I’m so excited to share my short story “An Ice Road to Kushwitna” with you. It won second place in the 2021 Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition and was published in the current June issue of “Five on the Fifth,” an online literary journal that publishes five stories on the fifth of each month. Please follow the link to read and share it.
five on the fifth
vol. 7 issue 8 | june 2022
table of contents
jelly invasion (cover photo): mahdis marzooghian
daughter (horror): d. w. davis
from sodden shores (flash fiction): gresham cash
an ice road to kushwitna (general fiction): birgit sarrimanolis
flight (general fiction): anna persky
the year of locusts (flash fiction): aria braswell
The light returns to the frozen North in March. The winter in interior Alaska stretched long and dark. Even now, there are no signs of pussy willows clinging to stark branches. The riverbanks have not re-emerged from beneath their crusty snow layer. At Creamer’s Field, Canada geese and trumpeter swans, generally the first to arrive, have yet to be spotted. But the light has shifted, angling between the black spruce and birches. Even though there is still the crunch of snow underfoot, we lean into the promise of a gentle force slowly persuading winter to surrender.
The town has stirred out of its winter hibernation. Its inhabitants embrace the warmer weather and the possibilities that spring offers. At Summit Lake, snowmachiners glide through the snowy hills, celebrating the vastness around them. In Nenana, a betting game is underway that has people eagerly casting their votes as to when the ice will break and trip a tripod on the Tanana River. Dogs and mushers in the Iditarod sled dog race take on the challenge of jumbled river ice, mountain slopes and a thousand miles to Nome. In Fairbanks, ice carvers hone their skills and display ice sculptures. In an outdoor studio of subzero temperatures, they glisten until the thaw claims their ethereal nature.
It is a time of transience. Before long it will be time to put away the snowmachines. The ice will go out on the river, causing great boulders to crash against each other with terrific noise in their break-up. The sled dogs and their handlers will claim their victories. The dancers, temporarily frozen in their tango, will slowly melt into each other’s embrace.
Soon my daughter Helen will come home from college for spring break, even if it means trading daffodils in Ohio for the snow-covered landscape of Alaska. The days are breaking earlier and lasting longer, I promise her. We might go for a cross country ski on wooded trails like we did when she was growing up. She tells me about chemistry lab and discussions in her ethics class. I swallow a thickness in my throat. She is already halfway through her college studies. I want to slow down the hourglass, to be present for the season, even in its fleetingness.
In March the northern lights often present themselves. I look out for them, knowing that in summer months ahead the midnight sun will no longer allow me to see them. I linger outdoors for some time and watch them shimmer and undulate in the night sky. In hues of green and violet and red, they sometimes look as though they are deceptively close. I am captivated by the myths and tales that have been associated with them by different peoples throughout the centuries. I contemplate the physics of the aurora borealis and wonder how electrically charged particles from the sun entering the upper atmosphere can look so exquisite. Most of all, I feel privileged to have obtained another glimpse of them before they are gone again.
The winter, relinquishing, is whispering to us its final song.
Living in Alaska always comes with challenges. When I heard of a snow front moving its way into the interior, I didn’t think much of it. It was just before Christmas. We were too busy stringing up ornaments, wrapping gifts and planning what side dishes should accompany the roasted duck on Christmas Eve to contemplate the weather. Plus, we are typically prepared for snow events that can seize us at any moment. Our cars have winter tires, the generator is on standby, and the pantry is filled with foods with a longer shelf life. Like the carol on the radio, we would just “let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”
Cheerily, my friends Tara and Dawn and I set off with the dogs for a walk in the woods. We were past the winter solstice, gaining daylight again. Soon we would have Spring. A soft new snow blanket covered the peaceful terrain, marred only by the dogs’ romping and our own deep imprints on the trail. A barn was festively decorated with twinkling lights. Its equestrian inhabitants came up to the fence to greet us. In a landscape so exquisite, how could our spirits not be lifted?
After our walk we loaded wet dogs into car trunks and exchanged good wishes. My friends were leaving Alaska for the holidays. Driving home, I hoped that their travels amid Covid flight cancellations would go smoothly. I shrugged off the forecast I heard on the car radio. What would a few snow flurries matter compared to what they might have to deal with on their journey?
The first of the snowstorms arrived formidably that night. Great flakes swirled in the air and the temperature plummeted. A foot of snow accumulated by morning. I started shoveling out. Many hours later, with aching arms, I surveyed my efforts. I managed to clear a path to the front door, part of the deck and a narrow aisle to the woodshed. I was ahead of the game. I felt tired, but of an accomplished type. I went inside for a well-deserved cup of tea. Now I could curl up in front of the crackling fire with a good book.
When I awoke the next morning, it looked as though I had not even shoveled. My path was filled in again. Our steep driveway was covered with even more snow. I called Kyle, our snowplow man, but he told me the fuel pump on his truck was broken. He would not be able to come until the end of the week. Never mind, I said. We would park one of our cars at the pullout on the top of our driveway. That way, in the event of more snow, we would not be stranded. With much skidding and hammering hearts, we managed to get Nick’s car to the needed spot. Relieved that we had not slid off the driveway, we trudged back down the mountain to the house in the deep snow.
A second front moved in. It snowed and snowed and snowed all day. We got yet another twelve inches. Snow was piled high against the windows, obscuring our view. The dogs, reluctant to pee in deep snow, doubled back in hasty U-turns. Nick’s grill on the deck resembled Artu Ditu with extended snow-covered arms. We listened to the news and were advised not to attempt the roads until the plow trucks had passed through. Nick cancelled his patients’ appointments for the rest of the week.
We tried to encourage each other. It wasn’t all that bad. How often was it that we had a real snow day and could spend a whole day watching Netflix?
Then the power went out. Nick, in the middle of dinner preparations, cursed his opinion of this, not quite under his breath.
“It’ll come back on,” I reassured the family, more jovial than I felt. I went in search of candles and flashlights. I should have remembered to fill the bathtub with water because, without the jet pump, we couldn’t run faucets.
A third snowstorm in two weeks brought even stoic Alaskans to their knees. We awoke to the sound of rain in December. The temperatures had risen. Everywhere else in the world this would have been a sign of reprieve. In Alaska, it translated into the horror of ice. An inch coated the landscape. Ice glittered on the spruces and creaked beneath our ice-cleated boots. Birch branches snapped and broke. We worried about the snow load on the roof made heavy with moisture.
Fairbanks had turned into a world of the condemned. We were advised to not to leave our homes. The impassable roads had turned into ice sheets that resembled hockey rinks with no traction. Emergency vehicles were pulling cars out of ditches. Graders were sent ahead of them because roads were so bad. Power outages, due to heavy snow, were reported throughout the entire town while crews worked through the night. We had no power, no internet, no water. Our cell phone batteries were dwindling.
We hunkered down. When the temperature cooled in the house, we pulled on snowshoes and hiked down to the woodshed for firewood. We shoveled snow into buckets and heated it on the propane stove. We ate what we our freezer held in store for us. All in all, we resembled the Ingalls family in “Little House on the Prairie.”
When did we sign up for this? We complained nonstop. We couldn’t watch a movie because the power was out. We couldn’t flush the toilets because we had no water. We couldn’t even go out on a walk because the ice was treacherous beneath our feet. Should we consider moving to Hawaii?
Eventually, when we exhausted our reasons for griping and moaning, we settled into a different routine. Without choices, our evenings quickly became easier. The weather would do as it chose. We would abide. Eventually, the snowfall would taper. The ice would melt. Helen and Yanni finished the puzzle of Linderhof Castle that had been stowed on a shelf for years. Nick settled into his reading of Renaissance history. And I wrote a blog, simply for the pleasure of writing it.
This year’s winter storms, trying as they were, might just have anchored us.