Snowbound tale buries apartment dweller in suspense

#265 in a series of true experiences in real estate
December 1998, Hills Newspapers

Once I read a book about a woman snowbound all alone in a cabin in Alaska. She and her husband had made their annual trip to do fishing. They’d planned to leave for home as they always did before the weather got bad but, worse luck, they’d been caught by an early snow and an avalanche.
Buried by snow but otherwise unhurt, the poor woman had struggled out, had searched and called in vain for her husband, and managed to reach their cabin. Fortunately, they had stored some dry firewood there, as well as various canned goods and, although she was frightened and cold, she was grateful for her life.

It happened that the woman was pregnant. Yes, the baby was due before long and would be born while she was there alone in the cabin — unless she could get out. Right away, before more snow arrived, she made a break for it. She bound herself up in layers of clothes and made her way to the boat she and her husband had anchored nearby.

She got the engine started but it died. When she saw another boat in the distance, she fired flares but no one came. Finally, exhausted, she began the trek back to the cabin, moving heavily, falling frequently, and on one of the falls, she broke her arm.

Back at the cabin, she thawed out by the fire, slept fitfully, and upon awakening, looked about for materials to set her broken bone. Ah, the cardboard tube from a roll of waxed paper, slit down the center and wrapped with a dishtowel would do. With her good arm, she stoked the fire, prepared a meager meal, and contemplated her situation.

The wind howled; the snow swirled and mounded higher. For weeks and weeks the woman watched her firewood supply dwindle knowing that there would be no more. She parceled out the wood carefully, staying in bed much of the time. She talked to herself and occasionally sang, sewed garments for the baby, and wrote long passages in her journal. The winter went on.

During the time that I was reading this book, I was living by myself in a small apartment in an old house. As the story progressed, my little place and I became those in the story. We were cold and dark. As I read, I gathered blankets around me. I stared out my windows at the “snow” that was “falling” there.

I didn’t have a fireplace or I would have commenced chopping wood and stacking it tidily. Instead, I refinished wood. With rags and stain, I’d spend a time covering over dents and scrapes in the finish of the old beams and wood trim in my “cabin’ before picking up the book again. It was soothing work; I was making things better.

The baby came and the woman managed and they were fine. Then, just as the woman and I were becoming accustomed to our plight, it ended. There was a pounding on the woman’s cabin door, so startling, so unexpected that it almost scared us both to death.

Standing outside the door in the snow was an Indian. He had been astonished to see smoke from her chimney and had come to see who was there.

It turned out that the woman’s husband had been wintering over with the Indian not far from the cabin. He wasn’t dead after all. This is all I can remember now about the ending. I suppose they got in their boat and went home as soon as they could.

My bones still chilly, I returned the book to the library, and gradually went back to my life. A year or so later I bought a house with a fireplace. I ordered firewood delivered which I stacked conveniently outside my front door, and I built crackling fires in my fireplace most every night.

I had plenty of firewood but I found myself bringing home every scrap of wood I could find. I’d be driving down a street on a bright day, for instance, warmth by fire far from my mind, then suddenly spy a pile of wood scraps at a construction site. Before I knew it, I was out of the car asking if I could have any of the wood for myself.

This must have been when I remembered the Alaska snow book which I determined to find again. I knew the title and author then (I don’t anymore), but a search revealed that the library no longer had it, it was out of print, and I couldn’t locate it at a used book store.

Too bad, I guess, but its absence was what got me started collecting other books about isolated living. I have half a dozen or so good ones now, most of them stories of people who by choice went to the snowy back woods of somewhere usually, they said, for the quiet and to look at deer, bears and birds.

I have no desire to follow these people to desolation, and in fact, I find their descriptions of mountains, trees, snow and wildlife rather dull. But in each of these books is something irresistible to me: a list of supplies.

As the back-to-the-wooders prepare for exile, each draws up a list of necessities: rice and flour, plastic tarps, tick spray, fishing line. More fascinating though is the list of comforts — items that, while not a matter of sustenance or safety, would be sorely missed.

It is these that I love to ponder. If I were out there in the snow and dark, what would I be sorry I left behind?

As I put my groceries away, the extra boxes of instant oatmeal and super-moist chocolate cake mix, as I fill the containers near my fireplace with a mix of logs and kindling, I think about being warm and prepared and comfortable.

If I were going to a lonely cabin, I’d be sure to take instant cocoa, canned chicken and rice soup, and my dictionary.

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