Jan 29 2012

Finding Myself

As time has gone by and I through time, I’ve looked inward to myself and the person I have transitioned into. Having spent these last few years engrossed in the advancement of my experiences on the trail, I have learned a great deal about the land about me, and even more about myself. More people think I’m crazy than those that understand my devotion to the world I live in. For those that can’t comprehend why I love the trails and allow myself to “suffer” as it were on those freezing winter trails, I try to show them in the pictures or videos I take.

Certain forms of contemplation confront me during the mid-winter; trails I am travelling on aren’t just winter trails to me as they have been in the past. I know what these trails look like in the summer; I know what is living beneath the snow. Now and not as before I think about the floral and fungal life still living beneath the snow that I am enjoying, the plants are hibernating and are completely healthy but I can’t help wonder what will come of this six-month sleep the life below the snow is in.

I have only been skiing half as much as I usually do this winter; the responsibilities of life have been pushed to the front of my time against my will. I am spending more time just walking the trails, mostly at night with Equinox bounding away out of the view of my headlamp. However, not being able to ski every day as I love to do hasn’t really hurt me as I thought it might. In previous winters I have ski’d every day humanly possible and even some days that most humans would shut their door to and cuddle up to a warm fire.

Only one thing bothers me when I go out to ski when it reached temperatures below -20 degrees, the snow is unbearably slow. I can handle the cold air with clothing, with gear that covers my face and anything that is exposed to the severe cold, but the colder it gets the dryer the snow becomes. When the temperature drops below -20 degrees the snow becomes very course and ski’s lose their glide and a ski trip out on the trail essentially becomes a walk on ski’s.

Now when the temperature drops to cooler temperatures I just go for a walk, skiing would be slower anyway. I feel impatient at times with this slow mode of movement through a world that I usually kick and glide. The wilderness along the trails don’t care how I travel and neither does my spirit, I am a part of the world there knowing that I have that connection changes my entire outlook on the world around me.

I was skiing the other day, videotaping a moment on the trail to share with people who want to see the world as I do, well I was standing in the middle of a lengthy bit of overflow ice, walking along talking about the area and the ice conditions when my ski boots finally slipped on the ice and I fell to the ice. There I was laying on the ice in the middle of the trail a mile and a half from anywhere with my gear flung about with reckless abandon, me laughing my butt off at myself for looking like such a fool. A thought came to mind, what a moose hiding in the bushes might think of humans as that moose watched me flounder about the ice just to roll around creating that irritating noise.

We judge quality of life, success in life by material gain in a human society. The wilderness see’s success as surviving to see tomorrow, taking advantage of every moment that presents itself and appreciating the world around me knowing that this is a special place. Successful living for me is finding a place I love and living in that place, experiencing the world in a natural way, not controlled by social pressure. However, that is something that anybody that has a bad job doesn’t need to be preached to.

It, the whole of every aspect of the wilderness experience is everything that creates a specific quality in my life. The quality of appreciation is about understanding how life works, how we no longer are allowed to exist in nature because of what we have done to it. Being allowed to appreciate the natural world to feel it in your heart and breathing it in with every beat is a gift very few are allowed. Wandering the trails unhindered is a level of acceptance that even less understands, those that do aren’t sitting here typing on a laptop.

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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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Mar 15 2011

Always Thinking About Something

Days come along to remind me why I love living here, sacrifice and give up certain things that are not available here and considered normal living in the lower 48.

Standing outside of a cabin on the shore of a frozen lake at 2:30 in the morning, it’s really not that cold out maybe around -10 degrees Fahrenheit and the sky is clear, the stars make the night seem endless. The Aurora was strung out in the distance out past the lake, colors of red and yellow in a wash of lime green hung like a short curtain dripping light on to the landscape along the horizon. I managed to look up for just a second to see a cloud of wavering lime green pulsating just above me and over the cabin, the moon seemed like a dream behind the soft breathing light.

A shotgun blast echo’s across the lake, a groan and pop of pressure being released from the ice sheet locked solid across the lake. Another crack and bang! as the ice moves and shifts on the surface of the large body of water.

Following the brief outbursts the area seems even more peaceful and quiet, the stars staring down at me in what seems like a curious glare as I stand there barely dressed for the weather in the middle of the night, or early in the morning depending on your personal frame of mind.

Just twelve hours earlier I was skiing along with my dog, skijoring, my dog and I attached to one another for the sole purpose of completing the course in as short a time as possible. It’s a fun race that involves several forms of transportation, cross-country skiing, skijoring, and dog sled, of which all are bound by the common goal of enjoying the moment.

It doesn’t matter where you place but that you love being where you are and celebrate the world we live in. It’s a party in a sense to enjoy our time in our place, and the time is wondrous. It does help that we are all adults and can find pleasure in the adult beverages of choice, good food and a bit of bar-b-que.

I realize as I do every year after such an experience that it doesn’t take adult beverages or a bunch of people to show you how or why you love the place you live in, but a shared experience does have a profound impact on you when the results of the day are evident on the faces of each of the people you shared the day with.

During the drive home I’m able to reflect on the amazing weekend I just experienced, the amazing environment filled with wondrous views and great trails. I thought about the comradery shared between all of us and the friendships that stand by the bond of an amazing want to be in this place doing what we do. I thought about the relaxation after the “race” talking about events that took place during the shared experience on the trail and laughing at each other where the laughter was due. Relaxing and drinking beer, enjoying great food with people who get it, that understand what it means to live where we live and openly talk about it as if it is expected that everybody would love what we do.

We spend the evening talking late into the night under the dim wavering propane lantern hanging from the ceiling, as shadows create ghost-like images on the faces of everybody around me, and I’m quite sure I look none the better.

The conversations wandered about from one thing to another and once here and there about actually skiing or dog mushing and that’s when I would manage to perk up a bit, though I am intrigued by other discussions some are out of time with the moment and I would think more proper with less beer involved, like politics.

Sleeping on these events, away from home, in a cabin filled with the odd sort (that being me) and a bunch of dogs running about with their claws scraping and clawing about on the wood floors adds nothing to the utter silence that I desperately cannot sleep to. I need an ambient sound like a light fan turned on to break that awesome quiet that unnerves me every night.

Mornings filled with freshly fried up moose and caribou sausage accompanied by slabs of scrapple and scrambled eggs has never felt better as I lean over a steaming dark cup of coffee. The caribou sausage was amazing and a bit spicy, perfect for the morning and faces full of laughter, like children after Christmas morning calming down from opening all their presents. We chat and talk of odd things, exploding ice on the lake, my dog barking late at night and my loud attempts to calm him. We speak of a new day and what is in tomorrow, today is already fixed and all used up as some head out to skijor on the wind-blown ice road of the lake, some to sit and relax and others such as myself to head home and settle into the hour and a half ride back to normalcy.

After a day’s rest Equinox and I are back out on our local trails all alone and finding the pleasure that we can only find here, left to savor our moment. I am left reflecting as I travel along my environment and ponder about this thing and that, it dawned to me that I’d love to share this time with others and yet there is nobody around for me to share with. I relish the solitude of the world around me and at the same time wish I could share it with a select others at the same time. I’ve got no idea where I’m headed down this trail of mine but the adventure around the corner that I haven’t seen just yet is going to be marvelous.

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Feb 24 2011

Upon More Thought

I’ve recently began to reflect on my experiences this winter, this past winter as it comes to a close for me. Yet there is still a couple of months left before anybody would begin to discuss break-up yet my winter will come to an abrupt end in just a few weeks. The why’s and how’s are not a point to be mentioned, what is of importance is the fact that I am going to be temporarily taken away from a land I love and a season that makes up a large portion of who I am.
I was breaking trail today on the Dunbar trail, in the trees there was a foot or more of fresh snow and in the exposed area’s the snow and trails were windswept and cleaned by wind with gusts of up to 40 mph. The trail itself was uneven and in a constant state of change, in the tree’s it was deep and flat so I spent my time powering through the powder at a slow melodic pace, but in the open the trail was windswept and bare accept wherever there was an obstruction and then the drifts would fill in the trail, it was beautiful.

Looking back at winter as if it was already in passing while it is still in full swing mixes my heart with a wide range of emotion. I’m not crazy, insane or losing it, but maybe a bit skeptical of the future yet I know my winter is ending at a very precise moment. I will be on the trail gliding along enjoying the smell and sound, the images that I pass by and the adventure of the day when, after a night’s rest and an evenings packing I will drive to a plane and be subsequently flown away from the land, world, and environment that has shaped me for nearly seven years without so much as a flinch. I’ve spent every waking moment either being in or thinking of Alaska’s wilderness since the fall of 2004 and for the next month to two months it is all coming to a rude end.
I’m on the verge of an anxiety attack with the thought of leaving this world and land that I love as much as I could love life. I leave with winter in full swing, heavy snow fall, brutal winds and bone numbing temperatures only to return to the precursor of spring. The shock of suddenly being thrust from a place I am so familiar and comfortable with seems a mirror image to birth only with myself possessing self-awareness and an infant possessing nothing.
Yet I exist in both worlds of an infant and an aware and experienced human being, that and in that I experience this existence for the first time and breathe the air of the knowledge of knowing. I witness so much around me and melt into the fabric of non acceptance, I pay bills and work in such a dry and unrewarding existence, but the other level is of nothing other than experiencing the land through awareness and first hand perception.
Now each day and moment is radically changing, even as I am experiencing a moment on the trail, at that precise moment of awareness I already look back on what is around me as a dream or as a fond memory, warm and close.
I’m not a true fatalist but I live very much by the moment, this can be seen in the way I write about the seasons and my life within them, no not a fatalist though I do see finality in many things and my leaving out of state for a month or two ends winter and begins spring the minute I step on the plane. With this thought I glide down on the trail with much more awareness and purpose.
As I think about what it will be like to spend so much time in Dallas I am conflicted. Why couldn’t this trip take place in September when there is really nothing going on for two months as the land carefully prepares and waits for the first snow and winters encroaching domination. I’ve never thought much about Dallas, or Texas for that matter, it was just a place with a diverse cultural population and an awesome town for music that being Austin.
I think the most terrifying feeling I’m experiencing is the separation I will have with my dog, he and I have never been apart for more than thirteen hours in the last six years. I’ll miss him as a father will miss his son, but how will he be affected by my absence and what will he go through waiting for my return.
I leave him in good hands with my friend who’ll be house sitting for me but all that time that will pass has got to have some sort of effect on him and that is what scares me. Aside for these little things such as the traumatic affect my dog will experience in my absence and the loss of the most cherished part of my year I think I’ll be all right as long as everything goes well and I get home safe and sound.
I know I might sound pathetic and whiny but I am connected to the land around me emotionally and spiritually, this is my place where I exist at my purest form and leaving it even for but a short time sucks life from my soul, air from my lungs, and strength from my limbs. Alaska will grow and step past me during my absence not waiting on me to return and continue my relationship with this land, like a jilted lover trying to forget the last relationship and move on away from the pain.
What I think most about is what it will be like to return, what differences have taken place and what I have missed. The trails are becoming empty for me, the animals stare at me now no longer accepting me as part of the natural terrain but as an anomaly and foreign. I will have a lot of making up to do to get back to the land I love and be accepted again,
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Feb 17 2011

Along The Trail

An obvious stillness encompasses my being as I stand in the middle of the trail staring down at the distinct tracks left behind by ski’s, dog sleds, and snow machines. Each track tells a story, some funny, others dry and expected such as the direct and predictable movement of snow machines. A skiers tracks seem casual, controlled, and practiced when a distinct disruption in the snow tells a humorous story of a skier falling and then tumbling to the snow, but a closer look tells a different story. The skier was on skate ski’s and was skijoring with an unknown count of pulling dogs, skiing along casually in the skate ski pattern when the skier caught an edge on something invisible and was flung to the snow on the side of the trail and then dragged along by the skiers dog’s for about thirty feet.

  

The silence around me is unnerving and I find myself stepping side to side to create some type of movement, nothing was moving and it was freaking me out even Equinox seemed transfixed in a statuesque pose, the pose labs make when they know a camera is pointed at them, legs are straight and staggered, tail hangs purposefully and he seems to stare off in the distance at an odd angle. He always makes this pose when I try to take a spontaneous picture of him, silly smart dog. 

 

So I stand there in the -26 degree air and waited silently until Equinox attention span would cause him to turn, move, shuffle, cough, something! Then he moved turning to a sound or smell that he could only hear or sense and then my picture was complete, but he would still win because there was some sort of frozen moisture on the lens of my trusty camera phone that I use when I ski and it ruined the moment for me a couple of hours later. 

As I turn in to the sun and begin skiing Equinox bolts down the trail happy that I finally began moving again so he could generate some body heat and thus sprint down the trail. Tracks abound on this trail, moose and what look like caribou or deer tracks or some other hoofed creature that I never see but they always leave these wonderful prints fresh and new every time I turn around. Arctic fox tracks are wonderful and more like dog tracks than fox so they track erratically down the trail stopping here and there to smell the scent left behind from the previous wanderers along this trail.

Crap! No really, crap is smeared all along the trail, sled dogs relieve themselves on the fly, no time to slow until the rest stop but here they were flying and the poop never lies. One dog has the runs, poor guy, another is apprehensive and his trail is a pattern of start and stop and start, they go when they go at the last possible moment and their mood can be seen in their “on the fly” release. 

 

Dodging the frozen refuse is a dance I’ve grown accustomed to it is a part of the personality of the trail I am endeared to. Rhythm falls upon me as I speed past the evidence of humans passing, then the trees take their place again. The trees always force their authority upon me blending and melting, they become one great thing, until the sun breaks through and settles matters. Some trees filter the light differently than other trees, the scene begins to change and the personality of the woods shines through again. Flattened, torn up snow greet me, evenly spaced hallows of snow line the sides of the trail, a multitude of piss holes and stains and up turned snow and reeds are all signs of a dog sled teams rest spot. 

 

Like a thing alive the personality of the trail changes, no more snow machines, no more ski tracks, no more animal tracks, just dog sled tracks work the trail, the trees seem foreign, the woods seem victimized and I feel all at once like an intruder. The gliding is good and the snow is warm so I continue on, and on with the tracks of the sled before me trusting that whoever the driver was knew where they were headed and that they also knew this trail. The trail changes with the ground beneath it, adjusting and moving above the frozen soil, the give and go is a change I don’t really enjoy since I’m not allowed to get a rhythm started and any speed created. Slipping to the left, to the right just to be pushed to and fro by the whims of the trails altering wants.

Each moment that I am allowed to witness on the snow, blanketed by the trees creates moments that I reflect on for years after having experienced the event. Something special has occurred during that time on the trail, why else spend so much time contemplating the experience? Each moment that the trail allows me to witness is an experience to treasure and revel in, and the dog that travels with me in all his knowing knows more than I with knowing everything and yet knowing nothing he doesn’t think about the snow, the trees, the cold. He only enjoys the present, the experience in front of him. He takes nothing of the moment for granted, stopping to taste, smell, pee on, poop on, and burrow into in a glee that I feel rarely and treasure even more. 

  

  

 

 

 

 

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Jan 18 2011

What?

Slipping and sliding along the line of the trail, trees pass by moving gracefully to the rear of my vision. I see the trees pass turning my head occasionally as one branch or the shape of a certain tree catches my eye and stimulates my curiosity just to be lost to my inattentive nature of the time. Nature of the snow prevents the trail to be even, pounded relentlessly by various users mostly the sleds and dogs pulling the musher along, the sleds runners seeking purchase along the lowest point sliding to and fro’ shaping the trail and producing a personality to the way of it. 

Along the way my ski’s slide seemingly uncontrolled this way and that, yet as the way it is the trail guides my ski’s to where they’re suppose to be and not where I want them. I learned early enough not to fight the trail, that cold, hard bitch wins every time. The best I can do is allow myself to be led down the trail like a child held by the hand by mother showing me the right and wrong way of things. 

I can feel my ski’s warping and bending to the contour of the trail, dipping, hitting bumps, turning a corner, bouncing over the frozen defecation of passing sled dogs. All of a sudden I’ve entered a straight flat section of trail, neither climbing nor descending, pure and level. I start gliding longer, I begin kicking harder pushing off with my ski’s, I thrust my poles into the trail violently stabbing the snow with all I can and I am flying along the trail. Everything has gone from recognizable scenery to a tunnel of white and green, the steady forward motion and pleasure outweighs the slowly encroaching fatigue that is just waiting for my mind to consider. 

As swiftly as the high-speed run down the trail began so did the rapid end fall upon me as I change course and turn to follow a new trail with tracks left days ago after a snow. Moose are always present here, a moose cow that inhabits the area has a thing for stomping trespassers that wander into her world so I tread carefully through the next mile of thick Alders and low black spruce. 

The shadow of the hills darkens the valley floor for most of the day until the low laying sun makes its gradual appearance on the horizon and graces the surrounding land with a soft pink orange glow that sends the tops of the hills on fire in a yellow and red blaze. Cooling air from the coming night begins hardening the snow on the trail turning the ice crystals into a friction that feels like sandpaper and slows down the travel. Fresh urine markings dot the side of the trail from animal tracks that lead back into the woods, my dog turns off to follow the donor. Left alone for the time, silence again sweeps the narrow trail clean of all disturbance and falling back into a cadence I drift off in a rhythmic cycle of skiing and breathing, I’ve become more of an addition to the wilderness around me than merely another visitor, I’m more comfortable here now than I ever thought I could. 

Considering my world and the diverse land laid out for me to live out my days I’m never left to wonder what it would be like to be anywhere else…….. 

wait, what was the question? 

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Jan 12 2011

Not All Days Are Equal

Every day on the trail is never quite the same as a previous days experience. Not all days on the trail are filled with magic and youthful romantic thoughts of natural beauty and worldly splendor. Some days are terrible, days meant to be forgotten and gotten over with as soon as possible. It isn’t often that these days or misery come about, but about they do come. 

I remember a day some time back where I was about twelve miles from home and out in the middle of nowhere, I had just broken a pole and was slowed considerably by the absence of that pole. I thought about what it would be like if I had fallen and suffered some catastrophic injury that rendered me helpless on the trail. There I am laying in the snow, maybe slowly dying while my dog who is oblivious to the gravity of the situation bounces off to frolic and roll in the snow.

Not all days are that dreadful, but they are exhausting and I can include today’s ski out past the Fire Plug trail. I started a couple of miles closer by beginning at a road intersection that saved me about twenty minutes one way and though I really enjoy skiing the section I just excluded, I was more interested in what was further out beyond the Fire Plug trail. By the time I had gotten to the intersection at the end of the Fire Plug trail I was forty minutes ahead of my average time at this point. The snow was fast and my cross-country ski’s were squirrelly, slipping left and right and I would have loved to have had edges more than anything. The day wasn’t especially unique or wonderful just an average day actually and the weather was a bit warm being around 4 degrees F above zero.

Today was nothing like the other day while I was skiing on the Cache Creek Loop, now that was amazing, gliding on an amazing trail and sharing the trail with a couple of very considerate dog mushers. That day was special and skijoring back in the indigo light was like traveling into a Salvador Dali painting, mind bending.

Today was a day of work only to include eight or so miles of fanciful exploration that was a true pleasure and the trail was a wonderful continuation of the Fire Plug Trail that made me feel as if I was never there before. But, I was there before, two years ago dragging a forty pound sled behind me and another forty five pounds on my back. The snow was deep with about a foot of fresh snow the going was slow and tedious, I ski’d until I ran into an unbroken trail just past where I had come to rest there today. The snow machine that had broken the trail for me that day had mysteriously changed course across the valley heading towards Standard creek. I was left with over a foot of unbroken snow and I was bushed. I carried on for several more miles before calling it a day and set up my tent to camp on the trail since the weather was a lovely -8 degrees F for a mid March day. That night the temperature fell to around -35 degrees F and I didn’t get any sleep, I had started my cook stove outside and then brought it inside the tent to keep from freezing to death. Fortunately I didn’t burn the tent down that night and at first light I turned tail and returned home some twenty five miles away.

The snow today felt greasy in comparison to that day, slippery and fast and covering the miles were quicker than I have ever thought I was capable of. I was beginning to fade quickly in the shadows of the remaining hills to the south of me and the trail was beginning to ice up as the air was cooling in the late afternoon. I can catch glimpses now and then of Murphy Dome behind me in the distance, the hills that the 14 mile trail follows continue to stalk me across the valley from a safe distance. I can actually see the beginning edge of the Minto Flats still miles away, and those miles are twisting, climbing and wandering making the miles stretch out into forever.

Standing in the middle of the trail on my ski’s only a mile or so from my old camp site with the casual weather amuses me with memories of the last time I was here, I turned around and put Equinox on the tow line and put him to work. Equinox pulled like a king for the next three miles, the first mile is tough with fast descents and grueling ascents constantly turning and twisting, never a flat spot on the trail so I’m being push on the left side or right side of the trail where ever the trail was at a low spot my ski’s follow and for Equinox it’s always a disturbing feeling for him to have what he’s pulling shifting the angle of his pull so erratically.

Equinox finally fell to a trot after about a mile and a half and by the time we were back at the Fire Plug Trail we had saved another five minutes and I took him off line for a well deserved break. I ski’d the Fire plug trail back letting Equinox run free and thus allowing him to recover before I threw him back on line at Saulich for the final leg of the trip. This is the way of it on the long trips, I’ll rest him as much as possible and use him to pull on the flat, straight sections to increase a sustained rate of speed, or we’ll alternate every five miles or so.

I ski’d the four miles of the Fire Plug Trail in twenty five minutes and by the time I hit Saulich I was shot, exhausted more so than I’ve experienced in a long time telling me that I was very close to passing the twenty mile mark for the day and there was about four miles left to go. 

I hooked Equinox back up, switched out my frozen hat and gloves with fresh dry ones and led off for the final leg of the day. Equinox went straight into his trot and didn’t change pace all the way back, I could tell he was tired. I kept catching frozen ruts in the snow, my own ski tracks ironically and my ski’s were trying to roll on to their sides whenever I hit the ruts causing me to start falling one way or another. I would jam the snow with my pole preventing me from falling and also tiring me further, just another long day filled with the normal tumblings. 

During one of my pole stabbing saves I managed to break one of my pole straps and making my life a little bit more complicated. I had to keep my hand gripped tightly on the grip of my pole with a thumb pressing on the top of the pole for every push. The last half mile was awful, skiing uphill with a damaged pole, a dog not able to pull any longer and ducking Alder branches bent nearly to the ground by the weight of snow on the branches. Tunnels of branches cause me to squat to my knees while sliding from one side of the trail to the other, usually the side where all the bent branches are, me rising up just long enough to squat right back down and knock branches out of the way, I was exhausted.

When we finally got to the car and pulled our harnesses off, dropped my day pack and recovered a bit I was able to breathe and think of the day and the warm cabin waiting for me down the road. No not everyday is a magical trip to wonderland but the land is still extraordinary and the events of each day are still an education, an experience to be remembered and treasured.

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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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Nov 10 2010

A Man, A Dog

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

 

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

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

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

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

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