Friday, January 15, 2010

Two men in the wilderness; 1-15-10

Two men traveled in the wilderness. Both were driving snow machines. Both making their way along the same winter trail. They did not travel together.

The first man enjoyed the pleasant day and the solitude of traveling alone. He had hopes of finding the wolverine which had passed this way a few days earlier. He was familiar with this trail; traveling here most every day, hauling firewood to heat his home or to sell to others. He knew every turn. He knew where the trail drops suddenly down the steep bank onto the frozen lake, where it makes the hard left around the old stump, where it winds its way through the patch of standing dead spruce trees. As the cliche says, "he knows this trail like the back of his hand"; he's that familiar with it.

Which is why the fallen tree across the trail seemed so...rude. He travels this trail all the time. Now, suddenly, with no advance warning, the way is blocked. Last night's wind, accompanied by the sub-zero weather, had snapped a medium sized spruce tree off at the stump. Like a military road block in a war torn nation, the tree barred his way, commanding him to "HALT!". There were no rebels armed with AK-47's. No camo fatigues adorned with hanging grenades. No helmets, berets or floppy hats. But the effect was the same. His way was blocked.

Yet this was not the first time a tree had fallen across the trail. In such cases, the traveler must turn his snow machine around and go back, unless he happened to be carrying a chainsaw. With a saw, the roadblock is quickly removed, the insurgents are disarmed and sent scurrying into the forest, and the way is open for all to pass freely.

But the first man did not have a saw. He did carry with him an axe; all prudent travelers in this winter northern wilderness do. He looked at the tree and mentally considered the work necessary to chop through the log, twice, in order to remove a section blocking the trail. Hmmmm. A considerable effort would be needed. He didn't want to turn around and he didn't want to chop through the obstacle. Hmmmm. Maybe there was a third option.

The tree had fallen upon uneven ground. Small humps in the earth were holding the tree suspended over the trail. If he tried, he might be able to lift up on the log and quickly drive the snow machine under it. It looked possible. Hmmmm. The windshield might get broken as it was forced down going under the log; a strong possibility, but no matter. The snow machine had been battered before.

He lifted the log, drove the machine under, cracked his windshield, added to it's growing assortment of "battle scars" and proceeded down the trail.

Along comes our second man. He too is halted at the rebel road block. Like the first, he does not possess a chainsaw but does have an axe. Just as his predecessor, he mentally assesses the work required to chop through the log. Hmmmm. "It won't be an easy task. The tree is green and frozen, so it will be hard to chop, and heavy. If I try to go under it, I'll break my windshield". Hmmmm.

The second man kills the engine and slowly gets off his machine. Anticipating the work ahead, he removes his parka, exchanges his heavy mitts for a pair of lighter gloves and grabs his axe. Deliberately, like a batter stepping up to the plate, he moves into position. After trimming the limbs out of his way, he swings his axe down upon the log; a motion he will repeat dozens, perhaps hundreds of times.

Eventually, the sweating man dries his brow, dons his parka and mitts (though feeling hot he knows he will cool quickly on the moving machine) and continues on his way.

So why does one man evade a challenging obstacle, even when doing so causes him harm, and another man accept it? Is there a connection between how a man faces a log across the trail and how he lives his life? Hmmmm?

I can tell you which man has a better snow machine, but I think you already know.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Another frosty day; 1-04-10

Another day out in the cold. Minus thirty-something again. This picture is the apparel equivalent of a mixed metaphor.

The hat is beaver fur. Any arctic resident will tell you nothing works in extreme cold like fur. Hey, it keeps the four legged critters warm, has since creation, so after a while the two legged ones caught on. Beaver, wolf, wolverine, rabbit, muskrat, lynx, fox and otter are just some of the fur that works in the north. Not really a win-win, since the furbearers are the losers, but the borrowed fur has kept untold humans alive in extreme cold for centuries.

The face mask is polar fleece; breathable, an efficient insulator and nearly impervious to moisture. I could remove the face mask, brush away the frost, dry it with a paper towel or hand kerchief and it would be ready to go again (although a spin in the washer is always a good idea as often as possible). Fleece is a modern innovation that has earned its place in the northern wardrobe.

The down parka kind of bridges the gap between old school fur and high tech fleece.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

just another lovely sunset

The sun setting in the south; the moon rising in the north. You shoulda been there!

Oh yeah. The other pic is of an "open hole"; an area of open water on the river that has not yet frozen. Usually they will, eventually, but open holes are obviously very dangerous. Snow machiners can (and do) accidentally drive into open holes, especially at night, resulting in death in nearly every case.

The photo of this one was taken from a well-used trail, so you can see how close the danger lies; about 100 yards off the trail.

working cold; 1-02-10

It is an interesting thing, to work hard in the outdoors when the temps are cold.

By working "hard" I mean active, physical labor, such as felling trees, carrying firewood, shoveling snow and other similar means of converting your last meal into productive activity.

"Outdoors", in this case, refers to the wide open expanse of Alaska.

And "cold" means, well...COLD. As in thirty below (+/-). As in sixty degrees of frost (+/-). As in look at the guy in the picture.

Active physical labor generates a significant amount of perspiration, along with heavy breathing. The exhalation carries with it moisture (we're all familiar with "seeing your breath" when it's cold). This moisture readily attaches itself to any nearby object, freezing on contact. The resulting frost accumulates for as long as you remain outdoors (assuming you continue to breathe) which is why men with mustaches/beards can develop facial glaciers when they are out for long periods of time. That is also one reason why smart men in these parts do not sport much facial hair (the other reason being the local inhabitants general lack of whiskers; a blessing if you ask me)

So yesterday, when the guy in the photo was out for a few hours clearing a trail, checking a beaver set and picking up a load of wood in temps that measured minus thirties, you know why he returned all frosted up.