Remainder of Day One
“Oh my God! I’m stuck out here!”
The situation couldn’t get much worse. My mode of transportation was broken down and I was stranded alone, miles from safety. Scotty was hurt or dead in the back country, only God knew where, and the kids weren’t expecting us home for days. The scenario was every Alaskan’s worst nightmare and I felt sick with desperation.
My snow machine’s motor was running, but the track wouldn’t move. The first thing I did was pull big chunks of frozen overflow out of the track, but the darn thing still wouldn’t budge. Then I checked the clutch to see if it was engaging and it was. The belt looked good too. The machine was acting like there might be something broken in the chain case. I had used reverse to get around a sharp turn while I was leaving camp and may have screwed it up then. Scotty always told me to be careful when I used the “reverse” lever, but in my haste to hit the trail I guess I wasn’t careful enough!
In disbelief, I continued gunning the motor, hoping the track would “miraculously” engage and I could jet to Cantwell and get help for Scott. This problem was way beyond my mechanical expertise and there was nothing left for me to do.
I knew I had to try and walk back to camp so I gathered all the gear I thought I may need. When I was packing for the hike, I realized I hadn’t brought any water with me. I had forgotten to get my water bottle from camp! A small oversight that turned out to be a humongous problem!
I grabbed my ski poles and started back toward the lake. I figured I was only a couple miles from our camp and that I might be able to make it. I’d walked, I don’t know … maybe a half mile or so when I began falling through the snow. Each step forward was a fight. I was going nowhere in a quick darn hurry! After walking for over an hour, I hadn’t made much headway and to make matters worse … daylight was fading fast!
I was struggling down the trail when I came to the obvious conclusion that I was screwing up yet again! The “survival side” of my brain, not the right side nor the left side but the survival side screamed at me, “You’re never going to make it back to camp before dark!”
I thought, I have to wallow through this deep snow, climb a steep hill and then walk through the overflow to reach camp. Impossible! I knew right then, if I didn’t head back to my machine I would be making my next big mistake. Leaving the cabin was my first, and walking away from my heat source would be my second. I knew I had to stop making bad decisions if I wanted to survive. My snow machine was my lifeline, visible to anyone who would be searching for me and the motor could provide lifesaving heat. I told myself, “Viv, get back there right now!” So I turned around and staggered toward my machine.
It was taking me much too long to backtrack and I was feeling frantic, thinking of the precious time I had wasted and the few hours of daylight I had left. When I finally made it back to my machine, I immediately tried starting it. It took two or three pulls but it started! Next, I thought, Where in the heck are Elvis and I going to hunker down?
I set my sights on a straggly stand of permafrost trees not too far down the trail. Using my ski poles for support I stomped a path through the deep snow. My “skimpy” survival plan for the night was to dig a hole at the base of the trees, put my blankets down, and climb in with Elvis. Since I didn’t have my trusty shovel (an essential tool for any snowmachiner venturing into the wilderness) I had to kneel down and do the digging by hand.
Jeez, no shovel, no chainsaw, no gun—Scotty had all those items with him and I didn’t know how I was going to survive without his expertise and all his paraphernalia.
After clearing the snow out from under the trees, I realized I had to get the sled unhooked from my snow machine to carry out my plan. Scott uses a pintle hook hitch on our other sleds, but mine was attached with a bolt so I needed a wrench … another item I didn’t have.
Change of plans—I said out loud, “Okay, Elvis and I will get in the sled and put all the blankets over the top of us.”
By the time I had the sled set up the way I wanted it, I was pretty wet and sweaty. The temperature would be dropping soon and my sweat would turn to ice. Just standing there thinking about it made me realize that I was already feeling quite chilled. I had the idea of starting a fire in the hole I had dug by the permafrost trees. Unfortunately, the trees were too wet and the few things I had to burn—my suitcase, a plastic lid, a couple of fire starters, and some clothes—weren’t enough to make the fire last. Without the option of a fire to dry my clothes, I knew I needed to slow down to a “non-sweating” pace or I could freeze to death that very night.
I was getting more anxious with each passing minute. That’s when I said to myself, “Whether I sleep under the trees or in the sled, I’m going to have to walk back over to the snow machine to warm up. That’s not very smart. I should stay right with the snow machine.” Heck, I knew that the manifold gets hot enough to cook a hotdog, so I’d use that heat to stay warm. Decision made.
I don’t know what the temperature was the night of December 8th, but if I had to guess I would say it was about 18-20 degrees above zero. It wasn’t super-duper cold, but it was wet. I was wearing my shirt, pants, fleece jacket, fleece pants, wind breaker, snowsuit, wool socks, bunny boots, North Slope parka, hat, gloves and my parka hood pulled over my head for good measure. I was so bundled up I could barely move.
“So here goes,” I said. I sat down on the seat of my machine, held Elvis in front of me against my stomach and wrapped the blankets around both of us. Even though my blankets were wet they were still fairly warm. After I sat there awhile I thought,This could work! It wasn’t “The Ritz,” but my body core and feet were warm. I’m not saying I was comfortable … but I wasn’t freezing to death.
I remembered reading that if you went to sleep in the cold there was a good chance that you would never wake up. I wanted to avoid that fate at all costs so I didn’t end up sleeping a wink that night. About every 15 or 20 minutes I would get up, start my machine and walk around for a bit.
I felt somewhat “strong” emotionally the first day I was stranded; I could control my feelings. Control might not be the exact word I want. More like I turned off my emotions. I have an “off” switch that I’ve had to use a couple times in my life and this was one of those times. That being said, I was only able to shut my feelings off for so long.
I really wanted to believe Scott was alive, but worst case scenarios kept running through my mind. Why didn’t he come back to our cabin? He must be hurt. Maybe he had died. I know this might be “T.M.I.” but after 38 years, I couldn’t help but wonder if we had made love or laughed together for the last time.
I clung to the hope that Scotty was alive and hugged my little dog to me like a security blanket. Elvis was a tremendous comfort to me and helped me make it through that lonely Alaskan night.
Around 4:00 or 5:00 AM on December 9th, it started to clear up and get colder. That scared me because my clothes and blankets were still damp and it was a struggle to stay warm through the night. My back was so cold! Thank goodness the clouds came back in and by mid-morning it was fairly warm again.
With amazement in my voice, I said to Elvis, “We made it through our first night! We did it! Now we have to make it through this coming night.” I knew Kev wasn’t coming until the night of the 10th at around 11:00 PM.
I was walking back and forth by my snow machine when I realized I hadn’t had any water. I guess I’d been too focused on not freezing to death to think about it.
Sticking with the pattern I had established the night before, I got up and walked the trail every 15 to 20 minutes or so. I melted snow in my hand and sucked off the water each time I was up. I made “water” my number two priority. Number one was staying as warm as possible.
I had been awake for at least 48 hours at this point and was starting to get extremely tired. I was not hungry at all, but I forced myself to eat some of a chocolate cracker and small bits off a frozen piece of pork ribs.
I didn’t have a time-piece of any kind with me so I just estimated the time by light and darkness.
Mid-morning on December 9th, I felt a little breeze blowing and I said to Elvis, “You know, I’d better figure out a way of getting that sled off. I’m going to need it to block the wind if it starts blowing any harder.” I really had to work hard to get that sled off! I didn’t know it at the time, but that sled would save my life. Not from the wind but from something just as deadly.
I figured I would balance the sled on the back of my machine so it would shelter us from the misty fog. The night before I had put the plastic tote over my hood and blankets and slipped it down over my shoulders as far as it would go. I looked like a turtle with a shell on his back. I must have looked pretty crazy, but it did help keep my back warm. So I thought that I could use the sled for the same thing. I made several attempts but, with its big heavy steel hitch, the sled was much too cumbersome for me to maneuver around. I would get it nearly right and it would come crashing down. Scott is a metal fabricator and had made this hitch of heavy duty angle iron and that damn thing came close to knocking my head off before I abandoned my idea. So I left the sled upside down on the trail to use it as a windbreak if it started to blow again.
On a positive note, disconnecting the sled had kept me so occupied that my mind didn’t have time to go to the “bad” places. But in doing so, I hadn’t prepared myself mentally for the upcoming night. So, here I was, quickly approaching my second night in the Alaskan wilds and I was feeling very unprepared to face it.
And, let me tell you, it was a hell of a tough night! I was trying so hard to be strong. The night was quiet, and even with my trusty companion Elvis, I felt alone and scared.
My mind wandered. I couldn’t stop thinking about Scott and what he may be going through. I imagined him bleeding and helpless after cutting himself with his axe. Scott’s on blood thinners for his heart so this image just would not leave my mind. I tried not to think the worst, but I couldn’t help it. The thought that I may never see him laughing and playing with our grandkids or Elvis again tortured me and the tears would started to flow. I was unable to stop the memories or the tears until I finally told myself, “Viv, you’re getting dehydrated, you had better stop crying, you don’t have any more tears and you have to stay focused so you can live through this for your family.
I thought about my kids’ childhood years and what wonderful adults they had grown up to be. I longingly thought about each of my four beautiful grandchildren and the darling babies not yet born to Blaine and Tracy and I knew I wanted to live for each and every one of them.
Someone asked me once, “What did the cold feel like when you were out there?” I didn’t have a good answer then, but I do now. The cold was like a knife blade in my soul. The “cold” became “fear” and it invaded my mind as well as my body. Of course it was a painful physical thing, but mostly it was mind-numbing fear. I know that sounds melodramatic but that’s the only way I can explain it.
Once during that endless night, I looked skyward and saw the northern lights. They were amazingly beautiful! But do you know what I thought? These lights are just another display of Alaska’s cold cruel beauty. I was at nature’s mercy and felt totally helpless.
I wish I had known that Scott was looking at the same beautiful lights. If I’d been facing the opposite way I would’ve seen a sight to give me hope that Scotty was alive. He had made camp and built a fire at the base of a large spruce tree. Striving to stay warm, he piled heaps of spruce boughs on his fire. To his astonishment the spruce went up in flames, spiraling high into the dark sky! It could have been like a beacon telling me Scott was alive, but I didn’t see his fireworks display. I was alone.
My second night was pretty hazy. I kept myself awake by singing the song “99 Bottles of Beer.” When I got down to about 40 or 50 bottles of beer, I would get up and start my machine. I didn’t go anywhere near R.E.M sleep that night … but I had dreams. I dreamed of a cool glass of water! I was so thirsty! Even though Elvis was also hungry, thirsty and tired, he was a little trooper.
In the dark, the snow machine’s light was very comforting for both of us. When the machine was running, Elvis was content, even chasing the reflections of the headlight when we first got stranded. On the other hand, as soon as I turned the machine off, Elvis became very nervous. He didn’t like the darkness surrounding us any more than I did. It was terrifying!
By the morning of December 10th, Elvis and I were tired and lethargic. I was extremely thirsty, but not hungry, even though I’d eaten very little. I gave Elvis a frozen chunk of meat to chew on and made myself eat another cracker and a couple slivers of frozen meat. What I really wanted was water! I needed to drink something. I don’t drink a lot of soda, but I fantasized about drinking a cold Pepsi and could have drunk a whole six pack right then.
That morning I heard something that grabbed my attention—tweety birds singing. We often hear gray jays, ravens, magpies and ptarmigan, but we rarely see or hear songbirds in December. I thought, That sounds kind of pretty, but what in the heck are birds doing out here this time of year? I wouldn’t find out until later what those sounds really were … but they definitely weren’t birds.
Elvis and I had done something most people can’t imagine. We survived two frigid Alaskan winter nights outside with no fire. But now I was worn down to a nub and very weak physically and mentally. Oh, and I definitely felt the wind coming up. Terrified, I thought, If the wind starts blowing, I am a goner! I’m done! I cannot stay warm if the wind blows.
At this point I had a hard time believing Scott was alive, and I thought about him and the kids most of the time. In my weakened mental state, I seriously wondered whether I would make it until someone found me. The idea that my kids may lose both parents like this made my heart break. I was trying to stay positive but I was breaking down emotionally. I just didn’t know what to do at this point.
Around mid-afternoon I noticed that the temperature was dropping again. I was having a much harder time staying warm and I could feel the frigid air seeping into my wet clothes. I was feeling incredibly sluggish and tired and starting to shiver.
As the temperature continued dropping throughout the day I figured it was getting close to 15 or 20 below zero! I could no longer feel the warmth when I crouched over the running engine. I was freezing! When I got up to walk, my feet felt like they were stuck in quicksand and my legs were so heavy I could barely move. I had to use my ski poles to prevent myself from falling flat on my face.
By late afternoon I began thinking the unthinkable. I only had one way left to keep myself warm and that was to burn my snow machine. Saying that I was reluctant to do this is the understatement of the year—I felt physically ill just thinking about it. But my core temperature was dropping and I was running out of options. The next step would be hypothermia.
I knew that burning my machine was my last “hurrah” but I had to seriously consider it. I had this idea that the metal would stay warm after it burned and I could use it like hot potatoes or rocks. But I knew that I had to hold off burning my machine for a few more hours, so I began stumbling up and down the trail flapping my arms and trying to hold off the inevitable. I made it for a few more hours before I became so cold that I was having a hard time thinking straight. I was having a hell of a time staying awake, knew falling asleep would be the death of me, and afraid I was closing in on full-blown hypothermia!
I think it was around 6:00 PM when I said, “This is it, I’m going to have to burn this snow machine right now to stay alive.” If I didn’t warm up within the next few minutes I was going to be running down the trail naked, thinking I was on the beaches of Hawaii. So I grabbed my homemade fire starters, and stuffed a few pages of last year’s calendar in the back pouch of my snow machine seat. The only thing left to do was light the match.
I had lost my gloves somehow and my hands were freezing. I thought, If my fingers are too cold and stiff to light this match that’s really going to stink. Living in the remote village of Cantwell as a child, I had read a Jack London novel where this very thing had happened. Man, that guy wrote some terrifying Alaskan tales! But my fingers did just what my brain told them to do. I struck the match.
As much as I hated to do it I lit that snow machine on fire, stepped back and said, “Scotty, if you’re still alive I hope you don’t get mad at me,” and I cried.
That snow machine caught on fire and I was like…Ohhhh this is fantastic! Although there were some killer fumes coming off that thing, I covered my face and let my body suck up the heat. My bigger concern was about the gas tank. Would it blow up? It was a little anti-climactic when the gas tank fizzled instead of blew, but I gave a cheer of relief.
After the flames died down a bit I put my blankets over my ski poles next to the fire to dry. What a wonderful sight to see them steaming away! Don’t get me wrong. I was sad, and mad as hell that my snow machine was going up in flames, but there was nothing I could do about it so I backed up to the fire and dried my parka! My snow machine was no longer a material possession. It was my heat source and my salvation.
I thought the rubber track would burn for two to three hours, but that wasn’t the case. The machine burned right to the ground in about an hour and a half—I couldn’t complain—I had dried my blankets a little bit, warmed up my body and soul, and was thinking much more clearly.
I thought I had better get on with the plan to put my blankets down on the warm metal, settle in and wait for Kevin to show up. But I realized right away that my “hot potato” idea wasn’t going to work. The frigid air was causing the metal to cool at such a rapid rate I couldn’t find much residual heat anywhere in the debris. That little voice in my head piped up and said, “Ahhh, I wonder if I made a mistake and burned my machine a few hours too soon?” But I ignored that little voice and told myself that I had to “make it work” until Kevin came for me. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do but I refused to die! I didn’t want my son to have to live with the horror of finding me frozen to death.
By Vivian Mayo
To be concluded in the March/April 2017 issue of LFM…
Excerpt from Part III – “I stood there in stunned silence as the wolves proceeded to surround us … I could hear them and I could see their eyes glowing in the moonlight. I was absolutely horror-struck.”