Friday, January 30, 2009

Finding myself

So my "Find Me SPOT" arrived in the mail today. It's my parents' Christmas gift to themselves me. The deal is I carry a big orange hunk of plastic with three easy-to-use "Help, "I'm OK" and "911" buttons, and the device tracks me wherever I go and transmits my location to a remote Web site. After I reportedly lost myself for three days during last year's Iditarod Trail Invitational race, I think my parents just decided the SPOT would pay for itself in anxiety medication.

Today I set out on snowshoes with the SPOT and my GPS to intentionally get lost in the woods. I have an unnaturally terrible sense of direction for an adventure junkie, and I'm trying to sharpen my woeful skills in reading the terrain and route-finding. The idea is to cut my own trail through the dense woods, reading the topo maps, distance and elevation on my GPS as I go, and track my progress so I don't wander around in circles. And yes, I recognize that it is pretty hard to get hopelessly lost when you are tromping your own rather obvious path through the snow. That's my insurance policy. Even then, there is always on the periphery a light urge to panic - "Aaaa, I'm lost in the woods!" - an urge honed after many years of having a spectacularly bad sense of direction.

But GPS reading could come in handy if I ever find myself actually lost in a more remote section of this state. Rain fell hard in the late morning as I set my snowshoes into a foot of unbroken, oversaturated snow and began the dull trudge. I know I'll never convince readers of this blog that the combination of 35 degrees,wind and heavy rain is the worst weather in the world, but it's something I believe with unwavering faith. Maybe it's because the weather is like that in Juneau quite a lot. Quite a soul-crushing lot. Enough that it can really help a person overlook all of the beautiful days that make living here worth it.

Either way, the trudge. Breaking trail through a foot of new, wet snow is a crazy hard workout. I set out today for a five-hour hike, but five hours of hiking in stuff like that is really closer in effort to five hours of running. Heart-pounding running. At 1.5 mph. In other words, another great Iditarod workout. I'm seriously sore right now, in muscles that I actually use quite a lot - like my quads. I'm going to have to incorporate the trudge more often.

But I did successfully wander off into the woods and direct myself to a full loop that took me up the steep slopes on the south side of Mount Jumbo, down across several miles of muskeg and stream crossings, then dropping down the mountain through the devil's club stalks, log jams and overflowing creeks. I ended up on the far side of the Treadwell mine - way beyond the point where the shoreline trail ends. I came to a cliff and actually had to climb down an old mining structure, into a creek, to get around it. Lucky for waterproof boots (yep, definitely waterproof.) When I realized how far south I had come, I had to pick up the pace along the shoreline to try to make it home before dark. My snowshoes felt like they weighed 40 pounds, which was probably close to their actual weight, from all of the ice I had picked up walking through overflow.

During a five-hour trudge like that, with the decisions I'm facing, you'd think I'd have a lot of time to sort through my life. But it's strangely just the opposite. I don't think about my outside life at all. Even though I have all of these modern devices that keep safety from really being an issue in that situation, I still find myself every bit as alert and focused in the moment as I would if I were actually lost in the woods. Even though SPOT knows where I am, I don't know where I am, and every step I take carries me farther into the unknown. So all I think about are the crunch of my footsteps, the snow patterns on a tree trunk, the way each tree looks different from the last tree, the cloud-obscured features of mountains, the deer tracks that I hope mark the best path through a thick grove of spruce ... I like it when this is all I think about for five hours: the simple path forward. Things which never seemed obvious before become obvious. Landscapes become landmarks. I lose myself and find my way home.