Thursday, January 01, 2009

Last day of the year

Date: Dec. 31
Mileage: 21.0
December mileage: 811.1
Temperature upon departure: 8

12:03 a.m., Dec. 31. The squeak of my snowshoes on cold, packed snow grates against an almost impenetrable silence. Both seem out of place. 24 hours from now, 12:03 a.m. will ring and scream into the cold night, but now, all is silent and still. I feather a plummeting thermometer in my mitten and plunge it into my pocket. I walk across my street, climb a snowbank and take slow, squeaky steps to the Mount Jumbo trail. I shift the weight of my backpack - alarmingly light, it feels - glance back at the golden glow of town lights and step into the darkness.

The squeak becomes a crunch, muffled and lonely. To each side of the trail, ghost trees lurk and snow monsters prowl. In my peripheral vision I catch a single-eyed gaze, wild and hungry. A monster's mouth seems to open and its big ears rustle in the breeze as it curls its branches toward me. I put my head down and walk faster.

I reach the open muskeg and stamp down a spot where the cold wind whisks spindrift around stunted spruce. I need to experience this wind, like I need to experience the art of sleeping outside, so here I make my home for the night. So close and yet so far away from my warm bed. The thermometer reads zero. No accounting for the wind, the chill, which always needles through protective layers in a way "real" temperatures never could. I unroll my bivy and crawl inside. Pockets of cold air settle amid the fluff and I scold myself for not bringing a pillow, because I'm not about to take anything I'm wearing off to use as a substitute. Body heat begins to fill empty space. It takes a while to fall asleep.

I wake up several times in the night, thrashing around to extract myself quickly from multiple layers of nylon and down. I scold myself again for going to bed so well hydrated. A body immersed in cold doesn't want to waste calories keeping unnecessary liquid warm, so I have to step out into the cold. At 3 a.m., it's calm and the thermometer reads 5 below. The sky is an explosion of stars. At 5 a.m., the wind has picked up with blowing snow and a dangerous-seeming chill when the thermometer has jumped to 10 above. At dawn, it's back to zero. I crawl out of my sack feeling strangely refreshed, but my peace has been hard-won through hard experience, because I've ventured deeper into the danger and I know now that 5 below isn't too cold for a good night's sleep.

Back at my apartment at 9 a.m. with hot coffee and cold cereal. The radio's on and I don't want to listen, because I feel like I should still be out. I lace up my boots and, still wearing what I wore the night before, head back out into the wind and ice for a bike ride. But there's a feeling of well-being and warmth in the sun. The wind blows in variable, powerful gusts as I ride along the frozen shoreline of the Channel. One catches me from directly behind, carrying a small tsunami of spindrift over the frozen sand. My huge coat catches the gust like a sail and rockets me forward with surprising acceleration. I ride the snow tsunami in a surreal pocket of silence, because the wind and I are moving the same speed. I feel like I'm surfing, powder boarding, coasting on a cloud, or all of the above. It's absolutely thrilling.

Geoff and I have lunch and decide to spend the afternoon Nordic skiing. I rescue my skis from dust, fairly certain I haven't used them in nearly two years. I've avoided the activity because there's so much other fun stuff to do in snow - snow biking, snowboarding, snowshoeing, snow camping ... pretty much snow-anything that doesn't involve strapping needlessly slippery sticks to my feet and shuffling around in pre-set circles.

Well, that's what I always thought of skiing. But today at sunset on the Mendenhall Lake, the themometer's back to 5 below and the snow is crisp and cold. It binds to the fish-scale bottoms of my budget Nordic skis and allows me to mindlessly, effortlessly glide into the gold-tinted expanse. The track's set nearly four miles around, a relaxed hour, and we extend it by veering off into the maze of the moraine trail system. I scout the hardpack for future snow biking excursions. Geoff's eyelashes grow white and long. We glide in silence amid the snow ghosts and tree monsters, which seem jovial and friendly at this hour. Soon it will be midnight again and another day will fade into the darkness, an amazing day, an amazing year.

Happy New Year.