on the riverbank and using it as an eight-foot pry bar, we were able to persuade the suspension to flip back around to where it belonged and bolt the whole deal back together.
Nice people, funny boots
Eventually, the river widened to nearly two miles where it met the Yukon, and the village of Tanana came into view shortly thereafter. Once in town, the sleds were parked at the general store/gas station/post office/bank/B&B that we’d call home for the next three days. We were greeted by Ruby from Ruby, that is, a wonderfully pleasant native lady named Ruby, who grew up in Ruby, a village about 100 miles downriver.
When we weren’t working on replacing the boiler or servicing other equipment in town, I spent my time eating moose steak or kicking it with the locals. Most folks were very friendly and quick to wave hello. I learned that most of the people in Tanana are part of the Koyukon Athabascan Tribe. No, not all of the Alaskan Natives are Eskimos. Not even close. That’s like saying all Caucasian people are Swedish, or all Hispanic people are Mexican.
Everyone wore white Bunny Boots, which are a dual-layer rubber boot rated for extreme conditions. Bunny boots have a special air valve in them so that if you fly – or climb Denali – the air-tight insulation layer inside doesn’t swell at high altitude, cutting off all circulation to your feet. I’m told they’re warm and waterproof, but not much else. They don’t breath, never really break in, don’t fit nicely, and they’re heavy. But if you need a boot that’s warm in -50°F weather, they’re probably the cat’s ass.
As I mentioned, Tanana was put on the proverbial map by a TV show called Yukon Men, on the Discovery Network. It focuses on the everyday hardships that come with life in Interior Alaska. While survival can be grueling in Tanana, and there are definitely lean times, I’m told that the show can be a bit contrived. But I guess that’s to be expected.
The characters are very real, and so are their struggles, passions and means of sustenance. I had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out with two stars of the show, Charlie Wright and James Roberts.
I met Charlie on my way to the town liquor store. I wanted a half-case of Rainier for our last night in town, and passed him standing on his porch, next to a frozen pile of martin carcasses. After talking for a while, Charlie showed me a collection of animal hides, along with the hats he makes with them.
He invited me inside and introduced me to his family, explaining that his son, Bob, was at the hospital in Fairbanks recuperating from a nasty snowmachine wreck. Before saying goodbye, Charlie and I traded some wild game meat. I gave him some of the snow goose jerky I’d brought with me, and he offered me some of his dried salmon. I think he got the short end of that deal!
I met James where he works part time, the Elder’s Residence, which is the town’s Native retirement home. After his shift, he took me on a Tour de Tanana. We rode by his fish wheel; a giant, floating contraption that catches fish on the Yukon during the salmon run.
James is big into sled dog racing. He runs his dogs every day, and it just so happened that he still needed to run his dogs that evening before it got dark. As James and his wife gathered the dogs and loaded them into some sort of giant plywood sleigh, I walked down to the river, anticipating the opportunity to watch the dogsled team run. It wasn’t long before a yellow snowmachine rolled down the riverbank pulling a dozen happy dogs.
As they hooked the dogs in a long line, James told me to hold the lead dog, and made a point of telling me "DON'T LET GO!" So I didn’t, but the pup didn’t seem too happy about it.
When it was go-time, James, the sled and all the dogs vanished instantaneously into a yapping, mushing cloud of fur, snow and ice. That was the last I saw of James.
Bitter cold and beautiful
My time in Tanana went quickly, but it was well spent. Folks in town were happy, because Rocky’s guys are the best at what they do. The boilers and furnaces they’d installed or cleaned were ready for more cold years to come.
The day we left, we got up early to watch the sun come up, and the moon set on the far side of the Yukon River. The river ice was deep blue and the dense spruce forest was black as ink. The moon was a thin slice of a mandarin orange floating in a sky of pink lemonade. The colors betrayed the outdoor conditions. Any skin not covered risked quick frostbite, and it didn’t take more than a minute or two for gloved hands to go numb.
The return trip to Manly Hot Springs took half the time because the cargo sleds were empty. We stopped once, long enough for Jon to find out what happens when you fire a 44 Magnum directly into the clear ice below your feet. He thought maybe the bullet would lodge in the ice and keep spinning like a top. It lodged in the ice alright, about six inches deep, but it was done spinning by the time we dug it out.
At one point I parked next to a dilapidated, long-forgotten trapper’s cabin on a bend in the river. I ate a dry peanut butter sandwich there, while trying to imagine what it looked like when the river was flowing and the fireweed was in full bloom.
A few more times winding the RMK out to 100 MPH and we were back in Manly, loading the trucks and heading home. Before leaving Fairbanks, I got to spend an afternoon watching the AK Trappers Association Fur Auction. Wolves, wolverines and grizzly bear hides were fetching some serious coin, otherwise I’d have brought one home as a keepsake.
I owe the trip to Rocky, and though I didn’t get to see him that year, we did catch up over dinner this past summer. It’s always an adventure, “Anytime, Anywhere!”
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Zero Your Turrets – T.O.
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