SI Vault
William Johnson
January 07, 1974
Far out on Alaska's frontier the two strangers faced some icy new challenges—not to mention caribou sausage, ski treks to nowhere, cranberry liqueur, and the igloo that wouldn't stay put
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January 07, 1974

Cold Trail Into Adventure

Far out on Alaska's frontier the two strangers faced some icy new challenges—not to mention caribou sausage, ski treks to nowhere, cranberry liqueur, and the igloo that wouldn't stay put

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Mike is busily digging snow blocks.

"When we set these on each other, they'll bind together, almost like cement if the weather's just right. It might be a little warm now...."

The cheechakos are told to scrape a circle in the snow about 12 feet in diameter. As Mike digs out blocks, they set them along the line. The first row is easy, the second row is exciting—the bricks are slanted slightly inward and at least the idea of an igloo appears. As Mike digs, he sinks steadily down into a pit of his own making. As each block is set atop others, the older man rams it tight against the adjacent one. He is supposed to hold it briefly until the blocks bind with frost. But it is quite warm. The blocks do not stick together as they should. Judy Spivey and the younger cheechako line up to hold blocks for several minutes at a time until they adhere.

Soon, half an hour later, the igloo wall is three blocks high and Mike has dug a wide pit about six feet deep outside the wall. He now moves inside the igloo circle with his shovel. Thus, as he digs out blocks from inside, the igloo wall rises a foot or so with each row of blocks added and the floor inside sinks about the same amount because of blocks subtracted. It is exciting to contemplate such progress.

Yet it is growing dark and the snow is still mushy. Soon Judy Spivey and the two cheechakos are standing in a row, arms stretched out desperately, holding up much of the fourth row of blocks. The blocks are slanting precariously, beginning their arch inward to make the classic igloo dome, but they will not stick. It is a difficult time; Mike Hershberger is optimistic.

"See the patterns the blocks make, a pretty mosaic. When it's finished and we light candles inside, we can come out here in the dark night and look at it. It'll be translucent light, glowing through the snow from inside. The patterns of the blocks will show up like cracks and designs in an upside-down gold cup...."

Ah, but even then, with the fifth row scarcely begun, it is plain that such a beautiful work of winter art will not be available here this night. The snow is too soft; it will not bind, and the blocks fall in again and again. The newcomers and Mrs. Spivey try, spanning their arms, bracing and embracing the newly placed blocks for many minutes at a time, praying, wishing that they will hold up until the demisphere is finished. But, no, they fall and smash to chunks.

With fallen blocks scattered around his feet, Mike Hershberger at last heaves a sigh, throws down his shovel and resigns from the project. "Dammit, it won't work," he announces. It is now 9 p.m., and the moon has risen behind thin clouds. It is a three-quarter silver coin within a blurry halo. The snow is fluorescent in the moonlight. Mike Hershberger is a little grumpy, distinctly displeased that there is this unfinished igloo, but there is nothing to be done for it. The group skis off into the woods to find firewood. Mike quickly builds a blaze in the snow pit outside the igloo wall and begins to prepare dinner.

The cheechakos find they are simply in the way during the meal preparations in the narrow flickering confines and they slip off, step into their ski bindings and glide away into the chill darkness, far beyond the circle of fire. The moonlight is tantalizing. As they move through shaggy black trees, the snow seems to glow like a silvery floor.

There are no other tracks here, no other people, nothing but themselves and the cold tranquillity of the great mountain and the moon.

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