Wednesday, December 28, 2011

So much white

Less than 24 hours after we arrived in Anchorage on the winter solstice, it started snowing and hasn't really stopped. What looks to be at least three feet of new fluff has fallen at our friend's house near Hilltop Ski Area. Combine that with temperatures in the teens and single digits, December's dearth of daylight, and the fact that all of this new snow has fallen on a base of what appears to be a solid sheet of ice. Our friends around town greet us with a partly sympathetic, partly gloating "welcome to winter."

I reply with a smile, "We came here for winter." But I don't mask the fact that this has been an adjustment. This kind of winter makes even small efforts feel huge. On Christmas Day we went out for a "run," breaking trail with the snowshoes. We covered about six miles in a little over two hours (and yes, we did "run" some), did a lot of sweating in our minimal layers at 11 degrees, and came home exhausted. Some of that exhaustion was caused by heavily working a lot of muscles we're not used to working, and some by fighting off a chill we're not used to fighting. People who train their bodies in winter conditions have an advantage over people who reside where the livin's easy. It's simply a different game.

We were driven to get out as much as possible, if only to adjust our bodies to Alaska's harsh environment. But after several days of such efforts, it became obvious we would have to taper if we expected to have any energy for our big trip. We went to visit my long-time friend Craig in Palmer and planned a quick and easy hike to Hatcher Pass. We climbed the exposed slope in single-digit temps with a stiff wind, resulting in a windchill factor of about 15 below. The hike itself was short and sweet, about 90 minutes. But its meandering nature, followed by a leisurely two-hour lunch in a wood-heated lodge that was not very warm, left my whole body deeply chilled. The sedentary battle for body heat completely drained me of energy. It was a useful reminder about the paradox of winter travel — the more one moves, the less one's body has to "work" to stay warm. You're tired and it's cold? Just keep moving. Stopping will only make the overall fatigue worse.

Beat and I are both feeling nervous but excited about our three-day trip starting Wednesday morning. The plan is to leave from Deshka Landing and follow river trails toward Shell Lake, about a hundred miles away, over three days. We'll be dragging all of our supplies in sleds, including stoves and fuel, but will likely utilize a couple of backcountry lodges for some water and food. This is the "luxury" section of the Iditarod Trail, where a few outposts of civilization remain. But it's still "out there" in every sense of the phrase, a roadless region through a vast swath of mountains, swamps and boreal forest, with only a spattering of log cabins. In most Californians' understanding of remote, it might as well be the moon.

I savor these stark landscapes with a palette of emotions that remain difficult to describe with words, but the closest one is "love." I love being out here, even if it's a terribly difficult place to be. All of this new snow, which is still falling as of nine hours before our planned departure, is supposedly going to be followed by a cold snap. That's right, it's not quite "cold" yet. The current weather forecast indicates a likelihood that we'll see temperatures below -20F on the rivers as we stomp over all this soft new snow. Beat and I have both seen this before, and we're preparing for it, but the possible scenarios remain intimidating. Traveling an average of 35 miles a day is, by comparison, quite easy. In fact, it's the easiest way to stay warm.

Way back in January 2008, when I was preparing for my first Iditarod 350, I wrote this paragraph to sum up my feelings about a winter camping experience. I was referring to endurance racing, but it fits just as well with an expedition-style tour of backcountry Alaska in December:

"This multiday winter endurance racing thing is completely crazy. On the surface, it looks hard. Then you peel back its rigid veneer only to find an inner layer of hard. And even as you chip away at its core, you continue to find layer upon layer upon layer of hard. Every part is hard.


And I love it."

I still do. I may never be able to adequately describe exactly why, but I do. And I continue to try.