I have been lax in telling the story of Why We Were Late to Inservice (unabridged). Let me recap:
It was a March weekend. Geoff and I had to be in Fort Yukon on Monday for teacher inservice. On Friday night we followed the trail thirty miles to Zhoh Camp, where we had left the tent on previous trail-breaking trips. On Saturday, we broke trail about ten miles to Traa Camp. 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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.