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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Feb 9 2011

The Cache Creek Trail

I had actually began a totally different article to post this week and in fact it is almost complete, but after today and the recent last week or so I thought I’d start over and refresh the brain as well as body. 

This recent time has been very difficult on me, as my job has consumed almost every waking moment of my time so much so my days off last week were everything more than time to relax and enjoy quality time away from that world. 

So much of that world had infiltrated my peace and tranquil existence to such a degree that even the thought of co-workers, being at work, or even getting a text or phone call from work would rattle me nearly into an anxiety attack. I hadn’t been able to escape for more than an hour here or there lately, even my favorite trail was devastated by thoughtless snowmachiners. 

My thought processes were slowed and my ability to type a single word of expressiveness was a torturous education in futility. Sometimes it’s better to thoroughly wash our hands of the whole mess and start over but I am way to impatient to wait out such a demanding task. I needed to get away and get away fast but then with the economy in such a state as it is for the time being I lack the funds and time to truly escape away from the events of the day to day crud that has been suffocating my ability to breathe. I’ve settled on escaping away on the local trails, fleeting moments of unimaginable pleasure bundled up in a compressed experience. 

Sometimes no matter what we do we become trapped in a maze of tired routine, lost with no light in sight we become blind to what drives us in the first place. I had not forgotten that writing is the second most important part of my life, and the outdoors is the top of the list. Finally today I was able to breathe again, work still tried to suck me in, a voice mail to call in but I ignored it with an anxious beat of the heart and moved on to find my sight again. 

For some reason lately I have been keeping my travels on the trails shorter in distance for sake of time constraints and a busy work life. The fear of not getting enough done in two days, the house chores, paying the bills, all the little things that drive our lives like the small business all of our households are. 

I’ve thought a lot about the desert I moved away from in 2004, thoughts of seemingly barren landscapes, windswept limestone ridgelines, and root beer brown varnished walls of Aztec sandstone that seem to reach into space. I miss the simplicity of the desert, running the unimaginable trails that wind through the sandstone canyons, brushing the needles and branches of the bristle cone pines. I miss the smell of the desert, the soft sand and the deplorable heat. I miss driving an hour away and being completely isolated, alone and totally exposed for the world to see. 

What I missed most was an experience. 

For the last couple of weeks I have been going through the paces, it happens every winter. Ski this trail, ski that trail, have an amusing experience here and there, slipping and sliding along to a point where all these trails become normal and expected. 

Normalcy is my worse fear. 

As I had said work has been beating away at me with a pick axe and slowly tearing me down and I needed a moment of awareness. 

I got it. 

In 2008 I first traveled the Cache Creek Trail, awed by the idea of a long day skiing into the unknown, after all I had just began cross-country skiing. I didn’t know about the Cache Creek Loop or even the Fire Plug Trail both trail heads are most dominating during their passing. 

I ski’d as far as the creek itself but being in March the creek was melted out and access across was impossible. It was a magical time of exploration and all these trails below my cabin were still new or even completely unknown. I passed by overflow ice that stretched for hundreds of yards, witnessed leftover reminders of pioneer’s passed, subsistence existence in the way of signs notifying passerby’s of line traps that can string out for miles and injure or even kill your dog if it’s running free. 

I never returned until today, it is a long day and understanding the commitment this trail requires since one never knows just how far they are going to travel until they reach the point that is enough.

Fast snow and warm temperatures provided me with a swift ski out past the Cache Creek loop trail head, and in passing Saulich and the Fire Plug trail two miles later was but a blur. A mile later I speed past the exit point of the Cache Creek Loop and begin the long climb up to Old Saulich and the remains of the sole settler who failed to make it as a lumber man and eventually died in futility.

Now I’ve gone back in time skiing along a trail I haven’t seen in three years easily forgetting everything but three things, an old rusted 50 gallon barrel on a flat area out in the middle of nowhere, the brutal overflow ice that stretches out on the trail for a hundred yards or more, and the awkward Cache Creek itself.

Today the overflow ice was buried under an inch or two of snow and Cache Creek was but a whimper of it’s former self. Passing the creek was a bit of a graduation for me in that I had not been beyond this point before and the juices of exploration were truly flowing in my veins.

After passing through a region of Alder choked woods we came out upon a wondrous world of old growth spruce trees and a wonderful winding trail that rivals the magical Fire Plug Trail. Having crossed what I have deemed the Cache Creek Basin, a fanned out valley that drifts out of the hills below the distant Murphy Dome I finally came upon that place that I would return from. I arrive at a four way intersection at the far side of the valley known as Left Creek. The intersection seems out of place to me as I stepped from my ski’s, take off my skijor tow line and removed my pack. Finally looking around I was amazed by the beauty of the hills in the distance and the magical forest of spruce trees that encompassed me.

Late as it was I drank some water from my pack and walked around to look at the area. Fresh sled tracks on the trail tell me that I’m not too far from some sort of civilization but sometimes the unknown is best left a mystery. After a few pictures Equinox and I were off for the return and the realization that this was a day of days that has been far and few as of late and one that should be cherished, but as the time wore on the next leg of the journey was infiltrating my world, exhaustion.

After a mile I put Equinox on the line and we skijored for the time being, tiring him as little as possible I only have him pull for a couple of miles at a time as I kick and pole as much as possible to speed up our travel. 

Back at Old Saulich I let Equinox rest after having pulled for the last three miles. Ten minutes later we were off skiing the twisting, climbing, descending ride of the trail for the next mile and coming to rest at the exit trailhead of the Cache Creek Loop, six miles to go. I hook Equinox back up and we take off heading for Saulich down trail and swift is the way of it noodle arms and jellied legs in tow. 

Resting in Saulich Equinox tumbles in the snow, burrowing his belly in the snow to cool down, a native Alaskan couple pass by gently on their snow machine with a portage sled in tow, we wave and all are smiles. 

The pleasure of the day is becoming lost in the rhythmic cycle of getting home before my legs and arms completely fail, everything way too apparent to me and I hook Equinox back up and we travel on now just going through the motions. A glimpse here and there of the shy sun that shelters itself behind ever encroaching clouds from the west. 

We reach the trailhead for the Cache Creek Loop trail and rest again, well the dog beast that is Equinox rests. Each stop causes me to sweat more thus cooling me down more as I have already changed out my hat I neglected to include a second pair of gloves in my pack so now my hands are slowly going numb. Funny enough this is the norm’ and not really a reason for complaint or whining. 

After a couple more miles we hit Martin, the last stop before the last mile and a half leg on the trail before getting home. This is the regular rest area for the dog, for the next half mile I cross stream beds and over flow ice until the last mile where I have the dog hooked back up and Equinox pulled like a whimpering champ but he pulled through good enough. 

Days like today are rare and far, days mixed with familiarity, labor, the expected exhaustion and the satisfaction of completing something you can be proud of. This trail goes on for as far as the imagination lets it and as far as I am concerned my imagination is left wanting…… 

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Jan 27 2011

Lower Angel Creek Trail

It has been two years since the last time I had laid tracks on the Lower Angel Creek trail, that was an incredible introduction to this amazing place. Since that time I have hiked a small portion of the Chena Dome trail that begins at the same trailhead and rapidly rises up along the eastern skyline of the Angel Creek valley. I have spent two days backpacking the entire 32 mile Chena Dome trail all the while the Angel Creek valley was in sight and during the summer the sun can be seen reflecting off the waters of the creek itself.
I’ve ran the Upper Angel Creek Trail, a multi-use trail that had been under construction for three years and travels just above the valley floor, climbing and descending along the east side of the valley and passes along beautiful groves of birch trees, artesian wells and marvelous spruce tree forests.

The lower trail is only accessible by foot, or ski in the winter time, the rest of the year it is a bog of water, tussocks and mud. In the winter it is magical and very unique, a trail that is smooth with very little variation and can be quite fast and enjoyable.
The last time I was here with my ski’s it was later in the season so more people had accessed the trail leaving ruts and grooves along the trail and made it a very long day of trying to control the directions my ski’s tracked, all in all not the best of days. Don’t misunderstand me, I still loved being on the trail and experiencing the wilderness in this magical place. I was just frustrated by the conditions of the trail itself and the over use of it late in the season.
This time was much different and much more special since I didn’t expect that there had been very much traffic on the trail this soon in the year. I was right, the temperature was about -10 degrees F and the sun was shining without obstruction making me jumpy and excited to be off on the untracked trail.
Since the trail was untracked and there was a thin layer of fresh snow about an inch or two thick, the skiing would be a bit slower because of the cool air, the snow crystals had not been compacted or even slightly melted. The snow in the interior of Alaska has very little water content so this dry snow develops a great deal of friction when ski’s travel on top of it.
Today I didn’t care, I even began the day early expecting slow snow conditions and very happy when I was proven right. After skiing the first quarter of a mile to gain the trail proper I was pleasantly surprised to see that a snow machine had been on the trail recently and that meant the trail would be faster than I had thought.
The first mile was wonderful as I ski’s along the sun was a constant witness watching my every move, my every stop and I welcomed the sun with glances over my shoulder to catch the rays on my face. Equinox was running free and he took full advantage of it jumping into the powder, flashing down the trail only stopping now and then to smell the occasional markings.
After the first mile ironically the snow machine broke off to the left on its own trail leaving me to ski the trail untracked. Right at the same time the sun dipped behind the hills to the west never to be felt again and bringing the air temperature down easily another 10 degrees to a cozy -20 degrees F. The trail wasn’t at all bad having been broken out some time ago, I can tell by the two inches of untouched snow that nobody had traveled on the trail in atleast a month since that was the last time there was a significant snowfall.
Skiing along it all felt like I’ve been here a dozen times in the past as I ski along I look up along the ridgeline recalling traveling along the top in the summer two years ago, or the upper Angel Creek trail and regaling the amazing six mile run I had along it last summer turning back at a wonderful artesian well. There is much more snow here in the valley than in the valley my cabin resides in, and I feel somewhat jealous at the thought of it.
The trees are rich here and grow full and wonderful without any clustering or competition from other species, no alders to be seen in site and the birch trees have their favorite spots while the spruce tree grows where ever it chooses.
I’ve arrived at the gentle climb that I remembered from my previous trip, a slow ascent up through a small grove of birch trees that constrict the trail enough to make you feel as if you were traveling through a tunnel.
It’s energizing when I exit the trees an descend the other side of the climb, it’s almost as if I had wandered into some portal that delivered me to someplace different and new but at the same time similar to the previous land. All the open land dotted with spread out spruce trees is now full of a thick woods of spruce and the occasional birch tree.
Just up trail is the public use cabin located at about the four mile point. It is a lovely cabin that can hold maybe six people easily and more in an emergency. The cabin made for a nice rest stop before heading on along this pristine trail, a mile or so later I was brought to an interesting decision. The trail finally crosses Angel Creek for the first time, and the overflow ice was like a wave flowing over the trail, but very soft, I can see water welling up from the weight of my dog stepping on the ice.
I was not in the mood to step out of my skis, walk across the ice then sit down and pick ice out of my boots to clear them so I could get back into the ski’s bindings, so we called it a day there. I turned back and ski’d up to a point on a small rise to hook Equinox up on the tow line and we skijored back, making the distance back to the cabin in wonderful time. We stopped there to let him rest for a bit but the cool air was beginning to take a toll on my sweat soaked layers of clothes and their insulation qualities were diminishing rapidly, so I sent Equinox on his way pulling as he could to close the gap of distance and time and still enjoy the view.
Eventually we came back on the portion of trail with fresh snow machine tracks and thus improved our speed, and not a moment too soon as Equinox had faded to a gentle trot, so we just worked our way home to the trail head and the car.
Magical, mind bending, eye opening, everything that I could imagine a trail to be this trail lifted me up to see the world around me in a fresh light and as always this is the only of my world I want.

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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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Dec 29 2010

A Christmas Day Out

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Dec 22 2010

Skiing Into Winters Solstice

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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