by Brance P. Peña
Like all natural wonders, snow is just another thing of science, but there is something about it that seems almost spellbinding. To a native of Manhattan, snow is a rarity: To most New Yorkers, a nuisance, but to the few enchanted, it is pure magic. It is perhaps Tim Burton’s depiction of a snow-covered suburban neighborhood, contrasted by a lone and dilapidated mansion that instilled my love for Anchorage. That being said, it is only with the greatest respect to the natural world that I admit that snow is not all beauty and romantics. It can be an entity of great terror and even greater power. This year, at Alaska Pacific University, we’ve enjoyed calm and lenient snow, but let’s not forget that Alaska’s record for snowfall was broken only two years ago. We don’t know what to expect this year, but if we expect the worst, we’ll be prepared for anything. In this article, the Turnagain Currents shares a story of snow at its worst… The interviewees: Real Alaskans.
In 1994, the Williams family established the EagleSong Lodge forty miles northwest of Anchorage, and completely off of Alaska’s road system. Getting there isn’t easy, but the picturesque view that greets you in all directions, the amazing food, and the fulfilling life that the Williams’ lead is more than enough to bring in visitors. A float plane was my method of transportation, but with the lake now frozen, ski planes, snow machines, or dog sleds are necessary. The Lodge can be found on Trail Lake, at the base of Mt. Susitna (also known as Sleeping Lady), far beyond zip codes, street signs, and post offices; In fact, the nearest neighbor can be found thirteen miles away. Alas, 2010 brought great change for the family when EagleSong Lodge became EagleSong Family Peony Farm. With over 10,000 of earth’s greatest peonies on the land, the Williams have you covered for any event that so demands a touch of perfection, but that isn’t the only service they provide: From wood sculptures and carvings, to hats, stuffed animals, and rare American burl bowls, you can expect the finest products in the country.
Raising a farm from nothing must have been a truly daunting challenge, but raising children in bush Alaska might have been an equally formidable task. Grown now, I was able to get the 1st generation of Alaskan Williams in one place for an interview (well, three out of four of them). In all their experiences, they could have told me anything about the 49th state, but I had one question for Cody, Meghan, and Micah: What is your worst snow experience? They had one answer: December 26th, 1999… But first, I forced an introduction from each of siblings.
“My name is Micah E. Williams. I’m twenty-six… I think… I work in the Dairy department at Natural Pantry, I’m a lifelong Alaskan, I’m living in Anchorage right now, and I’m a college graduate with a degree in theatre.”
“My name is Cody D. Williams. I’ve lived on the lodge — Well, now it’s on a farm — for most of my life. I’ve done two years of college and I have bounced around through a few different jobs. During the summer I go back to our farm to resume my position as field manager. In the winter, I come back to Anchorage to get an odd job.”
“… Or do nothing,” Micah mumbled in the background.
Going with the jab, Cody continued, “Or do nothing as my brother says… but I do give him lifts all the time to his work or theatre stuff.”
Last, the elder sister spoke.
“I’m Meghan Williams, I’ve grown up in the bush, and I have a degree at UAA as an English-Literature major. I’ve been to six or seven continents doing various things between school and work. The only one I’m missing is South America.”
So, what is your worst snow experience?
“That’s very, very easy. Winter 1999, leading to 2000. December 26th, 1999.”
“My worst snow experience was, as well, 1999, the winter right after Christmas.”
“That was clearly our worst experience, collectively, out there,” Meghan chimed in.
Micah started with a picture: “Mom’s not home. We’re out on the lodge, living forty miles northwest of Anchorage. It starts snowing, and it snows between two and three feet of snow, which is a crapload of snow to start with, and that was within 24 hours, but then it rains probably an inch or so, and then it snows another two to three feet, so we’re drowning under 4-6 feet of snow. It’s soaking wet through, so you can’t even shovel it. We’re worried about roofs collapsing at this point.”
“It was never dry snow to begin with,” Cody clarified. “I remember one snowfall we had, where it was about two feet of snow, but you walked out in it and it was all… it was more air than snow. You could have taken a fan and blown it away, but not this stuff. This was thick, heavy and compact.”
Meghan recalled a different aspect of the terror. Back then, she was seventeen.
“The mental stress is what makes them remember it more than anything, ‘cause mom wasn’t there to make you all take chill pills. Everyone was at each other’s throats. Everyone got a little bit snippy.”
Micah kept his focus on the narrative. “Literally, you’re swimming through the snow. You can’t walk anywhere, and so we spend the next week or more shoveling snow, just so we can have paths to the bathroom, which is an outhouse. There were parts of the yard that didn’t get unburied until February. There were parts of the yard that never got unburied until the snow melted, because there was literally that much snow. We were out there at one point when it was about three feet deep shoveling off the chicken roof because we were worried about it collapsing on top of the chickens.”
“Great for building things,” Cody interjected, “But we didn’t have time for that.”
Meghan had a less than lighthearted contribution. “With mom gone, I was also in charge of meals, and trying not to get them to bash each other in the head with shovels. The biggest thing is, you’ve got four siblings who have spent way too much time with each other under a stressful situation, and no way to blow off steam. When you’re shoveling that much snow, you have the constant sibling I did more than him, he didn’t do enough bickering back and forth. His pie is bigger than mine. No matter how it’s divided up, someone is shouting unfair. The fact that murder was not committed is absolutely impressive.”
“Not that anyone would know if murder was committed,” Cody added, jokingly.
I wasn’t entirely convinced. “Yeah, where is the fourth sibling anyway?”
“Yeah, you keep hearin’ about him, but you’ve never seen any proof, right?” joined Meghan.
But humor did little to change the events that occurred on the cusp of the new millennium. Cody brought me back.
“Living out there as long as I have, you come to know the difference between all the different types of snows. As they say, up here in Alaska, the natives had fifty different words for snow, or some ridiculous number. The only word I can remember off the top of my head is kayi. Wind-blown snow drifts. It was so heavy, so hard to move. You’d pick a load up, you’d swing the shovel, and when you’d bring it back, it was still all on your shovel because it was sticking.
We had snow machines which, most of the time, we used to groom the trails, but due to the snow being so heavy and wet; we couldn’t do that with the groomers. It was pretty much useless to use snow machines, because they could very well get stuck, and then you have to spend an hour and a half, depending on how badly it gets stuck, trying to get it out. The machines wouldn’t have gotten stuck; it was the groomer that would have gotten stuck. The machines would have run right on top of it, because it was so wet.
They would have packed it down pretty easily, but that wouldn’t have been helpful for the trails, especially the porches, and roofs, and everything. Getting the snow off the roofs was one of the hardest things. When you get it off the roof, not only is it more snow on that one spot where it falls, when it falls, it compacts even more. So that stuff was the heaviest, hardest stuff to move, period. The roofs kept water more than anything else, since we had the rain, that snow was the wettest. The density would easily break plastic shovels.”
The rain also created a susceptibility to hypothermia. I asked Micah how long that day stuck with him.
“Even since then, for about five or six years, I would have panic attacks when it would start to snow. Not major panic attacks… Most of the time, but I would have panic attacks when it’d start snowing, because I would have flashbacks to the nightmare which was this miserable week of nothing but snow and being buried in it. I would stress out and panic.
For a long time, I could not handle it snowing. Thankfully, that’s not a problem anymore, but yeah, that was the worst experience I’ve had with snow, and anyone else will back me up on that. Never before and never since, and we’ve had big snowfall since then; 4 feet easy in a snowfall, but it was the entresol of rain making it so soaking wet that a shovel load weighed maybe thirty pounds.
It was insane. Not only could you not shovel it because it weighed too much, but then it stuck to your shovel. We went through cans and cans of WD-40, because we would spray our shovels with it to make them slick. We were using WD-40 like nothing. If you were out there for five minutes, you were soaking wet to the bone, freezing to death, because it was raining and snowing.”
That’s a lot to ask from your children, even if they were raised on earnest work. I asked Meghan more about the “bickering.”
“It was all about nitpicking down to logistics. I had the argument of I shouldn’t have a fair quarter of the snow shoveling, because I also had to do meals on top of that. I should have to do less than the rest, and that meant the others had to do more.”
“That didn’t sit over well,” Cody interrupted. “We were only like twelve years old, we don’t have our mother there. She was down in the lower 48 for Christmas at our parent’s down in Michigan. She was a lot more emotional support than our father was. One of the reasons that I got through it with less effects than Micah did, was…
…And I’ve never told Meghan or Micah this, but… Partially through, I started singing You Are My Sunshine to myself, and I kept it up like a mantra almost. It kept my mood up. It was when I was at my lowest point of despair. It kept me going for the rest of the time, and I don’t know why it did, but it did. We finally got everything workable when New Year’s Eve came.”
I had to ask, “Did you have a Sunshine?”
“Maybe my mother… Just the thought of seeing her again.”
At that point, we were ready to wrap the nightmare up. “Have you got any final thoughts?”
“I’ve been thankful that I’ve never experienced something like that again,” concluded Cody.
Meghan looked about done. I gave Micah the last words.
“Yeah… That was not fun.”
An undergraduate freshman, Brance currently studies Elementary Education. Hailing from New York City, The Turnagain Currents has given him the opportunity to further his penchant for writing. In his spare time, Brance writes music/poetry, and teaches guitar as a private instructor. Additionally, he works as an administrative assistant in the Admissions Department.