Arctic to Fort Yukon, Winter 2017

Teacher inservice was to be a week in March in Fort Yukon, and, since we don’t get a spring break, Geoff and I planned to make an adventure of it. We left Arctic by snowmachine that Friday afternoon, planning to spend a night at camp (about thirty miles down the trail) then push through to arrive in Venetie on Saturday or Sunday, stay with Terri, and complete the trip Sunday night or early Monday morning, depending. We were due in on Monday at nine. The whole trip would be 150 miles – a hundred to Venetie and another fifty to Fort Yukon.

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A sky-blue-pink sunset on the way down the trail to the tent

From my notes:

Friday, 3/3/17 10:30 PM

I saw a wolf tonight.

Geoff and I were getting wood just after arriving in camp. Daazhraii was curled up on my sleeping bag in the tent beside the stove, beat, as he always is, after a cold night ride down here. Geoff had taken down two trees and I had already limbed them when the chainsaw ran out of gas. Seeing no further work for myself for a few minutes, I started walking back to the tent to check on the pup. The tent was only about fifty yards away, so I didn’t even bother to put my overcoat back on.

I was several yards down the trail when my headlamp caught a pair of eyes, green-blue, about as far away as the tent, and seemingly on the trail. Daazhraii? I thought, (his eyes are that color by headlamp), and then immediately discarded the notion: the eyes were much too far off the ground. Vadzaih? Surely it’s a vadzaih, I thought next, but I think I knew better already. The profile had none of a caribou’s boxiness.

It was very still, and I stood frozen for a while, locked into those glowing eyes. I thought I could make out the silhouette of a sickle tail curving down to brush the snow.

“Geoff?” I said, “There’s something on the lake – really close”

“What does it look like?”

“Maybe a wolf. Probably a vadzaih?” I said as I began to back slowly away.

There was more, but it’s a blur: getting back to Geoff and the snowmachine, watching in horror as the animal loped toward the tent and Daazhraii – holding a tight hope that the puppy would stay inside – keeping my eyes on the silent, silky-graceful shadow as it slipped through puddles of moonlight and the dark tree-shadows of the clearing behind the tent – the sudden light and roar of the sno-go as we crashed through flying ice crystals toward camp. I stood on the seat and pointed at the wolf as it casually loped out of sight. Geoff never saw it at all – his memory is of the fear in my voice.

Geoff fired the pistol once after the animal was away, just to be sure to scare it enough that it wouldn’t come back. I held my hands over Daazhraii’s ears on our cot, still shaking from the adrenaline.

We checked the prints later, and there was no mistake – it was a single, large wolf that had come to investigate our camp. It stood and stared at me from about 120 feet away.

I have seen wolf tracks often, especially this winter. There was one memorable incident last year where a wolf crossed my ski-trail within about fifteen minutes of me; I saw the tracks as I was returning to camp and they ran right over my own outgoing tracks. Twice now, I have heard wolves howling. It is eerie and beautiful and strangely welcoming: Join us here in this vast, glorious country, they might be singing. Until tonight, though, a part of me did not believe wolves were beings of substance: certainly they would come to lay prints as wide as my palms in the snow, but they would then disappear as quick a breath, invisible and incorporeal. Just phantoms in the silent winter woods. It was like coming face to face with a ghost.

Strange that the wolf came across the lake while we had the sno-go and the chainsaw running, loud and bright. Strange how it let me get so close and then ran toward the tent and the camp. Geoff thinks it was curious about Daazhraii, and I have to agree. The puppy will not be going out alone tonight.

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Zhoh camp and little Daazhraii in the morning.

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Daazhraii playing zhoh in the snow

On that Saturday, we left Zhoh Camp late in the morning. Leaving camp in cold weather is always hard. Getting up is the worst part, because it’s cold, even in the tent, until someone starts a fire. I don’t usually budge from my sleeping bag unless the cold tickles my toes in earnest.

Once the fire is stoked, the chores begin: Geoff always makes coffee first, usually enough to fill the thermos. I don’t drink coffee, so I sometimes get to luxuriate in my sleeping bag while he builds a fire. After coffee is made, someone has to heat snow to fill the water bottles, which is more time-consuming than you might think. The dog-bowl has to thaw out. Breakfast has to be made and eaten (a hot breakfast makes a difference on a cold day); damp gear has to be dried (after a day out, my boots usually have a film of ice in the toes under the liners, so I have to thaw them out before I put them back on – in the tent I can do this overnight); fuel has to be siphoned,mixed and poured; and the gear we haul with us (“Beverly Hillbillies!” someone once commented upon seeing our sled) has to be tied down.

We did get out, eventually, and we thought we might make Venetie in the wee hours of the morning. The rumor mill had told of trail at Bob Lake, twenty miles away, and we’d already broken the first five. Fifteen miles of trail breaking was a lot, but it wasn’t unthinkable for a day’s work, and once we reached the trail it was fifty miles: just another long dark haul through the night, and we’re no stranger to those.

We set out.

Trail breaking is hard work in ideal conditions, and Geoff had to haul the sled and carry me and the dog on the back of the machine. Usually, that meant leaving us behind while he broke trail through new territory, then turning around to pick us up, so he was running the trail three times. The section right after the tent is the trickiest part of the hundred mile stretch. The cat trail disappears for a while, and you have to cut your own path.

We crossed a blinding expanse of tundra with Brown Grass Mountain in the distance. “It looks like the Lonely Mountain,” said Geoff. Nerd.

At the end of the tundra, we began a long climb. The whole valley rolled away behind us, and I felt untethered and giddy as I always do when I watch the familiar fall below the horizon.

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When evening rolled over us, we had just found the cat trail again. Looking for it is like driving by a field of corn and waiting for the moment when the sea of green suddenly stands up in straight rows. You’re looking at forest – a wall of black spruce, and then suddenly, if you catch it at just the right angle, it parts and there’s this long, narrow hallway through the trees.

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A break just before we found the cat trail again

Dark fell as we were nearing the top of the ridge.

“Let’s take a break here,” Geoff said, and began untying the chainsaw. “We’ll get a fire going, then I’ll go break trail to the top the ridge and come back for you and the little guy. It shouldn’t take me more than an hour or two to get up there.” I began knocking down small dead trees and pulling dry, brushy branches from the lower parts of the large spruces. “After the ridge, it should be smooth sailing to Bob Lake, and then there’s trail to Venetie. We could get in early in the morning if we push through.” We lit a fire in a flat spot beside the trail.

Night closed in as I limbed the trees Geoff cut, and suddenly I was sobbing. The wolf, the cold, the inscrutable night beyond the firelight: It was too much, and it pressed out on my insides so that my breath came short and my eyes filled.

In the dark and cold, behind all those layers, it’s easy to hide some tears so I held myself quiet and still. I didn’t want to make a fuss, knew in my head that we would be fine, that a few hours wasn’t too much to ask, although my gut shivered.

“I’ll leave you plenty of wood, the chainsaw. You’ve got your bear spray, the axe. You can take the pistol if you want.”

Geoff sawed lengths of wood. I stacked them.

“Are you okay?” Geoff asked. He had noticed my silence or perhaps that my eyes were shifting away from his, not from the glare of his headlamp.

“I’m not sure I want the pistol. I’d be too scared to fire it,” I deflected.

“Well, you can have the flares. That’d send the big bad wolf packin’.” He began rummaging in the crate on the back of the snowmachine.

After a while Geoff came back to warm his hands by the fire, “I can’t seem to find them. I’ll keep digging in a sec.” His gloves steamed.

The firelight flickered on our faces and he got a good look at me.

“Keely? Are you crying? What’s wrong?” He opened his arms and I crossed the fire pit and pressed my cheek against his jacket.

“I’m scared” I said. “I don’t want to slow us down or ruin the trip, but I’m scared of being alone out here.”

“I don’t have to go.” He said simply, and I felt my belly turn from ice to jelly.  “Let’s get everything set up. We can stay here tonight, or, if you feel up to it later, you and Daazhraii can hang out in the sleeping bag by the fire with a nice stack of wood and a killer arsenal while I go break trail. Don’t worry about it.”

I didn’t.

I gathered soft tips from the spruce trees while Geoff made dinner, and made a bed of them beside the fire. We laid out the tarp, the sleeping pads and the sleeping bags. I ate quickly and fell asleep almost instantly with my headlamp on and my book in the sleeping bag with me. Geoff brooded a while by the fire, and I woke up long enough to put the headlamp and book aside when he crawled in beside me.

“thirty-five below” he said.

We pulled the puppy close beside us and Geoff draped his parka over the little guy. Daazhraii’s breath steamed in the night air, and he curled his paws tightly under his belly.

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Traa camp in the morning

Sunday morning we woke up from a night at forty below with sixty miles left to go to Venetie and another fifty from Venetie to Fort Yukon.

If you’re thinking this is a ridiculous thing to expect to do in a day, you are not completely wrong. On good trail with a snowmachine, you can travel twenty miles an hour. We wouldn’t have good trail, but given an average of ten miles per hour, we could make it to Fort Yukon by morning. We’d heard in Arctic that the trail was broken as far as Bob Lake, only ten miles from Traa Camp, so after Bob Lake we’d have smooth sailing and fast progress to Venetie. We’d have to stay up all night to make it to Fort Yukon in time for an early-afternoon start on Monday, but it wasn’t out of the question.

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“Bob Lake by sunset, Venetie by midnight!” I cheered.

“No problem,” Geoff said, and we began breaking camp.

In the light of day, being alone for a while seemed far less frightening than it had in the dark, so I encouraged Geoff to break trail up to the top of the ridge while I packed up the sled. It was my first time packing the sled completely by myself, and it was a great challenge. Daazhraii romped in the snow while I tried to lash a five gallon bucket and a chainsaw and a pair of snowshoes to the top of a load that was already teetering. When Geoff got back, he inspected the sled, pronounced it awesome, and we hitched up and boogied.

Without the extra weight of sled, dog and woman, Geoff had made quick progress to the top of the ridge. We covered his new trail easily, and stopped to take in the view of Brown Grass Lake. browngrasseast

Downhill is a lot easier than up when you’re hauling a load, and it was all downhill or flat to Bob Lake. We experimented with speed and power, and eventually found a happy place where we floated on top of the snow, sled and all. It felt like hydroplaning in a car, and Geoff’s control was about as good. We sort of shimmied and slipped sideways now and then, and a couple of times we nearly catapulted ourselves into a tree, but we covered ground fast and before we knew it we’d made Bob Lake.

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On the side of the trail by Bob Lake’s south shore there is a drilling rig. It’s been there since they cleared the cat trail in the 70s or 80s and it is wildly incongruous. Bob Lake is the halfway mark between Arctic and Venetie, so this truck is fifty miles from the nearest road, and the nearest road is hundreds of miles from the nearest road that actually goes anywhere. I laughed when I saw it.

Aside from a truck in the untracked wilderness, there was one other notable feature of Bob Lake, specifically, the untracked wilderness thing. No tracks. No trail. No idea how far we might have to go before reaching the smooth sailing we’d banked on. We didn’t discuss it, just pressed on, hoping to find a broken trail around the next bend. Or the next. Over the ridge? Beyond that lake?

Daazhraii and I did a lot of hiking while Geoff broke trail past Bob Lake. The pup’s paws got cold (it was twenty below or so), and I ran the risk of overheating if I worked too hard, so we took a lot of breaks. I would lie on my back in the snow and Daazhraii would hop onto my belly and walk in circles to get settled. Geoff would come humming back down on the snowmachine and find us sprawled like that. He would help me up (lying on your back in all that winter gear with a wriggly thirty-five pound weight on your stomach feels a lot like being turtled) and we’d all hop back onto the snowmachine together, the puppy bundled in a fleece blanket between us.

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The sunset was magnificent that night, but it marked a turning point. Without the light, Geoff could no longer see well enough to stay on the cat trail. We had to stop or turn back. Until that moment, we’d been able to believe that we would find a broken trail. At sunset, we were forced to accept the fact that we likely wouldn’t see a trail again until Marten Lake, still fifteen miles away. It was at this point that we probably should have admitted defeat and turned around. We could have made it to Arctic in five hours; the trail was clear and familiar. Folks would be starting to worry.

I sent an “OK” message with my SPOT, hoping it would reach the right people. (Ultimately, it turned out that my parents were the only people who weren’t worried about us.)

Instead of turning back, we made camp where we fetched up when Geoff found he could no longer see the trail. We had some dry wood handy, though not as much as we would have liked. I started a fire while Geoff found dead trees and unloaded the chainsaw. Geoff started cooking while I shuffled around in the waist-deep drifts, pulling the tips off of spruce trees and building a green mattress beside the fire. It was cold, and we weren’t having much success getting warm. When Geoff dug the thermometer out from between our sleeping pads and it read -35, we felt perversely better.

I held the dog’s blanket beside the fire, trying to dry out the fleece. Steam billowed around my arms, but the blanket stayed cold and wet to the touch. I held it as long as I could and it just seemed to get soggier and soggier. The fire burned low in its snow-pit, and trickles of water from the ground below filled the dips around the burning wood. We had built our camp in a swamp.

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The steam collected on the things we placed near the fire, riming the nearby trees with frost. I had hoped to have a dry blanket for the dog to snuggle up on in the morning, but I soon gave up and moved my belongings out of the immediate area.

We went to bed that night with Daazhraii curled up in Geoff’s sleeping bag by our heads and the two of us crammed into my bag together. The dog was fine, but I’ve never spent a more miserable night. It was cramped and cold, and I kept slipping toward the fire pit. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling the cooking grate under my feet through the sleeping bag. Close to dawn I started feeling panicky and struggled to the top of the bag to get a breath of fresh air. It was cold and uncomfortable and impossible. “Just keep moving your feet,” Geoff said, “we’re fine, just please don’t panic.” I slipped in and out of sleep a few more times before we started the day, exhausted and grumpy and miraculously all in one piece. It had dropped below minus forty and we had been damp to start with. We were right on the edge of dangerously cold.

While Geoff was making his coffee, the plane flew over, circling us twice. We stood in the trail giving Boots (the pilot) a big thumbs up to let him know we were okay. Geoff tried to reach the plane by radio, but we learned later that they can’t tune in to the frequencies that our radios use.

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Well, you wanted adventure, I lectured myself while Geoff was out breaking trail up the next ridge, this is what adventure feels like. Daazhraii gnawed on a caribou antler I had found in the trail, and I heated kibble and broth for his breakfast, slowly and carefully positioning my boot liners to be close to the heat without bathing in steam. Geoff and I had a hot meal of oatmeal, rice, and freeze-dried veggies: we had run out of meat by this time.

Instead of trying to dry our gear, we packed it up, frost and all. It would be a really hard night if we couldn’t reach Venetie or get enough dry wood to build a monster fire to thaw our sleeping bags and my boot liners. I thought I remembered hearing something about a cabin at Marten Lake from Lawrence, who used to work maintenance in Venetie, but I wasn’t sure, and even if there was a cabin, I wasn’t confident that we could find it.

Geoff transferred fuel just before we took off. I am no expert, but the jugs looked dangerously low. “Are we going to make it to Venetie if we have to keep breaking trail?” I asked. Geoff said something evasive.

Maybe it was, “we have enough gas to run a chainsaw for weeks”

Which really didn’t answer the question, exactly, but it put a giddy bubble in my chest. At this point, it was Monday and we were officially late. Folks knew from Boots that we were okay, and we’d decided to go for it, regardless of the difficulties. It was an adventure, and missing inservice… well inservice is lame anyway.

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.

The next day, we flew to Fort Yukon. We were already two days late, and we owed some people an apology. Besides, the trail from Venetie to Fort Yukon wasn’t broken yet.

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