Encouraged by the shots he got on Mt. Aurora, Bob was amped to take it up a notch, to find the place to photograph the aurora where the ribbons of light dance like May Day and the hundreds of Japanese aurora-tourists are more scarce. “It feels like I've been battling Japanese tourists my whole life, “ Bob said. “No matter how far I get out anywhere, there they are.” Chris and I had gotten a tip on a locale from a local aurora-tracker that might prove the place, and might also eliminate a fair number, if not all, of the crowds of gawkers, so Bob was strongly in favor of us pursuing it. Eagle Summit, a pass about 3,000 feet in elevation up in the White Mountains was “only 30 miles north of here, about mile 57,” said the local. “It's no tourist stop. Only pro photographers'll be up there, if anybody at all.” Sounded good to us.
Come morning, however, the weather report was looking rough at best. Mostly cloudy, with more clouds expected after 11, and a more than 50% chance of snow. We'd lucked out the night before on Mt. Aurora, the clouds parting within minutes of the aurora's appearance, and staying gone until the northern light had died down. Our chances for a repeat performance were slim, I suspected, and I told us so. But Bob's mind was firmly set on a May Day effect. Chris and I had already had our share of disagreements. I wasn't going to bring Bob into the mix, too. Because a ride up north beyond the Fairbanks area we knew would satisfy my own urge to venture out into the beyond I couldn't care less what we found there, I just wanted to pick a direction and go till the road ran out. With short delibiration we opted to ignore the forecast, point our windshields north, and see what this so-called “Eagle Summit” had to offer.
We headed out in the early afternoon up the Steese Highway toward its endpoint at Circle, Bob and Shelby in their rented Taurus, Chris and I in the Sequoia. We'd been told Eagle Summit would be around mile-marker 57. Once we passed mile-marker 60, I posed the question to Chris: “Uh, hey man...you seen any sign for Eagle Summit?” When he confided he hadn't, we checked his unlikely-yet-in-fact-functional iPhone for more info on Eagle Summit.
“Mile 107 it says here,” said Chris, “not 57.” This was discouraging because the road past mile-marker 20 had turned to sheer ice. Travel was slow-going, 30 mph max on the straightaways. About a half hour later Chris read the other half of the Wiki page: something about a “convergence zone” where "any differential in the weather within the two valleys causes high winds and precipitation when there is moisture in the atmosphere." This did not bode well with snow in the forecast, but Chris was not of a mind to disappoint Bob, so we kept that little bit of weather information to ourselves and onward we pressed. And I was struck with the notion how even the best intentions can knock around the dominoes of fate, how trying to do the right thing so often sounds the march of doom.
Rising in elevation the world began to look terrifying in its isolation and hostility. Barren white, all around, tundra grass and snow. There was no escaping it. It surrounded us. It was a harsh and forbidding beauty that said “you are but a temporary visitor here. There are only temporary visitors here.” Some dog-sled racers on the Yukon Quest - a thousand-mile race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Canada that crosses Eagle Summit - have testified that the trail over the summit is the most difficult section of trail of any dogsled race in the world. Winds kick up from nowhere, mix with snow, and obliterate safe passage in a matter of hours, sometimes minutes.
Chris and Bob haggled over where to frame their shots while I dragged the sled-full of equipment over the bare rocks as they paced back and forth. The wind seemed to be not in a playful mood. The sun set quickly as the clouds huddled tighter and tighter together. But ol' Bob was convinced they'd shift so we stuck it out for the long haul which meant food would have to be procured somehow to get us through the night. There are four towns along the entire 160 miles of the Steese Highway between Fairbanks and Circle. Shelby and I volunteered to drive the 20 miles north to Central, the last town before Circle, to get gas and acquire sustenance of some kind.
The “town” of Central, AK consists of a gas station, a grocery store, a liquor store, a bar, and a post office. Of these five, four are the same place. From inside the bar a dozen discourteous eyes tracked us as we pulled into the lot, parked at the pump, and walked to the door. It was not self-service, and at this late hour, the only service was through the bar. We took a breath at the door, fully expecting a jukebox to scratch when we entered. We were surprised when it didn't. They gave us a once over and went back to their sassing and swearing in the familial way the familiar do when they spend most nights on the same bar stools. The bartender, a man of few words, spoke in the slow manner of a man who's seen a lot, but mostly sees the same stuff all the time. He offered us a beer while we waited for him to go out back, don his apron to switch roles to chef, and fry us up some chicken fingers. When he was finished, he removed the apron, hung in neatly, and took us into the back of the grocery where he became proprietor of the liquor store and sold us a six-pack of Oatmeal Stout. Then as cashier he checked us out and said, “now be safe out there.” His tone when he said it made me take pause. In Boston, “be safe” gets thrown around. It's a parting shot, something that's just said, like “see ya later” or “until next time.” But when a guy in Central, Alaska says “be safe out there,” he means, quite literally: “don't go do something stupid that'll get you killed, now.” Which triggered the thought: Like drive up to Eagle Summit in March? But it stayed a thought.
Back up top, when we opened the truck doors the wind tried to rip them off. Chris's face mask was crusted with snow. Bob looked miserable. The snow wasn't falling. It wasn't humming. It was screaming. Chris, trying to keep the collective stress in check, offered his opinion as an experienced sailor, that the wind was not in excess of 20 mph. A knee-jerk retort to how ridiculous I found this assessment, I fired back: “The hell you say! It's 60 if it's a mile! This is hurricane shit, bro!!!” The second it was gone from my lips I wished it, too had remained a thought. I decided also to keep my thoughts on the whole “be safe out there” thing to myself.
We camped out in the truck and ate dinner as the lines that delineated earth and sky outside began to blur. Whiteout was surrounding us, converging wind and snow all around our tiny vehicles. We were quickly reaching a critical mass: either call it in and try our best to creep defeatedly but probably alive off this mountain, or hunker down in the truck for the night, maybe longer, and wait for snow drifts to cover the tailpipe and snuff us out in our sleep.
Bob finally, begrudgingly, conceded that these conditions were less than workable and we opted for the drive of shame. We broke down the rig, though I doubt in our haste that all the lens caps found lenses. Chris and I followed Bob and Shelby to make sure their Taurus didn't slide off the road into one of the 500-1000 foot chasms on either side of the road. Or if it did, we'd be more apt to see it, and make a call when cell service came back in 100 miles or so. The two and a half hours it took to go out became four to get home. The last 10 miles in Fairbanks were the toughest. Hard to keep a lane with one red-eye open at 5 in the morning, especially when that eye's been trained on avoiding moose, not tractor-trailers.
That you're reading this says we made it. There wasn't a lot of talk in the lot getting out of the cars, not even of relief. We filed away to our rooms. I took the stupidly heavy marine battery in and hooked it up to the charger for the next night's adventure. Then turned around, and boots on, fell into bed like the exhausted do in movies, not putting my hands out to stop the pillow from slamming into my face.