by • September 13, 2016 • Columns, HighlightsComments Off on THE TRAVEL EQUATION1213


Despite taking more time, the Emersons often will favor their trusty Bearcat 660 snowmachine for hauling supplies into their remote cabin during winter. The workhorse of a snowmachine can haul up to 1,000 pounds of gear at a a time.

COURTESY BRYAN EMERSON Despite taking more time, the Emersons often will favor their trusty Bearcat 660 snowmachine for hauling supplies into their remote cabin during winter. The workhorse of a snowmachine can haul up to 1,000 pounds of gear at a a time.


Like Little Red Riding Hood, we live “across a river and through a woods” … from anywhere. But if we want to carry baskets to Grandma or anyone else, we choose between our Bearcat 660 and our 1954 Piper PA-20 for transporting food, sup- plies and ourselves. Some of the similarities and differences be-
tween those two modern modes of transport may surprise you.

Obviously a trip takes a lot longer by ground than by air, not only in duration but also in distance. A flight to the Willow air- port, where we park a car, takes 20 minutes, at 90 mph. By contrast, a snowmachine freight trip to Eagle Quest Lodge (www.eaglequest. com, next to Deshka Landing), takes 3.5 hours at about 15 mph.
Once there, my husband warms up with his regular mug of mocha and a bowl of hearty stew. Then, he loads onto the sled the sup- plies he has stockpiled behind the lodge throughout the summer to expediate a quick turnaround on those full-day freight trips.

Although speed is certainly a factor, Alaska car drivers know that ground routes never follow a straight line here, but wrap around mountains and bodies of water. We can neither climb the ridge behind us nor plow through thick woods filled with downed trees and dense alder thickets. Instead, we traverse an N-shaped route along frozen “highways”of the Yentna and Susitna rivers, straight seismic lines, and well-marked recre- ation trails that meander between f lat bogs and snow-covered lakes.
Summer and winter, we often find it cheaper as well as faster to fly to another part of Alaska than to snowmachine or even drive along the road system, but by any mode, the winter vistas of the Alaska and Talkeetna ranges are gorgeous.

Believe it or not, either way, we expend the same amount of fuel to travel by plane or snowmachine. Our Bearcat 660 chews through 4.6 gallons to trek a circuitous 46 miles (one way), so an even 10 mpg. Meanwhile, 4-plus gallons of aviation gas propel us the straight 25 air miles, or 6 mpg. What would you guess is the price differential between the two fuels? Here in Alaska, where gasoline prices are among the high- est in the nation, avgas costs only about $2 more per gallon. So, at current prices, we pay about $20 to $24 for a round-trip, either way. (By contrast, if we were to hire an air taxi, the current fees are about $250 per person, round trip, or $350-$650 to fill a 206 or Beaver with supplies).

So why bother to haul anything by snowmachine instead of plane? The answer is a tenfold contrast in weight and volume. Our Piper is the airplane equivalent of a Kia or other subcompact car. It holds two people (side by side). The triangular storage area behind the seats can carry up to 180 pounds (if there is no passenger), but where? The cargo hold is already crowded with the requisite bag of bulky winter emergency supplies (including snowshoes), a back- pack and often an overnight bag of street clothes. In winter, we also shove in more than 40 linear feet of wing covers, the hefty padded cowl cover and a propane-powered engine pre-heater.

The remaining space for purchases is carefully allotted. One trip might carry precious produce and other fresh foods that we lack at home. Last week, my husband flew out four ducks we raise for eggs. Another shipment contained two 35-pound wine kit boxes, so I could make a pinot grigio and a nebbiolo while the winter woodfire creates a toasty microclimate warm enough to sustain hungry yeast in a vat full of grape juice.

The snowmachine, on the other hand, is a work horse. Our bright red sled (built by a very skillful friend in Willow) measures 40 inches-by-8 feet. On it, the Bearcat engine can lug 1,000 pounds. Between January and March, after the rivers are frozen, and before the steep river bluff paths become slick from freezing rain, my husband becomes a Bush freighter, hauling anything flammable, bulky or heavy that we may need or want in future months or years. Recent warm winters have curtailed that period by thawing dangerous open leads in the rivers and reducing snow cover cross country, as any recreational snowmachiner knows and regrets. The January 2016 earthquake also cracked ice, jumbled snow shelves and lowered whole bodies of water for a tense subsequent trip.

Several years, we have had to delay construction of a new building by 18 months because we did not have enough time to transport a full complement of cement, roofing, plywood and other heavy or large materials. So now we maintain a triaged list of priorities.
First up, of course, is fuel. The initial freight loads always carry 100-pound propane tanks and 30-gallon drums of gasoline. Since we use solar and wind power, and heat by woodstove, we require only 1,300 pounds of petroleum products per year.

A second priority is anything related to water. For example, last summer, Bryan bought at auc- tion and then stored at Eagle- Quest two 4-by-4-by-3-foot plastic water bladders caged in metal frames that will hold up to 300 gallons of water, each. He delivered these home last week. Although we do not live in a particularly rainy part of Alaska, the 55 gallon drums beneath various
small outbuildings routinely overflowed. These new purchases will be a great resource for watering remote gardens and protecting distant structures.

Obviously, people can pay an arm and a leg for any vehicle – plane, car or snowmachine. By being naturally frugal and monitor- ing market pricing for several years, we bought all used, and thus paid less for our old plane than many people pay for a new car, and less for our old car than for one of our snowmachines. Thus, you can infer our priorities for off road and above ground transporta- tion. Each requires some tender loving care, a lot of back-up parts, and a satisfying kick or two, but old our machines provide versatile functionality. They enable us to spend most of our time in a pris- tine and quiet winter wonderland, punctuated by occasional forays to town to purchase a decreasing number of items we cannot make or raise ourselves.

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