Ice Capades

Alaska's husband-and-wife team of avalanche experts work to save lives all winter, then take to their kayaks in summer

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Then, as the Hollywood saying goes, the two met cute and fell in love, with Fredston playing the perky but tough Katharine Hepburn to Fesler’s grumpily amiable Spencer Tracy. His bosses, who had hired the then 24-year-old Fredston to work in the avalanche forecasting center, made her the director—a move he opposed. As she recalls it, “First he was my opponent, then my reluctant mentor, then my mentor, then my husband.” They’ve been married 13 years and now live in a tall-windowed house they built themselves in BearValley, south of downtown Anchorage, with views of the Chugach Mountains to the east and Cook Inlet to the west. They became business partners and started the safety center in 1986, after the state eliminated its avalanche operations the same year.


It’s harsh, sometimes dispiriting work—more than once they’ve dug into a snowslide and found the body of a friend—but the freedom keeps them going. “There’s a different mentality here,” she says of Alaska. “I go back to the East Coast, and all people want to know is where you went to school.”


“It isn’t all figured out,” he says. “I like being in a place where everything isn’t figured out.”


Come the thaw and the midnight sun, they hit the water, stuffing a few hundred pounds of provisions and gear, including a shotgun (mainly for protection), into two sea kayaks they’ve transformed into rowboats. Leaving for sometimes months at a stretch, they have explored the north shore of Alaska as well as parts of Labrador, Greenland and Norway. Last year, they covered 600 miles of the Arctic Ocean along the Northwest Passage, to Paulatuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. In 16 summers, they have rowed 22,000 miles.


They have been jammed up in pack ice and have portaged gingerly over tippy floes and ice so thin it reminded Fredston of rice paper. Whales have surfaced near their boats and nearly swamped them. Storms have threatened to capsize them. Bears have accosted them. Camping last summer in the Northwest Territories, a grizzly bear shredded their tent one night. (Fredston scared the beast away by shouting, “Hey, Bear!”) They toss off stories of extraordinary dangers the way other people complain about the hassles of their morning commute. “The few times I can remember fear have been from big waves on the northern coast of Norway and 12- to 15-foot waves off Labrador,” Fesler says. “It’s part of the learning curve. You have to get yourself into these situations to learn how to avoid them.”


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