By Michael W. Williams
originally published May 2003 in Grit Magazine
It is May 17th, the 4 to 5 feet of ice that encased Trail Lake through the winter finally yields to the sun’s unending attack. Floatplanes absent for the last 6 months start to appear once again and become the only mode of transportation to the outside world.
A pair of sandhill cranes returned to the southeast marsh a few days earlier. They will raise a single offspring after a very noisy courtship. The silence of late spring is broken by sea gulls returning to nest on the south shore of the lake. They are followed by over 40 other species of birds, all with a purpose.
By late May a dreaded hatch of tiny gnats engulfs Trail Lake. Only two positive things to be said of them: they don’t bite and the hatch lasts a relatively short 10 days. Violet-green and tree swallows arrive a couple of days prior to the hatch. With aerial proficiency they will feast on this tiny bounty. With haste they will build their nests, hatch their young and be gone by early July.
And so it goes at EagleSong on Trail Lake. EagleSong, 40 roadless miles northwest of Anchorage, Alaska has been home to the Williams family for 8 ½ years. Part remote lodge, a large part traditional Alaskan homestead seasoned with the feel of an Iditarod Trail outpost from the 1920s, it is a unique place to live. It is where my wife Paula and I choose to raise our 4 children, Meghan, Lee, Cody and Micah. Our neighborhood is defined not by street names, but by boundaries much more natural. Out our front door is Mt. Susitna, known these days to those that live in Anchorage as “Sleeping Lady”. A dominant feature on the west Anchorage skyline, She is the matriarch of our neighborhood. Out the backdoor is the Iditarod National Historic Trail. Once the life line to interior Alaska gold fields today it is awakening once again to offer winter recreational opportunities to mushers, skiers and snowmobilers. Our closest neighbors live 13 miles away and are seen only in the winter months when overland travel is possible. Outsiders tend to think of bush Alaska as small isolated villages, but there are still a number of families scattered around the backcountry living as we do.
In May and June brown and black bears pass through the yard looking for anything they can call food. Occasionally they are a problem, but most of the time they move on without incident. By July they will gather on Sucker Creek ½ mile away to gorge on the king salmon that return to spawn. This bounty is resupplied in August by pink, chum and silver salmon.
EagleSong assumes the functions of a lodge during this time. Anglers will come to fish for salmon, rainbow trout and arctic grayling. Over the last few years flyfishing has emerged as the dominant method for fishing these remote mountain streams. Some come only for a quick visit as part of their flightseeing tour to get a taste of a homestead in the “Bush”. Others come to stay and get away from the distractions of modern life.
By early September thoughts would normally turn to moose hunting, but the last 2 years have brought no outside hunters to pursue these massive ghosts of the forest. Bears, wolves and a couple of severe winters have depleted the moose population. We now apply each year for one of only 120 or so subsistence permits to take a moose either in September or in the winter between November-February. Surprisingly to some a 1000 pound moose on the hoof yields only a 5 month supply of meat for 4 growing teenagers. Nothing from this opportunity is left to waste, though. It is 5 months of food, the hide will be tanned and turned into craft items to be sold and the remains will be used as bait on the winter trapline.
September also brings a sense of urgency. Only a few weeks until snow returns. The countryside becomes a blaze of yellow and red. Within a couple of weeks it is gone, blown away by the coming winter. The white of winter slinks down the mountains. We make our annual expedition into the mountains in search of shed moose antlers from the previous year. These will be carved into scenes inspired by our surroundings and sold to those seeking a piece of Alaska.
Typically, by October 12th the lake freezes over. It only takes a couple of days to completely freeze. Some years is happens overnight. It is now that Trail Lake begins to speak to us. As the ice thickens with the coming cold it sometimes sounds like a mystical whale of the deep. Other times it sounds like a massive sheet of tin being shaken by giant hands. As the ice thickens and the snow creates a winter blanket the sounds become muffled and eventually cease. Air traffic has disappeared; some of the planes will return later having exchanged their floats for skis.
All but the hardiest of birds have long departed and the bears seek out dens to sleep away the harshest part of winter.
We are now alone, isolated from the world. Ice not yet thick enough for ski planes to land and rivers still flowing make overland travel unsafe for dog team or snowmobile. Our isolation varies from 6 weeks to over 2 months. It is for nature to decide. Until then the family is all that matters.
With November comes trapping season. Marten, otter, wolverine, wolf, fox, coyote and beaver will be our focus as the winter progresses. Moose begin to come down from the mountains and concentrate in the lower drainages. This draws the attention of the 2 packs of wolves that make this area home. Currently numbering over 45 wolves they are frequent visitors to EagleSong, the homestead. Their howls trigger a number of emotions in us. Mostly they instill a sense of contentment and inner peace to be able to live our lives in the untamed backcountry of Alaska.
By December winter is in full swing. With an average winter snowfall of over 10 feet we become EagleSong the Iditarod Trail outpost. With the mountains to our south the sun only appears for about 3 hours a day, if we are lucky enough to have clear skies. This is the time to once again begin establishing some of the 65 miles of winter trail we will maintain until April. Time to clear summer deadfall and new growth, grooming after each new snowfall. First the Iditarod is opened back to the road system. Once again it will provide a 38 mile lifeline for EagleSong. That is followed by other connecting trails and finally a trail to the 4300 foot summit of Sleeping Lady.
The season begins slowly, but it is in full swing by early February. President’s Day weekend brings with it the Susitna 100 Ultra Marathon. For days we work the trails to support this 100 mile human powered race. In a 48 hour period we will host well over 100 people from far flung parts of the world. A week later we will be a checkpoint for the Junior Iditarod Sled Dog Race. This is a 150 mile race for young mushers. The 2 day event brings dozens of ski planes full of spectators to the 1500 foot airstrip maintained on the lake by EagleSong. For a few hours we become one of the busiest winter airfields in the State. The following week will be the internationally renowned Iditarod Sled Dog Race to Nome. Once again, our cabins and airstrip will be used by those following the race.
Outside the races EagleSong is a flurry of recreational and commercial dog teams, x-country skiers, snowmobilers and ski planes. In the Alaskan tradition hot coffee is always ready for the taking. Paula is known by many as “Mrs. Coffee”. A large bonfire burns bright and warm each weekend to welcome winter travelers. It is a place to gather, share experiences and marvel at the beauty of backcountry Alaska.
By late March our attention turns to the increasing daylight and approach of spring. Numerous snowmobile trips hauling a variety of freight will consume us until the rivers once again begin to awaken in mid April.
Isolation once again, with rivers opening and lake ice unsafe for ski planes we tend to spring time chores. It is also a time to slow the pace of life slightly and to savor the next few weeks of family life with no outside influence. Next winters firewood must be cut and hauled before the snow leaves us. About 14 cords will be cut, split and stacked. The entire family will work for about a week to accomplish this task. There are white spruce logs to cut and skid for use in the coming construction season at EagleSong. I will set aside a few choice logs for chain saw carving. These carvings will be sold in local markets this spring along with bowls carved out of birch and spruce burls harvested from deadfall during the winter
As May rolls around the cycle starts again. EagleSong is a place where time is counted by the seasons and natures varied activities. It is a place where calendars and watches have little meaning. Nature dictates our life cycle allowing us to live by a different calendar and fortunate we are for that opportunity.