Dec 29 2010

A Christmas Day Out

Every Christmas day I like to go out and spend the day away from the house, to fall away from everybody and escape into the timeless wonder of the trail. I am not big on the holidays, I understand that they are meant to bring friends and family together and help us appreciate our lives, and those people we share our lives with, I don’t have any family that live within several time zones of me and I don’t have any friends that I spend the holidays with, therefore the holidays really aren’t meant for me. There was a time I cared for and loved Christmas but those special days vaporized just as my relationship with my wife ended.Now I accept the holidays as a way to evade my laborious reality, it always seems like mother nature wants me to be out on the trail somewhere every holiday. It can be -40 degrees all week but come the holiday it warms right up as it did during the solstice warming to a balmy -10 degrees and Christmas day had become an amazing -4 degrees and wonderful.

 

I decided to head out on the Dunbar Trail towards the west because after a while there are various trail intersections to choose from and I could change the day with just a turn. I had not ski’d out the Dunbar west from my cabin yet this year, and didn’t know what to expect from the trail conditions since the last time I witnessed the creek crossings in late October it was iced over with severe four to five foot drop off’s on either side with heavy debris constricting access. I figured that it would take several months of over-flow ice to fill in the gullies and allow travel, but there has been dogsled travel through the trail so I assumed that maybe the creek beds have filled in enough to travel.

The first creek named “Spinach Creek” was actually not bad at all and I ski’d through with relative ease, but the second unnamed creek was a bit tricky and I could not imagine trying to navigate the entry and exit of the creek bed with an entire dog team. The day went wonderfully as I ski’d along on the Dunbar and Equinox in his typical role of the “trail breaker”, he actually just likes to be way out in front exploring on his own without much interference from me.

 

The light was wonderful and seemed to warm the air around me with an energy that had me smiling at every turn. Once we reached Saulich, which is a maintenance stop for the railroad and also the turn off for the Fire Plug trail, we rested for a bit. This was only mile five and I needed to figure out whether or not we were going to head out the Fire Plug trail or continue on the Dunbar and maybe catch the Cache Creek Loop trail back which has a trailhead a mile or so further on.

I opted to continue on along the Dunbar and turn back at the turn off for the Cache Creek loop since it was late in the afternoon and there was only about an hour of light left in the day. I had brought my headlamp as a precaution and as I reached the turn around point I realized that I may actually use the lamp.

 

I hooked Equinox up to the tow line and began skijoring back. Equinox started off pulling like crazy for about a half mile then slowed to a trot as I had expected him to do. After a little bit of time I had seen what looked like vomit on the trail and realized that my poor dog was vomiting on the run, so when we returned to Saulich I stopped for about ten minutes to let him collect himself.

It was so lovely out, the sun was very low on the horizon and only ambient light from the sun remained in the sky. As Equinox got himself together I threw him back on the tow line and we were off again and flying along through the trees with just enough light to barley cancel out the beam of light emanating from my headlamp.

 

With about two miles to go I usually let Equinox of line to rest for about a half mile and then skijor him for that last mile and a half to the cabin, so after releasing him I began the gentle descent down to the railroad tracks and the final stretch home. It was nearly dark now and all of a sudden when I kicked with my left ski I realized that my binding had blown apart and my ski just fell away from me. I tried to examine the binding but I couldn’t fix it, so I did what any self-respecting skier does, I threw my ski’s over my shoulder and started running the last two miles home.

The run was terribly tiring, I don’t remember ever having to run in ski boots and with ski’s and poles under my arms so I was relieved when Equinox turned and began running towards me, it meant that there was somebody coming from up trail. A dog sled running up on us and I needed to get off trail, so I tossed the skiis and called Equinox over and just in time as the eight dogs were upon us just as I was pulling my dog out of the way.

Everything that followed was a blur and I found myself on my back in a foot of snow with a ninety pound lab on my chest and dogs trying to attack him. I was wrestling with Equinox in a futile effort to get him away from the snapping jaws of the dogs that were on my legs. The musher was able to get her team back on the trail and ordered them out, moving back on trail simultaneously yelling sorry to me and yelling at her dogs about what it meant when she yelled “on-by!”. I was exhausted, and with a mile of running to go I couldn’t help but laugh at myself as I jogged into the darkness, at least it was an amazing experience to say the least. I finally dragged my sorry self up the last bit of the road to my cabin and crawled inside, with Equinox filled with boundless energy I threw some treats at him and collected myself.As my clothes hung over the chairs around the table I sipped on a beer and reflected on the day and I was satisfied with the amazing day I had. It isn’t everyday that things like this happen to me on the trail and the experience was amazing and I realize how unique my day had been, we always seem to remember days such as these so much fonder than days filled with normalcy.  

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Dec 22 2010

Skiing Into Winters Solstice

It finally arrived my favorite day winter and it did not disappoint me one bit. The winter solstice has always been a special moment for me, a day that is full of magic and positive energy. The winter solstice has always gave me the give of renewal, of regeneration and a fresh look at tomorrow.I planned on writing a story about a fabulous day of skiing on the shortest day of the year and typically this day is very cold and dark, forcing me out with great determination to feel the day grow out on the trail. Instead before I even got out on the trail I was treated to a day bathed in salmon tinted light that glowed throughout the air. There was a thin layer of clouds low on the horizon that defused the sunlight as the sun drifted just above the horizon, the light glowed and permeated every fabric of my reality.

 

I had to get out there, I didn’t need to I had to because it was drawing me out like a moth to a flame.

I chose to ski the Parks Ridge Run in Ester Alaska, due to its higher altitude the trail was above the heat inversion layer and while it was a cool -24 degrees at my cabin and a touch cooler on the trails on the valley floor, the Parks Ridge Run was around -10 degrees and after arriving at the trailhead I was shedding my shells to prevent myself from over heating.

Last year I ski’d the Willow Run on the Balaine dog mushing trails at the bottom of the Goldstream Valley and the temperature was well below -25 degrees and I had to wait for the sun to come over the hills to enjoy the light. That day was spent in the shade for most of the day and only about an hour of light because of my choice of locations to ski.

There were two dog teams running the ridge, one right behind the other. All the dogs, and mushers are from the same kennel and getting all their training in one shot. The handler was in radio contact with the lead team and let me know they were ten minutes out, at that distance I would catch them on the widest and safest portion of the trail so we headed out and figured we could duck off the trail to yield to the teams as they came.

 

The first team came exactly where I expected them and was ready for their passing and I inquired as to the location of the second team, they were three minutes behind. I knew that meant that I was going to catch them at the bottom of the last descent coming back and the first climb heading out.

The bottom of this descent has a wicked blind turn and if you’re not paying attention you can end up in the trees very easily. At the bottom of the climb before the turn I reeled Equinox in and prepared to make room off the trail so when the team went by they would have a good gap between them and my dog, you only need one team of ten dogs come too close to your dog and turn on him to learn how to keep your distance.

 

I had just started stepping off trail when they hit the turn flying, I barely got Equinox out of the way as the lead dog flew past, tongue flapping in the air and a bunch of other dogs eyeing Equinox carefully as they ripped past, pulling the sled through the turn, the musher was definitely having a blast.

After the commotion passed we slipped off on our slow journey into the short day. The trail was fast and fun with no ruts or grooves to throw me off balance and each kick and glide was wonderful to feel as I eyed the last of the salmon tinted air filtering through the tops of the trees.

 

The day was so pleasant and I couldn’t help but continue to stop to take in this view or that. I meant to ski out the power lines 4 miles out, which is the place where I would normally turn around at but I forgot to bring extra kick wax to put on my ski’s at the turn around, so I knew I would only be going to the quarry at mile 2.5.

What I witnessed at the quarry was nothing less than the most amazing image I could ever imagine. I stood there for five minutes staring at the skyline. I pulled out my cell phone and took some pictures as I had been the whole day. The image doesn’t compare to the grandeur before me. Denali a hundred and twenty miles away is unmistakable with its broad massif dominating the horizon and the rest of the Alaskan Mountain Range stretched out to the east. The sun gently caresses the horizon just slightly floating above the great land before me. The sun won’t rise much more than about ten percent above the horizon for the day and will vanish entirely before 4:00pm.

 

I stood there above the quarry for another ten minutes taking in all the light I could get as well as burning into my mind so that I would never forget it, that was until I saw a very impatient black lab sitting in the snow some hundred feet away very much ready to be off.

As the light began to fade I turned my back to the sun and returned to the trail and began the ski back to the car, the shade deeper between the trees and the cold nipping more on my bare skin. With the coming darkness and as the colder air seeped into four layers of active wear clothing I sensed the world around me, the land that encompasses my life, and I felt electric with every face numbing descent. Back at the car I met a rare friend that I met a few years back and share his love for this place and the unique moment we are experiencing. I’m already looking forward to the next winters solstice, maybe there will be fireworks, otherwise nothing will trump this day.

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Dec 15 2010

Frame Of Mind

There was a time that all I wanted, every waking moment was to be outside skiing. It never mattered what the weather was like or how cold it was, it was everything just to be there, as if I was going to be left out of some great secret that I couldn’t miss out on. This was only a couple of years ago and not so much a part of my wonderful and distant past. 

Now today I am quite particular in that it is no longer quantity but a question of quality that I seek. I only want to go out skiing when I was sure that the experience would be fantastic and memorable. I haven’t forgotten that every moment is special and unique, since yesterday is just as real to me as is today and tomorrow.

I look outside and peek at the temperature and have to really motivate myself to step out the door. The days of ultra-extreme cold and having a choice to go outside or not to go outside has seemed to validate my new found laziness.

Why trudge through a foot of freshly fallen snow? My skis are never visible sliding along beneath the snow, grinding along at an agonizing slow pace as sweat soaks through my layers of clothes, I can just wait for an extra day as dog sleds and snow machines break the trail out for me.

I spend almost fifteen minutes putting on the four layers of clothes and boots to be ready to go outside for a couple of hours of skiing, and another ten minutes to undress and hang up all the clothes to dry.

Tomorrow is suppose to be around -45 degrees Fahrenheit so I ski’d today while it was only -22 degrees, it was still cold but considering the idea of not being able to ski for the next couple of days while waiting for the temps to come back to a respectable grade, well it seemed the logical choice. Some people say why go out at all then, why put yourself in to such uncomfortable conditions if your so miserable. 

I still laugh at them and their unexperienced comments, not knowing how amazing the world is and actually living in it. Yet even now throwing these questions and thoughts back and fourth answering the questions just as easily as asking them, they still promote thought and they show that I have a complex attitude towards the winter. The idea that today is the warmest day of the week is ridiculous until you remember that tomorrow will be -45 degrees, and there I am on the trail unable to move my face or mouth. 

There are times that I am jealous of my dog, while we are out on the trail and it’s terribly cold, my lungs are burning and I can’t feel my tongue but my dog is oblivious to the cold, bounding through the trees occasionally stopping to bury his face in a small drift of snow attempting to find some weird odor buried below the surface. Then there I am sweating and freezing at the same time, muscles exhausted from the work watching my dog laughing and playing as if it is a fine summers day. The colder the air gets the more course or “grabby” the snow gets, gliding is reduced a great deal making it more difficult to ski efficiently and the trail becomes very long, but for a dog it’s perfect for flopping on his back and flailing relentlessly. 

When the sun is low on the horizon and there are very few clouds the light filters through the trees and reflects off of every grain of snow. Just hearing the sound of my ski’s on the snow, my poles stabbing into the snow to push off with, and the sound of my breathing, nothing else stirs and this world is perfect.  

I am complex in my choices of days to go out and experience my world and sometimes those choices are the opposite of how I feel but once I’m out there on the trail and regardless the weather, the experience is always unique and unforgettable.

My choices of when I go out on the trail are confirmed as preferring the nicer days and I am becoming better with this considering those days are days that most people wouldn’t even open there doors if they don’t have to. The fact that I’ll still go out on the miserable days only because all the other days are even more miserable shows me that the spirit of following my heart is still alive and well. 

Breaking trail is slow and tedious but incredibly rewarding, looking back on a fresh set of tracks and setting the line of the trail is amazing, especially knowing that on some trails like the Nugget Creek Trail Loop, those tracks will be there all year and anybody else who ski’s that trail will follow the line I set and ride the tracks I laid on that trail. Finishing the day under the light of a headlamp really sets a tone on these short days, with only a few hours of sunlight the times to be on the trail are short and dark. Pulling up to the cabin with the headlamp on and the glow of lights flooding out of the windows is a warm welcome and fulfills a need for accomplishment that overwhelms me sometimes and times like these that leave me smiling far after the snow has melted from my ski’s.

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Dec 8 2010

It’s All About The Cold

The first thing that comes to the mind of most people when they think of winter is the cold then I believe we think of snow, and some kick in to the holiday spirit. The cold does amazing and wonderful things to this world, in the smallest of ways and in the grandest of design that leaves one feeling so insignificant at times.

 

Having the proper frame of mind helps you enjoy winter, the cold and the not so agreeable weather, and Alaska is the place to learn what you are capable of tolerating. I think it’s funny that people who live up here and know what the winter in the interior is like still complain about it as if it is the first time they’ve ever experienced true cold before. Days come and go where everything comes to a stand still because it is too cold to get anything done, laying on the couch or catching up with a bit of house cleaning becomes a tool to fill the void.

I stepped outside this morning and it was -30 degrees Fahrenheit and I wasn’t really in the mood to pull myself out into that crisp morning. It did eventually warm up to around -22 degrees and I knew that I could drive up to a higher elevated trail to ski on where the temperature was just below zero but the effort involved was too much for me to deal with, besides I got in a great ski/skijor yesterday out on the Willow Run Trail a branch of the Balaine dog mushing trails. The Balaine trails were terribly corroded by the all-terrain vehicles that are being used to train and work sled dogs while waiting for more snow to come and fill in more of the trails and bury the ice that lies just below the surface.

At times the trail is super slow with fresh snow on the ground and sticking to every square inch of the base of my ski’s and not allowing me the freedom of a good glide. There are times when the snow has been exposed to the elements for several days and ice crystals become sharp and gritty, then the snow is fast and smooth but it does wear out the kick wax on my ski’s in about three miles, that’s where skijoring comes in. When I go out to ski now I harness my dog and myself up and wrap the tow line over my shoulder and ski as far as my wax will let me. When the wax wears out I hook Equinox up and we skijor back, it’s great because without the resistance of the kick wax the ski’s glide almost effortlessly on the snow and makes it easier for Equinox.

It always amazes me how the same old snow, the same old trails can invoke so many new emotions, even passing by clumps of trees I’ve seen a hundred times, the same dips, turns and over-flow ice all make me smile, remembering that last trips I’ve made through those parts including the times I fell on that over flow ice, or broke through the ice and soaked my leg in water from the stream below the ice, just to have it freeze immediately after having withdrawn my leg. Memories face me at every juncture of my travels on the trails I most explore and sometimes I feel as if I’m being followed by ghosts of ski treks past, but I just laugh at the comedy of it all. It is so early in the season that each time I ski down a trail I’ve been on, I still wonder at it’s new-ness if that makes any sense, I feel as if everything I’m seeing the land in front of me for the first time. After some time in a few months I will still be skiing on these same trails as well as some new ones that I’ve got penciled in, but as I travel on these trails that I have been on so many times I will ignore the land around me, I will only think of the trail before me as a way of transitioning to the junctions that lead to the trails that I have yet to ski on this year, and the others that I’ve yet to explore.

It’s all about the cold, how it shapes the trail, the world around the trail and everything within that for me to experience, Alders leaning over the trails in a sweeping arc from the weight of the snow covering their branches. Sections of trail are still impassable because of fields of tussocks stubbornly poking their heads above the snow with the grass blowing gracefully in the wind like hair on the heads of mostly buried people.

The cold changes the perspective of the trail and how you relate to it, the more cold it is the more foreign you are to it and with it the more unwelcome you feel. Feeling like a tourist sometimes is the price one pays to earn our stay in this lovely climate and with it the sacrifice of a bit of comfort. All in all the cold changes the way we see the world around us when we have seen it so many times before, but not this time. It changes our mindset about how people who don’t spend their days in this realm can actually function as proper human beings, the way they stare back at me as I try to explain how skiing out in the middle of nowhere when the temps are below their comfort zone is actually a wonderful thing, and sometimes a little suffering isn’t suffering at all but in fact it is a tool to show us what it feels to actually be alive.

The cold changes the entire universe of my existence from one form of perception to another level of awareness, one point of time becomes meaningless in comparison to the next and the only way to become “awakened” to this clarity is to allow that world into mine and mine into it. The cold of winter alters the mindset of those who breath every drop of life from the season and cherish every silent and calm moment in a world of complexity and misunderstanding.

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