Jun 8 2011

The Cries Of The Marmot

I take in a sweeping view of the land about me and I wonder why I do the things that I do. This is a place I know very well but not well enough to be completely comfortable within the realm of my own self. A quick six or seven miles to this very wild place doesn’t allow you to adapt fast enough and the bear paw print I found in the mud a couple of miles back adds to a light touch of insecurity. Though the run began in the sunlight and early summer heat, here the wind blasts across the open land and clouds close in, seemingly collapsing on the horizon in front of me.

The Plain Of The Monuments on the Granite Tors Trail, a very open plateau covered in spongy, soggy tundra as far as the eye can allow. Ghostly towers of granite stand at awkward angles and misshapen, the distance only intensifies the remote strangeness of the islands of rock. Black Spruce trees make up small woods seem to huddle around the plain but don’t intrude on the blank land around them. Off to the north in the direction of the route snow still lays in small fields and hide in great masse in the woods that cover the shallow valley between the plain and the ridgeline that eventually leads down to the valley floor far below.

It was just a short time ago that I was carelessly jumping through boulder fields while traversing a large dome that stands in the way of the top of the climb. As we turned the shoulder a hair-splitting shrill pierces the air around me, Equinox bolts off the trail in attack mode for a creature that he could neither see nor find. The noise created by these creatures is a sound that I can’t describe as a squeak since the sound the marmots produce carry for a very long distance, and up close the sound becomes ear-splitting. Just as we would finally get out of earshot, the next sentry would begin its evil shrill. As annoying as they are these creatures and their alarms breed an air of familiarity with me, this place would feel empty without them.

Resting at the severe weather cabin on the shoulder of the great plain I looked out on the mushy, water-saturated tundra and breathed in the air. Equinox bounds around excited to dive into each small pond of water or puddle of mud, relieved to be up and above the dry land and heat of the lower trail. Of course his version of reality differs from my own. Instead of a sun soaked trail that meanders up a six mile hill line of birch trees, black spruce and dry fallen trees(from a fire that burned through here seven years ago)as witnessed by Equinox, I experienced an incredible trail that winds its way through a forest of large birch trees down low. The trail leads up out of the trees to a barren ridgeline, the trail is soggy with mud and small streams of water in all the steepest of slopes.

In the sun it was fresh and warm, a slight breeze washed through the landscape from over the plains above, cooling me just enough so that I wouldn’t overheat. I couldn’t get a break on the trail when I would head up steep slopes, the mud and water would be waiting for me and so would the slipping, jumping and dodging of the deeper mud and water. I stopped here and there to let Equinox get some water and cool down.

It felt like an eternity had passed since I left the valley floor as I finally arrived out of breath in the woods just on the edge of the plains. The view puts me into a trance as I squint through the bright sun, attempting to get a better view of the granite tors in the distance, reflecting on the past times that I have come through here and succumbing to the same emotions that strike me now.

Beginning to cross the soft tundra it was apparent to me immediately that the next mile or so was going to be difficult at best. The trail through the plains are saturated to a level I’ve rarely experienced. Standing water and a mixture of grassy mush and mud cradled within the folds of the mounds of tundra had the consistency of soggy, rolling sponges that swallowed my shoes whole and fought to keep them every time I attempted to lift a leg. Somewhere along the way I became exhausted with this game, setting feet into rolling angles of squishy mush and then having to yank hard to remove a foot with my shoe still intact. I began walking and jumping through small shallow ponds, diverting here and there to avoid the more dirty little obstacles. On the northern end of the plains there are small fields of snow, islands of winter clinging to a fading memory.

The problem that confronted me with these seasonal throwbacks was that the trail went through them. I had to find my way through these snow fields, usually wading in over the knee to cross the snow. In the pits of the shallow, small valleys that are between the hills the snow is still quite prevalent in the shadows of the woods that inhabit the land. Traipsing from one small bush to the next, only stepping on the shallowest of snow until I am able to find my way back on to the trail, I work through choked hillsides of bush and dwarfed spruce. The trail though here is more  snow mush and running water over mud than an  actual trail for me to run on.

Thunder booms behind me startling me from my focus of the slipping and tripping I experience as I attempt to avoid falling on my back in the quagmire confronting me. As quickly and abruptly as I fell upon the plain, I now exit the land, the previous valley seemingly thrusts me out of a land that within, I was lost. A final marmot sentry cries out its haunting alarm as I pass its lonely outcrop of granite and disappear into the stunted trees and small fields of snow.

The descent from the plains was wet and angry, my shoes were full of water and mud, the distance in front of me is now the only obstacle. Running down and away from the plain I escape into the valley I know very well, the hills pushing me down knowing me it would seem. Just as I would feel my legs run out of energy not wanting to climb a single hill more, the trail would curve its way around this or that, falling down away through the thick air of the lower valley. Elevated wood plank trails and a soft running creek welcomed us with a gentle four miles to go.

The tour through the valley for the last bit seemed more of a victory lap amongst ones cheering fans on the field of battle than me just trying to make my way through the last few miles of trail, hoping my knees hold out long enough to get me back to the car. This trail is not the longest trail to run or experience but it was and adventure for the day, a test of strength and endurance, a tour through a land that can define ones own personality.

This place as it is, so close to our world remains set back in the distance away from our eyes and lives, invisible like the marmot until we witness it firsthand. The cries of the marmot can evoke many things inside us but a fond memory of the land above the road, and the trail that rambles past the lives of these oversized rodents is an experience that can change a person’s own path.

 

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Mar 21 2011

The Death Of Winter

As all things are and things will always be, great things are meant to die. So as these things are, so fleeting and temporary as a seasons passing, a death so slow and agonizing like the words of love lost on the deaf ears of another left less than wanting.
Clinging to recent memories like the last fragile bodies of snow that cower in the shadows of trees and the occasional cold snap that comes to bring air into the gasping breath of suffocating lungs.
Withered and dying, or maybe hibernating the brown grass of the woods lay in a wet matted heap amongst last years fall colors. Bare branches reminiscent of last fall stretch out above the patches of snow surrounded by puddles of standing water and trails of black mud, smells well up musty and brutish, the odor unpleasing to the senses like the smell of an animals carcass found drying and exposed in the sun for so many days, fly’s flitting about planting maggots in the decaying flesh of a once proud creature.
Trails inaccessible and out of reach once welcomed me with open arms to set my tracks on its well packed and traveled ways, and yet now I no longer can view the trails let alone travel upon them, a jilted lover locking the doors, locking me out of the home I know most.
Sitting alone in the confines of the cabin, ignored ski’s leaning against the wall match my stare, my empty and hollow eyes searching for reason and understanding, but there is no answer, nobody is there to understand and comfort me.
Glancing down at the floor I catch a view of the wax stains left behind from untold days of waxing ski’s that took place here, untold days of pleasure, ecstasy some would say, love I would say. Stepping out into a world of cold air and firm snow, shivering off the first chill and gliding wistfully down the narrow road to the trailhead that lead to adventure, fun, life.
Remembering the sound of my ski’s sliding along and the rhythmic kicks of my ski’s along the terrain, a dog runs back and forth between pee stains and fecal matter puddled, dripped, smeared and piled along the trail. His tail flails in the air in a twisted ballet with his tongue and ears all bouncing and dancing about him in a euphoric expression of pleasure.
Skiing along with branches hanging low beneath the weight of freshly fallen snow, the occasional snow bath cools me and refreshes my mindset. My dog bounds off into the distance with his harness bouncing about on his back completely oblivious to anything around him including myself when he suddenly becomes stiff, staring off down trail unmoving, completely motionless until it happens like a miniature freight train screaming down the trail, a large dog sled team is treading towards us. I call my dog back and begin stepping off trail and packing the snow down for a place for both my dog and myself, just as the team tears by at an amazing pace and a wave of the arm from the musher. I learned years ago that it’s easier to move a dog off trail than to force an entire team and sled to yield to my lone self, it just seems more harmonious this way. The sounds of the dog team rushing along with their tongues and tails flopping in the air as they pass me, heavy breathing and the sound of the sleds runners gliding on the snow fades into the distance.
Winter continues to fade just as that memory flows out of my mind, retreating gradually into photo albums and journals, a place that I can tuck away the memory and move on to spring.
This most loved land of wild and untamed weather has been pushed away and seemingly rushed along at an ever increasing pace as if nature was attempting to cover up for winters sudden fall and failure. Such a season, forceful and unforgiving now fades, vanishing from the landscape nudged away leaving us emotionally distraught in its wake.
Even the wilderness is in flux and attempting to come to grips with the loss of an important part of the year, everything on the surface is coming to a standstill. A relationship that formed all these months has ended leaving behind the wonderful experiences, the epic adventures, the brutality of cold infiltrating my armour and the will of my mind all gone.
As I bid farewell to my dearest seasonal friend I find it troubling to enter the cabin with so many memories laying about like a slaughter house on hiatus. Ski boots with socks draped over them sit in front of the heater left to dry a couple of days back, long worn clothing is draped over the kitchen tables chairs still after so many days long past. I glance at a skijoring harness, tow-line and the dog’s harness hanging like a corpse from the coat rack besides the door, swiftly I pass finding my way upstairs to pack away the thick jackets and vests, extra hats and insulating gloves, things that brought me warmth and comfort on those cold days on the trail and now bring warm memories gently passing by.
Time will pass and as spring has exploded with its unselfish bounty of blueberries, cranberries, and  salmon berries, keep me fat and spoiled from this generous supply of sweet treats, I’ll run down the trail on the hard packed soil to the lake a couple of miles from home. I’ll sit amongst the reeds and grass in the comfort of the warming rays of the sun, watching the occasional dragonfly float past chasing a potential mate, a mosquito flits past seemingly uncontrollably looking for that little tidbit that will satisfy its needs.
Looking above the high reeds and across a lake of shimmering water I can catch a glimpse of the trail that I would travel on during winter, from one end to the other, it’s entrance and exit is unmistakable. Suddenly I feel very lonely sitting there restricted by the elements of warmth, of summer and a very wet lake that deserves my attention in a time just past a few months back and yet a few months yet to come.
Ducks play out across the lake oblivious to my dog that swims with ease as his attention wants, in fact he just drifts about aimlessly seeking a direction to go. A gull shrieks from the shore frightened by the intrusion by this wild beast that has entered his invisible boundary that surrounds his nesting area. A beaver floats by in a stealth like manner eyeing the dog, concerned for his home that he spent so many months confined to. Eden drifts about my being in its soft glow of warmth and light, colors and smells that overwhelm the senses infiltrate my being as I am intoxicated by the summers wants.
As I enter my cabin again and again the ski’s still lean against the wall, the harnesses hang from the hooks I sheepishly sneak past my alter-self to run the road through bountiful forests of birch trees and wild flowers that inundate the roadside, oblivious to the changes that I’ve gone through with winters influence, and a change that prevents me from taking nothing for granted during this short time in the predictability of the summer sun, until my lady winter returns in a time that shortens still.
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Feb 25 2011

Falling

Trudging out into the black and white sheath of winters night, stepping, slipping, squinting through the fresh shower of snow, so cold and determined.

Futile acts of cleaning and clearing before pulling out and on to the road, a road vaguely familiar and most lost beneath the shrouded dim ghosts that haunt the measured road.

The way of it seems less clear as lights lose their luster upon reflections of deviant impermanence, this place and the trail ahead is no more a path home in as much as it is a battle of will to stay on a chosen aim.

Resistance persists against the tires, dragging the front end down for what seems like forever just to be released and floating aloft above the innocent snow, innocent snow, drifting this way and that until the tires find their purchase.

Innocent snow, such innocent snow how it slowly instills its dominance on the season, retribution for days of dry bone chilling madness. Resistance, a false sense of security, relying on the tires to push through the encroaching blankets of winters motivated arms.

Soft and tranquil, deceptive in its way, floating through the snow until the direction is altered and reality is turned on edge, pushing and shoving, the vehicle is guided by tracks beneath the snow, touches of previous white knuckled fools.

Each turn opens up to a road most foreign but one that has been traveled on for years, nothing is the same any longer, winter has seen to that. One must be conscious of what we dream of, love of a woman and the soft embrace of her full heart, snow lost early in season replaced suddenly and violently on the landscape of my world. A woman’s devotion, winters cold love all intertwined into one sense and one emotion of appreciation, devotion, affection for understanding and expectation and the unexpected.

A new turn and confusion swirls about the head while stealing a view through the veil of snow proliferating the way ahead. So lovely and gentle the snow falls and cascades in a timely fashion on the hills, fields and roads of my wondering mind. Each flake lands in a thud on my mind, on the place I thought deserved such treatment but non the less never committed any act that warranted so much intrusion by mother natures hand.

So gentle the snow falls, so gentle dreams cloud my mind and wistfully go the thoughts and wants of my desires, never saying they were mearly fanciful wants of a romantic lest these wants become the road ahead and snowfall so blinding that each flake becomes a reminder of a fools loss in love and life, so foolish to reflect on those things I wish I could change but will never alter my path. The snow will continue to fall, simple snow and a simpler understanding.

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Jan 6 2011

Remembering Where I Am

I am exhausted, my arms feel like wet noodles and my legs are wobbling as I stand still. As the sun begins to set I can feel the air begin to cool and my sweat soaked layers of clothing begin to freeze. Standing there I get colder and colder with every minute I’m idle, but I need to rest for a minute I’ve got quite a bit left to go.

The trail is darkening and the trees and woods become more mysterious, each stretched out shadow could be a sinister creature ready to devour me if I wanted to let my imagination have it’s way with me. I’m on the Fire Plug Trail about ten miles from home and somehow I managed to ski out twenty minutes faster than I ever have in the past. With the extra effort put in to the fast travel time I’ve left myself overly fatigued for the trip back, but as I stand there at the intersection of the Fire Plug Trail and a dog mushing trail I get a moment to consider my place in things. Staring down the dog mushing trail I get to let my mind wander and think about how this trail leads another twenty two miles to the edge of the Minto Flats and the great Tanana River. Just down this trail is Nenana fifty miles southwest, and the Tolovana Roadhouse once in heavy use by river goers traveling up and down the river during the gold rush. Dog mushers delivering mail would run the trail out of Nenana and run through dropping mail to villages along the way, stopping at the roadhouse to rest the dogs before the next journey to Manley Hot springs another fifty miles away. From there the musher would travel what became known as the mail route to the village of Tanana and then lead out to Nome five hundred miles away from here. This trail is now known as the Iditarod dog mushing trail and the annual race is the biggest attraction on the trail.

For me on this day, this is as far as I go, there won’t be any exploring for me as I put on my ski poles and try to shake some warmth into my arms. Heading home I can barely believe how beautiful this trail is, how it is in a constant state of change and motion without ever moving. The land changes continuously as I go from a forest of black spruce trees and then suddenly thrust into a grove of massive birch trees.

Traveling under the trees creates a little problem as a results of warm weather that passed through the area recently. The warm weather caused all the snow to melt out of the trees and the water to fall on the trail. This transition causes ice to form on the trail with the texture of a cheese grader and every time I ski under a tree there is the experience of a rough grinding sound and I’m nearly brought to an immediate stop but I continue to push through thus tiring me more each time. You learn to use a technique to reduce hitting the ice by lifting one ski or the other to avoid the ice and it helps a bit. The trail has very few straight portions and is predominantly a constant twisting, turning, rising and falling wonderland and a vigilant eye will keep you from flying off trial into deep snow and even possibly an impact with a firm tree. Equinox gallops ahead of me and keeps an eye on me, not letting me get to far back as each mile wears on me at an exhausting rate.

After a couple more miles I get to the gorge, a thirty foot deep miniature canyon created by the Goldstream creek over the years. The gorge is about a thousand feet long and usually is farely easy to transition through but occasionally overflow ice and cracks can impede travel through this feature. Dropping in and exiting out of the gorge is and can be an exhilarating experience, and being only a half mile from Saulich, a lovely end to the Fire Plug Trail adventure.

In Saulich it’s a five mile ski on the Dunbar Trail back to the cabin and had become dark enough for me to turn on my headlamp. I was so tired after skiing the last fifteen miles and including all the climbing involved with heading out on the Fire Plug trail I was definitely feeling it so I hooked Equinox up on the toe line and let Equinox help get me home.

I had not let him do any pulling so far to save his strength for just this reason, I was bushed. Equinox started out just as he usually does taking off like a bat out of hell for the next half of a mile and after a fashion faded back down to his typical stroll. With Equinox picking up the slack for me when I miss a pole plant or have a slight climb here or there I was able to conserve some strength and actually recover a bit.

I thought about the days events on the trail and the joy I feel with being so far out away from everything and a world that I can’t get enough of. The final five miles reminded me that this was where I am meant to be, the sun just falling behind the horizon, leaving an orange hue along the tops of the hills and a crisp glow in the air above my head. I fall back from time to time believing that I sacrificed so many other opportunities to live here, jobs, comfort, love. A day on the trail away from the rest of my world opens my mind and reminds me of what is important and that there is no sacrifice when it comes to some one or some place you really love.

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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 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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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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