Thursday, December 26, 2013

Things to be expected on the Trail...

I had planned on going in to town to get my mail, buy fuel, propane and grab some of the much coveted halibut and other meat in mikes freezer.
The river was still probably very iffy further downstream, and there was still a lot of open water up here, in some area's. In any event I would be crossing the river and linking up with a series of trails on the other side, which would eventually take me to the road system. I would then park my snowmobile in a friends drive.
Jesse had mentioned that he was going to go down to the river and work on a snowmobile of his, that had broken down, and that he would tag along.
I told him I needed to get back, same day, so I wanted to get and early start. I told Jesse I wanted to head out by 9:30 am. The morning of the trip arrived. It was partly cloudy and in the low 20's.
Jesse showed up a bit early, which was fine with me. I had to take my bear dog Uljas with, as I still had the issue with Kaksi being in heat. I didn't want to leave her alone, but had little choice.
It was okay with him though as he loves going along.
We headed out and had no real trouble even though the trail was barely broken in. The only troubles I had was in some of the sharp bends he had put into the trail. My Arctic cat has a very long track, and my akio freight sled is quite long itself, making sharp bends difficult. Crossing the river was no big deal. The ice seemed solid and we crossed the channel and took to the gravel bars. We exited the river and took a winding trail that gave me a few more turning issues. Several times I had to jump off my machine and pull the ski's to get the cat going in the right direction. To get to the rest of the trail I had to cross a small stream that never freezes. Normally this little creek is just 20 feet wide or so, and just a few inches deep, and has a is easy to build a quick ramp. No so this year.
Jesse had warmed me that with all the temerature fluctuations the creek had frozen high, then as the levels lowered,and the temps rose it continued freezing on the way down. This resulted in about a four feet thick wall of ice that had been crudely hacked into steep ramps by Jesse his last trip up. The current had swept much of it away, on the last ramp, leaving a break which needed to be hacked back into a traversible ramp once again. We broke out the sledge hammers and in about twenty minutes had an acceptable ramp built. Jesse stayed on the far side ready to grab my ski, in the event I lost momentum. It wasn't needed but it was nice to have him there. His broken snowmobile was just a few yards away. He went to work on it and I continued down the trail. It was a pretty typical ride and was totally uneventful. I met two guy's heading to their weekend cabin up on carlson lake but that was about it. Uljas and I pulled into the trailhead parking lot about 11:15am.
Mike showed up a few minutes later and we continued on to Jeffs place which was just a few hundred yards further. As I was about turn down his road I spied him coming down the trail on his old Skidoo Tundra. Jeff was on his way up to his cabin to start opening it up for winter.Why he was using this Tundra was anybodies guess as he has five much newer, more comfortable machines to ride. His tundra, though a good machine, has no reverse and no headlights. We exchanged small talk quick, while I unloaded my sled. Mike and I then and made our way to all of my designated stops. Mail, propane, gasoline dogfood and some items out of my storage trailer. It didn't seem like it took very long, but by the time I got back to Jeff's driveway, it was 2:30pm. Later than I wanted.
As Mike and I pulled in I was suprised to see Jeff had returned already. He had some difficulty breaking trail through the unpacked snow, and since he had no headlight on his tundra (see!), he had to turn around. I hurried to repack my freight sled with all the new supplies and found there just was not enough room. I decided that two boxes of food and a 5 gallon can of gas had to stay behind. I put them back into the bed of Mikes truck. It was about then that I noticed my gloves were missing. I had evidentally left them at Mikes, which had been our last stop. I dug through my pack and retrieved my backup pair. I always bring a pack of basic survival items, including a complete change of clothing. Especially when you are traveling near water. Getting soaked out here is a death sentence. There will be no time to start a fire. I donned my gloves, said a quick so long, and headed out. It was nearly 3pm by the time I made the trailhead. Not good, as by 4:30pm it was going to be quite dark. I headed back down the trail at as good a clip as I could, without killing my poor dog, who was trailing behind. We were making
pretty good time, and the fact that it was a clear day helped, although I knew that the temps would continue to drop. We had traveled about 1/3 the way to the river when I looked back and noticed that a 5 gallon can of gas was missing from the rear deck on my machine. The ratchet strap was also missing, although one can had remained in the small enclosed platform. I was fairly upset, as in my haste I had not double checked my ratchets and straps. I made the decision to backtrack a bit just in case. This is not the first time I had lost something on the trail. In fact it is rather routine for people to drop items. There is a trail code (which may be vanishing), that folks will put your item off to the side of the trail and leave it. It was my hope that the code would hold true a bit longer. I could not get my freight sled to release from the hitch. Crossing the little creek had solidly frozen it in place. Regardless of the pounding with my fist or the kicking of my boot, it would not budge. I did manage to get my rig turned around, after a bit of work and some foul language. I went back a mile or so, much to my dogs dismay. I was getting really concerned over the diminshing light and decided to turn around and head for home. I couldn't afford to lose the gas, or the can, but I had much more important issues at the moment.
I don't like being caught out at night in these temps, and I had a LONG way to go yet. The creek and those ramps were weighing heavily on my mind. When we did arrive at the creek it was just after 4pm. Way to late in the day! I unloaded the sled. there was no way I was going to try and get that sled up that incline loaded full. So I carried two bags of dogfood, a 20lb cylinder of propane, 5 gallons of gas, a cooler full of meat and two new battery chargers across first. Actually I carried them all the way across to the far side of the creek. There was no way I was going to pick that stuff up twice! I had no difficulty crossing the first channel of the creek other than tipping my akio over, completely soaking what remained in it. It was of little matter as there was nothing fragile left in the sled. I got the machine and akio up on level ground and began reloading it. The soaking in the creek was going to freeze up my ropes for securing my load. There was a bit of light left, and I really hoping to get across the river. I was basically at the rivers edge, and all I had to do was negotiate a few sharp turns then cross the river. After that I was sure I'd be home free.
Well, it was not to be. The long track of my machine coupled with a long tongue on the freight sled continued to make cornering interesting. As I approached the first sharp turn I had to slow down to make the turn. As I did so the machine began to snowplow into the turn. I gave it some gas to try and get straightened out, but it didn't work.
If any of you have driven a narrow front end tractor in the snow, you know that steering in the front doesn't work that well. Unfortunately, there was no way for me to steer by braking. I could not just go straight forward due to some alders. I needed to make the turn. I was already off the machine, I gave it a bit more gas, trying to help steer it into the turn but it was no good. I reached down and tugged my ski's back onto the turn, but I has literally in the middle of the tight corner. After getting the machine straight, I applied the gas and tried to get the heavy load to move without digging down. that didn't work either. To compound matters, the tongue of the freight sled was sitting on what turned out to be a down cottonwood. As my track turned it dug until I was effectively high centered, by the tongue of the sled.
This was not working out well. I cursed the tight turn that was done out of expediency. By now it was nearly 5pm and getting very dark. As quickly as I could I unlashed the canvas on the sled and unloaded it. My hitch was solidly frozen shut from going through the creeks and with no real tools, I was unable to get it free. Even with the sled empty I was now to tired to lift the back of the machine out of the hole. I could see the track spin quite freely, turning nothing but air.
It was obvious I was done. My mitten gloves had frozen solid as had my pants from the knees down. I sat down to rest and used my last minutes on the phone to call Jeff and verify his coming up the next day. He said he was going to head out approximately 8am,  and that he would keep a lookout for my gas can. In mid conversation my phone beeped and shut off... no minutes left. With nothing left to do, I put what food I did not want to freeze in my pack. I struggled to put my snowshoes on. The bindings cotton laces had gotten wet in the creek crossing and were almost impossible to manipulate. I had thoughts of taking a shortcut across the river and linking up with my summer trail. A shorter but harder route as I would need to break trail. Once I put my headlamp on and turned it on, any thought of blazing a new trail across a river was out, as a weak circle of light shone on my feet. The cold had pulled my batteries down a bit. Uljas had aleady taken off anyhow. He always returns the same way we came. And that way was the winter hauling trail. It is a bit longer, but much more level with no real steep inclines. Which is the main reason we use it.
I took off following the trail, and my dog, onto the river. With the temps dropping, my mittens a useless mass of ice inside my pack, and no real light, I was in no great desire to bump into a moose in the dark. Pushing my hands deep down into the well insulated pockets of my surplus airforce artcic parka I trudged off. I was not cold or in any way uncomfortable, except maybe for the fatigue and annoying weight on my back. As I walked along in my dim circle of light, I could hear water running beneath my feet. A sound that I don't care to hear. However I was on a used trail, and my headlamp did not show any oveflow, so I felt okay.
Now this is not the first time I have had to walk back to the cabin in the dark. In fact I've done it enough, that I try and avoid it at all costs. But I have come up with the best way to get the job done. You trudge along. Don't focus on how far you have gone. Don't try and pick out landmarks. As long as you are on a trail you know, focus on thinking about anything but the trail. If you try and judge how far you have gone you will just get depressed. So I focused on what I would bring back down to the river the next day. Fortunately, there was no moon, so it was nice and dark the whole way. Had even the half moon risen, I would not have needed a headlamp at all.
Bringing Uljas along with me was a fluke, but I was glad it turned out that way. He led the way, and made sure no moose would cause any problems. As it was I never heard a peep out of him. Every so often I would see his eyes looking back at me, as he would sit and wait for slow, old dad to catch up.
Eventually I rounded a corner and realized I had turned off the winter trail and was now on my main trail. I had less than two miles, line of sight, to home. On I trudged, setting no land speed records in the least. At last I saw my little mountain looming in front of me. Uljas was already home, and I could hear my girl dog barking from inside the cabin. Looking at the thermometer as I unlocked the door, the temp read zero. My girl dog seemed very happy to see me, though I had left her alone all day. The cabin was frigid. My water jugs had frozen enough to be useless although the water in my stock pots did provide water.
I started a fire as quickly as I could. While the cabin warms quickly it took over han hour before I could stop shivering. My walk home was fine enough, but the minute I got in the cabin that all changed. I fired up the propane stove and started heating water. I was not able to carry any dog food back, so I had to make something for the dogs and me. I ended up cooking some pasta in chicken stock and a bit of spam. It wasn't much but it seemed to satisfy everybody, me included.
I gathered up the tools I wanted and an empty pack, and settled in for the rest of the night. It was 9pm when I got to my front door. It was 12:30 am by the time we had dinner and I was ready for tomorrow. My clothing was hung above the woodstove to dry and warm. I lay down on the bunk, and felt bones either falling into joint, or out of joint. It didn't really know or care which. I was not able to get comfortable, regardless of my position. Each was worse than the one before. I stared at the oil lamp and listened to the radio for awhile. About 3:30am I dozed off a bit. My departure time came too early. By 7am I was up and getting ready. By 7:45am Uljas and I were heading back to the river.
The half moon had risen about midnight and was still up so I could see quite well without the headlamp. The pack on my back was empty except for a butane torch, several vise grips and channel locks and a hammer. In my hands was a sod shovel. This time we took the shortcut I had thought of using the night before. It was exceedingly steep and I basically slide down the hill to the river. I searched around a bit to find the most solid place to cross, then headed downstream to my machine. By the time I got withing 100 yards I could hear Jeff.
He had just arrived a few minutes earlier. It was about 10:30 and I had made much better time, although I had not recovered much, if any, energy that I could tell. After a brief chat, I fired up the butane torch and de iced the hitch so I could remove it from the snowmobile. While I did this Jeff started digging my machine out of the snow. Once the freight sled was unloaded and free of the machine, it was fairly easy for both of us to lift the arctic cat back onto more solid footing. Jeff said it was -17 when he left Talkeetna. My therometer said minus -4. So it was somewhere in between. I had brought the empty pack in case the snowmobile would not start. At least I could carry something back. It took some gentle pulling on the starter rope to get the recoil to work and free up the pistons. After a bit of priming the arctic cat fired up and I knew I was finally on the downhill slide. After the machine was idling on it's own, I reloaded the freight sled. I threw some items in the pack and put it on my back. Once we got the load to move I didn't stop. We pulled out onto the river. Uljas behind and Jeff trailing on his tundra. From there on out the trip was exactly as it was supposed to go. The hauling trail proved to be an easy ride and jeff followed me home. It was noon when we arrived and the cabin. We were both a bit chilly. Traveling at an average of 10mph, I did freeze my ears a bit, even wearing my favorite balaclava. My glove warmers on the handle bars of my machine finally got warm about 1/8th mile from the cabin.
At least the cabin was neutral, if not warm. I got the interior warm in short order, cooked up some coffee and had lunch with Jeff while he warmed up. He still had to make it to his place and open it up. It would take me until dark to sort and re stow everything I had brought up.
I really try and plan my trips to avoid trouble. But sometimes it just happens. At least with the day's starting to get a bit longer, it will get a bit easier as well.....