Saturday, January 05, 2008

Living outside

Date: Jan. 4
Mileage: 54.2
January mileage: 129.9
Temperature upon departure: 24
Precipitation: 0"

I was burrowed deep in my billowing down cocoon when I awoke, again, in a fit of gasping. I groped among piles of discarded clothing layers for my soggy snot rag and blew my nose until the pressure in my sinuses diffused to a low boil. I shook my head violently, hoping in vain the gunk could somehow exit through my ears. Frost flakes rained from the top of the bivy and stung my cheeks. I knew this head cold had been idling for two days, but it had to pick tonight to steamroll through. I gasped some more and tore open the bivy, gulping for oxygen in the cold air.

Above me, Mars still burned orange among a splattering of stars, but a hazy white gauze had stretched over the sky. "Oh man, it's clouding up," I thought. It was the third time that night I had woken up unable to breathe. I decided it was probably worth it to leave my toasty burrow on a faint hope that Dayquil pills had made it into my rapidly expanding portable pharmacy.

As I slithered out of the sleeping bag, I noticed the white lines across the sky were flexing and retreating with considerable velocity. "Strange thing for clouds to do," I thought. But as I stood up and looked around, I saw waves of bright green light flowing over the snowcapped peaks to the north. The white clouds weren't clouds at all, but south-reaching streaks of the Northern Lights. Having momentarily forgotten about the explosion building in my head, I stood in my sock feet and booties in the snow and watched the white flares streak across the sky. Even the frigid wind needling my naked fingers couldn't tear me away from my slack-jawed stance beneath those horizon-caressing fingers of light.

I had set out with my loaded bicycle at 2:30 p.m. Friday, just before sunset, knowing that I would probably not set foot indoors again for nearly 24 hours. The street shoulders were coated in a terrifying layer of glare ice, and I kept the tire pressure low just to regain some sense of control. My momentum slowed to a crawl, but I didn't care. It's strange how speed stops mattering once time has no meaning.

A few near wipeouts had me grateful to hit snow, even crusty snow, and I spent as much time on trails as I could before heading out the road to meet Geoff at our predesignated camping destination. The trail to Herbert Glacier was rideable in a bad way ... a deep ski track barely wider than my tires that had been punched out by footprints. I took a few arm-smashing falls before I decided those four miles to camp would be a good time to test the walking comfort of my boots. I slogged through knee-deep snow as my bike rolled happily on the trail alongside.

I still beat Geoff to camp and set to gathering wood for the great fire I was planning to build, knowing that all the exposed dead wood had soaked up several days of rain before refreezing. I then exhausted all the newspaper I brought for firebuilding purposes, plus all the notepaper I had planned to write on, plus the French and German sections of the directions to my stove, and never even coaxed a tiny twig to catch fire. Geoff arrived shortly after I had given up and exhausted his own paper supply in the effort. In the end, we resorted to pouring liquid fuel all over a bunch of spruce bows. Even that didn't work, but I did enjoy a split second of warmth when I lit the fuel-soaked needles and jumped away from the resulting fireball.

We finally gave up on the whole campfire idea and fired up the stove to melt snow for water and hot chocolate. I have yet to receive my new Camelback in the mail, and my old leaky one had long since frozen. I didn't realize how thirsty I had become until I gulped down the still-slushy water from my cooking pot like a famished refugee. A chill was starting to set in as Geoff and I stood by our non-flammable stack of twigs swigging hot chocolate. His thermometer read 10 degrees.

By the time we went to bed, I had been mostly idle at camp for more than three hours. I was pleased by how warm I stayed, given that I was dressed to ride a bicycle in temperatures that started out in the mid-2os. It wasn't until I laid down that I realized how much my cold had progressed. I whittled away most of the restless night consoling myself by chanting "At least I'm still warm. At least I'm still warm." But seeing the Northern Lights was a nice treat.

I spent 45 minutes this morning cuddling with my Camelbak bladder until I finally was able to coax some of the water through the ice-glazed hose. Even then, it froze on me again less than five minutes after I crawled out of bed, so I resorted to pouring its slushy contents into my cooking pot so I'd have something to drink. I had planned to ride all the way home, but my throat was on fire and I was feeling more than a little thrashed. Geoff and I stumbled back to the trailhead and I caught a ride home with him. Geoff told me he felt surprisingly tired after a mild 4.5-mile run. "That's the thing about winter camping," I said. "Keeping warm when you're inactive almost feels like more work than staying active." Even though we didn't struggle with the effort, we never really felt like we could just kick back and relax, either. And the fact is 10 degrees above 0 would be a warm night on the Iditarod Trail.

"All the better reason to keep moving," Geoff said.