Holiday traditions are part of what makes this time of year special. The scent of favorite warm-baked cookies fill our kitchens. There is the quest for the perfect Christmas tree, holiday lights to hang, Advent calendars, and children’s Christmas programs to attend. And always there is food – heaping mounds of mouth-watering fare – that we indulge in the fine company of family and friends.
One of our family traditions is making home-made, hand-cranked ice cream. This ritual is played out every season; the youngest in the family use wooden spoons to stir the ice and salt while the older kids take turns at cranking the handle. As the ice cream freezes and thickens, older members of the group take their turn – until the challenge comes down to a contest between who can man-handle the last turn of the crank.
Finally, the canister is opened to reveal creamy white goodness, and we eat until we wince from the inevitable “brain freeze.” Brrrrr. It is a custom we look forward to every year.
Occasionally, it’s fun to step outside tradition and try something completely different. One year, when my sons were 10 and 12 years old, we decided to pack turkey sandwiches and go cross-country skiing on Thanksgiving Day. We wound up in Portage Valley where someone suggested we try skiing toward Byron Glacier. We donned our skis and headed up the valley. We’d never been here before, either summer or winter, and we marveled at the steep mountains and the great mounds of snow covering the valley floor. At one point we crossed the creek and eventually found ourselves at the end of the valley. Erik peeked under a snowy ledge and called out in astonishment.
“Mom, Mark – come here! You’ve got to see this!” he said.
We looked and discovered an enormous ice cavern with light pouring through an opening in the cave’s roof. We ducked inside and took off our skis. The room was as big as gymnasium; it was as if we’d entered another realm altogether. Our mouths gaped in wonder at the blue-ness of the ice. We climbed through a narrow hallway into another smaller ice room, but other passageways were too dark to venture without a headlamp. Eventually we skied back to the car and ate our turkey sandwiches. It is safe to say no one missed, for even a moment, the stuffing or pumpkin pie that year.
This Thanksgiving, more than 15 years later, I retraced our steps with a good friend. On Thanksgiving morning I got up early, made cinnamon rolls, and delivered them to my son and his family in Peters Creek. Snow fell in abundance as a good, old-fashioned snow storm moved into the area. The little ones were still in their pajamas. It was a cozy day – perfect for a big family meal or a day-long ski trip.
After hugging the grandkids, I loaded up skis and we took off on snowy roads to Portage Lake. The snow was untracked so we had to break our own trail – which was often thigh deep. Bill felt sorry for the heavy-laden spruce and stopped often to gently shake branches with his ski pole, letting avalanches of snow tumble down. He had no notion of the treasure that lay ahead. And I had no idea if the ice cavern of yesteryear even existed. After all, glaciers are moving, ever-changing creatures.
We pressed on until we rounded a curve in the valley and then we saw it. Half a mile ahead, at the base of the glacier, was an opening like a big blue amphitheatre. Jagged, Volkswagon-sized chunks of ice cluttered the dome’s floor. From a distance the cave could have been the mouth of an ice dragon. Suddenly we were infused with new enthusiasm. The going didn’t seem nearly so tough with our destination in sight.
When we arrived, we took off our skis and explored the cave. A trickling stream ran across the gravel floor and disappeared again underneath the snow. Icicles hung down like crystal stalactites. Bill touched the ice walls and claimed it looked like dinosaur skin – after all the ice itself was prehistoric. We could not stop grinning. This place was just as magical as I remembered. And like the first time, I wouldn’t have traded any amount of pumpkin pie for the experience.
Traditions are a wonderful place to begin the holiday season. I plan to make ice cream with the grandkids over the Christmas break. And the hunt for an Alaskan Christmas tree will begin any day now. Meanwhile, however, I’m also watching for new adventures and interesting ways to celebrate this enchanting season of hope.
Here’s wishing you and yours a Merry Christmas with many fine adventures in the New Year. May lasting joy be yours now and always.