It’s been a long drive, the last few hundred miles on ice road. What we call daylight disappeared many hours ago, replaced by the Northern Lights. We haven’t seen a RCMP Mountie for quite a ways either, they’ve been replaced by short guys in thick green and red coats with funny hats that patrol in old motorcycles with sidecars. Even the edge of road marker sticks have changed, now there shaped and colored like giant candy canes, and the mile markers started at 2011 and have gone down from there. Off in the distance through the ice haze we see what looks like a sugar coated castle. Out here?

We pull up to the gate, and what look like British “Beefeater” guards coated in sugar instantly appear. They look around our car, then approach my open window and explain “Just checking for grinches, we let them in but send them to our rehab facility before we put them to work.”. Apparently we check out OK, the gingerbread gates open and the drawbridge drops, and before us appears a World War II vintage Jeep complete down to Div and Tac markings and a “FOLLOW ME” sign on the back. We can barely see his raised arm as he beckons us along, but he’s wearing one of them funny hats too, and at the first turn we see he’s wearing the same red and green uniform as the troopers we’d seen, less the badge. Damn elf drove like a fiend too, and we had to resort to  handbrake turns to keep up.

He and we shortly pulled up in front of a neat as a pin gingerbread house, with sugar puffs rising from the chimney. The speedy elf dismounted from the Jeep that was taller than he and lead us inside. “Mrs. Santa Claus will be with you shortly, the Lockeed Electra cargo planes are breaking down again and she’s lining up some DC3s for backup”, said what appeared to be the Administrative Assistant elf.  Soon a rather ++size lady in an even bigger red parka appeared, speedily entering via the wide door and dumping a dozen clipboards on the AA’s desk. “Damn, they melted down a bunch more DC3’s, damn scrappers! Are the Ford Trimotors current on their inspections?” The AA elf checked through a drawer on the wallful of filing cabinets and exclaimed in his best elf voice “Good to go!”. “Tell the ready line to fuel ’em and call upstairs to St. Peter and see if he’s got some Trimotor qualified pilots” Mrs. Claus exclaimed as she lead us out the door and to her sleight.

“Normally, I give tours in the staff car, but tonight everything with whees or wings will be loaded and haulin’, so we’re down to the sleight” said Mrs. Claus. Fortunately it was a four seater, as Mrs. Claus took up the front seat while I and my “shotgun” partner stretched out in the back seat. I didn’t realize reindeer could fly along this fast, as we sped by the airport ready line packed with every old cargo plane imaginable. Mrs. Claus noted our interest in the old birds and noted “Being as we operate only one trip a year, depreciation would kill us if we bought new equipment. Fortunately for us they just park these old planes in the desert and forget them.” We pass by a block long big city WPA era classic Post Office, but Mrs. Santa passes the front entrance and makes the turn into the loading dock. The dock scene and in fact the whole Post Office is like something out of the golden era before Bulk Mail Centers and Zip Codes… Mail Cases by the hundreds for sorting mail, curious mail carts all over the place, elevators big enough to lift a truck, and old Macks and three wheeled “Mailsters” at the loading dock. “Just checking to make sure we didn’t miss any mail” said Mrs. Santa “It’s past the last window time, but we check anyways”.

We hop back in the sleigh and slide across the lot to, what’s this, a railroad station at the North Pole? The freight house is in panic mode, with trains loading on every track at every dock door. Steam locomotives idle, and every once in a while a puff of brightly colored smoke rises from the stacks. A passing Fireman explains “That’s the sugar injector, we add a pinch to the steam every once in a while so all the ice that builds up has some color to it. He leads us into the wooden cab, and there, just like in the candy factory, are a bunch of buttons, each for a different color. “Push any button you want” he invites us, and we add a hue of colors to the escaping steam. How the heck do they run a railroad up here on the ice? Mrs. Santa explains that the steam freezes along the tracks, and after the Christmas “peak season” the Section Crews jack up the track a bit so it’s on top of the new accumulation of ice. Back in the sleigh, we race off again.

We pull into what looks like a spitting image of the old skool Nordeast Minneapolis UPS hub. There’s no computers though- Mrs. Claus explains that they “upgrade” the systems so fast that they get maybe one use out of them, and next year they’re “obsolete” and unsupported. So billions of toys are sorted, directed, and delivered by addresses from a “database” maintained on index cards with a logistics scheme carried on clipboards. Kinda labor intensive, but it worked just fine a half century ago. Just then the Teamsters walked in en masse, fresh from their union meeting and christmas party. “We’re thankful for the Teamsters” explains Mrs. Claus, “They come down from “upstairs” every “peak season” and help us out. We really need them- the little elves can reach the pedals in the old cabovers OK, but for the newer Macks and Package Cars they’re just too short. And the Teamsters really enjoy it down here- Up in heaven they can’t swear or drink or smoke. We get a lot of old Postal Workers coming down here for the same reasons.”.

The smell of ether and a pall af smoke fills the air as the old Macks, Diamonds, and the odd Astro are started. The Feeder Drivers head to the dispatch office for more coffee and treats to sustain them on their long runs, and we follow. There’s no logbooks nor computers, and though the dress code is loosely enforced, everyone is in their best browns and spit-shined boots anyway. I recognize a couple of the old “shifter aristocrats”, as they head out to their yellow spotting tractors to put double and triple trailer sets together. Next out are the drivers on road runs, armed for their long hauls with thermoses of coffee, bowlfulls of jelly beans and other sweets, UPS’s warmest down jackets, and a toolbox full of hammers and cable ties to deal with intransigent couplers and secure wandering hoses and cables.

Just then Mrs.Claus interupts our amazement… “You got some space left in that VW?” “Yup, we can fold down the seats in our Golf TDI and make some room.” Mrs. Claus gives us a ride back to our car, and orders us to dock door 1200. Now I’ve worked on docks with over 100 doors, but a thousand? After a long drive through the hub we back up to our assigned door. An elf opens the diverter and damn near buries our Golf in brightly wrapped packages, then hands us a clipboard with our schedule and disappears before he has to hear our complaints. Being old hands at this logistics biz, we study the manifest first and see that we’ve got a dozen meets and drops on our way home, so we load in reverse order of the drops. Barely get halfway through the manifest and we’ve got the whole back of the Golf full. We end up with packages on the dashboard, duct taped to the roof, and my “shotgun” even has some piled in his lap. even had to stuff a few “stocking stuffers” into cubbyholes under the hood. Finally found a place for everything, and headed for the “full serve” only fuel island, where the attendant elf fills our tank with what he exclaims is the “world’s best biodiesel, and it’ll never wax” while we fill our coffee and cocoa mugs and stock up on the endless sweet treats.

As we head for the gate, Mrs. Claus pulls alongside, looking calm despite this being peak hour of  peak season in a logistics hub that does but one giant sort a year. “Please follow those old german guys on the BMW sidecars ahead of you and make sure they’re OK- They’ve done this run before but I still worry about them. Last year we dispatched a Harley rider and after a dozen breakdowns we damn near lost him to frostbite. Fortunately the Royal Canadian Air Farce was able to rescue him and deliver the tardy presents, but his Harley is still out there scattered all over the permafrost and Environment Canada is demanding that we pay for collecting up all that scrap metal”. Before we can complain, Mrs. Claus loads us down with more platefuls of sweets and mugs of cocoa. The dashboard being covered and out of cupholders, we eat and drink quickly as we head out the gate and down the ice road. Hope they gotta rest area up the road!

Damn Sat Phone batteries going dead already… See you again when we find WiFi!