Saturday, January 07, 2012

Symphony of cold IV

Movement IV, sonata
A wind gust swept shards of snow over the trench as I struggled halfway inside my sleeping bag, trying to kick my pad into place. Loud pops followed small bursts of yellow light on the Shell Lake, about a mile and a half away and a few hundred feet below our bivy spot. I was impressed by the stamina of the children, who for most of the evening had been launching an impressive arsenal of fireworks in shifts — each one lasted about as long as they could stand in the harsh wind and 15 below zero temperatures. But now it was nearly midnight and they were really letting loose.

"Three more minutes," Beat said, his voice muffled inside his own bag.

"This bag is not cooperating tonight," I growled, squinting against another stinging blast of micro-ice.

"Are you going to freeze?" Beat asked.

"Hope not. I'll let you know."

I was nearly inside my bag when I heard Beat say, "It's midnight. Happy New Year."

"Happy New Year, sweetie." I poked my head out of the bivy, sat up, and threw my torso over the wall of my trench like a beached seal. Beat heard me do this, nuzzled his own face out of his down cocoon and strained his body toward mine. With a few more lunges I successfully touched my lips to his. "Happy New Year," I repeated. "Isn't this romantic?"

"Something like that," Beat said, but I saw him smile.

As we nestled in our snug down bags in a shallow snow hole cut into the side of the Shell Hills, 2011 transitioned seamlessly to 2012. The camping trip was really just a bedtime experiment. We had actually spent New Year's Eve in a much more traditional fashion, consuming large quantities of ham and smoked salmon at the Shell Lake Lodge. We played dice with men and women wearing bulky snowmachine overalls, laughed at the children running back inside the cabin with bright red cheeks and blue lips after lighting their fireworks, and listening to a survivalist explain to us in detail the importance of knowing how to build a snow cave, finishing his lecture with the matter-of-fact assertion, "When it's 70 below, and you don't build a cave, you will die. It's not a question. You will die." (That very night, it hit 60 below in McGrath, where the race Beat will be participating in next month ends.)

The huge dinner in the crowded, overheated lodge, followed by doomsday warnings about 70 below, did take the sting off camping at -15 in a -30 windchill just a couple of miles away. I felt downright cozy, and exhausted from our ongoing snowshoe adventures, enough so that when Beat woke up several hours later and proclaimed the experiment a success, I refused to leave. "I like it here," I said. "It's nice. I think I'll stay til morning."

Our weekend in the Shell Hills was idyllic, with subtle reminders of the hardships of winter in backcountry Alaska. We stayed with Anne and her husband, Mike, in a cabin on property they've owned for many years. The cabin was basic by most standards but luxurious by Alaska standards: A single room with a loft and a wood stove in the center, a diesel heater as backup, an outhouse, gas-powered stove and refrigerator (mostly used to "warm" food after a deep freeze), and even a shower in the Arctic entry that utilized a plastic solar shower bag and lake water warmed in a big pot on the stove. Anne and Mike were very kind to let us share their space, and Anne even cooked several delicious meals. During one breakfast that featured eggs, biscuits and reindeer sausage, Beat held up the sausage and said, "So this is what happens to reindeer after Christmas."

On New Year's Eve we trekked up the Shell Hills, aiming to reach a high ridge for a better view of the Alaska Range and Denali. It was mid-day, although you'd never know it by looking at the sky. The wind blew hard, and despite the hard work in deep unbroken snow, I felt more chilled than I had yet during our trip. Before we gained the ridge, we found ourselves neck-deep in a struggle with hidden alder wells, sometimes literally. Anne eventually punched through so deep that she couldn't extract herself. She pulled her gloves off and started clawing at her snowshoes, which were difficult to reach and tangled in branches. Beat and I inched closer, trying to avoid the trap ourselves and establish a good hold for our own weight so we could help her. After four or five minutes we finally had her by the arms, leveraging both of our weight to pull her out. But not before her fingers became painfully cold, and her face was a little white — no doubt processing what she might have done and what would have happened if she had been alone. We turned around.

On New Year's Day, we decided to stick to the established route and hike toward Finger Lake on the Iditarod Trail. We went about five or six miles across wide open swamps with brilliant views of the mountains, then turned around. Despite the sugary trail and ambitious pace, it felt like an easy stroll without the sleds in tow.

We did catch a glimpse of Mount Foraker and Denali in the distance. This was actually the only bluebird day we experienced the entire two weeks we were in Alaska.

We also tried a bit of snowshoe running. Although this was mostly a shakedown training expedition for Beat's ITI bid, I learned a few things that I think will help me during next month's Susitna 100. I've already thought through a few adjustments to my kit and know exactly what I'm going to minimize (this of course will be based on the forecasted weather the night before the race.) I'm also strongly considering using snowshoes in the race. I'm definitely going to at least carry them on my sled, and will likely use them for a better percentage of the run depending on trail conditions.

Snowshoes serve as a great equalizer for many different kinds of trail conditions, and worked well to stabilize my stride and provide a flat platform to kick my feet off, avoiding the muscle fatigue and mental frustration of uneven, punchy snow (and almost all snow trails have this quality to some degree. I could see evidence of the kind of footing that bothers me in Anne's deep and often off-camber footprints, compared to my shallow and even snowshoe prints.) Snowshoes are not popular with winter runners, possibly because they're heavy and somewhat awkward, but I still think the benefits outweigh the drawbacks for me. I used mine for the entire trek, and it got to the point where I was so comfortable with them that I forgot I was wearing them.

On our final day at Shell Lake, we planned to fly out early, but a thick ice fog moved in and blanketed the entire region. Mike just barely got out in his small plane, and didn't think he'd be able to return to make the shuttles as planned. We called an air taxi service but they were also tied down by the fog. Because the oil heater had already been shut off and the wood stove only had enough oomph against the extreme cold to keep the cabin at 50 degrees or so, we retreated to Shell Lake Lodge. The lodge is maintained by Zoe, a woman in her late 60s who, with help from her son, Hank, keeps the lodge running all year long. As you can see from the mountain of firewood out front, that's not an easy task. Zoe was very sweet, served us up New Year's leftovers for lunch, and repeatedly called the air taxi pilot to relay weather reports and updates.

I went on an exploration safari, and spent quite a bit of time watching the chorus of birds out in front of the lodge. These Alaska Chickadees displayed an impressive activity level amid the frigid temperatures. It was 18 below zero when I shot this picture.

The fog lifted off of Shell Lake and temperatures continued to plummet. I watched the thermometer at Shell Lake Lodge drop to -22 and then -23. The pilot was in a rush to make several scheduled runs and said there was no way he could pick us up before dark, and would have to reschedule for morning. Beat and I were disappointed by this news, as we had a red-eye flight back to California that night. Of course, we had only ourselves to blame for cutting our schedule so close. In Alaska in the winter, you can't really count on anything working out the way you hope.

I thought the pilot saying there was no way he would come that day meant there was no way he would come that day, so Beat and I set out across the lake and into the hills to find some sun and frost.

Frost gives everything a delicate, almost ethereal beauty.

Then back across the lake as the sun went down, carrying the temperatures even farther down with it. When we returned to the lodge, Anne told us the pilot was going to make it after all and we better hurry and get ready to go or he was leaving without us. Whoops. This is another thing I learned this weekend about Alaska bush culture — nothing is certain until it's certain.

And just like that, we let go of a week of deep-cold adventure with a one-hour flight in the disappearing light. I have said goodbye to the Susitna Valley this way before, in this exact same plane, the day that I was evacuated from Yentna Station with frostbite in 2009. But instead of the cold finality of that goodbye, this one felt more like a warm hello. Thank you, Alaska. I will be back.