Friday, January 12, 2007

I'm learning

Date: Jan. 11
Mileage: 25.1
January mileage: 283.8
Temperature upon departure: 17

Geoff and I spent the weekend at the John Muir Cabin, one of a handful of wilderness cabins that pepper the Tongass National Forest. This one is a pretty quick jaunt up ... about 3.5 miles, 1,550 feet of climbing, all of the clean, dry snow and open bags of marshmallows you could ever hope for. We cranked up the wood stove as outside temperatures dipped below 0, ate some kind of terrible reconstituted Indian lentil mush by candlelight, and watched the city lights of Juneau twinkle beneath thin strips of clouds. I slept for 11 hours last night, curled up in a -20 degree bag even though inside temps couldn't have been much below 60. I don't know what it is about wilderness cabins ... they always lull me into happy hibernation.

So I was even feeling a little reluctant to go out hiking this morning, but Geoff was excited to do some backcountry skiing, so I strapped on the snowshoes and waddled behind him as he scooted further and further away. The cabin sits on a high plateau, a thinly-forested meadow smothered in snow. Light snow was falling and the effect was flat lighting to the point of blindness. It was a sea of white.

I stayed to the right of his track and broke my own trail, cognizant of little else than those ski tracks and the slow movement forward. I could have continued that way into oblivion, but instead suddenly and unexpectedly plunged six feet into a sinkhole. My body instinctively lurched forward - I realize now that such an action could save one's life in thin-ice situations - because the tips of my toes were dangling in icy water with no bottom ground to speak of. I managed to pull myself out with an uncharacteristic surge of upper-body strength. I do not know how deep the creek was at that spot. I couldn't find the bottom by probing it with my outstretched arm and a ski pole.

I was fine and my feet weren't even all that wet, but the experience shook me up. I sat on the trail for quite a while, staring bewildered at the indiscriminate blanket of snow and thinking that any minute, at any step, there were sinkholes waiting to pull me toward icy depths. I was paralyzed by the uncertainty, unwilling to move. But after several minutes, the common-sense synapses started to fire. I became aware of myself, sitting helpless on the snow. That wasn't good for the kind of cyclist I wanted to be. It wasn't good for the person I wanted to be. So I examined the sinkhole a little closer. It was completely obvious what it was - the whole area sloped down pretty dramatically, indicating a gully where moving water would likely congregate. Geoff had purposely walked uphill of it. I just blindly plunged right into the depths. It was my fault, I realized, and I had the power to prevent it.

So instead of crawling back to the cabin in tears, I got up and continued down the trail, eyes wide open and watching for signs of the danger. Suddenly the landscape wasn't flat white. It was contoured with the subtle shapes of rolling hills and shallow depressions. I tried to picture where the water would flow, and made a conscious decision to stay high.

Environmental awareness. It's an invaluable lesson.


  1. A good hiking lesson. Glad you're okay!

  2. Earthquakes, sinkholes! Be careful up there :)

  3. Wow - this is beyond anything I have experienced - high today here was in mid 70s and low in mid 50s. Flowers that are usually beginning to bloom on trees in February are now beginning to bloom now.

  4. Your blog is awesome. Please, keep it up!

  5. Alaska does not forgive mistakes. If you're not a quick learner, you're weeded out. I think Juneau Jill is a Real Alaskan. :)


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