Thursday, January 03, 2019

Windswept paradise

I'm beginning to think my friends don't believe me when I insist that the Far North in wintertime is my version of heaven. That if somehow consciousness goes on after death, mine will reside here, on the snow-covered tundra under the incandescent light of a low-angle sun. And it will be cold, too — so cold the air chimes, silence echoes from miles distant, and I'll know the peace and clear-minded lucidity I find only in fleeting moments here on Earth. 

Heaven for the soul can be hell for the body, but you see, this hellishness is what gives weight to the wonder. There can't be light without darkness. No joy without grief. No ecstasy without pain. If the yin and yang doesn't extend into eternity, and if there really is some sort of afterlife that involves sitting and singing on comfortable, climate-controlled clouds forever and ever, that would be my version of hell.

For our annual Christmastime trip to Fairbanks, Beat and I booked two trips in the White Mountains. Usually we visit the Magical Land of Tolovana Hot Springs for our first overnighter, but the availability was limited to one night although we were required to pay for two, and the costs have skyrocketed in the past few years. It seemed unreasonable, so I argued that "Colorado Creek is just as fun." Sure, there aren't any hot springs in which to frostnip one's scalp while scalding the nether regions, but you can't beat the price. Or the setting.

The route to Colorado Creek starts at the Tolovana River — one of the lowest spots in the region, where dense cold air settles in for a long winter's nap. Lows were forecast to hit 20 below overnight, which is mild for the Fairbanks of yore, but still a harsh introduction for our first night of the trip (we arrived at the Fairbanks airport at 11 p.m. Friday, grocery shopped for eight days' worth of trail food, slept a few hours, woke up early to unpack all of the gear as Beat re-built the sleds, repacked our gear, drove two hours north on a snow-packed and frost-heaved Elliot Highway, and hit the trail around 12:30 p.m. Saturday.)

From its start at the Tolovana River, the Colorado Creek Trail features 14 miles of gradual but infernally noticeable climbing. Snowpack is low for this time of year, and the trail was coated in packed but slippery sugar snow that barely masked the tussocks. Beat had been suffering mightily from our Death Cold less than week earlier, and had so recently recovered that I wondered if this first trip would happen. He felt better but was still dragging, enough so that I could almost keep up with him ... almost. Darkness came early, and it would have been jarring if I wasn't already jet-lagged from sleeping about three hours the previous night.

It was Dec. 22, when the sun peeks over the horizon south of Fairbanks at 10:58 a.m. and slumps into a spot slightly farther west at 2:40 p.m., for three hours at 41 minutes of daylight. What often is discounted is civil twilight, which begins at 9:30 a.m., ends at 4 p.m., and is arguably every bit as useful to an outdoor recreationalist as the subtle sunlight. I'd argue for a full seven hours in which headlamps aren't necessary. An abundance of light!

It's also interesting to note that the Colorado Creek trailhead, which is only about 50 miles north of Fairbanks, received nearly 20 minutes less daylight on that date. The invisible line marking the Arctic Circle, less than 150 miles north of the trailhead, saw only a few seconds of the tiniest sliver of sunlight. Degrees of latitude really matter up here.

We arrived at the cabin a little before 6 p.m., which felt more like 10 p.m., and went about the usual cabin chores: Starting a fire in the wood stove, firing up the white gas stoves to quickly melt snow, stringing all of our ice-crusted gear on clothes lines, chopping firewood (this cabin had a bunch left behind, which is always a incredible boost in places where the only sources of deadwood can be a half mile away or more), and rehydrating dinner: Hot chocolate and a bag of something mushy and bland but simple and hot, which is what matters. We crawled into sleeping bags and I spent a couple of hours scrolling through my Kindle, not landing on anything terribly interesting to me right now. I felt worked but was actively trying not to doze off. I'm one of those night-circadium-rhythm people who can't easily shift to early bedtime. I will wake up in a few hours and, like a child who took a nap at the wrong time, remain awake and grumpy for the rest of the night.

We slumped out of the sleeping bags a little before 7 a.m. Sunday morning, which looked like 2 a.m. but felt like a bizarre version of late day. Having let the stove go out overnight, the air was frosty inside the cabin and my hydration bladder was partially frozen. Most of the muscles in my upper legs ached, and my lower back was stiff. Blame that one on poor sled-specific fitness. The last time I even strapped on a sled was the fateful March 18 trip to Eleazars cabin. This last experience so destroyed me that I nearly swore off the notion of dragging a sled ever again. These resolutions never last, but selective memory did help me forget the level of strenuousness, especially in uneven, soft, and entirely uphill trail conditions.

We had Colorado Creek cabin a second night, so our Dec. 23 plan was a day trip up the nonexistent Big Bend trail, climbing a wide and weather-exposed ridge. The wind here blows incessantly, so even if a trail was broken, it would be gone the next day. We packed slightly lighter sleds — carrying most of our gear as a safety buffer, but leaving the food behind — and hiked into the slowly awakening dawn.

The temperature was -4F, but as soon as we climbed above the thin strip of forest protecting the cabin, we were blasted by 20-30mph winds. The worst gusts put the windchill around -33F, which is solidly in the panic zone. Beat and I both strongly believe that folks who declare that "windchill doesn't count" have never actually spent much time in the wind. Windchill is all. It's fairly simple to hide from an ambient temperature of -33F — an extra layer often does it. The body's bubble of warmth stays in place beneath insulation. I've moved comfortably for hours at -35F or -40F, although I'm never mentally comfortable when it's that cold.

Windchill, on the other hand, is sinister in its razor precision. It can cut into even the tightest protections, and finds every weakness in one's system. Wind pulls warmth away from the body constantly. If one doesn't have the energy to continuously regenerate core heat, it becomes more troubling much more quickly than similar ambient temperatures. I've never been comfortable in subzero windchill, although I can manage it with care.

It's still early in the winter, and I was lax about my care. My experience is rusty, and I need to re-learn these lessons all over again. I'd neglected to put on goggles. With my hat pulled all the way down and wind-proof buff pulled up to my eyelashes, I could barely see through the thin slit but still ended up with a frostnip scab on my right cheek. Beat with his wolverine fur ruff wasn't comfortable, either. He's spent long blocks of time in ambient temperatures near -50F, and still agrees with me that windchill is worse.

In our snowshoes we punched through brittle crust into shin-deep sugar snow, step after laborious step. Beat was breaking trail, but if I fell more than fifty meters behind him, his snowshoe prints were almost gone by the time I went through. Spindrift obliterated the trail faster than we could make it. I felt uncomfortable on the cusp of being recklessly chilled. Every passing minute was an internal battle over a simple decision — whether pausing to put on more layers was worth the shivery cold that would overtake my body if I stopped at all. Past experience has taught me that it is *always* better to stop, but it's still a difficult thing to accept.

After what turned out to be less than three miles in two hours, the wooden tripods delineating the trail shot up a steep slope through a tangle of alders and knee-deep sugar. The route was nearly impassable — it could probably be done if it had to be done, but for an optional side trip, it strongly tipped the scales toward silliness. We stopped to finally add a few more layers. I put on a primaloft jacket over my wind fleece, and a pair of knee warmers that always add a surprisingly robust amount of warmth for eight-inch tubes of fabric. I felt a little better, but I was glad we were headed back. The trail we broke was fully obliterated by the time we turned around. The wind, which had always been a crosswind, was even more disconcertingly in our face. Turning around made me realize how numb my butt had become. It's a large chunk of flesh that would take a long time to actually freeze, but the sensation is still alarming.

We returned to the cabin at high noon — which is to say just before 1 p.m., when the lazy sun reached its highest point on the horizon. A thick layer of blowing snow over mountains to the south had hidden the orb all day, and we never saw a hint of direct sunlight. Still, it was early. We rehydrated Idahoan mashed potatoes in the bag for lunch. We debated going back out. I was just barely beginning to warm up again and felt demotivated, but I also recognize what a rare opportunity it is to visit such a moonscape at the metaphorical edge of the world. Also, the idea of spending the next 18 hours laying around in my sleeping bag did not appeal.

So I went in the opposite direction and heavily overdressed: all three of my jackets with the down parka stuffed in a backpack for safety. Primaloft overboots on top of my shoes and three pairs of socks. Primaloft shorts and knee warmers. A windproof balaclava over my hat and buff. We left the sleds behind as we planned to snowshoe for 90 minutes tops, heading further out the blown-in but slightly more distinguishable trail toward Wolf Run cabin. The temperature had dipped a little, closer to -8F, but the wind lost some strength in the forest. The air felt significantly warmer.

With my body's equilibrium back to normal, my mind broke away from physiological tunnel vision. Finally, both were free to explore this vast landscape. The way the mind wanders out here is unique, and something I hope to further explore in my posts about the second trip (insert pre-emptive navel-gazing alert here.) The afternoon light, rendered in rich pastels and softened by blowing snow, was surreal. Frost-crusted spruce trees swayed in the wind, looking a little like dancing skeletons and adding to the otherworldliness of this place. We followed the drainage of Colorado Creek itself, wending toward the Limestone Jags. My butt was still slightly numb, but my heart was at peace.

When we returned to the cabin, we were surprised to see our friend Eric. He had told us he might come out, but he was also sick with a cold, and trail conditions had not been all that conducive to fun biking. But he loaded up his panniers and rode out anyway, and we had a fun night of low-level cabin partying with ice cream cones, a big bottle of Fireball and more warm mush in bags.

The hike out was mostly uneventful. Temperatures dropped to -16F, but the wind had been reduced to a gentle breeze, so it felt more or less like summer. Eric passed us about three miles out after battling through thick drifts on the ridge, and likely zoomed the rest of the way out, as wind-polishing had also hardened the lower trail significantly since two days earlier. Beat found the iPod Shuffle that I dropped on the way out, and there was much rejoicing, since the small Shuffles aren't manufactured anymore, and are worth more than gold to me. My hamstrings were cramping on the descent, which seemed like a bad sign for our big trip coming up, but I chose not to dwell on it. It was Christmas Eve. The low sun set without shedding a hint of direct light on us. I never wanted to leave.


  1. Great pics of an amazing annual ritual! I can't fathom doing that...the shots of Beat out in front sled-dragging into the very unhospitable terrain would evoke panic in me I'm afraid were I to try that. As to your ipod shuffle, don't they still make Gen5's? I have a Gen2 and a Gen4...just looked the other day to replace my aging 4 (which I use w/ a set of Arriva earbuds specifically made for the wires, the entire affair sits on your head). I was surprised at the price of the Gen4's and 5's...they are still available but are like $150 each now...I seem to recall paying about $50 for my new! Had no idea they are like GOLD! I might have to bite the bullet and get a new one as my 4 is having occasional issues (stops playing even w/ a good charge, I hit play again and it goes a few secs, then stops...and we repeat that 10 times or so and then it's better). Amazing Beat found'd think it would have sunk in just a bit and then been covered.

    1. No they stopped one or two years ago. Brand new shuffles in box now sell for around 200 bucks on ebay (as you found out)! Fortunately I picked up a bunch more before the regular sellers ran out of stock. Recently I was able to repair a water-damaged ipod of Jill's - corrosion on the battery contacts did that one in. Unfortunately they're difficult to open, and delicate and tiny inside. However, you can still get new batteries (non-original but hey ...) and I started getting some broken ones for parts and to see if they just need a new battery ...

    2. Apple discontinued the iPod Shuffle in 2017. The ones you are likely finding on Amazon are marked-up units from third-party sellers. We bought five when they were discontinued, and now talk about how we should have bought 200 and made a tidy profit.

  2. I feel panicked just reading this. You are very much more at home in those conditions than I will ever bem

    1. oops.. an extra m slipped in there somehow.

    2. Experience adds a little more confidence every year, but really, dealing with cold conditions never becomes much easier. It also never stops being an interesting and worthwhile challenge.

  3. Thanks for sharing your holiday rambles in the Alaskan countryside. What a great tradition!
    That photo of the "sun spire" on the horizon is special.

  4. Wow! Smiles....nothing but smiles!

    Jeff C

  5. It was great spending time with you guys! The Colorado Creek Trail was fun to bike, even with all the drifting at the top. (And, yes, I did ZOOM the rest of the way out. It was rockin'!) Love your photos! Especially of Beat with his headlight on and Beat heading into that fierce daytime sun! However, I must protest about your photo of me. I know that was when I dropped my bike to go back for my dropped camera, but I look like a total dork! I'm either lost tourist or a guy searching for his runaway bike. ;-)

    1. That photo is out of focus, too ... sadly the only one I took with you in it. :-)

    2. Maybe being a lost tourist dork is your true calling????

  6. Beautifully written especially your opening paragraph.


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