Now it is a pewter-colored day. The visitors are up early once more, heading out of Anchorage and down the Turnagain Arm highway in a car with Mike Hershberger and another skier, a kinetic woman named Judy Spivey. They are bound for an overnight trip into the mountains beyond the tip of the Arm, a cross-country ski adventure to be capped, it is hoped, by spending the night on the mountainside in an igloo of their own construction.
They are not going into the bush with the tough old gold prospectors' hard and meager provisions, a ragged blanket and a fist-sized chunk of sourdough to make bread. No, indeed. They have goosedown sleeping bags, cameras, a banquet of food. As Mike says, "This is the steak and strawberry shortcake excursion. We aim to please." The New Yorkers are a trifle embarrassed by the sense of luxury about their camp in the mountains, but they do not complain. It is only for one night and as the older one says, "There's nothing wrong with a little strawberry shortcake in the woods, just as long as it's skookum strawberry shortcake."
In addition to the strawberry shortcake they have brought steak, onion soup, croutons and breakfast bacon, the makings for French toast, a couple of bottles of wine, some apricot brandy, a half-pint of Chivas Regal Scotch and a container of homemade lowbush cranberry liqueur. This last is a miracle drink, tart-sweet, and when it is sipped and carefully rolled about the tongue and then swallowed while relaxed high on the side of a silent mountain as a few snow-flakes float down—well, at such a time it seems as if lowbush cranberry liqueur were something mixed by Merlin to cure all modern maladies. Mike, of course, has the recipe for lowbush cranberry liqueur ready at tongue tip:
"On the first day, pick the cranberries. On the second day, rest. On the third day, grind three quarts of cranberries and set in a cool place for 24 hours. On the fourth day, pour one fifth of 180-proof Everclear into the ground berries and set aside for another 24 hours. On the fifth day, sieve and strain the berries. Boil five cups of sugar in three cups of water for five minutes. Let the sugar and water get very, very cold. Mix the berries and water, then bottle in stone jugs. Age three weeks. Drink on mountainside glaciers and beside icy cold streams...."
Mike is in a communicative mood today. "You cannot make a mistake in Alaska in the winter. It means death. When it's 30 below zero, you can freeze something and never know it. I've had my hands so cold I broke into sobs when they thawed out. You never know. A little boy I knew of forgot his overshoes in school and walked one mile from the bus stop to his house in his oxford shoes. Both feet froze and had to be cut off. Alaska kills the innocent. You can die of thirst in winter because your body sweats and you can't get enough moisture back into it...."
Well, it is not below zero today (more like 30 above) and no one in this bunch is going to die of thirst. No, indeed. At last they arrive at the foot of their mountain. They are in a parking lot filled with cars, trailers and—sad to say—snowmobiles. There is a raucous roar all around, riders of the iron dog are at play everywhere. The place is labeled SNOW PLAY AREA and Mike explains that one side of the road is set aside for snow machines, the other for skiers—"and never the twain shall meet," he adds fervently.
Hastily, the newcomers and friends shrug into their packs and cross the road to where the skiers play. It is about noon, the snow is thick and sticky, there are only half a dozen skiers in sight, scattered over a couple of miles of mountain above, and Mike decides on purple wax with an overlay of red under the bindings. They begin their climb up the mountain. It is called Tin Can Mountain, no one knows quite why, although there is a Tin Can Creek at its base. Though it is bleak, there is promise in the climb ahead and Mrs. Spivey, Mr. Hershberger and the New Yorkers begin to ascend, leisurely, easily, up a small knoll that is crisscrossed by skiers, then over a fiat area, up some more past a growth of tamarack trees, on and on upward toward the place where the Tin Can peak meets the tin-can-colored sky.
Because of the sticky snow, the climb is quite easy; the skis don't slip backward. The packs are nicely balanced, not heavy. The older cheechako is humming Winter Wonderland, a song from his youth. The younger is whistling something tuneless. Judy Spivey is chirping delightedly in anticipation of the day, the climb up Tin Can, the igloo, the strawberry shortcake. "Isn't it great? Isn't it terrific?" she says. And Mike....
"There are about 15,000 polar bears in Alaska. People used to shoot about 300 a year.... It's a fiction that bears sleep all winter. They're up and around by now.... There's still gold in these hills. It hasn't been feasible to mine it, too expensive. But there are new ways now and there could be a new gold rush up here.... Do you know that the cost of living in Alaska is 148% what it is Outside?"
Snow packs onto the skis and they must stop to scrape it off. They munch fresh snow and a handful of raisins. Mike passes around the lowbush cranberry liqueur.