I left off last time with the story of five frozen college students who had plunged three snow machines through the ice at 20 below zero, only to be the overjoyed participants of a remote midnight rescue.
The following morning we awoke in a small cabin on Lake Susitna, with piles of wet and thawing gear hanging from every conceivable surface. Our tired bodies were strewn across various cots and piles of blankets.
While I can’t print the first couple of words that escaped everyone’s mouths upon remembering the night before, I can highlight the overwhelming appreciation we felt knowing that it had remained well below zero all night while we were given lodging in a warm cabin.
Pat and Zach Bonser, the father-son duo that had brought us out of the cold, never asked for anything in return and actually made us each a pancake before returning us to the Lake Louise Lodge on the far side of the region. In fact, they actually seemed to enjoy the experience and were ecstatic to send us the pictures they’d taken of us and the wreckage.
As it turns out, when they found us the night before they had initially thought that we were a group of hippies who decided to walk across the lake, rather than a group of quickly freezing idiots who had fallen through it.
Back at the lodge we regrouped and waited for some help to arrive so that we could begin the long process of extracting the machines from the ice. Apparently the crash site had become quite a popular attraction for those crossing the lake, and the inhabitants of the lodge were well aware of what had transpired the night before. Like anyone reading along could have guessed, we were told this was an unseasonably warm year and they were actually surprised that we had been the first to fall through. After a brief warm-up, we left a review of the lake’s “swimming conditions” in the lodge’s logbook and set back out for the wreckage with two of the group members’ fathers.
The first attempt was rough. We managed to pull out the easiest of the three machines after hours of grunting, swearing and high tempers. But soon it was dark and too dangerous to wander near the soft ice. We retired to the cabin we had originally planned to visit for the night, almost missing it again in the poor visibility, and had our first real food in about a day and a half.
Say what you will about the disaster, but after hours of work we celebrated survival and the (hopeful) recovery of the machines with some juicy herb-garnished steaks and a much-needed bottle of tequila.
The next morning we got a fresh start at the extraction. We placed a boat on the soft ice (which quickly became open water) near the machines and proceeded to cut through the ice with a chainsaw and sledgehammer. The machines sat on the bottom of the channel at a manageable depth, but one of us was able to attach a line to the skis as the rest of us worked a winch to slowly pull each machine back to the surface.
Finally, after a full day’s effort, all that remained was to haul the waterlogged machines back across the lake to be loaded on the trailer at the lodge.
I remained behind with a friend and his dad to help with the final machine. We sat around a fire and laughed about how everything that could have possibly gone wrong did.
In retrospect this was a hilarious prelude to us hauling the final machine some 10 miles to safety. En route to the lodge the machine we were towing suddenly rolled off the haul sled at high speeds, sending us flying and giving me a concussion — one final gift from the fickle Lake Louise.
Exhausted and sore, we made it down the road to Eureka lodge in just enough time to each inhale a burger before returning to Wasilla. The return trip consisted of blasting both the heat and classic rock, while acting a great deal more stoic than any of us had actually felt at the time. And then, after three long days of soggy panic and impromptu arctic swimming, it was over.
At the end of it all, there’s quite a bit I could say to sum up the moral of this story. In fact, I could write entire novels on what exactly went wrong and how we could have avoided it all. But I suppose if our story has a takeaway it’s this:
Sometimes out in the world, particularly in Alaska, you screw up so substantially that someone else has to bail you out. It’s not fun, it’s certainly a blow to your pride, and ideally you’d rather be the one doing the heroic rescuing. But at the end of the day you learn from it and return the favor in kind by helping the next group of idiots somewhere down the road. And if, somewhere out in your own travels, you happen across a pair of men with the last name Bonser, you make damn sure you buy them a drink from the Lake Louise swim team.