Monday, August 13, 2007

Spring/Summer '07

The long and warm days of spring made travel easy and enjoyable and in April friends of ours: Ed, Carrie and her son Toben arrived via dogsleds and snowmobiles.

Heather eagerly learned to dive one of the dog teams, careening over the snow and crashing across overflow in utter glee. But, of course, not before putting her ego in check by falling off the sled in the first two seconds.

A few days later while Heather and Ed took the snow machine on a two-day trip to the nearest village to pick up building supplies, Ryan and Carrie took one of the dog teams north in search of caribou.

What started as a leisurely dog-sled ride culminated in Ryan finding himself clinging to arctic shrubs with mouth, hand and foot while climbing a steep snow covered mountain for a better look at the valley. Unfortunately, after following the completely erratic caribou trails all day, Ryan found himself peering at an ice-covered mountaintop, unscalable and without a caribou in sight.

It was wonderful to see Ed and Carrie again and to meet Toben. And we’re looking forward to hunting, dog-sledding, fishing or just plain hanging out with them again.

After Carrie, Ed and Toben left, we were tempted by fresh caribou tracks within a few miles of the cabin, and headed north on foot, again to see what we could find.

After hiking for 15 miles and being surrounded by crisscrossing trails in every direction we returned again exhausted and unsuccessful.

It is hard to explain, however, the humbling feeling of awe that overtook us standing - two small dots - amongst mountains and valleys crisscrossed with trails, dug up patches of lichen and smooth beds of melted snow where they had slept less than 24 hours ago.

Caribou have for many been the mysterious animal of the north, appearing by the thousands at one moment and disappearing the next. This valley is but one of many that has at times heard the clicking of their hooves.

To us, it was exhilarating to stand within the invisible presence of these animals, to be part of their mystery, to know that they were ‘just here’ and could be anywhere. To know that at any moment we could enter a spruce forest and see the flash of thousands of antlers or crest a mountain and see a sea of tiny dots moving across the landscape. Wilderness should never be expected to act or perform to appease the desires of humankind, that is for zoos and circuses to try to contend with. And thus, for us, to enjoy the caribou (and through them wilderness), is to be in love with their mystery and to feel honored to be part of it, to feel that our presence among the signs of their recent absence is as much a part of them as to be among the flash of their antlers.

As the sunlight neared the 24 hour mark in mid-April we decided to try our hand at snow camping.

We made camp on a small knoll surrounded by tundra and went off to explore one of the mountain streams. Although we found nothing but a solid sheet of ice, we heard for the first time in about 7 months, the rush and tumble of water as it flowed under the ice. It was hard to walk away from the creek- it seemed at any moment the water would bust through and the silence of the snow-covered world we knew would disappear.

Alas, the camping aspect of the trip was far less enjoyable. By 9 pm having been hankered down in our sleeping bags for some time due to the tundra’s lack of wood and our lack of interest in extended twig fires, we decided to cut our 5-day trip a bit short. And after one too many times of rolling off the tarp into the snow we determined ‘short’ to mean returning home at first decent light.

That night between the faint darkness colored by the pinkish clouds of sunrise/sunset, we saw our last burst of northern lights. Lying on our backs on the arctic tundra, we watched our ‘winter light’ dance and swirl into the midnight sun of spring and summer.

Soon after our snow camping experience the winter landscape started changing at a rapid speed.

The small creek nearest us broke with the sound of a jet plane and we watched in awe as walls of snow, ice, rocks and mud forced their way down the creek-bed towards the lake.

Soon the warm midnight sun turned the larger creeks into channels of overflow and rotted the edge of the lake ice creating small pods of water.

Gathering our drinking water became a challenge as the lake ice was rotting (and becoming not safe to walk on) and the creek and shallow lake water was full of mud and silt.

Heather standing on ice cake

Ryan caught our first fish in 7 months on a warm sunny day from a hole in the lake ice. It was wonderful to have fresh fish again! (Does it count as ice fishing if it’s 65 degrees out?) During the break-up of the lake we had a continuous stream of visitors.

It started with a handful of seagulls that landed in the small pool of water along the shore. The gulls were quickly followed by what seemed to be every duck the world over and amongst all the ducks came 18 trumpeter swans.

The ducks, swans, terns and seagulls all shared the small melted areas of the lake and chased off any last remnants of the winter silence with their continuous clatter.

For a while a young bald eagle was sighted in the nearby trees. In fact, at one point the eagle even made an attempt at carrying off a rather upset swan.

The lake broke up with ‘booms’ and cracking and grinding sounds that went on for weeks. Eventually larger and larger pieces of ice broke off until it was just a sea of ice cakes.

During the end of May a stiff north wind blew all the ice sheets south and out of sight – leaving us for a moment to look upon the large body of shimmering water. However, by the next day, the wind had changed and the ice came back to our shore grinding and crashing and melting quickly into the rising lake water.

As spring melted into summer we watched the sudden growth of new life: we enjoyed many long awaited willow and fireweed salad; watched the young gray jays learn how to make fewer crash landings into nearby branches; and enjoyed watching the not so sneaky young grouse with feathers still sticking out in random ways.

As the young squirrels ventured out for new territories, the cache and its valuable chocolate stash as well as the cabin became battlegrounds. At one point, Ryan entered the cabin, unsuspectingly, to find a flying ball of fur make a defensive leap for his leg before making its escape out the door and to a nearby tree to chatter endlessly at us.

On May first, with less time needed for firewood gathering we switched gears and began working on a small cabin to replace the one that Heather’s father built many years ago (and is now falling down).

We worked diligently through May and June where the especially hot summer kept the temperatures near eighty degrees most of the day (and our days are 24 hours!).

Only a few logs short of completing the new ‘creek-side cabin,’ we switched gears again at the end of June. Between summer thundershowers we began taking off the roof of the old main cabin in hopes of salvaging some of the logs for the creek-side cabin.

We are happy to say that the creek-side cabin is a ‘true bush cabin’ all of its logs have been taken from fallen or standing dead trees.

During the end of June we also took a several-day hike along a creek leading deep into the mountains. It was on this hike that we discovered the first ripe blueberries and marveled at an albino mosquito.

It was also amazing to follow the winding creek up as it carved its way deeper and steeper into the mountains.

Unfortunately, we were unable to make it over the pass and into the next valley as we planned due to a sudden weather change.

And so, after practicing our techniques of fire-starting in the rain for nearly two days, we returned back, the way we came, wading through the shockingly cold and suddenly swollen creek.

Although we would have liked to make it to the other valley, there was also a feeling of admiration that there are still places that can make you feel so small.

Now that it is the light of summer the berries and flowers are dotting the landscape. Heather is already setting the jars aside for a (hopefully) good batch of blueberry jam.

As we also slowly begin to lose our daylight, Ryan is making his plans to leave Alaska and return back to Humboldt County, California this fall while at the same time, towards the middle of July, Heather’s longtime friend, Adam, will visit to enjoy the land and continue work on the cabins.

Heather is also eagerly looking forward to a visit by her mother, Elaine, and then to seeing friends and family over the holiday season this winter.

Once again, both Ryan and Heather would like to thank their friends, family and other folks who have sent them mail and packages (we received our first mail in 3 months just the other day!).

We hope everyone is well and healthy and enjoying their summer.