Skiing Across Alaska: Everything Was Going Along Great When...

Apr 19, 2011
Outside Magazine

To raise awareness about first responders diagnosed with PTSD, guest blogger Michael Ferrara plans to ski 900 miles across Alaska, south to north, from the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic Ocean, with his dog, Lhotse, trotting beside him. To learn more about Ferrara's quest, read The Man Who Saw Too Much and check out his web site,

Throughout this trip one of the big drawbacks has been the fact that I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing. The basic concept is sound but the logistics I make up as I go along. For instance, it never occurred to me that in a place as big as Alaska there would be such dramatic climatic variations. We know that topography effects weather. This means certain regions will have widely varied weather patterns, or winter weather, if you will.

So after drying out our gear and ourselves from the last storm we headed north. The section along the park is spectacular: McKinley and Moose's tooth in the distance and the valley floors and rivers covered in snow.

In Cantwell the skies stayed clear but the temps started to drop. Nights were sub-zero and the wind made the daytime windchills stay the same. But the snow pack was hard and firm making for fast travel. We often made as much as three miles an hour.

Lhotse, who normally would stay up until called to bed, began climbing into the tent right after dinner. Tired from the travel and chilled by the wind, he would curl up as close to my bag as he could. Then we reached the first bridge across the Nenana. The bridge was completely dry. I pulled the sled almost two miles on the dry pavement before reaching snow again. Once down in the valley floor travel was fast again, but the bridges were dry.

Traveling down the thin ribbon of packed snow into Healey it was apparent we were in a different climate. Once in Healey the snow ended. We dropped the sled and did some recon. The roadside snow machine path was gone. The power line cuts were dry or patchy with rotten snow. The snow in the bush was rotten with a two inch crust. I went and talked to the road and bridge guys. They told me cold temps, high winds, and low snow totals cause the whole area to be dry in winter. Troopers confirmed: no snow north towards Fairbanks.

I went and talked with the snow machine guys in the shop. They were very helpful until they found out my "tricked out sled" was a pink plastic torpedo brand. Then it was like the just noticed my Obama for President button. So we turned around, took a shortcut (don't ask), and headed toward the park. We made the 13 or so miles in time to enjoy a beautiful full moon night on the depot deck and catch the train south in morning.

The plan at this point was to head back to Talkeetna, regroup and head out into the bush to the east. The train ride was spectacular, in spite of the schizophrenic woman with the ear plugs shouting at everyone, real or imagined. I realized a ride on this train would be a great help in making a route plan. Actually making a route plan would be a great help.

Once in Talkeetna we got a room at the Roadhouse, Lhotse got in touch with his dog pals, and I ate all the crisp greens and tomatoes I could find. Of course some folks from Bettles said, if you can get to Fairbanks there's great snow from there. So what to do: wait a week and catch the train back to Fairbanks? Oh, the great white whale. We just saw him up north. I hear their striking gold just up north, buffalo, all over the place just to the west of here.

In the morning I took off all my clothes. Putting on my guide pants, shoes and a jacket, I went down and put my clothes in the laundry. I went in had breakfast, read the paper, and took Lhotse for a short walk about. Upon returning, I went into the laundry room. While talking to the girl ahead of me I made the turn to the walkway between the dryers. Unbeknownst to me, workmen had cut the floor out in that walkway after I left earlier.

I plummeted to the basement striking my knee on a log beam on the way down. At first I couldn't stand. I immediately had a huge hematoma on my knee just below the patella and was quite uncomfortable. They had to pull me out of the basement and set me on a chair.

Lhotse, unsure of just what to do, found freaking out to be a good choice. If this was a new game it was not a good one. And even if Mike wasn't yelling at him, Mike was yelling at somebody.

So... after a trip to the clinic, x-rays, and exams, it was determined no broken bones, a sprained right knee—stretched or torn—unable to determine and multiple owies. Of course the recommendation to rest and elevate. Right. In the mean time they moved us to a different room, with bunk beds. And of course Hollywood says he can't get up to the top bunk.

I am sure tomorrow I shall arise stiff and sore. I most likely have torn my MCL. I will brew up, move about, and Lhotse and I will go for a walk down main street Talkeetna as rulers of the world. 

How ironic, we last three weeks in the bush of Alaska and get taken down in the laundry room. Just goes to show what I always have said: 70 percent of accidents happen in the home, so that's where we really need to wear helmets. And It should me mandatory for anyone under the age of 18.

I did, by the way, finish my laundry, and my whites came out sparkling. Lhotse has gone back to pondering whether chicken or turkey is his favorite.

--Michael Ferrara

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