Friday, January 06, 2012

Symphony of cold III

Movement III, minuet
I woke up in the night with an unexplainable sort of ice cream headache. It was mild but it was definitely there, scooping away at my skull. Anne had told the Northwoods owners we wanted our cabin to be "hot," and they definitely cranked up the heater. It had to be at least 75 degrees in the room. I was down to my underwear and still drenched in sweat. The heat woke me up several times and twice I stepped outside just to cool down. That didn't take long.

And yet, even in the overheated cabin, I had a cold headache. This fact so perplexed me that I eventually got up to find my little hairbrush/mirror combo that I use as a camp hair de-tangler, switched on my headlamp and examined my forehead. Small red spots speckled the skin around my eyebrows; in the flat light it looked like a few might even be forming blisters. I concluded I had probably mildly frostnipped my skin while I was sporting the ice unibrow the previous day. That didn't necessarily explain the headache, but it did fixate my attention on other cold-related maladies: My scratchy throat — raw from breathing -35 air all day even though I filtered it with my balaclava; and my fingertips — sore and a little swollen from gripping a cold camera and going numb while I repeatedly tried to thaw my ice-lashes. Cold has a way of being hard on bodies in ways you don't immediately realize. "My legs and hips are sore, too," I thought. I acknowledged that may have had more to do with 56 miles and 16 hard hours of sled-hauling than it did with the cold.

It was 15 below and still pitch dark when we set out in the morning, a little later than we hoped, just before 9 a.m. The temperature felt downright comfortable after the previous day — a credit to the adaptability of human bodies, even as delicate as they are. The first hints of dawn arrived just as we emerged from the wooded swamps along Lake Creek onto the wide-open plain of the Yentna River. In Alaska winter racing circles, the big rivers are often dreaded for being "flat" and "boring" and "going on forever and ever." I actually love trekking the big rivers, even more than I do wending through the woods. They fit my aesthetic of stark open spaces, places so big that I can watch as the world opens up around me. I looked north to see hints of salmon-colored light rippling on the jagged Alaska Range, south to round mountains as they reflected deeper shades of gold, west to rows of birch trees glittering with hoarfrost, and all around as the Yentna cliffs grew closer, pinching the flow of a great river that was presently as quiet as anything can be. I imagined a rush of water under our feet, roiling and crashing against a thin veneer of ice. When I realized this was exactly what was happening, I had to stop thinking about it, because it made my knees feel weak.

As we approached the tiny village of Skwentna, I felt a giddy sort of excitement. On what was starting to feel like my own nostalgia tour of the Iditarod Trail, I remembered the Skwentna Roadhouse as the place where I took my first long break during the 2008 Iditarod Trail Invitational. I had arrived just before 2 a.m., having ridden my loaded Pugsley ninety miles in twelve hours — for me, an unfathomably fast pace. I shared a small meal with Jay Petervary (dinner for me, breakfast for him) and moved upstairs to dry my clothing and take a short nap. I remember standing in front of the bathroom mirror, scanning my face for signs of frostbite, and seeing only an expression of mixed pride and astonishment. I couldn't believe what I had set out to do. I couldn't believe I was doing it. It was, for that moment, my greatest accomplishment.

"I like Skwentna," I told Beat. "I was happy there." That it had taken me two and a half days to reach a place I once pedaled to in twelve hours didn't matter. I was glad to be back, and on these terms — older, possibly wiser, definitely slower — it felt right. We shook off our frost and stomped inside. The owner, Cindy, was wearing a bath towel on her head and appeared to have just woken up, which made perfect sense to me, being that it was the more civil winter hour of 11:45 a.m. She and her husband only bought the lodge about a year ago, so she wasn't there in 2008. But she was excited to see the three of us all the same. "You're our first runners for the year!" she exclaimed. She offered us all-you-can-consume Christmas cookies and coffee, which we warned her was a dangerous gesture given our status as cold and hungry runners. Cindy just laughed and directed us to the plates.

We ordered grilled cheese and fries for lunch and chatted with a local man, a former contractor from Anchorage who was now living full-time in a cabin he built on the edge of the river a couple years earlier. "I don't have a boat, so I just spend the whole summer here," he said. "I don't leave except to run freight in the winter. I love it. I'm glad I did it."

We grinned and nodded although I think everyone was wondering exactly he did all summer long, how he avoided cabin fever, why he didn't become lonely or cold or scared. The usual things that we civilized folk tend to wonder when one of our own sloughs off the frenetic lifestyle that we all work so hard to achieve and sets out to find his or her own version of happiness. I admired the guy for doing what he wanted to do, even if most people viewed it as strange and even fruitless. That is, after all, exactly how most people would view what I was doing out here.

I was sad to leave Skwentna, mostly because it meant we only had seventeen or so miles left in our trek before we reached Shell Lake. Although I started out thinking our plan was ambitious for what was essentially just a training run, by the end I was startled by just how doable it was. I mean, we were walking thirty miles a day, in conditions that made every step nearly as difficult as a solid run. We were outside for eight hours or more each day in temperatures that never even flirted with rising above zero, working just as hard to keep our bodies warm as we did to keep them moving, and rarely did we stop moving. It had been hard, but in other ways, so simple. I enjoy the process of occasionally reducing my existence to moving, eating and breathing. It reminds me just how simple existence really is, in the end, and at the same time so rich and meaningful, even if it's impossible to define its meaning.

This observation carried some insight about why I love Alaska so much, because in Alaska I see reflections of my own sense of meaning everywhere I look. The snow portrays a fleeting beauty, the open swamps a lasting wisdom. The trees and animals are perseverance, enduring the worst of winter for the rich reward of summer. The mountains are the great unknown, that powerful force that will always drive me forward. I realize that all of the entities exist in lots of places in the world, but they do seem to resonate deeply for me in these northern latitudes. I'm perfectly content to live where I do right now, but Alaska remains a wonderful place to visit.

We climbed into the Shell Hills, brushed with the pink light of another sunset. Those seventeen miles seem to go by in what felt like a single breath, a dream. I was entirely surprised when we dropped onto the windswept ice of Shell Lake and pressed against the wind toward Anne's cabin. Before going inside, we stopped to light Beat's stove and melt some snow, so he could practice the process of making water in cold temperatures at the end of a long, sweaty day. The experiment went well, but I was still hesitant to walk in the door, almost searching for excuses to stay out longer. I reminded myself that we still had a full New Year's holiday to spend at Shell Lake, and our adventure certainly wasn't over yet. 


  1. These posts have me soooo excited about Susitna. Though I hope it stays more in the negative teens rather than the negative 30s.

  2. Yay, Danni, me too!

    Although honestly I'm hoping for the positive teens. It can go near zero at night if it has too. Anything above 30 is worrisome for getting wet and staying warm, even if it doesn't rain.

    I also have this fantasy about tons of fresh powder and beating some bikers on my snowshoes. ;-) Although I shouldn't mention that out loud either because even for the walkers, a lot of soft new snow is almost prohibitively difficult.

  3. Nice pics, they remind me of my youth in prince george b.c in the 80's

  4. I love the 5th photo.It let me fell so cold:D


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