March 25th……..“HAVE YOU EVER HAD THE CHANCE TO RIDE ON OR DRIVE A SNOWMOBILE? WHERE? AND WHAT WAS IT LIKE”?
As if prodded awake from his cozy winter’s hibernation, I heard a blood-curdling roar in the sound of what resembled a tall, standing Alaskan Grizzly Bear. Needless to say, I about wet my teenage pants as I trembled in his presence. The presence, that is, of my very tall and very unhappy Uncle Barney Hollembaek. It was March of 1972 and I had accepted the invitation of my Uncle Barney to keep him company as we drove from Washington State, up the Alaska/Canadian Highway (the Alcan) all the way up to his hometown of Palmer, Alaska.
Barney Hollembaek held a commanding presence ever since his service in the United States Marine Corps during World War II. He became part of our family’s clan when he married our dad’s beautiful sister, Ileen. These two were a classic dynamic duo as they set their sights on the rugged lifestyle and raw beauty of Alaska. In the course of their years, there in “The Last Frontier” State, Barney and Ileen had begun a business in Palmer called “Knik Farm Supply”. As owner/operator of that prosperous business, our uncle often came down to “The Lower 48” to buy machines, livestock, etc. to ferry back up to the north country and his clients in waiting. I had accompanied him back to his hometown, on this particular trip, and it was here that I had my first grand encounter with snowmobiling.
Over 2,377 miles had separated my cousin Eric Hollembaek and myself over the years since his birth in the late 1950’s. So, in a real sense, it was like meeting my cousin for the first time on my initial pilgrimage to the “frozen northland” of Alaska. And frozen it WAS! At the end of March, while the “Lower 48” were welcoming the season of Spring, snow was still king here in Palmer, Alaska and all was white with its pristine elegance. For being, in a sense, strangers, my cousin and I hit it off famously in my first days as his family’s guest. The expansive lands of the Hollembaek ranch were snuggled up against the vertical peaks of the Chugach Mountains.
Being a young buck of 18 years and looking for fun, I was an eager beaver student in learning all about these marvels called snowmobiles. Between Uncle Barney and Cousin Eric, I was initiated in the basics of this amazing invention for having fun in the snow. Bundled up against the frigid wonders of all this beauty about me, I put on some safety goggles and climbed aboard “the sled” as often as I possibly could to zip from here to there in the crystalline air.
Then pure wonderment happened. One night, under the radiance of a spectacular full moon, Eric and I fired up the snowmobiles for a night ride. Beneath those saw-tooth Chugach Mountains, that raked the very stars with their peaks, we had been blessed with a new, deep layer of perfect powder snow there on the expansive L-shaped property there on the Hollembaek ranch.
There was really no need for headlights on the snowmobiles that night. The sheer brilliance of that luminescent moon above us reflected off of the pure white of the snow to make the appearance of noon time as we flew from one end of the snowfield to the other. On one quick turn, centrifugal forces threw me off of my motorized “steed” and I found myself sinking almost to my waist in snow. What an elation to realize the buoyancy of my “sled” that sat atop this white powder. Hopping back aboard my “powered pony”, I shot off at full throttle. Snow “dust”, from the front skis flew past me in icy tickles that stung my face in a wild, yet enjoyable way. In almost the same instant, though, a catastrophic cacophony of sounds happened under the hood of my snowmobile. Chunks of rubber had exploded, beneath the shroud, and now were pelting me in the face and chest. My “sled” came to a quick halt, yet the engine was running fine as I revved it up to try to move. Cousin Eric slid up alongside me and informed me that my machine must’ve broken its drive belt.
It was easily 10pm, or later, when Eric had me climb aboard his snowmobile for the tandem ride that took us back to their home. Uncle Barney was an “early to bed/early to rise” kinda guy, so he’d been warm in his bed for an hour or two already when we panic-stricken boys had to wake him up to the bad news about my dead rig out there in the nighttime snow field. Like the roaring grizzly bear I had shared earlier, I was about to wet my teenage pants as Barney came growling out of his bedroom and ordered me to “HANG ON”!!! as Barney took the driver’s seat and I piggy-backed with him onto Eric’s snowmobile. I was hanging on for dear life as we rocketed back out to the distant field where my dead “sled” rested. Let’s just say that my uncle’s vociferous voice volunteered vocatives that vehemently vaporized in the frozen air while he fixed the snowmobile for this Norwegian Farmer’s Son. 😉