The winter Olympics are commandeering a lot of news time lately. It’s a great thing, competition and all. Training hard, facing formidable odds, bringing home the gold for your country, abusing steroids—these are epic deeds and certainly newsworthy. I don’t begrudge those spandex-wearing, ridiculously beautiful people their well-earned publicity. I just feel a slight twinge of jealousy that the Moose Hole Olympics never got equal recognition back when I was a kid.
In retrospect, I suppose we wouldn’t have liked it if we had gotten it. We wanted to maintain a low profile, we were simply innovating ways to entertain ourselves on those long winters in bush Alaska. We may not have had teams of crack international reporters, poking several million dollars worth of electronic equipment in our faces at every move, but that didn’t stop us from pouring our very souls into astounding demonstrations of athletic prowess.
Just about anyone can strap a pair of glorified Popsicle sticks on his feet and jump off a mountain. As long as a slippery inclined surface, gravity, and a human being converge at the same point in the space-time continuum, the person is going to wind up at the bottom of the slippery inclined surface. It’s a law of nature. However if you rename it “skiing” and invite other Popsicle stick owners from around the world to fall down a mountain with you, suddenly we find footage of the event being beamed around the world on prime-time television. The participant who happens to arrive at the bottom soonest and with the most panache, gets a big gold nickel on a strap and never has to work again. It’s a complete racket!
A much more challenging winter downhill sport is “hooding”. If sports reporters were actually interested in recording a contest that showcases the heart-pounding adrenaline rush of fierce competition, they would have been all over Ptarmigan Knob when I was a kid. There they would have seen it all—the indomitablility of the human spirit, dreams and aspirations transformed into triumph or tragedy by a few moments of ruthless fate and breathless skill.
Yet, in spite of those glorious exploits on Ptarmigan Knob, the term “hooding” is a micro colloquialism limited to but a handful of living humans. Specifically, it is reserved to the vocabularies of the following: Me; my brother, Justin; Larry Fred; the twins, Jack and Jill Smorkstini; Donna Sam; Anika Van der Veen; and “Walrus” Fahnestock.
Only we eight who smirked at death on Ptarmigan Knob 25 years ago can understand the camaraderie forged there. For the rest of you, a little background would be helpful. Ptarmigan Knob was the name of the tailbone of a granite spine that snaked for 15 miles from Moose Hole to the caribou birthing fields atop the windswept tundra of McCollum Plateau. Alascom had built a microwave tower atop Ptarmigan Knob, affording Moose Holians the immense recreational advantage of an access road.
The road turned off of the highway on the floor of the Tanana River Valley at Moose Hole Lake. From there it snaked its way through alder thickets, black spruce stands and poplar groves until it had gained a thousand feet of elevation in three miles of hairpin switchbacks. There at the summit the road ended at a chain link fence that enclosed “The Tower”.
You weren’t supposed to go inside the fence and mess around with The Tower. There were imposing looking signs to that effect–at least they had been imposing prior to a decade of target practice. Besides, The Tower was taller than it looked. About half way up, you’d get a sudden rush of vertigo when you looked down, that nearly washed you off of the narrow steel ladder. It was a really weird feeling…er…so I’ve been told. But the access road provided plenty of leisure activity on its own. ATVing, snow machining, hunting, sledding—there were lots of things to do on the Ptarmigan Knob tower access road.
However, the most memorable times of my brash youth involved activities that could only be reached by little-known trails branching off of the access road. For instance, if you parked at The Tower fence and skirted it to the right, you would drop down off of the gravel pad into a nice little birch wood. There was barely a trail there, but if you knew where you were going, you could walk southwest for about five minutes to a place where the trees suddenly stopped growing.
A few feet from the tree line, a massive fist of gnarled rock marked the border between a wooded ridge and the end of the Earth. It wasn’t the end of the Earth actually, just the Southeast Face of Ptarmigan Knob. Although it wasn’t technically a vertical drop, for the first hundred yards it might as well have been.
We called that first hundred yards “The Bare Spot”. Nothing grew on it except a couple of scraggly willows. Snow didn’t even accumulate there. It either slid to the bottom or blew away, but enough snow and ice would remain to disguise the razor-sharp warts of rock that punctuated The Bare Spot, like magnets on a wall of frozen grease.
At the bottom of The Bare Spot, where the slope abruptly flattened out to a more respectable angle, a dense wall of trees sprang up. They were big trees, stout and unyielding, with their feet planted solidly in a tangled concertina of alder and rose bushes. It was here that the sport of hooding was practiced.
Donna Sam would be the one to give the annual signal that it was time for the opening of the Moose Hole Winter Hooding Olympics. She lived in a cabin at the base of Ptarmigan Knob, so she was able to monitor the condition of the slope. As soon as enough of a glaze had developed on The Bare Spot she passed the word.
We didn’t waste much time on opening ceremonies, but it was traditional to light a bonfire on top of the gnarled rock fist before we got started. When there was enough light to see between the bonfire and the blurred gray glow that serves as an Alaskan winter morning daybreak, the Smorkstini twins and Walrus would fade back into the brush to retrieve the hoods from where they were stashed under a pile of spruce boughs.
There were two hoods. One came off of a ‘53 Chevy, while the genealogy of the other one was less certain. Any logos, emblems or distinctive contours had long ago been bounced, scraped or dented away, so that it was impossible to make a positive identification. Justin and Larry almost came to blows once arguing about it. My brother swore that the second hood was from a ’62 Ford stepside pickup, while Larry claimed he knew the exact ’57 Cadillac Coup de Ville that it used to belong to.
Just as Justin was about to bash Larry in the head with a burning spruce stick from the bonfire, Anika stepped between them and suggested that if they were real hooders, they would settle this the honorable way. With a malevolent grunt, Larry grabbed the hood in question and drug it to the nearest knuckle of the rock fist, while Justin poised himself on another with the Chevy hood. They teetered there for a moment, hoods held back by Jack and Walrus while Jill counted down.
Upon Jill’s shout of “go”, Jack and Walrus released their grip. The competitors leaned forward and shot out of sight. The rest of us rushed to the edge and peered over to witness the results. Larry was still airborne, his scream of terrified delight drifting back to us on the crisp breeze. Justin, however had caught one of the hidden rock warts with the edge of his hood, and was now spinning madly down the slope like a drunken top.
It turned out to be a draw, because although Larry reached at the bottom first, the hood arrived on top of him rather than the other way around. Justin was only a split second behind, his Chevy hood impacting a granddaddy cottonwood tree with a “clang” that pitched him face first into an enormous thicket of rose bushes. He was so dizzy from spinning that he wallowed around in them for several minutes before his equilibrium returned sufficiently for him to extricate himself.
That was one of the more unremarkable one-on-one hood races. Sometimes kids got hurt. Not all hooding events pitted single riders against each other, however. More frequently, hooding challenges pitted team against team. I wasn’t terribly fond of the team races because I inevitably got paired up with Walrus Fahnestock. It would be me and Walrus on one hood, and everybody else on the other one.
You see, when Walrus was on a hood, there was only room for one other person, and the girls and I were the only ones small enough to qualify. The girls absolutely refused to ride with him because he didn’t have running water at his house, and by the smell of things, no soap either. After I got used to his smell, I found out that teaming up with him was a really good experience half of the time, and a really bad experience the other half. It all depended on whether I landed on him, or he landed on me at the termination of our descent.
We never did tell our parents about our hooding forays. We sort of had an instinctive premonition that they wouldn’t understand. Even when one of us got hurt, we never divulged the actual cause of our injuries. The time Donna broke her leg hooding, we all said that Larry had run over her with a snow machine. When Jack and Jill both fractured their skulls in a collision with a rock, we claimed that they had been helping Walrus haul water up a hill, and that Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.
I don’t think I’d have the nerve to go hooding again at my age, but last summer I hiked to The Bald Spot just for old time’s sake. The Chevy hood is still there, rusted and battered, and home to a family of weasels. I stood on the fist and gazed downward. A lot of brush has grown up to shrink The Bald Spot, but not much else has changed in 25 years. I can still see the rock where Anika lost her finger, and the big scar is still visible on the bark of the tree where “The Great Pileup” occurred that destroyed the controversial hood and the bridge of Larry’s nose.
Yep, for all the glamor and glitter, I haven’t seen anything at the Winter Olympics that can come close to the adventure and competition that the Magnificent Eight experienced on Ptarmigan Knob. I’ve thought about suggesting that they add hooding to the roster of events at the official games, but I don’t think it would be the same. By the time they got finished establishing safety protocols for the sport, there would be helmets and seat belts and spandex leotards. I don’t even want to think about seeing Walrus in spandex leotards.