The Lake Louise swim team: Part 1

This summer, a group of friends took an RV filled with 12 people up to Lake Louise, promptly sunk it in a gravel lot, named it “The Incident” and vowed to never again be bested by the notorious lake.

In this vow we have admittedly failed.

The plan was to head out to our friend’s cabin, located across Lake Louise, through a channel and situated at the far side of Lake Susitna near the mouth of the Tyone River. We had five men on three snow machines hauling sleds packed with enough gear to survive a snowy apocalypse for at least a week — or so we thought.

The trip started flawlessly. As we headed out toward Glennallen the sky was clear, but not too cold, and we were ecstatic to start a trip that had been planned for months. We arrived at the lodge, quickly unloaded our gear and began the long haul toward the cabin. Despite the distance, we had no issue navigating across to Lake Susitna.

It was here, however, that our problems began. As night had long since fallen, the weather had grown increasingly cold and the lake had become a whiteout, with visibility dropping to 10 feet in any direction. Because the cabin sat up upon a hill, we would have to be 10 feet off shore in those conditions in order to successfully locate it. Adding to the dilemma, the official trail across the lakes was scheduled to be marked the morning after we had arrived, meaning that we had very little visible landmarks by which to navigate.

Realizing we were lost, we decided to return to the start of Lake Susitna to gain our bearings and get back on course — which is where things went sideways.

As mentioned, a small channel connects the two lakes. Snow machiners generally avoid channels of this sort because the exchange of warm, shallow water results in soft, unstable ice. Recognizing this, we had given the channel a wide berth on the initial trek. However, with zero visibility we made the amateur mistake of staying too close to the shore as we looped back around the lake.

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Suddenly there was a horrifying cracking noise, which remains vividly clear in my memory. Bringing up the rear, I saw the first machine pitch wildly as the ice beneath disintegrated immediately, and I made a last-ditch attempt to gun the engine and veer to the left before I, too, was sucked under. I instantly felt the bottom drop out of the world as the haul sled sunk, dragging the machine backward beneath the ice. I frantically slapped my passenger’s helmet to convey the futility of staying on the machine, and we both leapt towards the ice.

The ice I landed on instantly shattered, breaking way to even more water. Struggling to remove my helmet and get out of the freezing water, I was able to grab ahold of my passenger’s hand, who had already made it to relative safety, and I was pulled up from what I assumed to be an unpleasant death.

Luckily, all five of us made it onto thicker ice, but given the low visibility, all three machines appeared to be lost at the time. As shock set in, we were acutely aware that it was midnight, 20 below zero, and we were soaked up to our chests with all our gear at the bottom of a lake. It was so cold that my snow pants, which had slipped down to my knees in the chaos, froze in that position, instantly offering no protection from the frigid cold.

Knowing that we had to keep moving to avoid hypothermia and our eventual deaths, we took stock of the limited gear we had. We then tried to navigate far around the soft ice and back toward the channel where we hoped to find someone’s cabin to use as an emergency shelter.

On the way, someone in our group called the troopers, who hilariously instructed us to “stay by the wreck,” which would have achieved nothing but an easier job locating five frozen bodies the next morning.

Thirty minutes later, after our toes and fingers had long since lost all sensation, we stumbled across two men, to whom I vaguely remember giving a frantic summary of the situation to. Without hesitation the men unloaded their sleds, packed the five of us inside, and sped off to find their own cabin which they, too, were having trouble locating. The ride over, while comforting, only served to suck the last bit of heat out of us. While some might use the opportunity to appeal to a higher power or ponder their own mortality, the best my hypothermic brain could muster was to hum Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” and hope for the best.

As they rushed us into the cabin and lit a fire, one thing was very clear to the five of us: Though we were out of immediate danger, our misadventure was only beginning. Drifting off to sleep, the five of us pondered our predicament, wondering what new horror the next day might hold in store.