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.

Did you like this? Share it:

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? 

Did you like this? Share it:

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.

Did you like this? Share it:

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.

Did you like this? Share it:

Dec 15 2010

Frame Of Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you like this? Share it:

Dec 8 2010

It’s All About The Cold

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you like this? Share it:

Nov 26 2010

The Meaning Of Winter

I have never been able to understand why winter has such a hold on me, it pulls from my mind such romanticism and clarity that I have not felt during any other time of the year. I’m not sure I am meant to understand my infatuation with winter and how I yearn to feel it’s cold loving grasp. Winter is unforgiving for the unprepared, for the innocent and for the ignorant. I relish it’s frigid grip on the landscape and how the landscape and nature adapts to survive in the long dark months of ice, wind, and snow. For one reason or another I don’t feel a need to just survive in this climate, in fact I embrace it. I recognize the brutality of the severe cold that takes hold of this country and I respect it. I feel as if a great blanket of love and familiarity is cloaked about me as I travel on the winter trails, living in the moment and cherishing what winter brings with it.

There is a sense of serenity out alone on a trail during winter, it is incredibly quiet, no animals stir, there is little or no human activity to speak of outside of the trails nearest to town. The trees are still except for the occasional wind that blows now and then, but for the most part this land remains still, it creates the most amazing snow formations on the tree branches. I sometimes feel as if I am traveling through a massive museum giving homage to nature, everything so quiet and still, perfectly frozen for my benefit and pleasure. Sometimes I feel that it is me that is on display, the one that the land is watching and observing insuring that I don’t trespass on some private level of existence.

I accept everything that winter throws at me, the cold, the wind, snow, ice and lack of forgiveness. Treasuring the world around me and not taking it for granted, that would be criminal and unforgivable, that’s not what this place is about, more than anything it provides a window into ourselves to figure out who we are and what we are about. I see myself differently during winter so much more than summer.

Summer offers an opportunity to expand on often tread trails, to see wildlife flourish for the brief moment that the sun shows its shy face. Summer is about celebrating the sunlight, flowers, growing and flourishing wildlife. Everything that the summer is can only be respected as the time that everybody rejoices in the warmth. The winter brings everything close and more personal, each experience is new and special but at the same time old, remembered. The trail becomes smaller and more personal. Winter changes the world every day, every turn, every moment and each time I travel down the trail the day becomes a new emotion.

The further I travel on a trail in a direction away from where I’ve come and away from everybody else, the awareness of total solitude becomes the only feeling that floats into my being. The mid-day summer is spectacular when it’s light fans out across the valley and floods your spirit with warmth and energy but these moments are fleeting and special. Most days on the trail during winter is gray and cold, no dazzling light, no heart melting glow of temporary light from the sun, more flat light and dark shadows. What makes winter special isn’t the sun light even though it is wonderfully special for the romantic that can appreciate it, what makes winter special is singular to the individual and rarely duplicated.

 

Understanding how winter affects a person is very complicated for such a simple season, point of perspective. If I lived in town or in the city, winter could be seen as an annoyance, a barrier for shopping, or work, or hobbies carried out during the summer. Living in the woods as I do I can’t comprehend how people who live in town feel about winter, I can only view winter through my eyes and attempt to understand it’s effects on me through my own experience. If I was a rational man (which I am not) I would spend the winter in an apartment in town and experience the season closed off from the winter that I am familiar with, but that wouldn’t prove anything except that I go out of the way to know what I already know and that is that I would hate to live in town and I would be miserable. Winter would become my escape, a tool to get away from the civilization that I’ve surrounded myself with, winter would become my tool.

I may not understand what it means to experience and appreciate winter any more than I can explain why summer affects others more differently from one to another or what it means to them. Winter in Alaska lasts longer than summer so logically we should appreciate summer more for its uniqueness and short-lived existence, which adds more questions than answers. I do appreciate summer, from break-up in spring usually in May through the few months of summer and in to fall around September. I do take full advantage of the long days running, hiking and exploring.

Winter is different with its short-lived days frigid nights and somewhat acceptable cool days. Most often the days are tolerable with the temperature hovering around -10 degrees Fahrenheit and dressed correctly can be quite comfortable, but there are stretches of time where stepping outside just for moments could be hazardous to your health but these days have faded into the past more often than not due to the climate change. Winter is becoming much more tolerable with each year, taking away much of the character that identifies winter with Alaska and it is our loss.

 

Putting climate change aside and just living with what we have has helped me to understand that even though we’ve truly messed this world up over the last two hundred years unknown to us until the 1980’s, winter means more to me in that it helps me understand myself. I accept winter for what it is, a season that changes constantly in a world I have no control over, I accept the fact that I have no control over the environment around me. I can only control the actions I take during my experiences on the winter trails, I am only aware of the choices that I make out in nature, and out on the trail.

The first time that I decided to go out for a night ski I was so excited to feel something completely different and I did. It was a moonless cloud filled night and I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face. All I could see was what was directly in front of me within the beam of my headlamp. The only sensation I could relate to this experience was taking part in a night dive scuba diving in the ocean, it was so claustrophobic, so closed in. I could have shut myself into an out house in the woods and it would have felt the same, it terrified me the thought that at any time some creature of the night could come along and devour me at a moments notice and I’d never be the wiser for it.

 

The next day I went out on the same trail during the day time and a weird thing happened, I recognized things that I could barely see the night before. It was the strangest thing skiing along and coming around a corner and hitting a thick grove of spruce trees and thinking to myself “oh so that’s what that was”. The land was still familiar to me and this puzzled me a great deal and I ski’d more freely than ever before.

The next time I went out on a night ski it was a cloudless, chilly, moonlit night. The moon was full and every shadow stared back at me, it was wonderful and I had never felt so alive in my life skiing along with the world gliding past and not a care in the world. I ski’d in several miles away from all forms of human existence and stopped, I turned off the headlamp and just looked and breathed. It was an awakening for me, the cold air settling into my lungs, the exhaled clouds of warm air escaping my body. There wasn’t a single sound, not a single movement, looking into the sky overwhelmed me and left me feeling very small. The moon filled the horizon as it skimmed the mountain tops in the distance, the stars filled more of the sky than the darkness between them.

I ski’d for hours unaware of anything else around me but the sky above me, this left me in deep contemplation the next day and for days following for the weather had changed and a cold snap had entered the interior preventing me from going out and skiing. What it was that left me in such self consideration was that during my night ski all that I could think about was the sky, how it consumed me and enveloped everything that I thought I was. During the day I barely look at the sky, except for the birch trees as they reach casually into the air in defiance of the short scrawny black spruce trees that shy away from the lofty heights.

The daytime is a time for constant reflection of the landscape around me and what it means to me or how it affects me on a personal level. My love for the wilderness is a drive that definitely forms my life and helps me learn more about who I am. Coming to grips with the emotions that skiing at night creates inside of me is something that is the complete opposite of skiing during the daytime. Nature is secondary oddly enough, the trail immediately in front of me, the sky above me is all I can see so that is all that matters and this is where everything goes upside down. I am trying to understand how skiing during the daytime and skiing at night provoke separate experiences on the same trail, on the same snow and in the same trees.

 

I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t that I was bored with daytime skiing, or skiing on the same trails, nothing of the sort. What it was that I was experiencing was just another aspect of the world I chose to be a part of. I spent so much time living in the light and grays of daylight that I never considered the whole picture, the rest of what nature has to provide. I was only a part of a short moment in time with the wilderness around me and the night-time was alien to me until I accepted it as just another part of the cycle of existence that grows and changes around me.I can’t express rationally what it means to me to experience winter here, the emotions and physical experiences are far too complex, but living in and existing with the world around me is inspiring to me, it comforts me, it scares me, it educates me. I learn more about who I am out there during this time of year, I appreciate more of what I am capable of and how far I can push myself. Winter allows me to be myself, a person that relishes the exposure to certain hardships and pleasures that are to be endured and enjoyed on the trail during the season that most promotes change in itself and for those that accept change for themselves.  

 

Did you like this? Share it:

Nov 26 2010

Not The Same Thing

It was just yesterday that I was skiing back in to finish breaking out the Nugget Creek Trail loop and experiencing the ecstasy of finally getting far out away from the day-to-day rhythm I had fallen into. It was just yesterday that Equinox and I walked down to the trail and began the three-quarter of a mile ski on the Dunbar Trail to get to the trailhead of the Nugget Creek Trail.

After traversing the first section of trail we ascended the mile long climb to the old mining camp turned hunters cabin known as “Club Chuck”. What took forty minutes to break out the day before took half the time to travel the same miles and a half. The next step was the loop, a fantastic cross-country trail that is just wonderful to experience with the beginning being an arduous climb that leaves you gasping for air as you round the top and begin the flat to gentle down hill portion of the loop.

Fallen trees here and there forcing me to deviate my chosen course around the trunks and continue on an every changing scene. The basic trail remains the same but the line I take is totally different from last year due to the changing of the topography and fallen tree debris buried just below the foot of fresh snow. After breaking trail for the afternoon I was able to casually glide along the Dunbar Trail back to the trail head completely exhausted and get home in time to get ready for work.

That was yesterday, and today has changed the entire landscape of my home to a place I can barely recognize. The temperature had risen well above freezing and it began raining. Starting in the morning and continuing into the day, the rain and warm temperatures managed to melt the snow to practically nothing. This rain froze the roads creating about a two inch thick layer of unbroken ice on the roadways. On top of the ice is a standing layer of water and quite possibly the most dangerous road conditions I’ve ever experienced. I actually attempted to drive my car to the store but after sliding down the quarter-mile hill to the mail box pullout with no traction at all, I turned the car around and gently worked the car back to the cabin and resigned myself to being confined to the area for the next couple of days.

I have heard only a handful of cars drive by, mostly large utility vehicles from the electric company trying to upend fallen trees around power lines and little to my knowledge I would soon fall prey to the falling trees and lose power for the night until morning, and temperatures in the house reaching into the low thirties.

The snow is melting away before my eyes, dirt and mud exposes itself in the translucent layer of snow that still remains in front of my door. With every drop of rain that violently crashes into my fading world I watch the snow slowly melt into the ground, I feel an insecurity growing inside of me leaving me on edge. The rain causes the snow to slide off of the roof creating an enormous thud as it slams with reckless abandon into the ground. In a fit I lace up my boots and throw on a jacket, I need to get out of the cabin and burn off some cabin fever. Gently walking down the sie of the road I run into several other people who live in the area doing exactly the same thing. We talked about how long we’d be stuck at home and where the worst part of the roads are. We laughed at our situation and tried to find the lighthearted side of if rather than complain about the inconvenience. We discussed what the rain and warmer weather is doing to the trails and how the dogs that are used to be running their brains out skijoring or mushing are handling the sedentary aspect of the situation.

After spending a bit of time I was very curious to see for myself what has become of the trails, so I walked down to the trail and into the trees. What I saw left me feeling empty inside with what was before me, the lovely trail was gone. Gone was the carefully groomed mushing trail I’ve been skiing on for the last month, replaced with slush and standing water. We carefully stepped down to the Dunbar to inspect the ice on the ponds and the rest of the trail. More of the same faced me there, with a thin layer of snow that is slowly giving way to bare ice and standing water.

Turning around I head back to the cabin feeling like I’ve been a witness to some tragic event that has just taken place  My dog is indifferent, bouncing through the slush and puddles blissfully unaware of what these conditions mean for us. Back at the cabin I make use of the extra time to be home by baking some bread and picking up here and there. I still love this moment and everything that’s taking place, this is an experience that offers a new perception of this world I live in, even with the loss of my precious trails. It’s not the end of the world, the snow will survive to prosper another day and in just a short time the weather will return to me a wonderful frozen world of familiarity and I will be back on the trails of my reality in no time.

 

Did you like this? Share it:

Nov 17 2010

The Addict

It’s always been like this for as far back as I can remember, no matter the drug I have always been a slave to my own compulsive behavior. It has never been the drug that decided my fanaticism, be it backpacking, hiking, climbing, running. I am always faced with the same results of being completely consumed by my need and this time is no different. I sit in the dim light on the couch as it snows outside, my eyes are closed and I can see every flake of snow like a heartbeat gently falling to the ground, landing on snow that preceded the next. I can hear the flakes as they cascade to the ground crashing into the branches and needles of the pine trees that surround my world. My obsession grows every day, the need to be out there and feeling every motion and movement, the experience.

Impatience and irritation nag at me as I try to get ready, too much time is being wasted I should be out there already. The ski’s are leaning against the wall, both pairs of them eagerly waiting on my decision to which pair I will choose to take out today. Freshly waxed and shiny clean they stare at me through the residual smoke left behind by the iron I used to melt the wax on to the base of the ski’s. I spend many hours a week waxing and working on my ski’s ensuring they will be at their best when we get out on the trail. I save my change, skip meals, don’t buy new clothes just so I can afford to buy fresh wax and have extra cash on hand in case I need to replace a broken pole or damaged ski.

The snow is still falling but it’s too soon to go out to ski just yet. There’s more snow to come and going out now will increase the chance of damaging my ski’s on rocks or tree roots buried just beneath the fresh snow that has yet to pack down. The itch is getting worse, the desire is deafening, I can’t sleep or eat. The snow keeps falling.

I imagine slipping down the hill on the narrow road that leads from my cabin down to the valley floor. Step over the railroad tracks and coast down to the Dunbar Trail, the source of my addiction, the first trail I ever skied. The Dunbar leads away into all the days of tomorrow, the imagination cannot register what it means to travel beyond what has already been traveled on. My breathing is increasing and respiration is rising, thoughts of new tracks on a fresh layer of snow makes me feel at edge, twitching, craving, yearning, hunger. Madness seeps into my veins as I sit idle staring out the windows as the temperature drops to -18F and the sun sets. That is happening far to often these days, the sun is long set before 4:oo and I haven’t even started planning the next high.

Rambling thoughts flow through my mind as I wait out the deep cold and falling snow. Pacing in circles, boots sit in front of the floor heater, ski’s are in the corner, clothes draped lazily over the dining room table chairs. The dog watches me uneasily as I mumble to myself, staring at the couple of inches of ice formed on the bottom of the window frames. Snow covers the ground in ever increasing blankets of softness, featureless and formless, perfect. This is an all consuming addiction, all encompassing and all that matters. All that is and all that should be hoped of is only a few feet outside my door and what matters is that I want what is out there, to feed my cravings and save me from the driving inside of me.

A days waiting and the falling snow fades back into the clouds as the sun slowly bleeds through the thinning gray mat of the sky. The afternoons light is a glorious glow of amber as the sun bounces its light from the ground back into the ice crystals floating in the air. My ski’s so readily fall into my arms, the poles trail behind. Soft steps leaving deep impressions in the powder create a gentle crunching sound as I set the ski’s down, step in and lock my boots into the bindings, strap my poles to my hands. I step up to the edge of the driveway, turn right and casually begin the glide down my narrow road back to the trail, all I smell is clean.

Did you like this? Share it:

Nov 3 2010

Just Another Day

A couple of days ago I went for a ski on the Balaine dog mushing trails. It was more of an exploratory ski than it was as a trip of pleasure, but then it is always a pleasure. I had hiked the first half mile several days before and had found tree roots and some bumps along the trail but the optimist inside me thought that this must be the worst of it.

 The first half mile of skiing was a slow motion obstacle course sliding left and right attempting to avoid the natural obstructions. The next mile was a very grassy, pothole filled adventure that was more walking on my ski’s than gliding along. There was one point where I manage to get in a short period of kick and glide. There is a pond or small lake where the trail drops down and follows along the top of the pond and it’s smooth as glass with about two inches of snow on top of the ice. It was fast and wonderful, such an evil tease for as soon as I began to really get into it and develop a powerful rhythm it ended abruptly on a field of ice filled tussocks. I was so stubborn in my quest to break further in on the barely visible trail that I managed to work my way along about a quarter of a mile of this grass and ice before I finally surrendered.
Back on the quarter mile long pond I started laughing at myself and my futile attempt to ski this trail of dirt, grass, and wood. It could have been a terrible experience and I could have been irritated for not having the day of skiing I had hoped for, but I just love being out on the trail and having nature mocking me for being out on a trail that was obviously not in shape yet. I skipped and kicked my way back to the car exhausted from all the extra work I was forced to endure, I felt as if I had skied ten miles instead of three.

I’ll admit that I am extremely spoiled when it comes down to cross-country skiing, the bounty of trails in the region where I live are amazing. I could ski a different trail over a two week period without skiing the same trail twice, and if I want to get really exotic I could take a one hour drive in multiple directions that will land me on trails that lead deep into Alaska’s interior. When I travel in the wilderness it isn’t as if I’m moving through the environment as much as the environment moves around me.

Today I was skiing on the Parks Ridge Run again and I was comparing my emotions and quality of experience of today’s to that which I had experienced the other day on the dry Balaine trails. I came to realize that I felt just as wonderful either gliding fast and clean on the pristine Parks Ridge as I did grinding it ou on the dirty Balaine trails, it only matters that I am there. When I write about my experiences and photograph the landscape I spend my days in I feel the same sense of joy and exhilaration.

I bring this up because if I compare this experience to my work environment it no longer holds true, I can’t say that I am happy during the great days at work as well as the bad days.
It is this defining understanding that keeps me pondering my future and declaring that the job I have to pay the bills is definitely not the path I’ll be following for very long. I know not everybody loves their jobs and that we still work because we really might not have a choice. We are all meant to live our lives to the fullest as best we can, some external influences may alter the path we should be on but if we choose to and in time we will still find our way if we just put in the effort. Every day while I’m at work I spend short moments or lulls when there is nothing going on to fantasize and contemplate wild idea’s of ways to escape my mundane job and move on to my true path.

I always watch how my dog interacts with nature on the trail. He doesn’t abuse it, rip it apart or try to eat it. he runs into it with reckless abandon, tongue flailing in the air as he bounds into the trees and bushes exploring every nook and cranny. He becomes a part of his environment and revels in the moment, he doesn’t let anything go unnoticed and is out of sight the majority of the time if we are travelling on a trail that we have been on multiple times. I see a lot of me in him in an odd way, he is restless and bored when we are home. While I plan the next trip he sighs and moans his contempt for the lack of activity.

I actually become more of who I am the worse the conditions are, if it’s nice and calm, no clouds, warm and blah, sure I enjoy it but the challenge is dulled and I just find myself going through the motions. If it’s mind numbing cold, snow is dumping with crud for visibility and we have to focus on every move to keep ourselves safe, that is the essence of existence and the moment I discover myself, plus the hard trips create the best stories to share with those who choose to listen.

Did you like this? Share it:

Translation form - Translate your comment!