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That awkward dance between patience and adventure

Wild places are not always ready for us — and vice versa

The sun pierces through clouds to light the mountains on a wintry day near Haines, Alaska, "waving us goodbye" after hiding out for most of a long-anticipated trek to the mountain mecca, writes columnist Kayla Heidenreich, who believes that sometimes the tease of future adventure pays dividends for the persistent. (Photo by Kayla Heidenreich)
By Kayla Heidenreich CDN Contributor

JUNEAU, Alaska — The Tundra purrs in the staging line of the Auke Bay Ferry Terminal, seemingly excited to crawl its way aboard the M/V Kennicott. The last time my partner, Brady, and I boarded the Kennicott was just over a year ago in Bellingham when we packed up our life and moved North to Juneau. This time, we are headed even further north to Haines, for a weekend of snowboarding and snowmobiling.

We pull onto the car deck, give our dog, Mac, some good pats to get him through the next four hours of car-deck confinement, and head up to our favorite spot on the Kennicott — a small room at the stern of the vessel with movie theater-like seats and big wrap-around windows. Brady and I kick our feet up, grab a bag of candy and get ready to be mesmerized by the northern end of the Inside Passage.

This trip has been a year in the making. Ever since we moved to Juneau, we have eagerly awaited the right time to take our first trek to the mountain mecca of Haines. About a month ago we booked everything, anticipating winter would be in full swing by the end of January.

The Kennicott rides smoothly through the turbulent waters, hugging the right side of the channel’s sharp edge. The Inside Passage is bordered by rugged peaks towering over the channel. Everything is tinted in a blue hue — evoking harmony between powerful and peaceful as the sun pierces through dark clouds, painting patches of gold on the white mountains. The ferry is quiet. Everyone seems tuned into the magic outside.

I wake up at dusk as we are docking in Haines, where we are the first ones off the boat. On land, I am shocked by how loud the rain is banging on our windows. We are staying at 33-mile Roadhouse which is up Haines Pass. The pass hugs the Chillkat River 40 miles back to the Canadian border and is lined with dream-worthy mountains both daunting and beautiful.

We anticipated the rain but held onto hope that further out Haines Pass the precipitation would be coming down as snow. As we got closer to mile 33 our hopes evaporated as the rain held steady even at higher elevations up into the mountains.

Brady McDonnell trudges disappointingly down a slick driveway overlooking the snow-less mountains near Haines on a recent weather-challenged snowmobile/snowboard expedition in Alaska. (Photo by Kayla Heidenreich)

At our destination, one self-serve gas pump sits outside a red building with a handful of snowmobiles parked out front. We pull into the famous 33-mile Roadhouse, and take a quick left toward Cabin 2, our home for the next four days.

Our cabin’s walls have a shocking number of wolf photos hung up, making Mac, our husky, feel right at home. A patched quilt with moose, fish and canoes drapes over the twin sized bed, with a poster of an eagle keeping watch nearby. We tuck ourselves in for the night, say goodnight to the eagle, and sleep with our fingers and toes crossed that we wake to colder temperatures.

Rain echoing off the tin roof wakes me. I timidly get up and peer out the window to get my first glimpse of the surrounding mountains. Instead, the clouds hang low, cloaking the mountains in a mysterious disappointment.


Brady and I walk to the cafe for breakfast. Piles of humpback whale bones line the steps up to the door, which squeals as I open it. The place falls silent as four sets of eyes lock onto us, as if we are interrupting a family meal.

The room is small, sweet and quiet, lit up in soft golden light. Hundreds of little trinkets scatter shelves, tables and windowsills. We order pancakes, sip on blueberry coffee from the North Pole — and watch rain melt away the mountain’s snowpack. The owner, Robby, walks in and sits at the end of the bar with a cup of coffee.

“You guys bring a snow machine?” he asks.

We nod. He laughs.

Robby gives us all the beta we need. The river has flooded which makes most of the terrain we had researched inaccessible. Robby tells us about a zone a bit further south, that has lost lots of snow, but is probably our best bet. We thank him, finish our coffees, and go prep for our rainy adventure.

We pull into the trailhead parking lot and gear up the snowmobile. Rain drops sting my face as we follow old sled tracks that are quickly replaced by moose tracks. A hint of excitement, intertwined with slight stress, lingers in the air as we take turns in the driver’s seat ripping and figuring out how to work together to make each turn.

Six miles deep and 2,000 vertical feet: still no sign of fresh snowfall. We follow the moose tracks back to the truck, drink a celebratory beer and head back to our cabin.

Feeling content for making the most of the rainy day, we toy with the idea of taking an earlier ferry back to Juneau and getting two nights refunded. As we deal with trying to exchange our ferry tickets, a text comes through on my phone, “I saw the Haines avalanche, you guys OK?”

Avalanche debris covering the Haines highway, effectively shutting it down. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Department of Transportation)

Twenty feet of avalanche debris cover the Haines highway at mile 21, effectively shutting it down, meaning, whether we like it or not, we are staying.

The next morning, I wake with a 102-degree fever. I don’t get out of bed all day. Our waitress from the previous day, who lives in the cabin next to ours, knocks on our door with a trash bag full of DVDs, smiling as she tells us she has an odd taste in movies. We spend the day, hunkered down, watching horror movies from the ’90s.

Time crawls on. It is hard to stay positive. Our expectations of this trip were through the roof, and we are left feeling as if we simply flushed our money down the toilet.

Waking up on our last morning I feel a tinge of hope seeing the sun peer through our curtains. I check my phone; they are finally able to clear the road! An exit from this busted trip opens, and we take it. We load up the truck and head toward the ferry terminal. For the first time in four days, we see the mountains. Like giants standing guard, coated in a blanket of sparkling white, they seem untouchable.

Not fun, but maybe fitting: The mountains do not care about me. They don’t care about agendas or egos or if you have planned a trip to visit them. To live a full life in the mountains, you need patience — enough to wait until the mountains are ready. To study them, watch them, respect them. I think back to a quote I had just read by Jeremy Jones, “I couldn’t reach this moment any sooner than now, because I’ve needed all my knowledge and experiences to be standing here.”

The mountains near Haines, Alaska, finally peak out at the end of a long-awaited, rain-spoiled adventure on a recent weekend. It was just enough to make columnist Kayla Heidenreich yearn to return. (Photo by Kayla Heidenreich)

Brady, Mac and I load the ferry I look back on the pink skies hanging over Haines. Maybe the mountains weren’t ready for us, or maybe we weren’t ready for the mountains. I smile knowing although this trip wasn’t the shred trip of our dreams, the mountains still taught me something, and we will be back.

CDN outdoors columnist Kayla Heidenreich writes monthly, of late from Juneau and beyond. Reach her at heidenreichmk@gmail.com.

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