Wednesday, January 01, 2014

The Fairbanks Journals, day 1

Sunday, December 22. Sunrise 10:59 a.m. Sunset 2:40 p.m. Temperature: 11F. Light snow. 


We arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska, late on Solstice, the shortest day of the year. The purpose of our trip is twofold, to test various gear systems, as well physical preparations, ahead of the Iditarod Trail Invitational, which begins in a mere two months. Or perhaps this goal is a mere excuse, a reason to enjoy the holidays in a wintry landscape, a space where peace and solace happen as swiftly and deeply as apprehension and discomfort. Seeking the darkness for the light, as they say.

On the flight from Seattle, I picked up re-reading the journal of Capt. Robert Falcon Scott, written during the fatal South Pole expedition of 1912. Scott's record of events include two old-fashioned terms that I appreciate and plan to adopt into my vocabulary. The first is "manhauling" to describe the act of using human power (in Scott's case, they were all men) to haul supplies over the ice. There's something pure and raw about "manhauling" long distances on foot — the ultimate act of self-sufficiency. The second term is "trying" as an adjective to describe a particularly difficult situation. Temperatures of 73 below, white-out blizzards, major gear failures — events I would describe as catastrophic — Scott characterized as "trying," as though they were just another methodical challenge, a test with a difficult but ultimately achievable solution. I need to adopt this attitude in my endeavors. Although, of course, there are limits and always will be, as Scott discovered too late.

 We established the week's base camp in a massive yard sale gear explosion at the home of our friend Joel, which looks like a cabin in the woods but resides in Fairbanks proper. The region had received about six inches of new snow in an overnight storm. By the time we cobbled a haul load together and set out in the early afternoon, snow was still lightly falling and it was 11 degrees above zero. We were grateful for relatively "warm" temperature to help acclimate our California bodies to cold weather again. Beat decided to try out a vapor barrier shirt as his sole upper layer, and a pair of integrated gators on Hoka trail-running shoes that he designed himself. We joked that he looked like a Japanese Anime character.

 Also along for the trip was our friend Liehann, who is from South Africa and currently resides in the Bay Area, and had almost no winter experience as a result. The mere presence of snow was a relatively new experience for him. He had nothing but enthusiasm for the Alaska adventure, but I'll be honest and admit that I was apprehensive about having Liehann along for the mini-expeditions. In more urgent winter weather conditions, it can be difficult enough to acknowledge and take care of one's own needs without having to observe and advise an even less experienced member of the party. But Liehann did do his homework and did buy or borrow a lot of good gear specifically for this trip. I figured if things became "trying," Beat would take care of Liehann since they already have a bit of a big-brother, little-brother friendship.

We were off into the fresh fluff with purposefully heavy-loaded sleds. Although I'd like to pare down my sled weight to about 30 pounds, with the stuff I'd like to carry and two to three days' worth of food, it still weighs closer to 40 and I have to give deeper thought to what I can both afford and feel comfortable about leaving behind. Thus the purpose of the training/testing Fairbanks trip. And also, of course, to see how my trail-running trained body coped with the (in my opinion) more strenuous physical task of manhauling at slow walking paces over soft snow.

 We got a late enough start that the sun set just over an hour into our trial run. Gray faded into darker gray, and Liehann I think was more freaked out by the sudden immersion into subarctic gloominess than he was by the single-digit temperatures. He was also recovering from a cold, and opted to turn back at mile two. Beat and I marched and huffed for five more miles to the edge of Creamer's Field. I was running way too hot, but it was difficult to balance outside moisture protection from the falling snow against the sweat moisture steaming out of open vents in my jacket. I thought about sled dogs, which tend to run best when the temperature is 20 or 30 below, and overheat more easily above zero. Humans are pretty pathetic when it comes to natural insulation, and have this annoying tendency to sweat, a physical adaptation that is only detrimental to us at subfreezing temperatures. But with the right mix of artificial insulation and sweat management, maybe we're more like sled dogs than we know.

Distant light reflected through the clouds, illuminating the landscape with rose-colored light well after sunset. We walked until nearly 5 p.m. without headlamps, even though the sun had been gone since 2:40. It took us 3 hours and 34 minutes of moving time to cover 10 miles. As much as I try to explain it, I too am mostly mystified as to why I love slow slogging so much. But something about the act, especially in these stark, unforgiving landscapes, resonates with a meditative sense of beauty and peace. My hamstrings were sore and my whole body was quivering at the time equation of 350 similarly strenuous miles at less than 2.5 miles per hour. But I had an inkling that this week was only going to get better.