Bushwhackin’

I was recently asked if I would rather write in a cabin in the woods or on a beach. I don’t think the person realized I live in Alaska, and I happily replied the beach, just for a change of pace.

But then my husband independently decided for me: ‘Why not take it a step further?’ If a cabin in the woods makes for such great creative fuel, wouldn’t a tent be even better?

As said, I live in Alaska. Alaska is a stunning, largely untouched place. It’s a huge area, and has everything from mountains to wetlands, from glaciers to volcanoes, from rainforests to deserts to thousands of miles of oceanic coastlines. It is bitterly cold in winter, and can be downright hot in summer. We do not live in igloos, we do not ride moose to school, and yes, I have been known to wear something beyond animal pelts. I absolutely love it here.

Yet I have been missing out of many key ‘Alaskan’ experiences. I may have been fishing, but I’ve never been salmon fishing, or halibut, for that matter. I’ve butchered lots of animals, but have never been hunting (unless heating a can of beans in the back of my dad’s truck while he stalks caribous across the tundra counts). I’ve been snow-machining (or snowmobiling, for your Lower 48 folks) and I’ve been around plenty of sled dogs, but I’ve never been dog sledding myself. And I had never been winter camping. Before now.

One of the fun quirks about Alaska is that it’s pretty geologically active. We’ll wake up to minor earthquakes every now and then. There are volcano eruptions and the occasional tsunami out on the coast. And all over the place, in beautiful, glorious, little pockets, are hot springs.

Everybody around here has heard of Chena Hot Springs, of Circle and Manley springs. They are awesome. But Fond Husband caught wind of another hot spring. A rogue hot spring. A secret hidden-in-the-wilderness hot spring. Hutlinana.

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Okay, so maybe not a huge secret, but we were intrigued. And with the parents coming into town for a spring break visit, the stars were seeming to align. (And a comet as well!) Merrily, we started to prepare for my first winter camp-out ever.

Another note about my faux-Alaskan-ness. I’m not a skier. I mean, I’ve been on skis. I have boots and I’ll goof around the trails by our house with my family. But the fact remains that I’m awful at it, that the slightest uphill is nigh-unto insurmountable and the slightest downhill paralyzes me with fear. My husband was practically born on skis, but, well, he was also born here. Maybe it’s one of the childhood immunizations they do only here. And in Norway.

Either way, we prepared ourselves. And just because I can’t help myself, I tucked my little writing notebook in the car at the last minute. Because if writing in a cabin is so inspirational, then…?

Off we drove into the sunrise! Or away from it, I guess. Husband had distance goals, but I had writing goals. I had a writing competition deadline coming up and I needed more inspiration. I had a novel that needed a cleaner wrap-up and I love to plot like the mustache-twirliest of villains. We drove north and west, hours outside of Fairbanks, along the icy mountain roads to the North Slope, and then turned off to head for the Minto Flats.

I had my notebook across my knees and we chattered about stunning conclusions while gnawing on insanely expensive jerky. I navigated and Hubby drove, and shortly after midday, we found Hutlinana Creek and a trail head.

We found a pullout beside a reasonable-looking trail and parked. We changed into our ski gear and started to unload our baggage. We each had a hiking backpack and Husband was also pulling a sled with more gear. Neither of us had been there before and, although we had gathered rumors and internet hearsay, we wanted to be prepared, good little Boy Scouts that we are. And didn’t I look smashing?

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We walked over to the trail head, clipped into our skis, and started off with Robert in the lead, taking off with daring abandon down the slope. I adjusted my backpack, took a deep breath, and followed.

Sboof! I crashed headlong into knee-deep powder. Laughing to myself, I heaved myself back upright and continued. Only to crash again. I was now halfway down the ten foot hill. Then it occurred to me. This is my fourth time skiing. In my life. Ever. What have I gotten myself into?

Husband was now watching over his shoulder, offering helpful insights and being generally awesome. I eventually made it down to the flat stretch and breathed a sigh of relief. Only to punch a ski pole through the crust and crash again.

Frustrated, I apologized, pointing up at the backpack soaring over my shoulders. “Sorry, my center of gravity’s all off.”

“Maybe you should put your backpack on the sled.”

I frowned. “I’m not going to make you carry everything.”

“Just until we get to the creek.” (Note: he pronounces it ‘creeeek’, like the door hinges need to be oiled. Who does that?)

“I’m okay. I just need to get used to it.” Ha ha ha. So cutely naive.

We continued, but at this point there was an incline to hurdle. I was now a stone’s throw from the trail head. The gentle slope quietly mocked me as I tentatively slid nearer, only to slide backward again. I tried to get up a little speed, only to slide back even further the second time.

“You might have to herringbone it.”

This is a change of altitude roughly equivalent to shifting from sitting on my butt to my knees. Swallowing pride, I herringboned like a boss.

Unexpectedly, the trail proceeded to lead into tangled woods. I tripped again at the first opportunity and quickly attempted to clamber back to my feet before Husband noticed. I failed. He offered again to take the backpack and I again declined, waving him on airily. “Go ahead. I’ll catch up.”

Except that I didn’t. Instead, I tripped over a log, got near-hopelessly trapped in a gully, and fell on my face so hard that my ears were ringing. Husband took the backpack and I was beginning to feel a little frustrated, but then there was a break in the trees and bright, buttery sunshine lured me on. “Don’t worry,” my husband assured me. “Once we get to the creek, it should be nice and clear.”

And it was. Terrifically, gorgeously clear, with smooth, unbroken snow save for two little tracks leading out onto the creek. And then immediately across it. And then into the woods again. I paused, looking at the trail. Ever cheerful, Dear Spouse led the way across. I peered dubiously at the bank, a sharp drop and some seriously chewed-up trail.

For reasons I cannot remember or understand, I took the lead and herringboned somewhat less boss-like halfway up before sliding down, falling on my rear, and rolling an ankle. Husband coaxed me upright again and I tried at it once more. The third attempt, however, was a resounding victory! Husband followed, dragging the sled up after him and I started into the woods, which became rapidly denser as we progressed. Finally, I stopped, staring at the point where the trail went literally through a tree. Was I supposed to climb it? Circumnavigate? Levitate? “Honey, this is getting impossible.”

He agreed. The will-o’-the-wisps had led us astray. And then, a flash of brilliance: “How about we just follow the creek?”

I glanced back, wondering wistfully how long it would take me to get back to the car, drive to a hotel, spend the night in a hot tub, then lie through my teeth to my parents-in-law the next day about how great the trip was. “Sure. Let’s try it.”

I stepped off the trail and he turned around, quickly navigating his way back out. I followed, and then paused at the top of that thrice-accursed bank. I started down, fell over backward, got my skis crossed, hooked the upper one under a root, rolled an ankle, muttered angry things, and was generally hilarious. It is a mark of a superior man that my darling did not laugh at me endlessly. I insisted that he go on and I would catch up. A few minutes later, involving lots of flailing and waving skis around in the air while growling into a snow drift, I was back on the creek. I glanced up at him, waiting just at the far bend, and then started along.

But the fey charlatans weren’t done with us yet.

Others had been on this creek, we soon found. And not just of the skier variety. “Uh, honey, is that a wolf track?”

He didn’t even look. “No.”

“That’s a really big dog track.” I thought and then insisted again, “I think it’s a wolf track.”

“Wouldn’t that be cool if we saw a wolf?”

I frowned. “You do know that being eaten is number one on my Ways Not To Die list, right?”

“Wolves never attack groups of more than two people unless they’re rabid.”

I considered. “We’re not more than two people.”

“I meant more than one.” Perfect deadpan. Isn’t he wonderful?

I pursed my lips, looking down at my feet again, and begin to wonder anew if it would be worse to be eaten or to die in a fire. I still haven’t completely decided, nor have I been able to come up with a plausible scenario in which it would ever be a choice. Also, I hadn’t completely decided whether or not he was making things up. He often does. It’s best not to pursue it.

We found yet another trail leading off the creek and followed it into the woods, even popping off our skis for the trek. It petered out into nothing almost immediately and we turned back again to a snowy creek increasingly choked with trees and crisscrossed with moose tracks. I took the lead again and we eventually stepped out into a larger branch of the creek, and once more blessedly clear.

But we found that the snow was getting deeper. Snow that was initially at our shins rose to our knees. Soon, we were wading through hip-deep powder and I warily declared sighting more wolf tracks, as well as possible wolverines. (Note: upon reflection, it could also have been a small bear, I suppose. Husband refused to weigh in on the matter.) We followed a moose trail around another bend in the creek and found ourselves staring at an apocalyptic riot of uneven ground, ice, and open water.

We looked at each other and Husband shrugged. “At least we know we’re on the right creek.”

We continued, clinging to the still-frozen edges of the creek and still following some crazy moose through the middle of the wilderness. We crossed the creek at a frozen bend, climbed onto a shelf, and paused. We could see the next bend twisting sharply and considered the merits of cutting through. Then Dear Spouse sighed, planting his ski poles. “Let’s check the map.” We dug out the map and gnawed on the last of the granola bars while we guessed at where we were. A long series of switchbacks snaked for miles and it was getting late. We had no idea how close we were. Then Husband had his next epiphany. Turning toward the far ridge, he said, “The trail should be north. I think we should just cross country until we come across the trail.”

“Just… take off into the woods?”

“Yep. And if we get to the ridge and don’t find it, we can just camp for the night and head out in the morning.”

I briefly calculated my odds of stumbling into a bear den and getting mauled. “I can’t do skis through there.”

“Yeah. You carry the skis and I’ll pull the sled.”

I nodded. “Alright.”

Another mention of my lack of Alaskan awesomeness. I’d never been bushwhackin’ before. It seemed like the sort of thing that got adventure-seeking whipper-snappers lost and/or dead. I wanted to be neither of those things, but, as we were already fairly lost, and I have an incredible confidence in any stupid thing my man suggests, it struck me as perfect. I eagerly volunteered to break trail and led the way to the opposite bank.

I don’t know if other writers do this, but I spent the whole time engrossed in how cool I was, how I should write a scene about this, heck, a whole book! This was epic! I plowed forward, blasting through hip deep snow and uneven terrain, scouting out the best trail for my pack mule, I mean, Husband, and being generally awesome. The sun was sinking, but I would not rest. I was too cool. This was downright fun.

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“Is that the trail?”

“What? Where?”

He pointed. “Over there.”

I squinted at where he was pointing, slogged forward a few steps, and found it. “Yeah! I think so!”

It wasn’t the best trail I’d ever seen, but it was better than the one the moose had left and a heck of a lot better than following a melting creek in April a hundred miles from civilization. We hopped on and clipped our skiis back on, Husband once more taking the lead. We hurried on and I was reminded again that I am far less awesome on skiis than I am on foot. Then Hubby stopped, staring at his feet in disbelief.

“What?” I asked.

“It stops.”

What?”

“It stops.”

The faeries had gotten us again.

But we were too clever for them, even if others had had the sense to give up by then. We persevered. And soon after that, we found the real trail, unmistakable in its broad, smooth glory.

“We started at one-thirty, right?” I asked. “What time is it?”

He shrugged.

“What time is it?”

“Later.”

“Your watch is right there,” I said, pointing at his wrist.

“It’s, uh, about six.”

“We’ve been skiing around for four and a half hours?”

He shrugged and started off again.

I followed and said, “Well, we should be close then, right?”

We weren’t. Despite the fineness of my bushwhackin’, were still had the majority of the trail to go, and my patience for skiing was completely spent. So I hoofed it. But I hated the thought of slowing down my Darling Husband, who has skied his entire life and did so competitively throughout high school and college, and I hoofed it like a crazy woman. The only thing I had going for me was that he was still hauling everything except my skis. It got colder as the sun sank, and my legs were getting stiffer, and the terrain was getting icier, but I stared at the back of Husband’s sled and swore to myself, ‘I will pass out or die before I complain.’

I helped push the sled up the hills, and then helped push it along the flat stretches, too.  It was getting dark and cold and we still weren’t sure how close we were, or even if we were really on the right path at all.

“I see the tent!” he called back suddenly, three hours after we’d found the trail.

And there it was! Blushing gold in the failing sunlight- The legendary canvas tent, that mythic shelter, bestower of warmth and good fortune! We’d made it!

The Alaskan Brotherhood of Random Acts of Awesome already had a large, canvas wall tent set up, with split firewood and kindling, hatchets, an ax, a shovel, matches, a lamp, toilet paper, pretty much everything but food, already set up and ready to go.  The legends were true!  We started a fire, got the food started, and then I passed out for thirteen hours. It was the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time.  I didn’t even think about writing.

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