Nov 26 2010

The Meaning Of Winter

I have never been able to understand why winter has such a hold on me, it pulls from my mind such romanticism and clarity that I have not felt during any other time of the year. I’m not sure I am meant to understand my infatuation with winter and how I yearn to feel it’s cold loving grasp. Winter is unforgiving for the unprepared, for the innocent and for the ignorant. I relish it’s frigid grip on the landscape and how the landscape and nature adapts to survive in the long dark months of ice, wind, and snow. For one reason or another I don’t feel a need to just survive in this climate, in fact I embrace it. I recognize the brutality of the severe cold that takes hold of this country and I respect it. I feel as if a great blanket of love and familiarity is cloaked about me as I travel on the winter trails, living in the moment and cherishing what winter brings with it.

There is a sense of serenity out alone on a trail during winter, it is incredibly quiet, no animals stir, there is little or no human activity to speak of outside of the trails nearest to town. The trees are still except for the occasional wind that blows now and then, but for the most part this land remains still, it creates the most amazing snow formations on the tree branches. I sometimes feel as if I am traveling through a massive museum giving homage to nature, everything so quiet and still, perfectly frozen for my benefit and pleasure. Sometimes I feel that it is me that is on display, the one that the land is watching and observing insuring that I don’t trespass on some private level of existence.

I accept everything that winter throws at me, the cold, the wind, snow, ice and lack of forgiveness. Treasuring the world around me and not taking it for granted, that would be criminal and unforgivable, that’s not what this place is about, more than anything it provides a window into ourselves to figure out who we are and what we are about. I see myself differently during winter so much more than summer.

Summer offers an opportunity to expand on often tread trails, to see wildlife flourish for the brief moment that the sun shows its shy face. Summer is about celebrating the sunlight, flowers, growing and flourishing wildlife. Everything that the summer is can only be respected as the time that everybody rejoices in the warmth. The winter brings everything close and more personal, each experience is new and special but at the same time old, remembered. The trail becomes smaller and more personal. Winter changes the world every day, every turn, every moment and each time I travel down the trail the day becomes a new emotion.

The further I travel on a trail in a direction away from where I’ve come and away from everybody else, the awareness of total solitude becomes the only feeling that floats into my being. The mid-day summer is spectacular when it’s light fans out across the valley and floods your spirit with warmth and energy but these moments are fleeting and special. Most days on the trail during winter is gray and cold, no dazzling light, no heart melting glow of temporary light from the sun, more flat light and dark shadows. What makes winter special isn’t the sun light even though it is wonderfully special for the romantic that can appreciate it, what makes winter special is singular to the individual and rarely duplicated.

 

Understanding how winter affects a person is very complicated for such a simple season, point of perspective. If I lived in town or in the city, winter could be seen as an annoyance, a barrier for shopping, or work, or hobbies carried out during the summer. Living in the woods as I do I can’t comprehend how people who live in town feel about winter, I can only view winter through my eyes and attempt to understand it’s effects on me through my own experience. If I was a rational man (which I am not) I would spend the winter in an apartment in town and experience the season closed off from the winter that I am familiar with, but that wouldn’t prove anything except that I go out of the way to know what I already know and that is that I would hate to live in town and I would be miserable. Winter would become my escape, a tool to get away from the civilization that I’ve surrounded myself with, winter would become my tool.

I may not understand what it means to experience and appreciate winter any more than I can explain why summer affects others more differently from one to another or what it means to them. Winter in Alaska lasts longer than summer so logically we should appreciate summer more for its uniqueness and short-lived existence, which adds more questions than answers. I do appreciate summer, from break-up in spring usually in May through the few months of summer and in to fall around September. I do take full advantage of the long days running, hiking and exploring.

Winter is different with its short-lived days frigid nights and somewhat acceptable cool days. Most often the days are tolerable with the temperature hovering around -10 degrees Fahrenheit and dressed correctly can be quite comfortable, but there are stretches of time where stepping outside just for moments could be hazardous to your health but these days have faded into the past more often than not due to the climate change. Winter is becoming much more tolerable with each year, taking away much of the character that identifies winter with Alaska and it is our loss.

 

Putting climate change aside and just living with what we have has helped me to understand that even though we’ve truly messed this world up over the last two hundred years unknown to us until the 1980’s, winter means more to me in that it helps me understand myself. I accept winter for what it is, a season that changes constantly in a world I have no control over, I accept the fact that I have no control over the environment around me. I can only control the actions I take during my experiences on the winter trails, I am only aware of the choices that I make out in nature, and out on the trail.

The first time that I decided to go out for a night ski I was so excited to feel something completely different and I did. It was a moonless cloud filled night and I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face. All I could see was what was directly in front of me within the beam of my headlamp. The only sensation I could relate to this experience was taking part in a night dive scuba diving in the ocean, it was so claustrophobic, so closed in. I could have shut myself into an out house in the woods and it would have felt the same, it terrified me the thought that at any time some creature of the night could come along and devour me at a moments notice and I’d never be the wiser for it.

 

The next day I went out on the same trail during the day time and a weird thing happened, I recognized things that I could barely see the night before. It was the strangest thing skiing along and coming around a corner and hitting a thick grove of spruce trees and thinking to myself “oh so that’s what that was”. The land was still familiar to me and this puzzled me a great deal and I ski’d more freely than ever before.

The next time I went out on a night ski it was a cloudless, chilly, moonlit night. The moon was full and every shadow stared back at me, it was wonderful and I had never felt so alive in my life skiing along with the world gliding past and not a care in the world. I ski’d in several miles away from all forms of human existence and stopped, I turned off the headlamp and just looked and breathed. It was an awakening for me, the cold air settling into my lungs, the exhaled clouds of warm air escaping my body. There wasn’t a single sound, not a single movement, looking into the sky overwhelmed me and left me feeling very small. The moon filled the horizon as it skimmed the mountain tops in the distance, the stars filled more of the sky than the darkness between them.

I ski’d for hours unaware of anything else around me but the sky above me, this left me in deep contemplation the next day and for days following for the weather had changed and a cold snap had entered the interior preventing me from going out and skiing. What it was that left me in such self consideration was that during my night ski all that I could think about was the sky, how it consumed me and enveloped everything that I thought I was. During the day I barely look at the sky, except for the birch trees as they reach casually into the air in defiance of the short scrawny black spruce trees that shy away from the lofty heights.

The daytime is a time for constant reflection of the landscape around me and what it means to me or how it affects me on a personal level. My love for the wilderness is a drive that definitely forms my life and helps me learn more about who I am. Coming to grips with the emotions that skiing at night creates inside of me is something that is the complete opposite of skiing during the daytime. Nature is secondary oddly enough, the trail immediately in front of me, the sky above me is all I can see so that is all that matters and this is where everything goes upside down. I am trying to understand how skiing during the daytime and skiing at night provoke separate experiences on the same trail, on the same snow and in the same trees.

 

I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t that I was bored with daytime skiing, or skiing on the same trails, nothing of the sort. What it was that I was experiencing was just another aspect of the world I chose to be a part of. I spent so much time living in the light and grays of daylight that I never considered the whole picture, the rest of what nature has to provide. I was only a part of a short moment in time with the wilderness around me and the night-time was alien to me until I accepted it as just another part of the cycle of existence that grows and changes around me.I can’t express rationally what it means to me to experience winter here, the emotions and physical experiences are far too complex, but living in and existing with the world around me is inspiring to me, it comforts me, it scares me, it educates me. I learn more about who I am out there during this time of year, I appreciate more of what I am capable of and how far I can push myself. Winter allows me to be myself, a person that relishes the exposure to certain hardships and pleasures that are to be endured and enjoyed on the trail during the season that most promotes change in itself and for those that accept change for themselves.  

 

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Nov 26 2010

Not The Same Thing

It was just yesterday that I was skiing back in to finish breaking out the Nugget Creek Trail loop and experiencing the ecstasy of finally getting far out away from the day-to-day rhythm I had fallen into. It was just yesterday that Equinox and I walked down to the trail and began the three-quarter of a mile ski on the Dunbar Trail to get to the trailhead of the Nugget Creek Trail.

After traversing the first section of trail we ascended the mile long climb to the old mining camp turned hunters cabin known as “Club Chuck”. What took forty minutes to break out the day before took half the time to travel the same miles and a half. The next step was the loop, a fantastic cross-country trail that is just wonderful to experience with the beginning being an arduous climb that leaves you gasping for air as you round the top and begin the flat to gentle down hill portion of the loop.

Fallen trees here and there forcing me to deviate my chosen course around the trunks and continue on an every changing scene. The basic trail remains the same but the line I take is totally different from last year due to the changing of the topography and fallen tree debris buried just below the foot of fresh snow. After breaking trail for the afternoon I was able to casually glide along the Dunbar Trail back to the trail head completely exhausted and get home in time to get ready for work.

That was yesterday, and today has changed the entire landscape of my home to a place I can barely recognize. The temperature had risen well above freezing and it began raining. Starting in the morning and continuing into the day, the rain and warm temperatures managed to melt the snow to practically nothing. This rain froze the roads creating about a two inch thick layer of unbroken ice on the roadways. On top of the ice is a standing layer of water and quite possibly the most dangerous road conditions I’ve ever experienced. I actually attempted to drive my car to the store but after sliding down the quarter-mile hill to the mail box pullout with no traction at all, I turned the car around and gently worked the car back to the cabin and resigned myself to being confined to the area for the next couple of days.

I have heard only a handful of cars drive by, mostly large utility vehicles from the electric company trying to upend fallen trees around power lines and little to my knowledge I would soon fall prey to the falling trees and lose power for the night until morning, and temperatures in the house reaching into the low thirties.

The snow is melting away before my eyes, dirt and mud exposes itself in the translucent layer of snow that still remains in front of my door. With every drop of rain that violently crashes into my fading world I watch the snow slowly melt into the ground, I feel an insecurity growing inside of me leaving me on edge. The rain causes the snow to slide off of the roof creating an enormous thud as it slams with reckless abandon into the ground. In a fit I lace up my boots and throw on a jacket, I need to get out of the cabin and burn off some cabin fever. Gently walking down the sie of the road I run into several other people who live in the area doing exactly the same thing. We talked about how long we’d be stuck at home and where the worst part of the roads are. We laughed at our situation and tried to find the lighthearted side of if rather than complain about the inconvenience. We discussed what the rain and warmer weather is doing to the trails and how the dogs that are used to be running their brains out skijoring or mushing are handling the sedentary aspect of the situation.

After spending a bit of time I was very curious to see for myself what has become of the trails, so I walked down to the trail and into the trees. What I saw left me feeling empty inside with what was before me, the lovely trail was gone. Gone was the carefully groomed mushing trail I’ve been skiing on for the last month, replaced with slush and standing water. We carefully stepped down to the Dunbar to inspect the ice on the ponds and the rest of the trail. More of the same faced me there, with a thin layer of snow that is slowly giving way to bare ice and standing water.

Turning around I head back to the cabin feeling like I’ve been a witness to some tragic event that has just taken place  My dog is indifferent, bouncing through the slush and puddles blissfully unaware of what these conditions mean for us. Back at the cabin I make use of the extra time to be home by baking some bread and picking up here and there. I still love this moment and everything that’s taking place, this is an experience that offers a new perception of this world I live in, even with the loss of my precious trails. It’s not the end of the world, the snow will survive to prosper another day and in just a short time the weather will return to me a wonderful frozen world of familiarity and I will be back on the trails of my reality in no time.

 

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Nov 17 2010

The Addict

It’s always been like this for as far back as I can remember, no matter the drug I have always been a slave to my own compulsive behavior. It has never been the drug that decided my fanaticism, be it backpacking, hiking, climbing, running. I am always faced with the same results of being completely consumed by my need and this time is no different. I sit in the dim light on the couch as it snows outside, my eyes are closed and I can see every flake of snow like a heartbeat gently falling to the ground, landing on snow that preceded the next. I can hear the flakes as they cascade to the ground crashing into the branches and needles of the pine trees that surround my world. My obsession grows every day, the need to be out there and feeling every motion and movement, the experience.

Impatience and irritation nag at me as I try to get ready, too much time is being wasted I should be out there already. The ski’s are leaning against the wall, both pairs of them eagerly waiting on my decision to which pair I will choose to take out today. Freshly waxed and shiny clean they stare at me through the residual smoke left behind by the iron I used to melt the wax on to the base of the ski’s. I spend many hours a week waxing and working on my ski’s ensuring they will be at their best when we get out on the trail. I save my change, skip meals, don’t buy new clothes just so I can afford to buy fresh wax and have extra cash on hand in case I need to replace a broken pole or damaged ski.

The snow is still falling but it’s too soon to go out to ski just yet. There’s more snow to come and going out now will increase the chance of damaging my ski’s on rocks or tree roots buried just beneath the fresh snow that has yet to pack down. The itch is getting worse, the desire is deafening, I can’t sleep or eat. The snow keeps falling.

I imagine slipping down the hill on the narrow road that leads from my cabin down to the valley floor. Step over the railroad tracks and coast down to the Dunbar Trail, the source of my addiction, the first trail I ever skied. The Dunbar leads away into all the days of tomorrow, the imagination cannot register what it means to travel beyond what has already been traveled on. My breathing is increasing and respiration is rising, thoughts of new tracks on a fresh layer of snow makes me feel at edge, twitching, craving, yearning, hunger. Madness seeps into my veins as I sit idle staring out the windows as the temperature drops to -18F and the sun sets. That is happening far to often these days, the sun is long set before 4:oo and I haven’t even started planning the next high.

Rambling thoughts flow through my mind as I wait out the deep cold and falling snow. Pacing in circles, boots sit in front of the floor heater, ski’s are in the corner, clothes draped lazily over the dining room table chairs. The dog watches me uneasily as I mumble to myself, staring at the couple of inches of ice formed on the bottom of the window frames. Snow covers the ground in ever increasing blankets of softness, featureless and formless, perfect. This is an all consuming addiction, all encompassing and all that matters. All that is and all that should be hoped of is only a few feet outside my door and what matters is that I want what is out there, to feed my cravings and save me from the driving inside of me.

A days waiting and the falling snow fades back into the clouds as the sun slowly bleeds through the thinning gray mat of the sky. The afternoons light is a glorious glow of amber as the sun bounces its light from the ground back into the ice crystals floating in the air. My ski’s so readily fall into my arms, the poles trail behind. Soft steps leaving deep impressions in the powder create a gentle crunching sound as I set the ski’s down, step in and lock my boots into the bindings, strap my poles to my hands. I step up to the edge of the driveway, turn right and casually begin the glide down my narrow road back to the trail, all I smell is clean.

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Nov 10 2010

A Man, A Dog

I skijored with my dog for the first time this year on a short trail near my home and it was a wonderful and refreshing experience. Skijoring is a sport that incorporates dog mushing and cross-country skiing, the dog pulls a skier along a trail or course via a tow line attached between the two. The dog and skier work together as efficiently as possible to attain the highest level of speed for the longest distance as possible without tiring the dog or dogs. Assisting the dog by pushing with your poles (known as polling) or kicking with your ski’s allows the dog to continue further on since you assume the majority of the work as the dog tires. The dog will be pulling just fast enough that “kicking” is ineffective, so polling is the only way to maintain momentum.

 

 After having been skiing for the first couple of miles I hooked up my dog “Equinox” and we took off as a team. I was curious to see how well he would perform or if he would remember what his job is. It turned out that he not only remembered this activity, he in fact loved charging off with me in tow. We flew over the first half mile before he began tiring, since Equinox hadn’t pulled in over seven months I expected his endurance to be low. It was wonderful travelling along the trail polling when I could, kicking up the small rises to maintain momentum and leaning into the harness to absorb the energy of Equinoxes lunges. I could see the joy in my dog’s body language, the pride in what he was accomplishing pulling me along the tree-lined trail, his quick glances back at me to ensure that he was doing a good job. I had forgotten how incredible the union between my dog and myself feels during moments such as these.

I always forget that dog’s do not care about the little things like branches hanging out over the trail, small dips, logs or roots on the trail so constant diligence is a must otherwise those branches hanging out will whip the bejeezes out of you, and if you don’t pay attention to those roots or other foreign objects you’ll find yourself being dragged by your dog after being tripped up and face planting the ground. These times we share are silent, swift and fleeting moments of joy for both of us, being out on the trail loving that precise point where everything coalesces and becomes breathless. Gliding along the trail, dog kicking up pieces of ice and snow, the dog’s body stretched out and reaching forward, its beautiful following behind him watching a dog explode in canine bliss and energy.

There are day trips where I will ski for twenty or more miles and skijoring is more a matter of shortening the miles than a convenience. If I merely ski those twenty miles I could be looking at four hours, which is fantastic for a day long adventure but if (as in my case) it is the middle of winter and we have only a few hours of day light this could become a serious issue. So on the longer trips I would ski for five miles or so then hook Equinox up and skijor for four or five miles and then ski the next five miles and so on, to allow the dog to have a rest cycle. This technique reduces the time to less than three hours over a twenty-mile ski and slows down the fatigue factor a great deal.
The long days are the best, a true understanding or relationship forms with your dog and yourself. The sharing of physical effort seems to create a tighter bond between the skier and the dog, I guess that comes from the pack mentality and being stronger is an Alpha dog mentality.
The Fire Plug trail is wonderful for skijoring and after five miles of skiing to get to the trailhead its well worth the effort to get to it. This trail is only about four miles long and is a bridge from the Dunbar Trail to a trail that is known only as “sled dog trail” on the maps. This sled trail eventually hooks up with the original mail route leading out of Nenana and travels all the way to Nome Alaska. The Fire Plug trail is amazingly technical, not in difficulty but in its twisting, turning, climbing and wooded wonder that is fabulous to ski until you arrive at the intersection where it links up with the sled dog trail. Including the climbing involved it takes roughly half an hour or so to complete the Fire Plug trail but skijoring back the distance can be covered in between fifteen and twenty minutes and every time it leaves me panting with exhilaration.

After running the Fire Plug trail I always give Equinox a rest and then let him go on his own for the next couple miles until I hook him back up for the final couple of miles when I’m most tired.
Usually these trips end in the dark and under the light of a headlamp, but Equinox shows his pleasure and happiness by jumping at me and nipping softly at my gloves, still playful after twenty miles of insane wonder and physical effort.
Physically exhausted after a long day on the trails always has an impact on me, not physically but emotionally. I’ll return to the cabin exhausted and barely able to lift my ski’s to set them against the wall and my spirit will be soaring, almost rejuvenated and young. I’ll finally get a shower and step into dry, warm clothes, pour a strong dark beer and regale in the days events, all the while Equinox will be throwing toys at me wanting to play, to bond further and cement the friendship we strengthened during the day on the trail.
Meanwhile I’ll be considering where next to travel, to expose myself to and experience the world outside of my home.

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Nov 3 2010

Just Another Day

A couple of days ago I went for a ski on the Balaine dog mushing trails. It was more of an exploratory ski than it was as a trip of pleasure, but then it is always a pleasure. I had hiked the first half mile several days before and had found tree roots and some bumps along the trail but the optimist inside me thought that this must be the worst of it.

 The first half mile of skiing was a slow motion obstacle course sliding left and right attempting to avoid the natural obstructions. The next mile was a very grassy, pothole filled adventure that was more walking on my ski’s than gliding along. There was one point where I manage to get in a short period of kick and glide. There is a pond or small lake where the trail drops down and follows along the top of the pond and it’s smooth as glass with about two inches of snow on top of the ice. It was fast and wonderful, such an evil tease for as soon as I began to really get into it and develop a powerful rhythm it ended abruptly on a field of ice filled tussocks. I was so stubborn in my quest to break further in on the barely visible trail that I managed to work my way along about a quarter of a mile of this grass and ice before I finally surrendered.
Back on the quarter mile long pond I started laughing at myself and my futile attempt to ski this trail of dirt, grass, and wood. It could have been a terrible experience and I could have been irritated for not having the day of skiing I had hoped for, but I just love being out on the trail and having nature mocking me for being out on a trail that was obviously not in shape yet. I skipped and kicked my way back to the car exhausted from all the extra work I was forced to endure, I felt as if I had skied ten miles instead of three.

I’ll admit that I am extremely spoiled when it comes down to cross-country skiing, the bounty of trails in the region where I live are amazing. I could ski a different trail over a two week period without skiing the same trail twice, and if I want to get really exotic I could take a one hour drive in multiple directions that will land me on trails that lead deep into Alaska’s interior. When I travel in the wilderness it isn’t as if I’m moving through the environment as much as the environment moves around me.

Today I was skiing on the Parks Ridge Run again and I was comparing my emotions and quality of experience of today’s to that which I had experienced the other day on the dry Balaine trails. I came to realize that I felt just as wonderful either gliding fast and clean on the pristine Parks Ridge as I did grinding it ou on the dirty Balaine trails, it only matters that I am there. When I write about my experiences and photograph the landscape I spend my days in I feel the same sense of joy and exhilaration.

I bring this up because if I compare this experience to my work environment it no longer holds true, I can’t say that I am happy during the great days at work as well as the bad days.
It is this defining understanding that keeps me pondering my future and declaring that the job I have to pay the bills is definitely not the path I’ll be following for very long. I know not everybody loves their jobs and that we still work because we really might not have a choice. We are all meant to live our lives to the fullest as best we can, some external influences may alter the path we should be on but if we choose to and in time we will still find our way if we just put in the effort. Every day while I’m at work I spend short moments or lulls when there is nothing going on to fantasize and contemplate wild idea’s of ways to escape my mundane job and move on to my true path.

I always watch how my dog interacts with nature on the trail. He doesn’t abuse it, rip it apart or try to eat it. he runs into it with reckless abandon, tongue flailing in the air as he bounds into the trees and bushes exploring every nook and cranny. He becomes a part of his environment and revels in the moment, he doesn’t let anything go unnoticed and is out of sight the majority of the time if we are travelling on a trail that we have been on multiple times. I see a lot of me in him in an odd way, he is restless and bored when we are home. While I plan the next trip he sighs and moans his contempt for the lack of activity.

I actually become more of who I am the worse the conditions are, if it’s nice and calm, no clouds, warm and blah, sure I enjoy it but the challenge is dulled and I just find myself going through the motions. If it’s mind numbing cold, snow is dumping with crud for visibility and we have to focus on every move to keep ourselves safe, that is the essence of existence and the moment I discover myself, plus the hard trips create the best stories to share with those who choose to listen.

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