We had been dreaming of and working towards our first long winter adventure for about a year. It took time to collect the gear and clothing and a few short trips to figure some things out. Finally, in the middle of January, when the thermometer never ventures above negative temperatures for long, we were ready to push ourselves farther and deeper into the winter woods and excited to head out on a weeklong cross country ski trip.
We left from our cabin, skied past the lodge and down the driveway to the flat frozen surface of Lake Louise, our fully loaded ski pulks gliding behind us. At 11:15am the sun had been up for just over an hour, but we were unable to see anything in the thick white of the ice fog that lay dense on the lake. We didn't mind, we actually enjoyed the silent void surroundings that gave our journey an even more remote feeling. The snow was perfect for gliding across and we moved easily with our heavy loads making our way across the 6 miles to the north end of the lake. We crossed a small stretch of land that separated Lake Louise from Suisitna Lake and began our way around this next much longer and more narrow of the three lakes that we intended to encircle. As our white surroundings began to darken with the setting sun around 3:30pm we pulled over on the lake surface, packed down a large flat area in the snow and set up our tent for the night. On our past winter nights we struggled with heavy condensation in our tent, which froze and then "snowed" all over us, so this time we decided to sleep without the tent fly. We still set up the body of the tent as we didn't have another option for a ground cloth in order to forgo the tent completely and cowboy camp, but without the fly we still had some views, although we could see nothing but white fog, and we also had some great airflow, which meant it was colder but also meant no condensation.
I woke in the dark of the very early morning and smiled when my first sight was of an ink black sky sparkling with stars. I enjoyed the shimmering show in the sky for awhile before my eyelids fell closed once more. When I woke again I rolled onto my belly and peered out of the tent door to see a previously hidden horizon beginning to glow with the warmth of the sun that was just about to pull back the covers of the night and rise for the day. Large peaks of the Chugach Mountains towered behind a low line of jagged topped spruce which bordered the lake where we slept. We enjoyed the views as we drank a cup of coffee and began to pack. By the time we clipped the last straps on our ski pulks closed and stepped into our skis our beautiful surroundings had again become engulfed in a dense white fog as we slid across the lake into the silence. It was 10am and we were looking forward to making the most of the short hours of light that we had to play in.
As we made our way towards the end of Suisitna Lake the shoreline began to narrow around us and we were able to enjoy views of the trees and dense forest that we were passing. We stopped for a late lunch using our pulks as insulated sit pads while we boiled noodles and snacked on frozen cheese and salami. After lunch we made our way through the narrows connecting Suisitna Lake with Tyone Lake and began to follow the largest wolf tracks we had ever seen. At first it appeared that there were two wolves, but soon we realized they had been following in each others foot steps and there were actually four wolves. We followed these tracks for the remainder of the afternoon, stopping to inspect areas where the wolves had napped in the snow or where they had circled prints of moose, caribou and other small critters. Occasionally one of the set of tracks veered off into the woods on the scent of their prey, but soon after they would rejoin the tracks of the rest of the pack. I constantly scanned the trees hoping to catch a glimpse of the canines, as the prints we were following were very fresh, but if they were nearby they were well hidden.
Just as the white sky began to darken to a steely gray with the setting sun at 4pm we packed down the soft powder on the lake near the shoreline and set up camp for the night. A small, old, dilapidated cabin sat in the trees near our camp which we wanted to explore before we crawled into our tent. We waded through the powder and peered into the leaning structure to find it near empty except for a rusty metal chair and a few scraps of garbage and broken tools, remnants from a time when this cabin served as a shelter for trappers and hunters many decades before. We returned to our own shelter and crawled into sleeping bags to make some hot drinks and dinner before we fell asleep.
We woke to blue skies and good spirits, enjoyed a hot cup of coffee and got ready to leave the warmth of our sleeping bags. It was the time of morning which we refer to as the "cold hour", the hour just before the sunrise when the deepest cold hangs heavy in the air as if clinging to whatever it can as long as possible knowing that the sun is about to send the night chill away for the remainder of the day. It is the toughest hour to coax yourself out of your cozy cocoon, yet somehow it seems to often be the time we try to do exactly that. I save my sleeping bag for the last possible item to pack, stuffing all other belongings into my dry sacks and organizing all gear outside the tent door next to my pulk until there is nothing left to do other than reluctantly pull myself out of the warm feathers and shove them into their own stuff sack for the day. I then move with a quickness to take down the tent, pack my gear into the pulk and lastly put on my ski boots which I have tried to make more bearable by placing hot water bottles in each earlier in the morning. The water bottles don't warm the ski boots, but at least keep them from being frozen solid. By this time we are ready to get moving to warm ourselves up and we set off at a good pace to start the day.
We continued to follow the wolf tracks, now shimmering with day old ice indicating their probable distance from our current location. The long narrow shape of Tyone Lake gave us great views of both shorelines as well as two moose that were traveling along the edge of the frozen lake. We stopped to watch their gracefully lumbering bodies as they walked through the deep snow up into the trees and out of our sight. As we continued down this more remote lake we saw more signs of critters than we did of humans. As the feeling of really being deep in the wild set in we heard a rumble of an engine and two snow machines came up from behind us. They stopped to say hello and asked if we were the couple who worked at the lodge. We confirmed that we were, and one of the riders said he had heard we might be out skiing in the area. We had a mutual friend, an old trapper who had been living in the area for almost 70 years. Our mutual friend was currently at one of his remote trapper cabins just a mile from where we were skiing, so we got directions for where to find him and we followed the snow machine tracks to where the river met the lake and headed into the trees to say, "hello".
We came to a small structure and squeezed inside, the first and probably only time this small cabin had ever had five people in it. Just as we stepped in however, the other two stepped out making the gathering space much more comfortable. There was a strong pungent odor in the air, which I assumed was from the freshly stretched foxes on the drying boards against the wall and the cabin was warm from the small wood stove. We stripped off our many layers and settled into the two chairs in the room while we were handed cups of hot cocoa and slices of pudding cake which the visitors whom had just left had brought with them. I took this opportunity to remove my ski boots and tend to blisters on both heels that I had gotten on our first day. We stayed and visited for about an hour and then bundled back up to return to our skis.
We made this our turn around point, having reached the end of the 3rd lake, and we retraced our ski path in the late afternoon sun. We reached our camp spot from the previous night just as the sun was setting and set up our tent in the familiar location. We settled in for dinner, some blackberry brandy and late night conversation before drifting off to sleep.
When we woke in the dark early morning hours to the sound of our alarm it only took two words, "sleep longer?" and a reply of "mmmmm hmmmm" for me to reset our wake up call for an hour later. When the second song woke us from our comfortable slumber our early morning motivation was already gone and I turned off the alarm all together. The sun had brightened our tent and surroundings when we finally pulled ourselves into a sitting position and wrapped our hands around steaming mugs of hot coffee, hoping the caffeine would give us the energy to finally get going. Despite the long night sleep and relaxing morning I had woke in a foul mood for unknown reasons and could not seem to shake it. We packed up camp in the late late morning and slid our silent separate ways across the frozen lake.
I spent the next couple of hours trying to shake my negative emotions. I focussed on my beautiful surroundings, chanted silent mantras and cleared my mind in moving meditation. Finally my insides began to lighten and I again felt the gratitude for the moments that I was enjoying and the life that I was living.
It was at about this time we reached an intersection and consulted a hand drawn map on the back of a paper plate. We had hoped to visit another friend this afternoon and this seemed to be the point where we needed to cut off the lake up a narrow inlet to find his cabin. As we rounded the corner we saw a large structure and our friend at his front door hollering a greeting our direction. We returned the wave, unstrapped our skis and hiked up the hill to greet him.
This cabin was the compete opposite of the tiny trappers cabin we had visited the day prior. As our buddy led us through the front room into the large kitchen he described the other areas of the grounds beyond our view and gave us some of the history of the place where he had been living and care taking for the past eight years. There was another visitor seated at the kitchen table and as we removed our many warm layers we were introduced. We strung out our wet gloves and clothing around the wood stove and shared a bottle of moonshine as we talked until the sun set. Our buddy continued to encourage us to stay for the night, but we were set on our plan to camp outdoors. We did however borrow his propane stove to make a chicken curry dinner before we finally packed up, layered on our warm clothes and donned our headlamps for the dark night.
We realized quickly that we didn't need our headlamps as the glow of the moon and it's illumination of our snow covered surroundings made it easy to see without them. As we silently slid through the night, in the dark, I had the feeling of being like all of the other critters roaming through the wilderness, it was a familiar comfort. We found a spot in the trees at the top of a small hill to set up camp for the night. I might have been in foul mood when I woke, but I felt wonderful by the time we fell asleep.
The morning was cold, colder than I had expected given that we were sleeping above lake level. We packed camp quickly and began to move as fast as possible to get the blood flowing into our frozen toes. Despite the cold I stopped several times to photograph the pink, red and orange painted sky of the morning. As we continued across the center of the narrow lake it seemed to grow colder and colder. After about an hour and a half of skiing I finally caught up to Goose who had been quite a distance in front of me since I was stopping to marvel at the beauty of the morning often, and we both added additional layers as we commented about the ice crystals that had formed around our faces. It was definitely much colder than the previous mornings. We didn't know it at the time, but later learned it was around -20°F. We continued on, stopping only once for a short snack break, until we reached Lake Louise mid-day. Soon after we stopped at our bosses empty cabin to warm up while we ate lunch.
Once inside we started a fire and huddled around the wood stove. It wasn't long until the iron had warmed and we were able to remove some layers and finally start to feel comfortable. As we warmed however, Goose began to notice a lot of pain in several of his toes. His feet had been freezing all morning, and even though he had an old injury on his big toe which caused him pain, it was obvious this pain was from frost nip. We had intended to ski the final 6 miles across the lake back to our cabin that afternoon, but knowing that refreezing frost injuries after warming would cause even worse damage, we decided to stay for the night, thankful that we had a warm place available to us. Once we settled into our decision to stay for the night I stoked a fire in the sauna out back and enjoyed rotating between the warmth of the cabin and the intense heat of the sauna. After a few very relaxing visits we settled into our down beds set up on the floor in front of the fire and slept wonderfully through the night.
We were so happy to be able to enjoy coffee and pack up without having to battle the cold of January in Alaska the following morning. We enjoyed our final hours of skiing home and were thrilled to see our dogs waiting for us at the edge of the frozen lake when we arrived. It had been a beautiful week spent outdoors, but it had also been trying and exhausting. We continue to learn things with each trip and we are excited to continue our winter adventures outdoors.
I was thrilled to be home, more happy than I usually am to return to the indoors, but I know this was just the first of probably many more extended winter trips for us. This year however, as each day is getting longer and warmer with the return of the sun, I was excited that our next upcoming trips would not be in the dead of winter, but rather in the start of spring.