Monday, December 21, 2009

Solstice with wolves

Sunrise came at 8:45 a.m. on the shortest day of the year. The highest mountain peaks glowed apple red in the morning light as I drove my car to Foreign Auto to finally get my studded tires installed. I dropped off my car, hoisted my backpack and hoofed a half block over to Heritage Coffee. The frosty dry air outside hit me like a wall. "Dang, it feels like Anchorage out here!" I thought. It was probably single digits. Certainly not cold enough to cancel, well, anything ... but the air inside of Heritage swirled with warmth. I cradled my massive cup of coffee, nibbled a cheese bagel, and wondered about the simpler joys in life ... like spending a lazy morning lounging at a coffee shop while holiday shoppers and harried commuters and school children suffering through the short days before holiday break all moved through the hard air outside.

My friend, Bjorn, shattered my comfort illusion by walking in the door. We ducked into his car with the ice barely scraped from the windows and drove to the Thunder Mountain trailhead. I looked at my watch. Four and a half hours until I had to be at work; five and a half hours until sunset. We started up the trail and it wasn't long before I was down to my base layers. I don't think it matters how cold it is — everything feels like a sauna when you're gaining 1,500 feet per mile. Shadows stretched long over the white snow, and the mountains reflected the warm gold of the winter sun. "You know," I said to Bjorn, "The thing that bums me out about solstice is that it means less and less of this amazing light." The more the sun climbs high in the sky, the more it washes out everything, like a florescent overhead light versus a single dim bulb in the corner of a room. The summer solstice is overwhelmed with light to the point of hollow gluttony. Winter solstice forces you to savor every taste.

Not that I am complaining about the coming of the light. But as I enter my fifth winter in Alaska, I find more every year that I have a deep appreciation for the gifts and challenges of the season. Including the final pitch of Thunder Mountain, a snow wall that's a serious challenge for the likes of me. I took my sweet time axing my own steps out of the crust, breaking through the ice glaze on top only to watch my carved step collapse in a hole of unbonded powder. It's the kind of condition that raises alarms for those of us who haven't worked beyond the basic tips of Avalanche 101 yet, but I figured Bjorn knew what he was doing. And, anyway, he was long out of sight and the wall hadn't come down on me yet.

As I finally crawled over the lip and walked tentatively over the glaze ice surface, I saw Bjorn sprinting toward me. He grabbed my shoulders and thrust my whole body sideways. "Wolves!" he said. "Six, maybe eight, over there!" And sure enough I heard low, short barks echoing through the still air. I turned my head to see their sleek bodies bounding along the crest of the ridge, less than a quarter mile away. We both stood still, frozen as though by not moving we could hide our existence, as the pack of wolves congregated from several points along the ridge. They continued to call out, "Woo! Woo! Woo!," which we interpreted to mean, "All right, everyone, time to get out of here." We watched in awe as they peeled down the ridge and out of sight, and then Bjorn put his arm around me and said, "Now that's solstice!"

We waited a few more minutes to see if they were going to come back and then decided to follow their tracks a ways down the ridge. The tracks confirmed that there were at least six wolves, running together in long paths across the open plain. As we traveled tentatively toward the site where we had spotted them, it occurred to me just how special the moment really was. Wolf sightings are rare, even in Alaska. Even Bjorn, who has more Alaska and mountain backcountry experience than anyone I know, only claims a handful of them. I have but two, which are both slightly dubious in nature - one is Romeo, Juneau's half-domesticated glacier wolf, and the other was a scrawny gray youth that I saw staggering up the Alaska Highway in western Yukon as I was moving from Homer to Juneau. I stopped my car to take his picture and he turned and started walking toward me, with this creepy, crazy demeanor that made me dive back into my car and drive away. As Bjorn told me, "Wolves decide whether or not they're going to let you see them."

And these wolves let us see them. It felt like a moment of grace, and it's these simple joys that are worth climbing for.