A Cautionary Tale
Today, with several papers turned in and the next set of deadlines a few days away, I watched the thermometer rise from -28 (9am) to -16 (12pm) to -9 (2pm) to -2 as Peter left for work at three. Ecstatic, I packed up my new cross country skis (!!) and and a very sceptical Ridgeback and drove out the the trail head on Ballaine, a couple of minutes away. At the pull-out Nyssa jumped out of the car, turned and tried to jump back in. Two below is still too cold for her. She glared at me (as only this Ridgeback can) while I booted her up and wrestled her into doggie long-johns and a coat. She stood rigid, ears flat against her head, occasionally breaking her lock-kneed stance to paw desperately at the car door.
Ignoring her, I headed down the main trail east into Goldstream Valley. As soon as she realized that 1) my strange foot contraptions meant we moved much faster and 2) we were exploring new territory, she forgot her ridiculous forced-to-walk-in-the-cold behavior and ran ahead, tail wagging, sticking her nose into every yellow spot in the snow and bounding through drifts like a puppy. The sun was out, Nyssa was behaving like a real dog for once, I was outside in the snowy, silent woods, quickly leaving the road behind. I warmed up fast, and soon stopped to take off my gloves and stuff my hat into a pocket.
After a while on the main trail, we came to a fork. I took the left turn and began skiing through a tunnel of bare alder over what in summer is a large, murky swampland at the bottom of the valley. We crossed a couple of frozen potholes where my ski poles made hollow clicks on the ice under the snow. Dropping down a small hill, we left the alders behind and followed the trail onto a pond a little larger than a soccer field. The trail continued north, skirting the edge, but some snow machine tracks turned left around a stand of bushes and headed across the pond. I thought this was a strong indicator of a loop back to the original trail, so I headed off across the thick winter ice.
Halfway to the other side, I realized a couple of things. First, the wind was very, very strong out in the open. Second, the snow machine tracks were older than I'd thought and the path they made across the pond was covered in a new, icy layer of uneven blown snow, making the skiing exhausting and giving my progress a disconcerting wobble. Third, Nyssa was very uncomfortable with this change in direction and sat down in the snow halfway across the pond, refusing to follow me further. Near far side, I stopped and spent some time coaxing her to catch up. When she finally consented, I saw that one of her booties was ripped and her mouth was rimmed in ice. She found the wind cold, too. Then I saw that the snowmobile tracks made a U-turn, and headed back the way we'd come. There was no trail back towards the road. I looked around at our predicament. The trudge across an icy, pocketed trail had tired me out. I sighed, and my glasses immediately fogged up, then froze. All I could see was a hazy glare in the direction of the sun. I started to take them off, and promptly toppled over. My bare hands slid in elbow deep, filling my sleeves with ice. I was suddenly very, very cold.
Let me pause here to say that I am acutely aware of the many dangers Alaska presents to those who wander off her roads. Rapidly changing weather, moose and bear, swarms of giant mosquitoes, stinging plants, icy fast-flowing rivers, powerful tides and rip currents and bone numbing temperatures are all par for the course. My induction as a wilderness guide here was padded with caution. Grocery stores and tourist kitsch shops are full of survival tale and bear attack books, and if you are around an old-timer for more than ten minutes the first-and-second hand accounts of close calls in remote regions begin in earnest. On top of this, I am a certified Wilderness First Responder, and that paranoia-inducing training has made me cognisant of everything that can go wrong in the back country, and how quickly a simple mistake can turn deadly even just a few miles from help, especially in the cold. I have never had an incident go sour either as a guide or on my own, but still take obsessive care when leaving the road, even for short hike of a few hours. (Do we have firestarter? Extra layers? An Epi-Pen? Moleskin? A knife?) This annoys my hiking companions at times, but I bear it knowing some day I will be able to intone 'told you so' while hooking up a traction splint for someones shattered femur with my shoelaces and an old shirt. Then again, I hope not.
But back to my frozen pond. As I struggled to get my numb fingers back into gloves, find my hat and get my glasses cleared of ice, I thought about how isolated this trail was, even just a mile or so from the road and only three crow miles from a major city. Chances of another person coming along, much less today, much less able to see me so far off the trail, were minuscule. I didn't have a single extra layer, firestarter or knife on me. After all, I had only been heading down the street.
Glasses cleared of ice, I looked down to find Nyssa hunkered out of the wind between my skis. I thought of Jack London. Taking a deep breath, I scooted off towards the sheltered alder trail against an icy wind, dog padding in my wake. As my face became numb and my glasses fogged up again, I was suddenly glad for this little reality check on a calm and sunny afternoon a few miles from my front door.
We revel in living so close to such wilderness - and the wilderness, in all its icy indifference, is waiting for us to forget the implications of its proximity, even just for a moment. I love the sun on snowy trees, the tunnel of trail through woods, the wild dark nights full of Aurora and stars, the maze of possible paths winding out across the endless expanse of Alaska's interior. But today's little detour across a pond was a reminder of what enjoying these things demands of us in return.