An Ode to Winter Holidays at Manitoba
The temperature hovered in the low double digits—and would soon begin to sink, probably dipping into negative numbers, once the day had passed for good. Leaning on the frosty rail of the bridge over Mills Creek below Manitoba Cabin, I could hear the muffled rush of the creek beneath its thick sheath of snow-covered ice. Around me the woods already stood silent in the deepening cold of the coming night. Two miles up the creek to the southeast, loomed the flank of Raven Ridge. Across its broad, snow- and spruce-patched face the cold orange of alpenglow darkened into purple mist of evening. And so the shortest day of the year turned toward night.
Some skiers had already schussed down from a day pf carving the broad west face of Manitoba Mountain. The more persistent skiers would opt for one last run before sliding down through the darkness. An hour later or so a couple of us brought some wood into the main cabin we could see the headlights of these last skiers weaving along the trail as they approached. Their satisfied voices rang through the woods.
Before long the cooking and eating area bustled with people—some four or five families and groups of various sizes. Before long the plates of dinners finished and half-finished, mugs of beer, glasses of wine, and tumblers of stronger spirits covered the tables. A pair of dogs wandered hopefully beneath the tables snuffing for scraps. Back in one corner of the benches a quartet of people played cards, Nearer to the main table where the serving plates vied for space a boy and girl eyed a plate of cupcakes enviously. Someone had brought a guitar and sang to a few listeners in particular and all of us in general. I half-listened to him sing some Beatles song as I sat nursing a coffee mug of wine and engaging in some talk about the skiing that day up on Manitoba Mountain and biking on the nearby trails and old roads. And all the air hung thick with wet warmth of melting snow, cooking food, and clothes drying above the hissing stove.
Around eleven o’clock I went out to empty my bladder. As I stepped away from the lit cabin, I could feel the hairs in my nose crinkled in the hard, dry cold. In a small clearing just up the trail I paused and looked up. In the moonless sky stretched between the dark trees surrounding the clearing, the shivering stars hung thick and heavy against the velvet background of space. A slight breeze moved across the ground. The bare branches of nearby birch and cottonwood trees clattered lightly in the disturbance. Then a loud crack sounded from the hollow below—a tree splitting in the brittle cold.
Then I turned to look back at the bright cabin. A transparent column of smoke rose leisurely from the chimney where it soon dispersed into the darkness—just as the dark of this cold night would eventually disperse into the dim light of the frosty morning, and the people who shared this night together would disperse to other lives.
That all happened a few years back.
Manitoba often enjoyed such crowds as this one near and around the holidays, especially during the Christmas season. On such nights whether calm and frigid or snowy and blowing, one will often enter the cabin to warmth and light and friendly voices.
Now, however, with Covid raging over the land, Manitoba does not make merry such large crowds. Instead, smaller intimate groups come and go. But Covid will go its way as well, as all else: so dictate the laws of time and nature. Come spring, it will most likely begin its transformation into a memory. Then Manitoba will stand ready once more to welcome larger crowds. So maybe come the next Winter Solstice, Christmas and New Year the cabin will once more together many people in cheer with the glasses of holiday spirit in their hands and holiday cheer in their voices.
By Shawn Lyons, Alaska Huts board member and outdoor enthusiast