Christmas in Alaska at 30 below
At mid-day the sun hung wearily above the southern horizon, casting an orange-red glow across the frozen, snow-covered lake. The smoke from cabin chimneys around the lake’s edge rose into the sky in pencil-straight lines, then flattened out and hung like wispy clouds not far above the roof tops and spruce trees — held there by a layer of cold, dense air that was -25 degrees below zero.
Cold, dense air conveys sound extremely well, and the whacks of someone splitting firewood from a mile away sounded like they were next door. The rumbling of the daily Alaska Railroad freight train headed for Fairbanks often sounded as if it was coming over the hill and bearing down on our cabin, when it was at least four miles away.
On Christmas Day, 1963, we’d gathered together to celebrate the holiday at my parents’ cabin, located about 55 road miles north of Anchorage on Nancy Lake. After my dad’s retirement from the Alaska Railroad in the early 1960s, he and my mom moved there from Anchorage. It was a brave step for both of them, not only because there was no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing, but because in winter the cabin could only be reached by snow machine.
There was no telephone service to Nancy Lake, and my parents didn’t have a short-wave radio. But they did receive commercial (AM) radio from Anchorage, which offered a daily message service to remote areas. One of the stations called their evening message program “Mukluk Telegraph” and the other named theirs “Northwind.” A typical message from civilization would go like this: “Mom and Bob: We’ll meet you at White’s Crossing at 12 noon, Dec. 25, loaded with Christmas goodies from Santa. We’ll be dressed warm and waiting for the snow machine ride into the cabin.”
My dad met us with his snow machine at the small café called White’s Crossing, so named because it was at a junction of the Parks Highway and the Alaska Railroad. Our cars were equipped with head bolt headers (engine block heaters) and the café’s proprietor, Ray White, allowed us plug them in. My dad often took the battery out of his car and stored it inside the warm café, or would bring it by snow machine all the way to the cabin.
From White’s it was only a four-mile snow machine ride to the cabin. My sister’s husband Don brought his own machine, so we all made the journey in one trip, replete with supplies on sleds.
I was glad to be hunched behind my dad on the machine and out of the wind chill, which at these temperatures was about -50 degrees. About half way into the cabin a large moose lumbered across the trail, only about 40 yards in front of us.
“I think that’s the same one I was trying to get back in September during moose season,” my dad yelled above the whine of the snow machine engine. “He knows he’s safe now.”
Home in the woods
Tucked into the trees inside one of the lake’s deep coves, the log cabin was a welcome sight. I hadn’t seen my mom since I left for my first semester of college in September, and gave her a big hug at the door. We warmed our hands over the pot-bellied wood stove as my mom and sister Phyllis began digging out all of the Christmas goodies, including a turkey that would soon go into the propane stove oven. I glanced over to the far wall of the cabin and spotted my mom’s Baldwin spinet piano.
“How did you guys get it up here?” I asked.
“Maybe over dinner,” she smiled. “Why don’t you guys go outside and enjoy the last of the daylight?”
The cabin was perched part way up a 300-foot hill, which was steep enough for great sledding. One of our sleds was a bowl-shaped, U.S. Army freighter, called an akio.
Its shape allowed it to ride high in the snow, and on a packed trail it went really fast. After a few seated runs down the hill and out on the lake, which I declared “epic,” I boldly proclaimed that I was going to attempt a standing-up run.
“You’re crazy!” Don exclaimed.
Half way down the hill in a standing position and accelerating rapidly, it occurred to me that he was probably right. I hit a bump and went flying face first into the snow bank. Luckily the snow was soft, but it took awhile to find my eye glasses, which were buried about a foot deeper than my hat.
“You are definitely crazy,” Don persisted.
“Yes, but I think I might have invented a new sport. I don’t know exactly what you would call it, maybe snow surfing? I think some day people will stand up while sledding.”
It could have been a prophetic moment. A sport called snow boarding would emerge in the U.S. in the late 1960s and by the 1980s, it really took off in Alaska.
After a brief warm-up break in the cabin, we went back outside with my sister Phyllis for some snow machining around the lake. At these temperatures we had to really bundle up, making sure that extremities like noses, ears and hands were well protected. The sun had now sunk below the horizon and before setting out we checked the thermometer on the side of the cabin: -27 degrees F.
For nearly an hour we roared around on the frozen lake, trying to dump over my sister who was being towed around in a sled. She had so many layers of clothing on that I doubt she would have gotten hurt even if she crashed!
Warmth from each other
That evening as we gathered for dinner, the table lit by candles and roaring Coleman lanterns overhead, I felt warmer than ever before — not just physically, but spiritually. The first semester of college, away from home, hadn’t been easy. Being here with my parents, my sister and her husband, in a place that I really loved, in a cabin that I had helped build, was just what I needed. After dinner my mom sat down at the piano and began playing Christmas carols. We gathered around her to sing and outside, in the frigid night air, our voices probably carried all the way across the lake.
My dad scratched frost off the window and looked at the thermometer on the side of the cabin. “30 below,” he announced.
“How did you get that piano all the way in here?” I later asked my mom.
“They graded the road and made it passable after you left for college. We were able to bring it in here on a pickup truck. A couple of neighbors helped your dad carry it into the cabin. I told him I couldn’t live up here without a piano!”
We enjoyed several Christmases at the cabin on Nancy Lake until the late 1960s when, for health reasons, my parents sold it and moved to Washington State.
Subsequent holidays in Alaska with my wife, children, sister and friends have also been very special. But I’ll never forget those simpler times at Nancy Lake when we spent Christmas in a little log cabin heated by wood, with Coleman lanterns for light, and water carried from the lake in buckets after drilling a hole in the ice.
Back then we didn’t have very much, but it didn’t matter. We had each other. That, as much as the pot-bellied stove and the wool afghan blankets my mom knitted, always kept us warm.
Frank E. Baker is a lifelong Alaskan and freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. Reach him by emailing [email protected]