“We had some pretty tough winters in the old days,” my dad says. “I once walked across the harbor from the Fish and Game float to Reliance Harbor. The harbor was frozen to the breakwater.”
“Let’s go look for winter,” I tell my dad, meaning I want to photograph the muskeg in all its winter finery. More than 10 percent of Southeast Alaska is covered in muskeg and Wrangell Island has a lot of muskeg. It’s especially beautiful in winter. With Huckleberry — my dad’s red four-wheeler — in tow on a trailer, we make it out the main logging road to the turn off on the backside of Nemo Loop. We pull over in a small parking area and unload the side-by-side. Oscar, my border collie, stops barking at the four-wheeler and jumps in beside me waiting for a ride.
“Winter sure is pretty,” I say as we wait for the cab to warm up. Around us cedar and hemlock sparkle a silvery blue in the noonday sun. “Seems like it’s going to be a mild winter, maybe. Not like the one where you dug out the frozen sewer?” My dad laughs. He knows I want to hear the story. One about “the old days.”
He says: “One year the whole town froze from October until April. It was 15-below zero in mid-November when I was working the green chain at the mill. That was the year of the big earthquake. The sewer pipe from our house to the road froze up. The sewer was backing up into the house. There was a foot of ice on the road. I chopped the ice out and found a manhole. The manhole was 12 feet deep and it was frozen all the way to the top with sewer. I went down to city hall and said, “I could use some help.” But they said no because they were too busy. The whole town was frozen.”
“So, how long did it take you to thaw the sewer line out?” I ask him.
“I used an ax, rock salt and a de-icer to get the sewer unthawed. I had to dig all that sewer out of the manhole. Turned out there were chunks of water pipe from a blasting project up the road in a new subdivision and the debris floated down into the lines and blocked them. That’s why the sewer backed up and froze. It took me a day to dig the manhole out. That’s how I spent the weekend: fixing the sewer.”
The cab is now warm enough and we take off down the road. We bump along in the snowy ruts until we find a muskeg. My dad turns off the engine and I say, “This looks good.”
I get out of the four-wheeler and Oscar and I venture into the muskeg. My dad stands at the edge of the muskeg while I walk in further to explore. With his new hearing aids, he’s listening to crackling ice and the way frost sounds under his feet. Oscar and I step gingerly around the frozen ponds, which don’t look solid enough to hold us.
Near one pond, I get down on my knees. My reflection is broken in the pond’s surface. The landscape appears like a miniature world with frozen trees, which are really blades of grass growing from the ice. All around, Labrador tea plants with their frosty hats dance at a fairy ball. How can there be so much life in the muskeg with its perpetual state of decay? I had expected that the muskeg in winter to be frozen in stasis, with everything just waiting for spring. But now I realize the muskeg reminds me we’re a part of a great big organic story about living and dying. Winter, a season we often associate with aging, and death, is truly beautiful.
The bullpine are covered in frost and I take photo after photo. I love bullpine. These grandparent trees are very old, some live to over 300 years old. These old trees listen to us walk in the muskeg. They’ve listened to our story, seen our breath cloud up and float across that lone frost-crusted leaf hanging on the alder branch. These trees will outlive my dad, who’s in his winter of life. He’ll be 79 this year. They will outlive me, too. Winter is beautiful but a bit melancholy, too.
We get back into the four-wheeler and drive further. After a few minutes, my dad slows down and then stops. He opens the cab door and looks down at the snow. “Moose tracks,” he says. I jump out of my side and run around to look down. Oscar follows me sniffing the tracks. Sure enough, they are. My dad is a good tracker. I take photos and get back into the four-wheeler and we take off again, but after a mile or so the road is impassable and we decide to turn around.
We stop at the truck but before we load up the four-wheeler we decide to eat the sandwiches and sliced apples I’ve brought in the truck. Afterward, we load up the four-wheeler and head back.
I like hanging out with my dad in the wilderness because I’m always gifted a story. Sometimes it’s one I’ve heard dozens of times. Other times it’s a story I haven’t heard before.
“My dad, your grandfather, was out fishing in his troller, the Mercedes, and Ed Loftus, his fishing partner was out in his troller. They were down back channel and anchored up on the mainland shore for the night. When they woke up in the morning, the whole back channel had frozen during the night. They were stuck. They went to the beach and cut down two spruce trees. They tied them on each side of the Mercedes. They tied them up at the waterline and brought the tips forward to the front to make a plow. The Mercedes broke the ice for Ed and his boat, who followed my dad back home. The Mercedes was an icebreaker!”
I laugh at the image in my mind, the Mercedes breaking ice, another troller close behind in it’s ice-free wake.
We load Huckleberry onto the trailer and turn around and head back to town. Wintertime is for remembering and also for making new stories. Along the way a story unfreezes and crystalizes in the truck cab: The city used to run out of water when it got really cold. They’d take a pump out to Pat Creek, fill tanks and large wood tierces, and deliver water. The town sold out of plastic garbage cans. The city would come to your house and pump water into your can for you.
As my dad tells the story, I look out the window and consider this is my dad’s winter story — wandering through forests and muskegs, driving the logging roads, a winter picnic, ancient bullpines covered in frost, moose tracks and a dangling alder cone glinting with ice crystals.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.