AK Ingenue: Twas the Night Before Tailgate
Tailgate Alaska started Sunday up on Thompson Pass. The 12-day festival features snow-science and survival education, sled-riding and sled-maintenance clinics, side events, live concerts, vendors, beer garden and parties – official and heaps of unofficial camp parties – throughout the duration. I looked through the list of sponsors and can’t tell who the beer sponsor is but if the parking lots are any indicator, it should be a tossup between Pabst Blue Ribbon and Rainier.
The day before Tailgate started my friend Kate and I got a leisurely start on the day and headed up to the Pass in uncertain weather. It was gloomy in town and the collection of webcams from around the area were not painting an encouraging picture but frequently, as was the case Saturday, weather in Valdez is entirely different than on the Pass. Just as we arrived under party sunny skies, Cowboy Cody, who’d stood us up a week earlier, called to say he was at the Pass and offering us a sled bump. Cody Freitag is a Valdez local and one talented snow machine rider. His rig is fast and powerful and Cody is young and fearless and knows how to make his machine carve and charge. Which all combine for a scare-you-shitless maiden voyage for two virgin sled bumpers.
We went out to the base of Nick’s together. Kate and her board rode on the saddle in front of Cody while I towed behind. This was good. It slowed Cody down but heated up his snow machine. So he dropped me and Kate’s board and then took my unsuspecting friend on a cool-down ride which involved cutting doughnuts in the snow at an alarmingly fast rate. While her voice was muffled it was clear enough Kate was a little unnerved . And then, perhaps not used to donoughting while doubling, the sled tipped over and slid to a rather abrupt stop on its side. If Cody was trying to impress Kate, this was not the way to do it.
Properly dusted off and righted, Cody and Kate returned to where he’d left me and Kate’s board, picked up the board then whisked away toward Berlin Wall, popping wheelies and arcing high speed carves. It looked scary. Then it was my turn and I got to discover what riding a snow machine on the edge of control felt like. Holding my skis and poles across my lap with one hand while holding onto the steering column with my free hand. I wished desperately that I had both hands on the machine and wondered if Cody understood how close those skis could be to catching and being wrenched from my hands if he leaned the machine over far enough that they could grab a bite into the snow. Going fast and steeply up made me slide toward the rear of the saddle, Kate was sure she was inches from falling off entirely. By the time I arrived, Kate had been able to shake off most of the after-effect of sheer terror. Knowingly, she gave me time to do the same before we started our descent. We had been scared shitless. We were both certain we had just flirted with and miraculously cheated Death.
Once we dropped off the wind packed ice at the top of the knoll, we had some nice turns down the face before the gray set in and created vertigo-inducing flat light. Flat light on a wide open snow slope tricks the brain into wondering whether you’re skiing up ordown, left or right, off a cliff into oblivion or about to slam onto a flat road, there was just no telling. You can’t see a thing. The usual resort trick of skiing near trees doesn’t work on the wide open snow slopes of the Chugach. There are no trees. The best I could do was pick up the tracks of the folks before us and parallel those. Thankfully I had skied this slope once before and was relatively certain there weren’t any unavoidable death-defying obstacles.
Cody was waiting for us at the bottom and gave us a ride back to camp, saving us a long slog. Once back, Kate and I decided the best way to prep for a possible second sled bump with Cody was to fully embrace the moment and our surroundings. We also had a decision to make. head down to town to change and come back up or just stay up at the Pass and ask Kate’s friends to bring us some jeans.
We made the eco-decision to stay and not burn more gas driving up and down the pass (about 30 miles each way). We made the eco-choice and rather than burn all that expensive gas (4.35/gal) opened up the rear hatch of Kate’s car, popped a couple tall boys and got into the spirit of Tailgate.
Emboldened by PBR, we went to visit our neighbors down the road where we’d seen some kiters. We didn’t find kiters but we did find a crew homesteading a deluxe encampment using shovels to carve deluxe built-in snow couches and a high-rise igloo alongside another buddy’s homey car/utility trailer home the entire back end of with was consumed by a king-size wood frame bed.
We left the not-kiters before fully wearing out our welcome and wandered back toward Tailgate
base to say hi to a couple girlfriends who introduced us to more friends at Alaska Backcountry Adventures (ABA). Flitting about this way, comparing notes on the cute boys we were
meeting, laughing and staying on the move, we were able to whittle away at the hours until the music started at the Tsaina Lodge at 9. But as the sun set in the Chugach, like any other mountain range,
the temperatures drop precipitously so we headed to the Tsaina about an hour before the band started mostly because it was warm there. We pulled into the lot at just about the same time as some friends had driven up from town with two pairs of jeans, one for Kate and one for me so we didn’t have to geek out in ski pants all night long.
We went to the Tsaina’s spacious and clean women’s bathroom to change and freshen up. The heat was sublime. We then went back outside to where some friends gathered around a raging pit fireplaces. The heat was sublime there too. We ate reindeer sausage sandwiches, a novelty, not to mention an absolute at only $4 each. Definitely the best food deal in Valdez. After more mingling around the fire we adjourned to the inside bar and quickly staked out space at the fireplace in the Tsaina’s Great Room where our friends gathered round us.
On stage, Ric Nielsen and his stepdad Bruce Good laid down some fine acoustic tracks as it started to snow outside. The snow created a beautiful backdrop. Lots of folks drove up from Valdez for the party. Some were friends I’d already met since moving here, Kate introduced me to some more, we had drinks, made even more friends, had more drinks and generally having a big time.
Trackback from your site.