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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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 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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