Field Repairs

It was twenty-below or so when we rode out from camp, and the ride was smooth. Geoff broke trail ahead of me, the Skandic plowing up a bank on either side of the trench it cleared in the tundra snow. The sun still hasn’t come up since November, but we’re getting alpenglow that creeps a little farther down the slopes each day, and the cold blue light that filters over the ridgeline to the south lasts a few hours. We headed north toward the mountains, breaking the trail that we hope will take us up toward the divide.

When we reached the river, I decided to take Daazhraii and turn back to camp. I didn’t want to push the dog too hard – large as he is, he swims in the mire of a fresh trail – or be out after full dark. It was only a few miles of backtracking, and Geoff planned to be right behind me after pushing the trail a few miles more across the Chandalar, so I wasn’t worried about riding alone.

I turned and took a long detour through the extra-thick buttercream tundra just to revel in the way the Bravo seems to lift up and ride on plane like a flat-bottomed skiff. The dog bounded behind, wallowing a little in the deep powder, but grinning and glad. It was just after that, maybe only two miles from camp, that my sno-go came to a halt, headlight dimming and then dying, the insulation of the engine’s roaring suddenly vanishing, so that I became, all at once, a part of the landscape rather than a traveler just moving through.

I tried to start the Bravo – no dice – then lifted the cowling. The spark plug boot had popped off, taking with it the little nut that screws onto the plug itself. It was wedged up inside the plastic cap that connects to the wire.

Shit.

No Geoff, so no tools.

Oops.

I know I should carry some basics, but I don’t. This situation is so improbable: Geoff is always with me, fully-loaded down with probably fifty pounds of good stainless steel, and, when he’s not, we carry a pair of UHF radios.

I pictured the second yellow hand-held, tucked under feet of snow blanketing the riverbank just south of Chandalar lake where we left it in an airhead moment on a packrafting adventure this summer.

Shit.

Dismounts are not elegant in full winter outerwear. I plunked into the deep snow beside the trail and opened the seat compartment of my Bravo: plastic bags, spare spark plugs, no tape, no tools at all, not even the scrench that had been in there for weeks. Definitely no needle-nosed pliers, which is what I really needed. What did I have? My emergency box, behind the seat, was full of dry clothes and firestarter. Not so useful. In my pockets I carried a lighter, some hand warmers, a headlamp and a knife. Bust.

I waded off through the deep snow to the lake’s edge where a few dead trees stood bare and raggedy. My feet were cold already, even in my bunny boots, and I needed to keep busy and warm if I was going to have to wait for Geoff to show up. I broke off low, dead branches and kicked down a few scraggly dry spruces. Winter outerwear is like chain mail: you can just throw yourself at a tree, or half-climb it and try to pull it down on top of you without worrying too much about taking a branch to the ribs in any serious way. The small branches burned quickly, so I had to keep at it. I hung my neckwarmer and hat by the fire to thaw out while I worked to gather more fuel. The moisture of your breath condenses on your outerwear in the cold, so you wind up with ice buildup, which eventually gets uncomfortable.

As I was dragging an armload of twigs back to my fire, something clicked in my brain: sparkplugs.  I hustled back to where the Bravo waited, open like a clamshell in the trail, and tried unscrewing the nut from one of my spare plugs so that I could use the plug itself as a tool to remove the jammed nut from the rubber boot. Gloves on, I couldn’t loosen it. I tried taking my glove off and got nothing but a cold-scalded hand for my trouble.

Frick.

I gave up and went back to trudging heavily through the sometimes thigh-deep snow on the perimeter of the lake, wishing for snowshoes and gathering fuel while I waited for Geoff to turn back around.

When I got cold, I’d squat in the snow by the fire, then get up again to gather more fuel when the fire burned too low.

For two hours, maybe, I fed the fire, waiting. He didn’t appear. I did jumping jacks and added a bit of wood.

Night began to fall from the north and there was no sign of a headlight in the distance, no whine of an engine.

In the near-dark, I reevaluated my assets. I thawed the ice out of the elastic band on my headlamp, thinking maybe I could use it to clamp the rubber spark-plug boot to the engine and hold the nut in place long enough to make the short ride back to camp. Failing that, I could start walking. It wasn’t far, but the trail still hadn’t set, so it would be slow, difficult going, like wading in the surf, and I didn’t want to have to come back for the Bravo later. I took the spare spark plug out of my pocket and heated it, too, thinking maybe if I warmed it up the nut would come loose.

Not wanting a tongue-to-the-flagpole incident, I waited until the spark plug was really warm before sticking it in my mouth, then gripped the nut between my back teeth. I turned, and it came loose.

Just like that, I was back in business.

I screwed the spare plug into the nut jammed in the cap, popped out the nut, returned it to its rightful bolt and fired up the bravo.

Just like that.

While the Bravo muttered and churred in the trail, warming up, I threw the last of my wood on the fire. I was hoping it would burn long enough for Geoff to see it and realize what I’d pulled off all on my own. Night came as I drove away, turning my head to watch the live blaze of my campfire recede into the darkness.

(Geoff arrived at camp thirty minutes after I did, rimed with frost. He’d broken trail almost to the mountains, maybe another ten miles, and gotten stuck for a while in overflow.)

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Marten Lake or Bust. Seriously.

That Monday in March was probably one of the most beautiful days Geoff and I spent on the trail all winter. It was also one of the most frightening.

We woke up at Gweelah Camp and spent hours trying to thaw ourselves out. Geoff stepped straight into his forty-below boots that morning and it took a while for his feet to bounce back. We huddled over our low, damp fire, willing our clothes to dry, our toes to thaw, our water to boil. I felt brittle and stiff, like a frozen-solid sapling that snaps at a touch in the deep winter: the night before, huddled in that damp sleeping bag, was the closest I’ve ever come to truly, dangerously cold.

When we finally took off, we were low on fuel, low on really good food, and low on sleep. We had fifteen miles or so to go before Marten lake, and we felt sure now that there was no trail. I kept touching the package of toe warmers in the breast pocket of my bibs for reassurance. They were the last pair, and I’d been saving them against an emergency. They served as a kind of talisman: I knew I had five hours of comfortable feet, and as long as I could do without them, I had something in reserve.

The sun was blazing that day, setting the world to glittering in every direction. The ridgeline carried us like a rising swell over a sea of sparkling foam. We had sweeping views of the valley and the Chandalar, swirling against the foothills like a shining white pennant. The low hills rolled away from us in every direction and the mountains in the distance dazzled with searchlight-brilliant peaks. Daazhraii and I walked miles, all told, pushing ourselves to make up ground and help conserve fuel while Geoff broke trail ahead. I took no pictures, for some reason, but it’s clear and blinding-glossy in my memory.

When we crested the last ridge, we could see Marten lake far below in the valley. Dusk was falling, and the trail shot straight down the densely forested slope below. Geoff took us as far as he could, then left us again. I kept the puppy close as I walked, slower now than I had in the daylight, more cautious and aware of the woods around me. The forest had closed in, and the dark was circling. I had an ear out for night hunters. I kept the puppy close.

At times Geoff was gone a long while. He’d return, run us to the end of the trail he’d made, and then continue ahead alone. Each time he returned, I’d ask “did you make it to the lake?” Each time, he’d reply “not yet. I must be getting close, though.” We both felt exhaustion setting in, and when we passed through a promising patch of dry wood that might have made a warm camp, we pushed on with a sigh.

We were hoping for a cabin, a snug, dry cabin with a wood stove where we could dry our sleeping bags, frozen into a stiff mass from the steam and frost of the cold night at Gweelah Camp. I thought I remembered something from a conversation overheard a year ago in Venetie, but deep down I suspected the memory was just a wish or a fabrication. And even if there was a cabin, how would we find it? It was too much to hope for broken trail, a specter that seemed to have been haunting us now for days, especially broken trail that would lead to a dry, warm haven in this endless, frozen wilderness. It was just too much to ask.

The slope seemed to last forever, miles of straight, narrow trail with walls of brushy black spruce woods on either side. When Daazhraii and I rode behind Geoff, I huddled over the puppy, pushing clattering, clawing, dry willow branches aside. I took a good blow to the cheek once, and got a bit of crumbled bark in my eye. The eye watered and the tears froze, and I felt myself crumbling inward, at the end of my strength and resolve. It would be hard going if we couldn’t find a cabin. We’d both be drawing on tapped reserves of strength to cut trees and build a good fire and make hot food and dry our sleeping bags and take care of all the chores that mean the difference between a comfortable night and a dangerous one. It would be a night for space blankets and the last of the toe-warmers.

Riding on the snowmachine behind Geoff in that steep, narrow cut through the dark trees, I was scared. It was cold, and dark was falling, and I was done in, exhausted beyond my experience. I leaned my cheek against Geoff’s back and took a little strength from his blustery confidence and refusal to be cowed by the hungry night.

Just then, the skis bumped up and the snow broke in a straight line ahead of us. Trail. I let out a whoop and felt fizzies bubbling up from my toes. I’d stopped believing in trail days before, and yet here it was. My fingertips shivered with adrenaline and I cheered and danced. We followed the trail out onto the lake and around a few bends. Suddenly, rising right in front of us, cutting a straight line against the stars, there was the roofline of a cabin. I nearly fainted with relief.

It all happened so fast, once we found the trail. Hours of plowing through deep snow against the mounting arctic night and all its attendant terrors ended in moments with a bump in the snow and a line of darker dark against the black sky.

We turned aside the nail that kept the cabin’s door shut and went in. By headlamp, Geoff got a fire going. In a very short while, I was able to take off my coat, hat, gloves, neckwarmer. Steam rose from damp fleece and blurred the dim interior of the one-room building. We found ourselves laughing, cheered by the crackling warmth and the boundless relief of having a comfortable place to spend the night.

We looked for a high-powered radio, thinking we might be able to make a call to Venetie, but didn’t find one.

Geoff told me now that we had about three gallons of gas left, “not enough to get us to Venetie. Maybe not even enough to get just me if I left you and the sled”

“Looks like we’ll have to stay a few days”

“Oh darn – we’ll miss our valuable and instructive spring inservice!”

We planned to wave a gas can in the air the next morning when the plane came over. Boots would send someone with fuel for us, and we’d make it to Fort Yukon by Wednesday, with luck. We laughed, thrilled with the sudden gift of a vacation.

In time, we managed to untie the sled and bring in our food and sleeping bags. We strung ropes from the ceiling and hung everything to dry like so many rugs for sale in a bizarre sort of cold, steamy bazaar.

We fed the puppy and before we could feed ourselves, we were asleep on the bunk in the corner.

We woke up an hour or two later to the sound of snowmachine engines outside. The cabin was cold, and I jumped to my feet in the dark, searching for a headlamp and a sweatshirt.

“Knock knock!”

The door opened and a freezing cloud poured in, illuminated by the beam of a headlamp. Two figures materialized in the mist and resolved into familiar faces, once my eyes adjusted to the glare.

“We heard you guys were in trouble, so we came down to see if we could help out.” The two men stomped their boots, pulled up a chair and a bucket beside the stove, and started shedding layers of outerwear, hanging gear by the fire to dry. “Thought we might find you here.”

One man unpacked his backpack, pulling out fruit cups, pop, yogurt and dry meat “my little nephew wouldn’t let me leave without supplies,” he explained apologetically, “Would you like a pop?”

It turned out that, despite Boots’ seeing us that morning, folks in the village and at inservice in Fort Yukon were a little worried. These guys had taken off around three that afternoon with a sled full of fuel for us. It took them seven hours to travel the seventy miles of trail that we had spent the past four days painstakingly breaking, mile by mile.  They shared their snacks (I have a real weakness for dry meat) siphoned fuel, and took off for Venetie.

“You’re sure you don’t want to stay?”

“Nah, we’ll push on to Venetie. We’ll visit for tonight and head back tomorrow.”

“Who do I owe for the gas?” Geoff asked.

“I paid for it. We’ll just take care of it when you get back, okay?”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah, don’t worry about it, man. It was a great ride down.”

That was that. The door puffed open in a cloud of cold fog, snowmachines roared to life, and the night was silent and dark again. We went back to sleep, maybe a little heavy-hearted with the knowledge that we’d have to head out in the morning after all. That vacation had sounded pretty good.

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Daazhraii relaxing in the morning with a good book at the Marten Lake cabin.

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A beautiful sight.

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I ran out onto the lake in my jammies at twenty below to give the plane a cheerful A-OK that morning. Afterwards, we headed out.

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Everything but the kitchen sink – including the toilet (which is a bucket, and which we have to carry because puppies are disgusting)

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Looking back on Marten Lake from the top of the next ridge.

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It was another crystal blue day with long views from a rolling ridgeline. We were well-rested and glad, and not much could be finer.

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Riding the dash. Or pretending to.

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It’s about thirty miles – trail all the way! – from Marten Lake to Venetie. This was taken about halfway, and you can just make out Big Lake in the distance.

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We reached Venetie around nightfall. Five miles out, I opened my precious toe-warmers, secure in the knowledge that I wouldn’t really need them.

Oops Pie

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By far, the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me happened on Monday.

Last weekend, Geoff, Albert and I borrowed a canoe and took off for an adventure. We were camped a ways up Deadman’s Creek, and we spent all of Monday hiking in the tundra and berry picking at the base of the mountains. We’d just gotten back to camp, tired and sore from picking our way across the tundra, and were sitting down to eat some dinner before heading back to the village when search and rescue showed up. A complete surprise.

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“Yeah, your Dad called the troopers,” one of the guys said. I looked down at my feet, silently wishing the ground would split open so that I could fall in and be swallowed up by a new slough. Stupid-girl Slough.

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The details don’t matter much, just that it was a communication breakdown and entirely my fault. The searchers were good-humored about it, glad to find us all in one piece. What a first impression I must have made, though, moving to Arctic and causing such a stir within a week. There was a sign posted out in front of the school when we got back “No school Tuesday September 6th until Teachers are Found.” Wright Air flew over the river looking for us, and Venetie was all stirred up on my account. Board members called the superintendent. Kids cried. Geoff’s mom found out and told her neighbor and he managed to get a prayer circle going in West Virginia. What a mess.

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But all things, even embarrassing things, pass, I guess.

I made pie the other day from the blueberries we picked on Monday. They were shriveled up and sweet and purple on the red-leaved bushes, and they made my fingertips and teeth blue. That Tuesday morning the mountains were dusted with snow (we motored through a nasty little rain-squall to get back to the village, and it was cold and awful, so it stands to reason it’d be snow a few-hundred feet higher), so I think that was the last of the season’s blueberries. Embarrassment pie, mortification pie, sweet, delicious, wonderful, blueberry-major-oops pie. dsc05140

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