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.
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?”
“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.