Cross-Country Ski Adventure to Whittier

Excerpt from the book “A Normal Life“

Looking back, I see many ways I might have died exploring Alaska’s vast wilderness. I knew some people who did. Somehow, my friends and I survived, although given some of the risks we took, we were lucky.

One overnight winter camping trip set a group of us—about three or four guys and two girls—on an adventure that involved cross-country skiing to Whittier, a small coastal community on the other side of the Chugach Mountains to the east and south of Anchorage.

About sixty miles from the city of Anchorage, Whittier sits on a canal off Prince William Sound. The only land access is via the Alaska Railroad, through a nearly two-and-a-half-mile tunnel.

One of the guys in our group was in a full leg cast.

Our plan involved getting dropped off at Portage Glacier, a popular tourist destination on the highway about two miles away from the tunnel.

Allow me to repeat myself: it was a train tunnel. As in, only a train. In a tunnel. Not a pedestrian walkway, not a road, not a known or encouraged route. It was illegal* to walk through the tunnel unless you were an employee of the railroad.

I’m also sure that during the winter months, the train did not keep a regular schedule going in and out of Whittier. In other words, we had no idea if or when a train would come through while we were in the tunnel.

Then, deep inside the tunnel, we saw a tiny, bright light. As we stared at it, it got bigger and closer. Something was coming down the tracks.

Our trip began well, with an easy ski to the tunnel entrance. Once there, we took off our skis and opened a door meant only for railroad employees. Inside it was pitch black. No lights. We all had flashlights or headlamps, and it was these that guided us down the tracks, with our skis and poles slung over our shoulders.

The walking was perilous. Here and there mounds of ice had formed on the dark tracks where water dripped inside the tunnel.
I don’t remember if I had been in on the planning of this trip or if others had meticulously planned the excursion. All I know is that I blindly went along. Once inside the train tunnel, I was terrified that a train might come along.

As I walked, I looked to either side of the track, trying to gauge if there was room for us to stand against the wall and not be hit by the sides of a train. It didn’t look like it. In my mind, I practiced splaying my body against the wall, making myself as flat as I could, hoping not to be dragged off.

Fortunately for us, no train came that day, and we reached the other side safely. But our troubles had just begun.

The wind was so strong when we left the tunnel that it knocked us over like matchsticks. We retreated back inside to figure out what to do. The original plan had been for us to ski into Whittier and find a place to camp. But the town was several miles down the tracks, and every time we tried to step outside and put on our skis, the wind would knock us down.

We decided to trek to the side of the tunnel to find a spot to build a snow cave and camp. Leaving our skis and poles in the tunnel, we stumbled along the lower slopes of the mountain, trudging like mountaineers on Everest: Step. Stop. Brace. Step. Stop. Brace.

What we had not prepared for was how deep the snow was around Whittier, which receives an average of nearly 270 inches of snow a year. It snows so much there that walls of snow regularly cover the first-story windows of homes.

Eventually we came to a jagged tree that offered a slim buffer to the winds. There, we set up camp. We didn’t have tents, so we dug out under and around the tree and covered the whole contraption with a piece of plastic sheeting.

The Ritz, it was not.

We did have a small propane stove to heat food and drink though. Once inside our makeshift shelter, we were warm enough to take off wet outer layers and hang them on a string tied across the top of the shelter and relax in our long underwear. Our space roomed three comfortably. Maybe four. But five of us? We somehow managed to crisscross our sleeping bags and eventually go to sleep.

The next morning, after thawing clothing that froze on the clothesline overnight, we broke camp and decided to try to get into town again. One of our party, the guy in the leg cast—the least likely to get ahead—struck out on his own. By the time we got to the tunnel to retrieve our skis, he was long gone.

Some of us tried to ski along the snow-covered tracks. Every few feet, the wind would knock us down. Eventually, we took shelter in a small, abandoned wooden building.

There, I cried. My fingers and feet were frozen and hurt. After resting a few minutes, we decided to go back to the tunnel and regroup. Once there, we warmed up. God only knows what we thought we were going to do next.

Then, deep inside the tunnel, we saw a tiny, bright light. As we stared at it, it got bigger and closer. Something was coming down the tracks. Fortunately, it wasn’t big enough to be a train.

Like a knight in shining armor upon a white horse, a railroad worker riding a white Polaris snow machine pulled up to us and stopped. He was a young and friendly guy who might have encountered people like us before. He told us to stay put. He went into town, and a short while later, he pulled up outside in a pickup truck.

We loaded our skis and our shivering selves into the back, and he drove us into Whittier. Our rescuer took us to his house, where we camped on his living room floor. Later that night we reunited with our friend in the cast, who had successfully skied all the way into town.

When it was time to go home to Anchorage a day later, we bought tickets on the train.
Excerpt from A Normal Life ©2018 Kim Rich, Graphic Arts Books ®, reprinted by permission

Reading Kim Rich’s book brought back a flood of memories from the 1970s, ‘80s, and beyond of my own life in Anchorage and Juneau, Alaska. Setting off on adventures like winter camping with inadequate gear was just one of the activities we did for fun … not that I recommend it. Her book is not just about outdoor adventures, it’s about the gritty and sometimes hard life in Anchorage in the 1970s after her father was murdered and she was left to fend for herself, alone at 15 years old. It’s about Kim’s experiences striving for a normal life in Juneau, college days in New York City, working for the Anchorage Daily News, rescuing her kidnapped grandfather who suffered from dementia, and much more. Her resilience, positive attitude, and successes overcoming life’s stumbling blocks, some that many of us face, are inspiring. I like to be entertained and to learn something new from books that I read—A Normal Life by Kim Rich accomplished both. Look for her book in April 2018 at a local bookshop near you.

– Wendy Wesser, Assistant Editor

*Please note that while today cars can drive to Whittier, it is still illegal to walk, ski, or bicycle through the tunnel.

A Normal Life, A Memoir, is the sequel to Johnny’s Girl, A Daughter’s Memoir of Growing Up in Alaska’s Underworld. Johnny’s Girl was adapted to a Hallmark Entertainment television movie for ABC, an experience Kim shares in her sequel.

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