Black Rapids: climbing
Glacier Seer: climbing sort of
Icy Water: kayaking
I Could See: ice caving
Millennial Report: climbing, ice caving, sort of
Another Year: the usual adventure
Another Secret: north pole thing
Ghost White: kayaking
Animal Behavior: adventure
Chitina Dipnetting: fishing
And this aint no bullshit...
Black Rapids Bivy
There I was, mind you, and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual. It was in the dark of night, in the dead of winter, in the heart of the Alaska Range, the mountains towering above, and the storm raged. I was lost amid gaping crevasses somewhere on the Black Rapids Glacier. The ball of rime-ice having frozen my moustache to my beard, and to my parka zipper as well, had kept me from eating or drinking. Hunger gnawed at my vitals, and dehydration toyed with my clouded thoughts. I was drawn forward with hope from thin wisps of clear sky streaking through the clouds to show me a few stars now and again. Once, I saw a corner of the moon. Talons of piercing wind clawed at my tattered parka surviving not well with its old duct tape patches. I struggled on, an extra sock pulled over my freezing hand clutching the cold steel of my ice axe, each tenuous step in the crusted snow heard by hungered crevasses silently lurking below, their first hair-line cracks slithering unseen, reaching out toward where my errant steps might then be on snow stretched thin to suddenly crumble with its roar of laughter as I plunged into black depths for tribute demanded by the glacier at its whim if I miscalculated even that one step. The path ahead was fraught with peril. I staggered on, hunkered against the wind. The wind slammed me into the snow, for its idle mirth, again, and again, and finally too many times. I was forced to dig-in where danger was my only shelter. A bivy cave offered hope for survival, if I could survive to dig it. Fear drained my muscles as the sound of the shovel slicing into the crisp snow called out to the crevasses, the corners of their leading cracks curling into a smile. I had become a stationary target, a warm morsel where food was scarce, tribute. How deep could I dig in the new winter snow to leave a snow cave roof thick enough to shield me from the scouring blast of wind, and how close would I then dig to the grinning void below, ice-laced saliva trickling down from the parting lips of the snow-covered crevasse. I dug my bivy cave, often pausing to gauge premonition. It was thin above, and certainly thin below as I curled up in my hasty cave, musing on the wind now yet more enraged by my escape, but the crevasse now more slowly reaching for what it considered a certain meal, while I calculated my departure a moment sooner than certainty. I rested in the darkness, too cold to light a candle, and tediously picked at the ice cementing my moustache to my beard, to make a small hole for water. My muscles relaxed, the goal of a bivy achieved.
How was it that I came to such a place? What might you imagine as the source for my occasional laughter during my fitful sleep in that snow cave while the icy tongue of a hungry crevasse slowly rasped away the snow under my shivering body? Who are these people who venture out to such places alone? What are they looking for, and what do they find that causes them to return? What value is derived from such miserable hard work in a freezing playpen of death? What is missing from the stories, even this one, that leaves these odd sorts struggling so hard to find it outside even their own best descriptions? What unseen is attracted to these mortals only where mortals are therefore so curious to that unseen, but felt by the mortals through all the other perceptions? What else is as hidden from people by the raging winter storms in the most remote mountains of the far frozen north? Might one find inordinate value only where inordinate cost is paid? What might be protected by the best defense of fear and misery?
I rolled over. One arm punched through the floor, and I felt a raspy tongue of ice strip off my mitten. The pungent smell of fear filled the cave. I slowly squirmed backwards as chunks of snow fell away from around my shoulders. From a long ways below the faint sound of death echoed back, as is seared into the mind of those who have punched the deep ones, and survived. The last portion of the cave floor collapsed into the void as I flung myself outside. It was time to press on.
I was back out in the storm, as it turned to see me emerge
from the cave, and it smiled a smile you do not want to see. I
had toyed with each side of the moment of certainty. The bivy
was over. The storm offered no respite. It was yet in the dark
of night in the dead of winter. The path ahead was fraught with
peril. I searched for the other extra sock in my pack while wind-driven
snow followed my cold fingers. Exposed flesh freezes in seconds,
you know. To this very day I am not sure that I survived.
There I was, mind you, and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual. It was in the dark of night, in the dead of winter, in a log cabin far up a nearby valley, in the heart of Alaska. The sled dogs outside had already marked their territory among the snow machines, and were bedded down, twitching now and again in their dog dreams. In the cabin the light of the lantern was dim, but we could tell what we were drinking by its effects, and the smoke hung thick, much to our good humor. The guy telling the story had an uncertain quality about him, which might cause concern if everyone else weren't of the same nature, and some, more so. One chap fidgeted with a .44 round. He was the stable one. You'd be working a second job to pay more taxes to keep the whole lot of them in prison, out of raw fear of these words alone, if the mental midget government drones with their unquestioning police could slash the forests fast enough to make more paper to write more laws to reduce the world to their narrow rut of abject intolerance.
Near as I could tell the guy telling the story encountered a colleague we all thought had traveled farther away, but maybe not.
He said it was with the weighty burden of some unknown duty that he set forth out of the village where he was staying at the time, into the hinterlands to seek the council of the Seers and Sorcerers, the Mediums who might augment his meager wisdom, who might bring forth to him knowledge yet beyond his understanding. Sounded a bit much to us at first, but I'd heard other stories of these wizened sorts, some of which I told. He traveled alone into the winter, across trackless wilderness, for days, sustaining himself with only an occasional crust of bread, some moose jerky, some of that fancy brie cheese when no one was looking, a chocolate truffle or two when it was certain that no Seer was yet in the realm of his travels, partaking of no small amount of brandy to lighten his load each night. He was watched by the wolves, the fox, ravens, rabbits and eagles. Chickadees now and again flitted around him through the trees and brush, as quickly flitting away like small clouds of energy grooming the flora. He pressed forward, leaving the forested lowlands, passing through the hummocks of the higher tundra, into the storms and blinding blizzards, the bitter cold and winds of the mountains. Duty stayed his course against the temptations of mountains then at hand with climbing-routes which sang to him songs of sweet invitation tenderly drawing at his most inner cravings. The souls of adventurers ponder the world from their mountain thrones, and muse upon their visitors not always certain of their presence. There, in the passing clefts of swirling clouds embracing the fleeting rays of sun, on the mountain walls laced with sensuous curves of untouched snow, the soft glow of light-blue ice was gilded in glistening white, reaching up through dark and ominous rocks to heights breathing the intrigue of deadly peril. Yet with the deep and practiced knowledge of those having challenged and survived the tests, by grace beyond that which his stumbling incompetence could have ever deserved, he could see the secrets of the high bergshrund, the arrets of ice, the risky runnulets, the clean couloir leading to the col, the desperate crannies in the rock and other nooks of seeming shelter where, along the threatening route, respite was offered as perhaps temptation, and one could hole-up, safe to the edges of one's shoulders; a mind at fleeting moments free from the thought of peril within the mountain's very teeth as they gnashed now and again; a mind thus looking through that narrow portal into forbidden realms reached by a rare few, and fewer who survived long enough to question and learn the meaning of the vision, reaping its succulent fruits of priceless knowledge; that is, for the moments before one stepped back out into the gallery of that which held not just the temptation of sensuous white curves leading to the summit, seen from below, but the stark fear of certain death screaming into the abyss should even once luck blink, or the slightest flaw in judgment find its eventual way into the mind, or even waft by the mountain on unseen wisps within the plasma of vibrations into which the mountains ascended from the molten core of Earth. Such were that which tempted his mind and emotions as he looked back to the path ahead unmarked to some unknown destination. And in time, alone, far from the comfort and safety of the village, now traversing the glaciers among the most remote and unknown mountains towering above, long since having partaken of his last crust of bread with tasteless, frozen brie, and perhaps only a slosh or two of humble brandy left in his ragged satchel of sustenance, he came upon a sign; the presence of a Seer, a Sorcerer, a Medium, or perhaps just some fellow adventurer as thoroughly lost as himself. The mystic sign was, of course, a yellow spot in the snow, the territory of another's rule. Tracks led a ways to a cave dug in the snow in the lee of an old serac once majestic, high in the icefall, but now reduced by the inexorable flow of the glacier to its certain fate, yet still many miles and hundreds of years above the rubble moraine of the distant terminus. Nestled in the majesty of the mountain amphitheater where few dared to go, the cave was certainly that of a wizened person of ancient origins, by the looks of things having been there for a month or more. Near the door was the ritual placement of a few old bamboo wands, once green garden stakes known to mountaineers who know, now tattered by the winds and bleached by the sun. Draped on them were a pair of also tattered but not adequately bleached socks, and nearby a remnant of fabric that still held signs of having once been a garment of some sort. It was at the threshold of night, and the bitter cold came with the wind slipping down the glacier. A glow from a flickering candle crept around the edges of the cloth hung in the entrance of the small tunnel leading into the cave somewhere back deep in the snow. The faint aroma of hot soup curled up from the tunnel door, with certain other distinctive aromas known among those common to mountain snow caves lived in too long. He bent over, shook his shoulders with thoughts of the shaking making some sound of an arriving guest, and hailed the yet unseen occupant with the traditional old "Yoooo", knowing of the equally traditional old disbelief by the occupant, that anyone could have ever arrived where one went to such effort to flee for the purpose of not having to endure such an arrival. The visitor, crouched low at the small tunnel entrance, then crawled in at the muffled greeting of some indistinguishable words. Emerging into the cave from the tunnel, there was the voicetrous exchange of recognition, secret and known only to those who may have never met but know well any who would arrive at such a place. The secret exchange, as often forgotten by even those of such renown at startled disbelief of such a meeting, is often invented again in haste. The things of a small and cramped, smelly old boar's nest were quickly pushed aside, and a place to sit became sittable. It was bright in the cave, with the flicker of a single candle reflecting off the white walls of crystalline snow. The shuffling of things continued as thoughts arranged themselves amidst the search for things to accommodate a visitor to an established world of one. A mug was quickly in the hands of the visitor. "Soup", was the statement as some hot dark liquid was poured into what could be seen in the bottom of the mug as some frozen chunks of something that maybe should be chipped out first, just as the liquid engulfed them and the full-bodied texture of the soup floated to the top with an unknown odor. He wished he had noticed whether the spoon now being offered had just came out from under the pile of common garbage, or the more suspect dirty socks. Sitting on his throne of whatever was piled at his end of the cave, the Sorcerer ceremoniously straightened up as though to offer the first profound comment of considered thought, after the chaotic energy of the entrance; and farted. The candle sputtered. He reached over and uncorked a bottle of fine Scottish Whiskey, with two price tags, and splashed a full two gurgles into a tin cup crusted at the rim with frozen layers of old hot chocolate foam, and other scum. He handed it to the visitor still staring at the things floating in the soup. And then, rooting around in the pile of bedding and clothes at the side of the cave below a shelf cut into the snow and overflowing with various little things, the Sorcerer came up with an old pipe, ivory, polished from use, inlaid with Orcas of baleen, the leading edges of their fins glinting with silver, slicing through waves of gold. How had the pipe arrived here, or who was telling the story? From its peg in the snow above the tunnel doorway he took a strange small bag made from several colors of cloth, and carefully opened it, looking up with the casual comment: "No man, not even a Sorcerer is so great that he can access wisdom alone. It is only with the help of other creatures of the planet and beyond, that knowledge is created. The human mind is only a small part of things, that knows only enough at best to reach a few portals to perspective on more substance, and has not yet learned what to do with the visions it sees." The whiskey had washed off most of the crusted cocoa foam on the side of the cup from which the visitor was drinking. From the mysterious small bag the Sorcerer loaded the pipe with some thick greenish tobacco mixed with varied things. Curiously, the visitor reached over and pulled out of the tobacco a couple hairs, among what he then saw were many. "Caribou", said the Seer, and lit the pipe. "Tell only those who seek knowledge." It was from a thick cloud of odd smoke that the pipe appeared to the visitor as Caribou then leaped from the path of the Orcas before the visitor tasted their warm breath. And it was so that the visitor came to be introduced to the knowledge. Great and weighty concepts of profound consequences were spoken in words of substance. Questions were asked, and the answers were questioned. Time plodded along outside the cave. The rim of the whiskey cup was long since clean around its full edge; while in the bottom of the soup mug a few lumps were starting to freeze. Smoke drifted out the tunnel, past the cloth door, and curled upward, reaching for the northern lights of the night sky drawn to the thoughts of the Seer. And to inform the visitor that enough wisdom had been shared among them for the evening, with both hands the Seer picked up an Orca by two of its teeth, and drew upon its breath. At that a swirl of exploding northern lights swept down to gather up the smoke of the Orcas with their new concepts gleaned from two more humans, drawn into conceptual elements for their next journey, then flashed across the sky to distant lands, there dancing with waves and spires of spectacular lights in full auroral rainbow attracting a group of villagers below shivering in the cold and looking up in awe of what they yet did not understand, with a deep sense of longing to be back inside their warm houses wondering what caused it all. And shortly there, they lit up a bowl. The unnoticed eye of an Orca emerged in the first puff of smoke, looking around at new knowledge. Back inside the distant snow cave, the Seer and the visitor missed the whole light show, as their part of the effort that night was not to watch, but to create the knowledge. They thought they saw the shadow of the last Caribou walking across the end of the cave as the candle flame flickered through the fog of the cooling air. Oddly, the Caribou paused a bit over the soup mug, then shook himself and walked out the tunnel...
Icy water streamed through my beard
There I was, mind you, and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual. What? Perhaps you too hastily judge from rhetorical illusion. This is not the previous story you read, but it was desperate then too, as you might well know.
It was in the dark of night, in the dead of winter, in the middle of the Alaska Range, lost on the glacier. Gaping crevasses lurked across the ice unseen in the darkness, slithering under the snow to appear at your next step already full stride to certain death in the abyss, and it is then at the moment of decision, every muscle poised at its peak, that you either lunge across the void with a surge of adrenaline powering every synaptic interface between your brain and every contraction muscle in your body launching from flawless confidence in where you placed your last step; or you instead cringe in instant collapse on the near brink of the decision, clutching the edge of the ice as clumps of snow fall past your dangling legs, disappearing into the blackness below, without a sound, as sweat and tears of abject fear cloud your vision to leave only the senses of your fingers gripping your ice ace in screaming pain. Oh yeah, and it was cold, on account of the snow and all. Exposed flesh freezes in seconds, you know.
And at the moment that the next gaggle of rhetoric actually took place in the real world, I wish I was so fortunate to be at the edge of that crevasse I survived with one of those two decisions. Crevasses move slower.
It was as beguiling as it would have to be to attract me into what was as simple a death-trap as has been sprung on millions of adventurers in history testing yet another individual limit among humans, where humans test themselves. When I recognized I was in the trap, both directions out were the trap of course, and the pounder was coming over the top.
I was sitting in my kayak, behind a rock that the entire Pacific Ocean was attempting to destroy in its grinning quest to leave me as froth. I thought it was the rock that would save my life from what I just escaped, and what I was facing, until I saw the pounder welling toward the rock in the expanse of ocean. The swell was rising and my mind decided that it was decision time. Each decision had already been ruled out.
A bit of a conundrum, facing being arranged into an opaque red froth instantly disappearing among a few kayak shards never again seen in the Pacific Ocean as plankton swarmed to the passing wave of nutrients.
I came out from behind that rock, as what was behind me disappeared in a violent explosion of tormented green-white froth, salty fingers of the ocean's raw anger slipping from the stern of my kayak. That the paddle did not break from the force of my stroke, my full arm and half my beard in the water, my teeth having clipped errant hairs of my moustache, is the reason you are reading this. I jammed full right rudder, owing my life to the ebb of the otherwise top of the swell I passed at the corner of the rock where it made a low gap to fill the void left by the delay of it sweeping around the corner. Another person would call it dumb luck, and be correct.
Barely in time I turned into the swell coming through the paddle-wide slot between the rock that lured me, and the next one forming the last point of the cape. I looked up the wall of water rushing at me between those two rocks. I didn't have time for thought as I doubled the already exhausted calories being poured into my arms to paddle up that wall with enough speed to break the top still nose into the wave and not backing up.
Do not suggest that I was making a decision where I could weight the choices. The decision had been made some distance behind that point, and was merely being carried out amid rising obstacles.
If it had been a game, I would have won the medal for successfully breaking through that cresting swell, alive, between the two rocks, still pointing forward, with momentum. The crowds would have cheered and the instant replays filling your screen in slow motion. Alas, the rules of the game were not written for any human so foolish as to play such a game. Humans in that realm are just another piece of flotsam bobbing on the ocean swells, and puny ones.
I was not in any hot new lexan surf kayak, wearing a dry suit and helmeted. I was on a gentleman's cruise, with ample bottles of fine white wine stowed in the bow of my lumbering double Klepper stick and fabric kayak. Would you not have the wine for each evening of fresh sea food, alone, at remote paradise beaches and coves? Of course, there were few if any who braved such places with such craft, except a few millennium of tougher and wiser predecessors before these over-hyped white guys showed up with their high tech gear to ludicrously claim the social status of being the first to do everything humans can do. My kayak was the freighter in the fighter's ring, therefore requiring all the greater skill, or flat dumb luck of which I carried extra for the trip. And I was dressed for my evening stroll from the kayak to the camp spot. A gentleman would have it no other way, since there was no one else within many miles to see such abject foolishness.
So what is it, again, that gives the human the advantage? Is it not their brain, their thinking? I felt the crest of the swell pass under my butt as the world fell out from under my kayak. By the time the bow of my kayak fell that long distance to near vertical and I was looking straight down to what was certainly the bottom of the ocean in the lee of that huge swell piled between two rocks in the pounding swells of the rocky coast, I had already concluded that every productive use of my brain had already been expended before I got to the rock. These are the decisions you prefer to live through to know what decisions to not make next time.
To tarry would be to lose momentum, in a game where momentum is your friend, imperative even if your momentum is pointed toward where you are burying yourself in a hole at the base of a wall of water coming at you with an open grin lapping off the rocks at each corner of its salivating mouth. To look up to the top of the swell would cause a bit of neck pain. To look straight forward would minimize the impact. There was no time for the consideration.
However, there is always ample time to analyze an action in relation to its consequences, if one learns how to ask one's own mind effective questions. Was the object to get to the other side of the next swell, or tell the story? Was the goal that which was espoused, or the ego-candy of the glory? Why, might you suspect, is it that all those poor pitiable sorts yet craving titles and social status, desperately trying to fill a void in their mind, can never achieve enough of a title and social status, and why do they so desperately cling to whatever ludicrous social illusion they stumble into? You can't actually get hurt in that social game of titles and status, and you can lie your way out of any error by design of prior associating with enough foolish followers spewing every imaginable excuse just to sustain their own institutional illusions based on titles and status. The entire lot of them is without a micron of value if you wish to use your mind for its designed purpose, that is, resolve rather than create contradictions. It is outside the social game that the best lie won't get you through the next swell, regardless of your original intent, and thus the actual value of the actual goal is defined, the knowledge not otherwise learned. Or so I might imagine to have imagined.
I distinctly remember the bow of my wisely wine-laden kayak piercing the base of the next wall of water, without deviating. The blue of the canvas deck melted into the green of the water.
It is certain, because you are reading this, that when I emerged into air, my kayak was still pointing toward the Pacific Ocean, away from the teeth of the jagged rocks for which the water was only saliva. My kayak yet held momentum, however scant but sufficient, much to my amazement, icy water streaming through my beard.
When I finally turned to parallel the swells, facing that new hazard of its nature, I was far out from the rocks, and I was wondering what sort of camp site lay far ahead where I might savor the now greater flavor of the wine if I remained so lucky. But there was yet much water, many waves and jagged rocks between there and there. I may mention some of it if I reached there.
Odd lot these humans, but of quizzical antics, by design, wouldn't you agree?
I could see the standard sentences
There I was mind you, and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual. No, this is not that last story. That one was not even near the same place as this one, but it was desperate there too.
It was in the dark of night, in the dead of the winter, in the heart of the Alaska Range, alone, somewhere near the firn line on a certain secret glacier known only to those who recognize the story. If I'd knowed it was gonna turn out the way it did I sure as heck would have put my igloo closer to the moulin entrance.
It was a fashionable 20 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit for you Celsius people, and the down-glacier wind was snappy enough to keep one's back to it. Exposed flesh freezes in seconds, you know. I was therefore appreciative of finally getting all the rope-works screwed into the ice, and dropping down into the hole in the glacier, to the welcome calm and warmth of 32 degrees above zero inside the glacier. For 52 degrees of additional warmth in those conditions, I was eager to step into a vertical black void dropping into a complete unknown, on a three eights inch thick string of petroleum fiber. The transition through the body-size hole in three feet of new winter snow, from a cold windy world, to a warm and calm world, albeit just as dark as it was in the night sky, was as good as it gets out there.
It was the first time into this particular moulin, a vertical hole, formed by summer glacier melt-water plunging into the unknown bowels of the glacier, carving its way through the ice. It was winter, or close enough I figured, and the water on the glacier was a bit stiff, on account if it being a bit below freezing. I hadn't a clue as to what was below at the end of the rope somewhere down in the blackness. My dim headlamp glowed against the ice variously banded with crystal clear ice appearing black as the light disappeared into its depths without any reflecting back, and bands of bubbly ice gleaming bright white with all the light reflected in the first fraction of an inch. If you could see far enough in the clear ice, there are frozen woolly mammoths back in there, or so I might imagine.
I did all the safety things of course, being alone, far up a glacier, miles from anywhere with no one knowing for sure where I was, and in an unexplored hole that would drift-over with wind-blown snow, undetectable in a few hours. I descended the rope slowly, checking out the scene in an inherently unique moulin never seen by humans. Somewhere below in the blackness the end of the rope rested on a spot large enough to stand, or dangled against a yet vertical wall where I would have to rig another rope or re-rig to climb back out.
I was 80 or so feet down when it happened. I noticed that the wall I was sliding against as I went down the rope turned from flat, smooth ice to what seemed like a wall of icicles. About the time I figured out that was exactly what it was, it broke. Ice shattered all around and above me, chunks of ice hitting my shoulders as they plunged into the abyss below.
I was dangling free on the rope, and would have been laughing to use the excess adrenaline of sheer fear, but there was the small matter of the large volume of ice cold waterfall drenching me to the skin. It had been lurking under the wall of icicles, cleverly following me down to where it might get me within reach. I guess it wasn't quite winter enough yet, and the water still running under the insulating snow on the glacier was not any trifling amount.
There are of course a number of calculations to be made when one encounters that situation, but the first perception of ice cold water streaming through my beard, made it abundantly clear that whatever peril lay ahead had only a certain short period of time before my rapid loss of body heat would leave the next peril without victory. It was time for Plan B, and I had not even considered the possibility of water because its fatal nature in those temperatures led me to decide I would simply avoid it. How could I know it would be so devious?
On account of there being no choice, with suddenly great haste I descended in the waterfall, desperate for any respite and fearing the end of the rope still dangling against the wall under the waterfall. The most gracious of good fortune offered a tiny ledge in the ice, before the end of the rope, where I could delicately dance sideways on the points of my crampons to reach a spot out of the water where I could actually stand on an eight inch wide sloping ledge, without weight on the rope which continued down into the unknown. I carefully assessed all that there was to assess without slowing my expeditious transition, unclipping from rappel mode, and strapping into my ascending system of three Gibbs ascenders, little aluminum cams that slid over the rope in one direction and cammed it tight in the other direction, allowing one to climb up a rope.
OK, so I figured that I could prevail against the rapid body temperature loss in the soaking cloths, long enough to look around the awesome chamber of the moulin with a still unknown bottom. Way cool, in all regards. If I could only survive, I was certain to return. But that moment so utilized, and my being then rigged for the ascent with the best system known from practice, I bit off a few more moustache hairs and boldly swung back into the waterfall as I furiously worked those ascenders on that skinny thread of rope to go up through the pounding water, in fact, a bit too furious.
It was at the lip of the broken ice, my head out of the water but my body still in it, that the only carabiner I have ever had fail on me, failed on me, much to my amusement. My ascent was stopped, and my only choice was to go back down. I would have laughed, but I was too busy awkwardly descending on one foot ascender and one waist ascender. I was dismayed when my head went back under the ice cold water. It was a struggle to reach the ledge, and more to get the necessary slack from a system designed to go the other direction on the rope, to get sideways out of the water.
I recognized the standard sentences. The accident was the result of a series of small errors and failures, each one of which could have been prevented with better prior planning and attention to detail. While experienced, the victim failed to recognize the typical series of events leading to a fatal situation.
But then, they would never even find the evidence to write the sentences. The body would be found at the end of the glacier in maybe three hundred years from that spot.
That thought didn't slow down my process to replace the carabiner and change the system to prevent the unlikely event of the same failure, during the now critically short time before my diminishing body temperature would leave me not capable of functioning on the rope, or anywhere else. My fingers were numb. I was however, amused for the moment it took to willfully step back into that waterfall to start the upward struggle with a now less than optimum ascent system.
You may, if you wish, imagine the details, and perhaps some of my well-reasoned thoughts, while working up through the icy cold waterfall in the bowels of a glacier. There was indeed time to consider certain contradiction resolution process under somewhat precarious conditions affording the opportunity to learn an extent of a certain necessary part of the puzzle in the organizational manifestations of human fundamentals as they relate to said fundamentals sans organization, as of course I elsewhere expound upon more thoroughly within discourse on intellectual technology capable of resolving highly complex contradictions. After the technically difficult and almost not successful part of getting over the lip of ice in the full force of the emerging channel of water, I was out of the water, having survived a controlling contradiction, but still 80 feet down in the moulin, the next controlling contradiction. I was mercilessly burning every calorie I could find hiding in any crevice of my body, with robotic motions and one word filling my mind. Up.
So what thought should prevail just below the top of the hole, soaked in icy water but still down in the enticing calm and comparative warmth of 32 degree air, when in moments, after struggling over the edge, I was standing in the 20 degree below zero ambient air temperature, plus the effects of a strong down-glacier wind? I was instantly clothed in brick-hard frozen clothes flexing only where I hastily kept moving. That includes the thick shell of ice over my beard, moustache and hat. There was no one with whom to carry on conversation, anyway. My neck moved only until the ice of my beard or pony tail hit the ice of my coat. And it was in the dark of night and all that. The path ahead was yet fraught with peril, albeit as usual
Here was the gig. My crampons were frozen on my boots with no mere thin film of ice encrusting the securely knotted straps. The pocket with my pocket knife was frozen shut. I had lost a lot of core body heat and had only minutes of available time in the wind . My igloo, as cold inside as out until I could light a candle, was just a little too far away in just a little too deep of snow to walk there. I had to get my crampons off, and my skis on, fast, with bare hands outside the blocks of ice that were my mittens. I was amused. That was the last time I ever put my igloo that far from the moulin. I'll not here mention the time I later put it too near the moulin, to learn the other parameter the usual way, somewhere just outside careful forethought.
The igloo was up glacier, into the wind. If you weren't reading this story, you wouldn't know if I survived or not, and I wasn't all that sure myself until I finished reading it.
There I was, mind you, and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual. But this time it was the last act of desperation for the century. It was late December 1999, or one of those numbered things. It was in the dark of night , in the dead of winter, in the heart of the Alaska Range, at the face of the Black Rapids Glacier, and the mountains towered above. Had only I been so fortunate as to have encountered a raging storm, as was predicted, it would have been warmer. But it was dead calm and crystalline clear, a high pressure system having beaten back the warmth of the clouds to the south, and thus frightfully cold. Exposed flesh freezes in seconds, you know. A vertical wall of glacier ice, nay, overhanging, rose high above me as I stood next to it, in awe. One huge section had cleaved away from the glacier a bit, parallel to the wall at the top, but somehow still hanging up there. I was pressed against the ice looking straight up behind the thick slab of ice to see if the crack went all the way to the top at any point, when the glacier announced its annoyance at my presence, with a deep "Touuuuung"! I moved back a bit, and kinda squirmed to feel any possible moisture in my shorts.
The world was on the brink of disaster, albeit as usual, with Y2K promising the certain shut-down of human activity. Transportation would stop. Crops would fail. Electrical power would cease. Water would stop flowing in the plumbing of cities. Societies would collapse. War and pestilence would erupt in a sea of epidemic chaos. I had shut down the computers, after the spell-checker refused to work without pay, and I fled Fairbanks. I alone would be where it would be safe, because the hazards where I was going were worse than the worst in town, but I knew them well.
It was 30 below zero when I drove out of Fairbanks. A hundred miles to the south, in Delta Junction, it was 40 below zero. Thirty miles farther south, in the center of the Alaska Range, it was sufficiently colder that I tarried not to check the temperature. I parked the jeep beside the highway, clipped on my skis, hoisted my ninety-pound pack, and set out across the frozen Delta River at Black Rapids, moving fast to maintain an active blood flow for warmth. My beard, moustache, eyebrows and hat quickly became encrusted in frost, then solid ice. It was my main climbing hat, knitted for me by Kate, from sheep, dog, yak, bison, llama, a few bizarre thoughts and 14 different colors.
One may rhetorically expound on the nuances of sitting at a computer too long instead of climbing mountains, or one may go climbing and feel each of those nuances in each muscle at each stride. I had packed a pack for a serious climb, not to climb anything serious, but to add training weight, get back in shape, and tell the story.
It was only three and a half hours skiing to the glacier terminus, through old terminal moraines, across fresh tracks of wolf, fox and all manner of little critters, several of whom were no doubt quizzically watching from the patches of stunted and gnarled trees and bushes at the upper limit of trees held at bay by the glacier. As is too common on such adventures, I skied across one deceptive flat to find myself sinking into overflow water hidden under a skim of snow. I hastily thrashed my way ahead, hoping that it did not get deeper. Emerging on the other side, I struggled with heavily ice-laden skis to a good place to stop and bang ice off my skis and boots, with my ice axe.
My body temperature was critical the entire distance. It was a bit brisk out, and my mind had been at a computer too long. I had not accurately calculated the temperature in relation to the over-boots that were in my pack instead of over my double boots. If I had known my feet would not warm up the whole way in, I would have stopped to put on my over-boots. The perils on the path of every adventure are more often those in the cranium.
Upon arrival at the glacier my choice was to camp early at a good spot, or head up a steep side glacier toward the hill of my choice. On the latter there was no place for a decent camp until long after dark. It was already getting dark, as can be said early this time of year. I camped immediately to avoid the peril of any more foolish thought. As usual for the snout of the Black Rapids Glacier, a desolate place, a wind had earlier blown away the snow, leaving not enough for a snow cave. Snow caves are warm. Tents are cold.
Among those of we having been so foolish as to have discovered these rarely understood things, at the edge of things, the concept of inanimate objects holding their own intents becomes understood. While I was sitting at the computer, my equipment was insidiously deteriorating, ever so slightly, despite it being carefully packed and ready to go, but even slightly is too much at the limits of human functioning. This was my first function of this winter. First the tent made me earn my quarters for the evening. A crease became a rip in my haste and the bitter cold. The edge between things as planned and things very serious, was in full display. Every additional process, while not actively moving to maintain full body blood flow, left toes and fingers more vulnerable. When everything you need must get where you are, on your back, and much of that is for the purposes of climbing rather than camping, the minutes between stopping to camp, and drinking warm fluid in a tent, are few, or disastrous.
Then the stove leaked fuel. That was significant. I was amused. I knew the problem, quite precisely. We discovered the problem while winter climbing, years before the same problem became nationally known with a certain booster rocket on a certain space shuttle. A rubber o-ring on the stove pump was frozen as hard as a rock, and would not make a seal. Inserting the stove stem had further scored it rather than expanded it. So that stove was set aside and the next one immediately set up with more care, warming the stove stem at cost of finger warmth. Minutes had been lost. It was desperate indeed, much to my amusement. Then of course the gasoline fuel barely lit, as is interesting to watch when it is that cold. To build a fire has become a matter of leisure in these technological days, but technology can become a hollow word, while fire is still the link to human life in the far frozen north in the dead of night and all that.
Then it was just the usual stories. Huddled in a small tent, in the dark, melting snow while rubbing toes to rewarm them while trying to figure out why the headlamp had a bad connection (ice), while trying to see through the thick fog created from the water on the stove in cold air, and trying to find each little item, usually being sat on, for each common process while wearing mittens and a thick down parka. The candle lantern put out just enough light to see the tent wall. The accumulating frost on said wall was constantly being rubbed off to make every surface a snow surface. And one must occasionally work another chunk of ice out of the beard and moustache so one can get food into the mouth. The goal to quickly get something to drink and eat, and then plunge into the sleeping bag, was only a temptation while doing all the other things to make the next morning as efficient as plunging back out of the sleeping bag to get something to drink and eat, and all the other things before heading out as fast as one can, to get the blood flowing to warm the toes that got cold while doing all that. Each detail is critical in itself. The concluding go/no-go results are determined in the seconds between exposing the feet from the sleeping bag, to put on vapor-barrier socks (plastic grocery vegetable bags) over light inner socks, then put on heavy outer socks, then get them into the semi-warmed inner boots, then into over-boots for morning stuff, to later take them back out of the over-boots to put them in the cold outer boots over which one then puts the over-boots. It is all in calories per location lost per second of process, or something like that.
It is at such times in the evening that the simple knowledge of precisely what sleeping bag arrangement is optimum, is a warming thought. One wants a good down bag with a separate thin Dacron over-bag, for a reason explained elsewhere. I dove into the sleeping bag, feet first just so it would be easier to get back out.
The decision in the morning was easy. With only one stove and no certain spot for a snow cave to reasonably do repair work, and nary a cloud in the sky to promise respite from the little snap of clear cold air; to pursue the original goal was an unnecessary risk. Water is everything during the exertion of climbing while the cold dry air sucks water out of the body. To build a fire was still the link to life. If the other stove failed, the potentially deadly results would be nothing compared to the sheer embarrassment of such a fundamental screw-up.
Add to that the profound advantages of sloth and idle revelry readily available in the middle of the metropolitan squaller back in Fairbanks, to say nothing of the excitement of being in the middle of Y2K social collapse, chaos and a smattering of pestilence as it happens; when the choice was miserably cold hard work walking up another obscure hill in the boring pristine wilderness in the winter, for no socially recognizable benefit; and beset with the debilitating illness of low altitude lassitude, I was outta there. When in search of excuses, go where others do not go, to find the excuses they cannot question.
Alas, in the efficiency created by the decision to flee the face of peril, I found myself packed-up, warm, standing in a magnificently beautiful place, with the deceptive illusion of sunlight from somewhere on the other side of the mountains between the sun and I at high noon, and insufficient intelligence to recognize how miserable I was going to be getting back to the road in the dark if I tarried. I let sit my pack, and skied into the glacier, literally.
Well, as it is with these glaciers where the glacier ice turns to river water, the demarcation begins at the upper end of the glacier where the water begins twisting a labyrinth course through the ice. The demarcation ends down-river a good ways beyond where some would think those mounds of rubble rock are not old glacier ice insulated by moraine rock. Betwixt the ice and water, are the tunnels they form. And it all changes each year. This year the primary river exit from the Black Rapids Glacier was classic, a relatively personal sized round cave entrance with a narrow floor of ice over a gurgling river. The cave was maybe 15 feet high with a 10 foot floor. And it cut through a silty moraine embedded in the ice. The scalloped waves of delicate clear white ceiling ice crystal formations hung from a dark silt surface peppered with rock. Artsey contrast. Of course I left my headlamp back at the pack. I only discovered the cave after skiing around a bit just to look at the open ice walls. So I didn't go back into the dark cave as far as I could have if I had a headlamp.
I started taking pictures while back in the darker part of the cave, with a camera I hadn't used in awhile, so I guessed the wrong side of the noticeable focal medium for the flash. And I am making the same mistake by writing this on a computer rather than spending my time at such places more often using my camera. These caves have many intrigues. Peering through the areas of clear ice hundreds of years old, one sees the same rocks and streaks of bubbles as are on the surface, but the image of depth adds mystery. The warbling tones of the gurgling water from somewhere back deep in the dark of the cave, amplified by the shape of the cave, indisputably sounded like monsters engaged in a conversation on my fate. You can be a full grown adult fearless of the dark and even unknowns, and those elsewhere unheard sounds will chill your spine and keep one of your eyes on the exit; as will the cold and the possibility of collapsing ice. That not being enough, I was standing on top of the Denali Fault, the primary fault line in Alaska, other than the government of course. The smallest earthquake, of the many in Alaska, could ruin that cave, and my day.
Having clicked-away a roll of film, I departed the cave. Back out in the daylight I encountered a not uncommon, fresh hole in the snow. I slowly skied to it, watching the area. At my ski tips a few feet from the hole a pure white ptarmigan exploded from the snow, flew a short ways, and dove into the snow again, burrowed a short ways and stuck its head back out of the snow like a periscope to look back at the odd and clumsy monster which emerged from the ice cave and smashed its way into the ptarmigan's bedroom. The only reason the animals tolerate humans is because they don't have opposable thumbs to build traps.
Having tarried too long, I returned to my pack, hoisted it, and sallied forth outta there. It was the usual course of events. I stopped long enough to pour water between the ice encrusting my stash and beard. I tried to eat some cashews, and scattering more on the snow than got through the ice to my mouth. I nearly freeze my fingers while warming, twisting and breaking apart a frozen York mint paddy so I could push the pieces through the ice. When the body is seizing every calorie of the most readily available energy, the periodic food and water intake are quite recognizable within a couple hours, if neglected. I hastily skied away from the snack break, holding my ski poles in the crook of my arm while warming my fingers and looking as clumsy as I was. I'm certain I could hear the snickering of the unseen wolves, fox, rabbits and other critters.
I reached the road in the dark, miserably cold, and miserable, still the night before the big party day back in town. I will omit the usual story of getting the jeep started, in the cold and dark, because it was too unique that time, would require an understanding of such things in such places, and all that you read herein aint no bullshit.
I came careening back to Fairbanks, from the Alaska Range, as fast as my jeep engine would push the gears through the frozen gear oil. It was 55 below zero in Delta Junction, and 50 below in Fairbanks. The ice fog created by the cars on the highway made driving in the dark, driving in the really serious dark of night and ice fog, for a hundred miles. My headlights didn't penetrate it, and the lights of the other cars were only two small spots suddenly going by the side window. It was the even less-bright tail lights that suddenly appear at your front bumper that kept the brake leg muscles wire-tight the entire time, while driving too fast to avoid the guy behind you suddenly catching up. More than just I have told the stories of stark terror driving that night, on many winter nights in the interior of Alaska.
The unpleasant thing about a two day trip into the hills is that the pre-preparation and post-preparation are the same regardless of the time in the hills. A wise person spends 30 days. I just dumped the pack out on the floor to thaw and dry, as usual.
It was the next night, and now the choice of where to go for the big 100 year party. The official Fairbanks city millennial fireworks display was canceled, not because of the terrorist threats, since we are the terrorists. I might note that there are more feds per capita in Alaska than anywhere in the world, watching us, watching each other and chasing their illusions, in distrust, hate and fear. Alaska attracts those citizens who figured out that citizens don't have to do what morons with government jobs say the people have to do. Law is not what government drones say it is. It is what is written, and only that, in precise words, and only a certain small, obscure set of it, not all that garbage print cranked out by bureaucrats. The government morons are enraged by their own confusion since they actually believe their fellow government morons who gave them their government jobs, and think all that printed crap contradicting itself, which they call "law", is law. Poor sad pitiable sorts. They are angered that Alaskans enjoy life instead of live in fear of government thugs. The town fireworks display was canceled because the ice fog was so thick the local terrorists couldn't see their own munitions exploding. Tough times on the terrorist front.
So it was over the hills and through the woods we went to get away from the town ice fog, then walking along an unmarked trail through a valley and up a hill to a certain clandestine cabin among all the other clandestine cabins hidden deep in the permafrost black spruce forest were feds fear to go. I'm certain the critters back in the trees were laughing as I trudged past, having already heard from their fellow critters that I was the one who fled the cold at Black Rapids. At the quintessential Alaskan cabin, the usual frost-encrusted moose antlers hung below the ridge pole, over the deck. The northern lights streaked across the sky in dancing spires of yellow, green, purple and all those colors, silhouetting the gray-white birch and dark spruce.
We did all the gluttony and revelry stuff as required. Told all the adventure lies. Ragged the government, and made astute statements as to the various qualities of the evening's wine selection, all while society was surely collapsing under the burden of Y2K rhetoric. As midnight approached, the munitions arsenal came out as everyone bundled up in parkas to stand out in the 50 below weather to marvel at the man-made sparks made puny by the northern lights above. The streaks and flashes of fire above and through the trees made fleeting art images of frosted white birch and glittering spruce. Half the sounds echoing through the valley were each of a precise caliber of fireworks, some the staccato of machine guns.
And of course one chap among the lot, needing light to see what next he wanted to select to dazzle the group, held the road flare close to the sack, too close. At first the snow-level display of flame and sparks and explosions was delightfully different, then everyone hastily scrambled in all directions, to look back at an area of colored glowing holes in the snow. At the edge of the clearing, the more intelligent dog team had already dove into their doghouses. As the last sky rocket fizzled in the snow, the group was already heading for the door to escape the cold. Anyone else would have burnt all that stuff in the stove to heat the house rather than the sky.
Alas, it is often the same show regardless of the excuse for the party, which of course the fear-stricken Washington DC government drones define as terrorist training exercises. They still haven't a clue as to the nature of humans, but there is hope if we give them another thousand years or so. Evolution may grant them a brain, or they may stumble out of their job and see the world they missed. The training exercises will be carried out again more than a few times before the real millennium arrives at the end of year 2000 for another grand party. Come to think of it, I gotta plug in the car, to get to another one tonight, being as how it is still 45 below zero when I be writing this and we gotta warm this air up with more munitions expenditure. It's a plot, if not a diabolical conspiracy, and the terrorists are the patrons of it all, popularized by your tax dollars in the hands of idiot feds who must popularize terrorists to get more of your tax dollars to protect you from their rhetorical illusions of terrorists. It's the terrorists alone who saved the world from millennial chaos, by definition of their not doing what government drones were blaming on them to shift your attention away from what government thugs are still doing.
Anyone else would have to pay good money for a show like these humans. Hmmm, come to think of it, we do.
Another Year, Another Cigar
There I was, mind you, and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual.
No, for good grief sakes, this is not the story you read last time. If it was, I wouldn't be writing it again. But it was certainly desperate then also.
It was the real millennium night at the end of 2000, and I faced the arduous effort to squeeze some event out of abject boredom.
It was in the dark of night, in the dead of winter, in the heart of Alaska. The bitter cold pierced exposed flesh with icy needles of deceptive pain. Well, somewhat, pretty much as cold as we can get it these days with global warming embarrassing our Alaska cold winter stories. Tell no one that it was a pleasant zero degrees, when last year at this same moment it was fifty below zero at this same spot, not accounting for the year leaving us at an entirely different moment and a few million miles in solar system travel away from that same spot. And I sure as heck don't know anyone who would expose flesh in the cold, anyway. I don't not shave for no reason.
At first the noise was only a minor annoyance off somewhere over my left shoulder as I sat at the computer pounding words into the screen, in search of new knowledge others so amusingly overlooked in their mind's mechanism for discovering new knowledge, that is, more effective questions of the mind's mechanism for discovering new knowledge. Don't read that too fast. So I finally got up and walked out into the other room to investigate the thumping noise. My best guess was a moose for some reason thumping against the house. A few years ago I opened the door one evening, to see nothing but moose face and antlers. We were both a bit startled. A friend once heard a thump against his living room window, and looked over to see a moose nose pressed against the glass, next to a leafy house plant inside the window.
Not a moose. The dull thumping noise was the University of Alaska folks, our representatives of higher learning, four hours early with their massive millennium fireworks attack against the night sky, using all manner of rockets and explosions of sparks and such pyrotechnic defiance of tranquility, to say nothing of their openly exposed contempt for their own liberal knee jerk tree hugging words on the evils of warming the delicate atmosphere with excesses of squanderous energy consumption. These humans and their universal addiction to the denial of their hypocrisy blinds them to the value of the human design, if you can imagine such a thing. Last year the same millennium fireworks display at the University, attended by much of the townsfolk, started off with a little discussion between an errant spark and the entire arsenal. The whole show lasted for a very impressive 30 seconds. Everyone survived, and got home early.
Watching the bursts and sprays of aerial sparks I marveled at how people can be so simple of mind as to still be mesmerized by these sparks of fire so many millennium after fire first startled the first human crawling out of the primordial soup of the ocean, comically trying to scratch his head in wonderment, with a fin that yet had no fingernails. I remained at the window, mesmerized for the duration of the show. I also look up at airplanes. I think we humans are new at our game.
Back to the computer screen, and much of what I call work was done before I prepared for the real entertainment a few minutes before midnight Alaska Nonstandard Time. First of course I selected suitable attire, a warm heavy wool surplus European military shirt I found at the recycle area by the dumpsters. Way more cool than my left-over jungle fatigues. My new beaver felt Top Hat made in the old style, that I recently acquired after wanting one since the first time I saw a picture of Abe Lincoln wearing one. Better to have the Top Hat, and not be the politician. A dry, deep maroon rose still graced the Top Hat band, from Betty Boop's recent solstice party up on Ulerhaven, outrageous as usual. With direct connections to Russia across the narrow Bering Strait, often in the dark of night, the vodka at the party was of such quality that only the most elite are afforded the opportunity. A lot of that sort of opportunity exists at the last spot of relative civilization before the road North drops off the top edge of the world. The social bell curve is inverted in Fairbanks.
I selected a warm pair of Apocalypse Design gloves, just in case, the ones I scorched a bit while I was the Grillmiester for the Apocalypse annual party at twenty below zero a couple weeks ago. I was grilling the caribou and flesh from various unidentified animals including the wily Tofu, slaving out in the cold dark night while everyone else was inside the Dog Mushers Lodge partying. The duties of a Grillmiester have been of great burden and responsibility since flame first touched raw meat being gnawed upon by hunters of long past millennium. One may imagine that accident to the bearded Neanderthal too near the fire.
Then of course I carefully selected my Transylvanian or maybe Hungarian hand carved hunting scene crystal glass brandy snifter, acquired in Budapest for just such occasions, after angering my fellow international mountain climbing organization leaders at our annual meeting, with always-unwelcome words of truth not flatterous of that ego-dependent institution, much to my amusement. I leisurely poured two full gurgles of Buchanan's Deluxe Scotch Whiskey, which suits the palate of many discerning enthusiasts of finely blended Scotches. However, being a Buchanan, I may mention that instead, I prefer a strong peaty single malt Islay Scotch, but I couldn't bring myself to so hastily open my bottle of pricey Lagavulin 16.
Then of course I selected a superlative cigar from my solid Gabon Ebony humidor, which I made to match the size of some thin ebony boards I had in my art materials stash for many years. The humidor would have been a bit bigger if the first time I tried making finger joints didn't teach me so much with such expensive wood. I chose a Puros Indios cigar, on account of someone gave me a couple they were given. The best cigar is the one whose rich flavor, with the aroma of fine Kentucky purebred horse stables, not recently cleaned, steeped in a captivating addiction to the human mind, is that from which there is no detraction in the pain of the price.
Thus prepared for humanity's daring choice to step into the actual new millennium of the 21st Century, local time, I wheeled my most comfortable roll-around, spin-around, lean-back cushioned chair, found in a dumpster, onto the front porch, and settled in. I lit the cigar despite the unfathomably repugnant sensory reaction any cigar inflicts in a mouth and on any other victim in the vicinity, which is of course the way it should be, to drive away the faint. Well, I didn't have any sparklers so the glow of a cigar was good enough for another roll of the calendar. I then squandered the delicate flavor of the fine Scotch by putting some in the same mouth that was just seared by the vile tobacco smoke. I leaned back to enjoy the Fairbanks fireworks display, right there from my porch.
First off was the spectacular display of brilliant red and blue lights prominent in the night sky, from the cop car on the road, having just pulled over another victim who harmed no one but was convenient prey for the State Trooper Road Shark Tax Man extracting another $70 - $200 tax bite under intimidation of inferior, contradicted law. Light shows don't come cheap when armed professionals impose them under color of law.
But with the midnight thing approaching, I was watching an array of high quality fireworks displays, six at any one moment across the Fairbanks sky, with others glittering through the ghost-white, frost-covered birch trees, here and there on the periphery. The staccato of countless other explosions, no few of them of various calibers, popped and cracked from the forest around the valley. And some of them not just semi-automatic.
This year the reds of the fireworks were noticeably more intense, perhaps due to some new pyrotechnic chemical, or more money for more of the previously best, or maybe some result of greater atmospheric saturation with some new toxic pollution, if not the ozone hole, or the amount of Scotch in two full gurgles. I am amused by how people can be so simple of mind as to be so mesmerized by nothing more than fleeting sparks of fire. The white sparkly bursts low behind the frosted white birch trees were superlative. Anyone else would have to pay someone to put those lacy trees in front of the bursts of sparks, and frost them. Mesmerized, I didn't notice the cold.
But towering above all the rockets, on account of the angle of view, the intensely pulsating red light at the top of the tall radio tower across the road, embarrassed the fireworks. The reliability alone was comforting for the rare moments no fireworks explosion graced the sky. And therefore looking up at the moonless starlit sky, one noticed the few low puffy clouds gleaming as radiant white as in the daylight sky, reflecting the massive kilowattage of oil-burning turbines feeding life to the carpet of city lights defying the night for no utility to humans, beyond defying the night and illuminating the clouds.
A sliver of northern lights over my shoulder to the north gracefully demurred to the comparatively pitiable effort of humans with their sparks. Last year the northern lights just plain walked right into the New Years eve fireworks display, with such intensity that the sky was lit with fiery swirls of excited electrons sometimes sweeping down to rake the forest with fingers of energized ions, by chance errantly igniting a few stashes of fireworks still in paper sacks and cardboard boxes, including the arsenal of explosives we assembled out at a secret cabin in a dark spruce valley north of town, that is, if the event wasn't caused by a certain person who shall remain unnamed, and the road flare he was holding when he leaned over to get another rocket. You should have seen that fast action, ground level show with people streaking away in a wild burst of fear-driven energy racing what was already passing them, among suddenly glowing multi-colored patches of snow illuminating at their feet. The dogs of the nearby sled dog team dove for their dog houses. The intense but brief show was well applauded as everyone thankfully streamed back into the cabin to escape the lack of enough global warming at fifty below zero.
The marvel of it all, and the foul taste of the cigar sufficiently introduced the new year and the whiskey glass was empty so I returned to the computer, as these words attest.
Another secret mission
There I was, mind you, and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual. You are not authorized to continue reading this, and any such attempt will subject you to scrutiny by federal agents. Herein you would read things prior known only to a very few, and some of them will not appreciate these words. Your unmitigated audacity in reading even this far has given the federal government computers time to psychologically scan your computer, much to their ongoing confusion.
It was back in the bad old days, when the enemy lurked unseen in the north, threatening us, keeping each other's illusion afloat. These poor children leading governments who so hate each other they squander their nation's potential on military, are the most pitiable living substance in the universe.
It was in the bitter cold of the far frozen north, about as far north as you can go before you start coming back.
But first I had to again apply for the usual secret clearance from our dear and benevolent, poor sad victims of federal government employment, much to my amusement. I laughed for the reason you will come to know.
Then we had to pack up all the secret and unlawful stuff, and fly to the northeast tip of Greenland, flying in the dark of night and through the clouds so as not to be seen. Of course the fine Danish folks administering a certain Station at the time were gracious enough to quasi-facilitate our passing through to a spot out on the ice over international waters, a short flight further north and thus our presence was politically deniable.
Then we had to find the next secret camp where no one would know where we were camped. No easy task. Our specially designed, one-of-a-kind, goofy-looking tri-turbo DC-3 droned through the sky over the North Pole, back and forth, searching for the perfect spot. Each day was fraught with peril, far beyond rescue over the jumbled pack ice of the vast North Pole. The hours were long and the tension was high, among those who didn't know we were often laughing ourselves to tears. Well, what sort of chaps might you suspect would be found for such missions into the teeth of deadly foolishness?
On the fourth day we found an adequate pan of pack-ice suitable for scientific research, and three of us stepped out of the tri-turbo as the sun was low on the horizon. Of course the sun was low on the horizon all day long, as it circled around the early spring North Pole horizon. Fortunately our parachutes worked, and we comfortably drifted to the ice on a pleasant day of -45 degrees Fahrenheit. The airplane disappeared from sight long before it reached the flat horizon, and we were already scrambling to build our humble shelter. Shortly we were in a warm tent drinking fine brandy, laughing at having survived, and in grand style.
The days were busy constructing and marking an airstrip between the jumbles of ice, so the tri-turbo could return with enough brandy to sustain our arduous mission. Of course we also had to endure the arriving gaggle of government scientists who were brought in to fuss and homdi-hoom over the ice to determine that it was indeed ice, amid those other things they were doing, for which your government squandered your tax money. And after lavishly feeding themselves with your money, those mental midgets in government say you are too stupid to be allowed to know what they learned with your money, because you didn't sink to a government job.
Then the Soviets showed up. Well, how were we to know that the first ever joint Soviet-Canadian adventure ski team crossing the Pole from Siberia to Canada was going to wander next to our secret camp. The Soviet airplane pilots dropping supplies to them, probably got a medal for spotting our clandestine operation. So, maybe we were on the side of the North Pole that the Soviets claimed. It's all just one vast expanse of white ice. One could search for months and not find the tiny spot of a half dozen tents in even one known area on that vast expanse of jumbled white ice constantly shifting with the winds and ocean currents.
Each day thereafter a large Soviet airplane wobbled through the air as slow as a large airplane can fly, barely over our heads, with cameras in the windows and open door. We waved. They waved and dropped us a pleasant greeting note. The crates probably didn't puzzle them, but they took a lot of pictures of the large snow-block obelisk of a quartz crystal I made just for fun, since our camp was named Crystal Camp.
But as soon as we found out by radio that the object of their air-drop was an adventure ski team, we three adventurers abandoned our duty to the scientists, and headed toward the adventure camp for some serious partying among fellow adventurers. Alas, a long, mile-wide lead of open water blocked our route. But I was not to be outdone.
You see, my particular position in the chain of command and on the project seniority list afforded me certain privileges not held by anyone else. Further, any formal recourse to a decision of mine, would leave others with my duties not of their high stature. Those words of course describe a true adventurer at the absolute bottom of the pecking-order, owing duty to no dolt who acquired a government title by the childish process I had earlier learned barely in time to escape. I therefore made up a package of candy, cookies and such goodies, and rigged it with a little cloth parachute, being as how I hold an official FAA Senior Parachute Riggers license somewhere in box of old stuff. The tri-turbo fortunately made a supply run that day. I handed the package to the pilot and asked him to toss it out the window over the ski team camp. Well, it also contained an invitation for them to visit our secret camp if they got a chance.
Two days later the huge Soviet helicopter landed at the edge of camp, and I was the first one to greet them. A Soviet chap mentioned the invitation and politely asked if the rest of the crew could visit our camp. I gave them permission before our camp commander was out of the tent. Half the Soviet KGB, with cameras clicking, emptied out of the helicopter, each with a bottle or two of superlative vodka, of course. I didn't think the helicopter could physically hold that many people. We had all the secret stuff hidden in crates, and everybody north of the 60th parallel knew the game at play anyway. We learned more than they did. I would describe the nature of the outrageous Soviet-styled party that ensued, but that is a national security secret. The star of the visit was the Soviet sports publication editor, because she was a journalist, of course.
I will interject a note on their helicopter, of the classic Soviet style most often seen. It was magnificent. It was overloaded to the gills, operating at maximum everything, on the red line, a disaster actively seeking its opportunity, and thus probably more safe than anything else, because the pilots were operating at maximum attention or they would have already perished. The reserve fuel tank for the long polar flight, lashed and wired inside the passenger area, was the most beaten, battered and dented barrel I have ever seen. It would violate every American safety rule that has been written, but it still held fuel more securely than the Valdez Exxon. A beautiful, well-worn Persian carpet was draped over the floor and piles of stuff, used by the passengers to sit on. A crude ladder led up to the overhead hole in the tail boom, where who-knows-what was stashed. A couple old, well-worn wooden chairs were used by the radio operator and maybe the main KGB guy, a lean figure whose image would have made a superlative US movie star. The radios on the tall rack were large, heavy World War II vintage tube and dial style. A battered old bolt action rifle leaned against the wall by the radios. The navigator sat between the pilots, in a cheap old bent tube and vinyl-covered kitchen chair of the American 1960's style. It was loose, with no seat belt. What the Soviets achieved, despite their fatally flawed governmental system quite identical to the American government bureaucracy, they achieved by disregarding the costly safety margin. They were real adventurers.
Superlative guests that the Soviets were, they invited us to their permanent North Pole Station a hundred or so miles away. This would be the first formal exchange between the Soviet and US North Pole ice stations. Glasnost, or however it is spelled. History in the making.
So you can laugh yourself to tears over your accurate imagination of precisely what took place when the project military commander back at Washington DC was informed by relayed radio messages that the Soviets landed at Crystal Camp, and had a drunken party, and about who was responsible, and that the US was therefore invited to the 55 year old permanent Soviet North Pole Station for the first time ever.
Well, if you might imagine my amusement, the Commander himself arrived in person on his way to visit the Soviet North Pole station, formally accepted all the credit for this historic event of glasnost, surrounded himself with a gaggle of selected camp colleagues, and for some reason known only to persons intelligent enough to be promoted in government, the minion who was responsible for the exchange and had the greatest rapport with the Soviets, was just too important to be allowed to leave the US camp. Of course the subsequent word-juggling of such an intelligent government official referenced a lack of space on the tri-turbo, as though he thought I didn't know it would hold another dozen passengers. If you aren't laughing yourself to tears every time the moron journalists of the network news media express respect for those embarrassing, intellectually absent children with impressive titles in government and military, a lot of common-sense people are laughing at you for being so gullible.
Having already done a few other things, and survived, the Soviet North Pole station could wait for a change in government and a tourist trip, if things get slow and I can find an affordable way to get there, perhaps referencing the old invitation that the American military seized for itself. At the time, things did not get slow.
But before things picked up, as you will recognize, we were suddenly awaken one sleep-period by the calamitously loud, Ruddle-ruddle-ruddle-ruddle-ruddle of what is immediately recognized by anyone who has been buzzed by a Soviet Bear Bomber. This particular airplane was the most odd and advanced air machine of the day. It defied what many aircraft engineers stated of its design. It was a very large, swept-wing, counter-rotating prop, four turbine engine bomber. Each engine had two props, counter rotating. The sound it made, ruddle-ruddle, was distinctive, to say the least. And the pilot of that mission no doubt still laughs when he tells the story. He lined up on the back end of our tents, all facing the same direction of course, with the sun low on the horizon in front of the tent doors, then swooped down on the camp, at camp level, and flew straight into the sun, full speed. We came out of the tents with the speed of someone trying to run from an explosion, recognizing what was happening only as we went through the doors, and not one of us saw the huge airplane in the blinding sun. The North Pole military game, still being played by mental midgets in government, at squanderous waste of tax money and greater damages not often discussed, is entertaining to the players.
We heard the cracking of the ice while we slept one subsequent sleep-period, but the ice was always cracking. When we awoke on schedule, there was a foot-wide gap of water between our camp and the runway. It divided the fuel cache and went through an igloo the scientists had made. The resident pilot of the small twin-engine airplane stationed at the camp hastily loaded his plane with his whiskey, a drum of fuel, his tools and his mechanic, in that order, and wished us luck as he gave the plane full throttle. The scientists took the rest of their whiskey into the igloo to watch the ominous crack get wider while they waited for the tri-turbo that was hopefully ready when the small plane got to sufficient altitude to radio the urgent message.
We three minions, along with the scientists who were too unsettled to watch the growing crack, scrambled to get the priority equipment to the runway. This was a bit of a situation. It became apparent that the local ice was on the move, and in face of the forces, any humans in the area were little different than the tiny white sea lice occasionally seen in the water. The tri-turbo arrived after several long hours. The scientists claimed priority, for some reason, along with their more favorite instruments, and were outta there.
Many hours later, the tri-turbo arrived again. The pilots were flying around the clock, without sleep. We loaded the plane with more instrumentation, and declined the invitation to flee, on account of our dedication to our duty to our country, if you are among those fooled by such rhetorical bovine scat so commonly spattered about by high-testosterone-level males who have learned the political value of the patriotism rhetoric, for tax paid adventure.
Waiting for the next flight, the ice started breaking up in earnest. We burned a lot of remaining equipment, saved the important stuff, and we were waiting on the ice of the runway. The open water and brash-ice were threatening us. Large slabs of ice were tipped up around us before they slid under water. The ominous noise of crunching ice saturated the air.
The pilots were forced by fatigue to grab four hours of sleep, and thus after more long hours the tri-turbo arrived again. I was lifting a box onto the airplane when the crack loudly exploded through the ice, inches in front of my toes, under the airplane. Things happened fast, very fast. The pilot shoved full throttle on all three engines then cut back the port engine, pivoting the plane to go for the narrowest part of the rapidly growing crack. I ran for the largest piece of ice. The tri-turbo zig-zagged over three cracks that the skis barely bridged. I jumped the cracks as water sloshed up to make it slippery for a colleague running behind me.
We got to the larger piece of ice, with less that half the runway intact. We were throwing stuff back out of the airplane to lighten the load, and heading down the runway to turn and take-off the direction with the smaller pressure ridge at the end. We would have to take-off with a 20 knot down-wind, a dicey gambit, and things were quickly getting worse. Open water and brash-ice were waiting for us where most of the runway had been, and more of the runway was breaking apart, with the shifting ice now putting the crates of discarded equipment in our path. But we were already full throttle to fate and weaving between crates.
I watched the cracks of open water zip under the plane as it shuttered each time the skis hit a crack, knowing that one of the rapidly approaching cracks could not be bridged by the skis. When the skis hit a mound of rough ice now in the runway path, with a solid crunch that shook the plane, I pretty much figured that we lost the landing gear and the next sound would be the props hitting the ice just before the underbelly would be ripped open by more rough ice while sliding into the water at high speed. I was sufficiently amused by the delay, and the queasy wobbly motion of the airplane, to look forward out the side bubble window to see we had been bounced into the air but the tip of the stalling left wing was headed straight for a remnant of pressure ridge ice. Knowing how the aluminum would first crumple before the wing ripped apart about mid way as the plane would pivot sideways and instantly cartwheel into the water, from previous, interesting adventures, I decided to use the remaining second or so to see how the pilots were utilizing their front row seat. Glancing around the corner into the cabin, I saw the main pilot, full-body-tilt-right into the space between the seats, hair turning yet more white while I was watching, white knuckles on the yoke twisted full right, sweat visibly running off his head, into a puddle on the aluminum floor as I felt the left wing tip lazily float up and over the pressure ridge, within inches, to dip down again just enough to maintain stark terror awhile longer as the tri-turbo erratically wobbled on what was only a slightly thicker cushion of air being squeezed between the brash-ice-water and underbelly of the plane.
It was long minutes and much altitude later when the first words were heard... I think we're flying now.
And it was a good thing, I figured.
Oh, and only some weeks after the project was finished, did the feds discover from their routinely comic secret clearance investigations, who they had hired, a person who can think enough to ask simple questions. Power-damaged minds fear questions more than death, because questions are the death of power. The feds immediately issued an administrative cancellation of the yet to be approved clearance, as usual.
Ghost White Columns of Water
There I was, mind you, and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual. To this very day I am not sure that I survived. Unlike the last time, it was not in the dark of night or the dead of winter, or even in the Alaska Range. If it were much further south, it wouldn't even be in Alaska. But it was in paradise, except for that last left turn.
How I linked up with these odd Canooks in their baidarka is another amusing story you'll have to ask to hear, but by the time we reached Khaz Head down on the outside coast of southeast Alaska, we were laughing ourselves to tears, and caution had been blown away by the breeze. Ya'll want to be more careful about that than we were, but then, there were times we were and it still didn't help.
The two of them were in their three-hole, 28 foot baidarka, a little kayak arrangement the Aleuts are said to have designed in the early days. It was made with a separate bow piece to absorb any impact without puncturing the hull. It looked a bit like a dragon head. I was in my plain old 17 foot Klepper kayak. And we were both under sail, fan shaped Aleut style sails, nothing you can get on the market. It was warm and sunny, with a gentle breeze, as we sailed out from behind the protection of the islands, into the open water. We bid the face of the Pacific Ocean a pleasant greeting as we turned left to track the rocky coast, a good ways out, in deference to the evident hazards of the sea cliffs.
It pretty much happened like it always does in every story of this kind. Just about the moment it became obvious that things were not so calm and sunny as they were a moment ago, it was too late to turn against the forces. We had turned to run with the wind, and it turned to run with us, laughing at our having been laughing instead of watching the wind, with our sails set full.
If I were filming my mind instead of typing these words you would see an ocean swell with an ominous little white cap suddenly come up from your right rear as you looked back, overtaking your kayak, with the white water at the top of the swell sloshing over the deck, curling along the gunwale with a mischievous sneer before it washed over the bow and was gone.
Things started happening fast. Keeping my balance became arduous, and my neck soon tired of turning to try to watch each swell as it overtook me. They would catch me ahead of my response, lifting the stern of the kayak at an angle, leaving me straining to quickly regain the balance of the kayak. I was busy with the rudder and the sail, working with the wind and countering the force of each swell. It was the force of the wind that made the white caps on top of the rolling swells, and how the swells got so big so soon was known by the rocky sea cliffs we had not watched so well. My kayak wallowed on the backside of the passing swells, trying to turn broadside in the trough, portending certain doom as each next white cap bore down on me while the wind clung to the top edge of the sail. The white caps formed little rows of jagged teeth as the wind curled-off a spray of water. I was stretching the rudder cables full left then full right as the momentum and vector of my kayak abruptly changed with the passing swells. I grabbed my paddle to stop one turn just in time. Yes, it was another full paddle, full arm, half my beard in the water sort of effort, with the strain of my muscles extending to the grimace on my face as the next swell started picking me up. I was racing the next crest to put the kayak enough perpendicular to the swell to prevail against the white cap seeking to gently nudge me sideways then roll me up into tumbling debris and froth, scattering the flotsam to later be thrown against the rocks.
I think the swell thought it had me, and I coulda swore I heard it groan in disappointment as it rolled under me, leaving my kayak and I still riding the surface, however precariously. As I glanced at the nasty shoreline I concluded that the situation could be a bit serious, but things were still reasonably in hand, and these times were those times for which I had well laid my plans.
To grab the paddle I had to hastily loop-off the sail rigging. It was at the crest of the next swell. SNAP! The full fury the wind broke the main mast stiffener, and the fan shaped sail was suddenly askew with the right side dragging in the turbulent water. The bulk of the sail was still catching full wind, pulling me to one side as I strained on the paddle for an additional rudder. The sail was without control, and I had no way to collapse it before each next swell attempted to roll me up. One guy-line was skittering on the water just out of reach, but tempting. There were enough other details of this little conundrum, to fill a couple paragraphs, but the only option, and a fortunate one, was full sail ahead with full strain on the paddle. I was amused. I concluded that this was in fact somewhat serious, and that the well laid plans had gone a slaunchwise to the wind. It was a bit dicey with each swell. The paddle was a poor match for a sail out of control and catching full wind.
I glanced to my right to see the baidarka in its finest form, full sail riding high on a swell crest mid keel leaving over a third of the boat, including the Canook in the front hole, cantilevered out over the air, high above the leading trough. A spray of water was streaming off the dragon head bow. And I remember distinctly the white knuckles of my colleague in adventure, gripping the hole rim as he was looking down at the air below him, hoping the baidarka would not buckle.
I could feel my kayak twisting with the passing of each quartering swell, and could imagine the feel of the greater strain on the baidarka's longer, more heavily laden frame.
I glanced to the left. The sea cliffs rose eighty feet vertical, higher in places. The swells were crashing against them with the anger of raw force defied. Ghost white columns of tormented water rose in the clefts of the cliffs, the wind raking their tops to spray plumes of glistening mist over the gnarled spruce clawing at the edge of existence. At their height the columns of water stood a moment to view their ocean domain, in contempt of all forces and looking for any mere flotsam they might crush, such as myself attempting to duck from sight, then they silently slipped down within themselves to explode against the next swell with such violent chaos that raw fear swept out to play with my thoughts.
And the next swells then drove against the undefended cliffs.
The path ahead was fraught with peril, yet it was a pleasant path indeed, compared to the alternatives either not possible or worse.
It was a long and miserable stretch. Endurance was the name of the only game, and muscle strain was the relief from thinking of the view to the left, slowly drawing closer with the wind and defiant sail prevailing against the rudder.
At the top of each swell I peered under a corner of the crippled sail, hoping to see respite ahead, and not rewarded. The times the baidarka and kayak were both at the top of swells at the same time, some distance lateral, we could share the view of our plight, each holding our own with no ability to do more. We were driven by wind, and fighting the following seas quartering us. There would be no help if anything went awry, and we were dancing with much to go awry.
We survived swell to swell, but each trough, lead and lee of each swell entailed a serious set of complex effort. After a long while it was a curious sight ahead, and we were closer to each other, aiming for a spot between the cliffs of the mainland, albeit just the larger island, and the cliffs of a small island we could not get around. It was not a choice, but a certainty, and what the odd wall of white color was, we later said we each couldn't figure out, not that our minds were free to be figuring out much beyond the progressively fatiguing efforts to stay afloat as each swell, driven by the ocean and angered by the winds, sought to snare us for idle amusement.
In fact, we were there before it made any sense from our view among the swells. It was the swells, suddenly breaking into waves of crashing water washing across an unseen narrow spit of cobble rocks joining the mainland with the island. And it was as if we were handed the last tickets for the train, with the baidarka blown across the spit on top of one wave, myself on top of the next wave, and the next wave falling short in the rocks as the ebbing tide then left them bare.
It will take you longer to read the description, than what happened next, or so it seemed. The swells were stopped by the rocks. The shape of the island drove the wind up into the trees. And we were left in calm air, gliding with our momentum through glass smooth water. It took us each only a half dozen paddle strokes to the left to beach on a cobble-stone shore, and not even slow down as we jumped out to stand on terra firma, whooping and hollering and shouting and yelling, and shaking our bodies and carrying on just to make sure we had survived, on account of there being some serious question of it for the last couple hours. We promptly walked up to the inviting comfort of the tree line, and sat down on the most convenient drift log that ever drifted to such a sitting spot, and looked back at that cozy little bay protected from the fury we just survived. Looking at each other, still grinning, we were each opening a bottle of fine white wine.
Curious thing though, I noticed while walking up the beach to that log. I looked to the right, and I looked to the left, and I looked around, and there was no way a D-6 Cat could be out at a spot like that, from anywhere, or have any reason to drop its blade and crawl down the length of the beach. But that's the image my mind made out of all those freshly trenched rocks, for a couple seconds before I totally forgot it in the next whoop and holler to test my being alive.
Well, the day had started in paradise, and we were there again, albeit a bit further south after the aforementioned interlude. It being the end of the day we set about to leisurely set up camp. During the process, a fishing boat, as is somewhat common to these waters, came into the bay, to slowly ply back and forth trolling for wily salmon. He was out a ways, but every time he came by, the fisherman shouted something we couldn't quite hear.
Well, it was later that I was out on a point of rocks on the small island, fishing for supper, that the boat came close enough so I could hear the chap. "Don't camp there," he said, "There's been four hungry brown bears tearing up that beach all day." That explained what I thought was the results of a D-6 Cat, blade down. No doubt some miles away there were four brown bears still running, hastily spreading the word to stay away from the berserk humans that the storm washed up in the cobble stone bay.
But of course, that weren't nothing compared to what started again when we so foolishly set forth in the morning.
By the time I found the best camp spot while lining my kayak up the river, I had enough energy left to set up the tent, turn over the kayak, fix grub, and go to sleep.
It was an ideal camp, on sand sprinkled with spots of thin, light colored moss, right next to the river, with a few low bushes around.
Sometime in the dark of night about 1:AM or so I figured, about two feet from my ear, a loud snap of a stick introduced my otherwise sound sleep to an intense analysis of such a noise. A squeaky, that is a Parkasin's Ground Squirrel, common to the area, could not come close to breaking that large of a stick. Well, I considered the most innocent possibility first, just to be thorough in the analysis. Without any good reason I concluded that a moose would not be walking around at that time of night. If it were a caribou, there would likely be more of them and I would hear the click of their heels. Just about the time I was about to consider that it might be a grizzly bear, I dozed off to sleep again.
Well, nothing was trying to get into the tent, and my hand was closer to my .375 H&H Magnum than the side of the tent was to me.
Come morning I crawled out of the tent to absorb the magnificence of the high-country river-side near the glacier flowing out of the Alaska Range. A pair of swans, gleaming white in the morning sun, slowly flew up the valley. Some ptarmigan clucked in the nearby brush. Dew glistened on red Nagoon berries growing among the moss. And there beside the tent was the broken stick, in the middle of the largest grizzly bear paw print ever made at that spot on that day.
The tracks showed that the bear followed the river bank, where he was probably accustomed to walking, encountered my tent at close quarters, took two steps to the side, walked beside my tent close enough to rub it, saw the dry stick laying there, stepped on it with full intent to snap it in two, held his laughter, deliberately took two steps back toward the river at the end of my tent, and continued on.
You may imagine the story he told the other bears, for their laughter.
Same river another year. Same plodding along it to get away from the humans that plod along the roads.
The night was so magnificent I didn't set up the tent. I just laid down my pad, laid my sleeping bag on it, and counted passing satellites in the clear night sky as I drifted off to sleep. And remember, this place is crawling with grizzly bears, this time with no tent between me and them to alert me if one decided to pounce on me.
The last time anything like what happened next happened to me, it was when I was in the forest in Washington's Cascade Range, sound asleep under a tree at night, when a cougar walked up and screamed darn near in my ear. To this day, the cougar is still laughing. Well, along that river in the Alaska Range this time, I did not notice that just behind a line of brush next to me was a beaver pond. I had not yet heard the sort of sounds that a swan can make if it is startled into taking flight at night. Maybe a fox scared it, or maybe I was snoring and the swan had enough of that, or maybe something else, but the splashing and thrashing and honking and such noisy commotion was sudden and of inordinate substance. My mind did not know if it was sleeping or awake, but it was certain that a theretofore unidentified species of monster was already ripping apart my sleeping bag before I could move a muscle. And when I did get my arms outside my sleeping bag, to fend off fangs and claws, I discovered the thick crust of solid frozen heavy dew covering my bag and the ground, which woke me up even more rudely than the commotion.
There was no hope of going back to sleep any too soon, so I counted a lot of satellites while I wondered what scared the swan into flying, and how close it was lurking to size-up the alternative meal laying there so convenient and all.
The ice covering the sleeping bag was no thinner in the morning. I recommend a tent beside the river when the nights are going to freeze.
Okay, so the place is spelled, Chitina. But it is pronounced Chitna, on account of the usual lazy attitude toward dis word stuff.
Chitina Dipnetting is an Alaska thing. From it one may learn the nature of these Alaskans.
They are perfectly ordinary people, socially successful, indistinguishable from anyone else, or somewhat. They drive to Chitina Alaska, a quaint little drinking town with a fishing problem, and a classic history.
Chitina has a magnificent art store, Spirit Mountain Artworks, with a view of the glacier-clad Spirit Mountain out the front window, across Main Street, on account of there only being the cafe and an old crumbling railroad car on the other side of Main Street. The cafe offers a floor slope that directs you to your table, if you do not fall over before you catch yourself on a chair. A lot of buildings in Alaska tend to slowly sink, unevenly, on account of the ground under them is thawing. The cafe also has a view of Spirit Mountain out its front window, on account of the cafe not facing Main Street. If you go to Chitina, and the cafe is not there, time went by. The cafe floor slope may have got too steep for customers to get to the cash register.
They used to have a summer folk festival on the lawn beside the lake in town, until they decided it was getting a little out of hand. Some rumor about the famous climber Chuck Comstock climbing the adjacent rock wall, naked. There may be another rumor, but it is something like that.
Nice town, next to the bridge over the Copper River, leading to McCarthy, and its no few stories.
After eating at Chitina, the Chitina Dipnetters drive a bit further down the old road along the Copper River, toward Cordova, and the Million Dollar Bridge that didn't last very long a long time ago.
The road is scary even to the guys who say they are not scared. It is on a series of cliffs and ravines that drop to the Copper River. The road is mostly on the old railroad grade, built in the early days to take McCarthy copper ore to the port of Cordova. Sections of impressive old railroad trestle slowly rot away at each ravine. Each year the drivable part of the road gets shorter, and more narrow, at Nature's whim. Some of the holes and ruts are filled with old car bodies, new car bodies, and some of last week's dipnetters.
Then they park their car on any little wider spot, and put up their tent, hoping that no one drives over part of it, and hope they don't fall down the cliff when they roll over at night. The road is narrow, and there is nothing else flat.
They climb down to the river, on varied terrain ranging from very steep to vertical. The smart ones wear a life preserver, and rope themselves to a rock or a tree above them. The faint are terrified by the percentage of sincerely stupid people without life preservers, and not tied-in. They stand on steep rock sloping into the river, often with their toes in the water. This is the way it should be. There are too many people on the planet, and some of them get to your favorite dipnetting spot before you do.
The Copper River is a huge raging glacial torrent, boring its way through the narrow canyon south of Chitina. The water is too thick to drink and too thin to plow, laden with glacier silt, roiling in tormented currents crashing against the rock, squeezed by forces pushing the water every direction including back up-river. Huge logs with tangled root-balls appear from the depths, race past with the force of freight trains, and disappear. The water is ice-cold from the many glaciers that feed it. To fall into it is a fatal error.
They lower a hooped fishing net into the water, on a long pole, and wait for a salmon to swim into the net. It is an awkward task. They must sweep the net down river, twisting and straining their back each time they bring up the heavy-enough net out at the end of that long pole, while the water current clings to it. Or they tie the net off to a rock, and lower the net into a back-eddy. With luck a six or so pound Sockeye Salmon (Red) will swim into the net, and along with the fast current now clinging to both the net and the fish, the fish fights wildly to pull the dip-netter to certain death in the raging river. But lurking in the murky water are the 40 pound King Salmon, which hit the net with the fury of 40 pound King Salmon, and have won the battle no few times. But sometimes you pull up the net, to only then discover that a fish is in it. And sometimes you can get four salmon in one net. It would be exciting, if there were not such long periods of abject boredom straining water though a heavy net while the fish swim by farther out.
This takes place in a canyon of towering cliffs. The water cut the canyon, and the constant wind keeps it scoured. If the water don't get you, the wind will help the water. And the mosquitoes are waiting for you right now, in formation. They bore into your tent while you are away, and into your car, and wait. They attack in waves as you stand by the water attempting to catch fish.
Far above, white Dall Sheep precariously perch on the cliff ledges, watching in idle amusement.
You stand there often in drenching cold numbing rain, but sometimes in sweltering heat while dense clouds of mosquitoes turn your sweat red with blood, while both your hands grip the net pole, barely able to hold it in the current.
Fish is bear food. Grizzly bears lurk among the dense trees, brush and rocks. They look for a convenient string of salmon beside a human without a life vest, no gun and not tied in. The people who deny that a grizzly bear can think enough to slap the human into the water then grab the fish, just have not seen it happen yet.
People die while Chitina Dipnetting, and the ones around them quickly step into their fishing spot.
These fish are Copper River Reds, the most prized and expensive of the salmon you can find at the best restaurants in the nation and world. Their roe, if meticulously attended to, produces golden caviar, but the larger King roe is more desirable. Of course Alaskans feed the fish eggs to the gulls, when cleaning the fish at the river side. The delicacy and gourmet food thing is often based on culturally advanced illusions and fads, or starvation. Oh, Reds are Sockeyes, like Kings are Chinooks, like Silvers are Cohos, like Humpies are Pinks, like Dogs are Chums. Each salmon has two names, and on bad fishing days, more.
Oh, the gulls. They watch you. There are always one or two sitting or flying nearby, watching you. When you start doing the things they identify as your about to clean your fish, there will suddenly be a couple dozen, or many dozen. They have culturally refined their taste for the delicacy of golden caviar.
Why throw away the caviar? Have you ever gently and tediously stripped each small fish egg from the egg skein? Those easy ways end up taking just as long. Throw away the caviar. Besides, it tastes like fish eggs. There are a few tough guys who strip the caviar from the egg sack, with their teeth, at water's edge. Any lesser aristocracy cannot afford caviar that fresh and natural. They can later pick the eggs out of their beard, waiting for another salmon to swim by. Sometimes someone will save some of the roe, and tediously prepare it, and show up at a party with the finest, freshest, most expensive golden caviar in the realm, just for the story value. They will surround the caviar with rhetorical fabrications describing the food of kings and gods. The most common comment: Still tastes like fish eggs to me. Dogs really like caviar, and do well at such parties. I recommend a wheat cracker with cream cheese and a dollop of caviar. Make a facial expression that depicts unmitigated sensory pleasure of the palate. Practice in front of a mirror.
With dipnetting, when the run is hot, it is hot. When it is not, it is not. The run of salmon can be filling every net in the canyon, or just not be there while people stand around straining water through their nets. Or you can be standing in the wrong spot. The person standing only ten feet away can be pulling in salmon as fast as his net hits the water, while you and the guy on the other side of him never even get a bump. The next day, in your same spot you are catching the fish, while the other guy does not get a bump. Or across the river, you see the other people who survived the torrent to get there by boat, dragging in fish as fast as they can get them out of the net, while your net catches a few passing sticks all day. The salmon know the answer to the puzzle. There are many variables, but enough salmon, enough times, to addict Chitina Dipnetters.
There is the consideration of your dipnetting partners. They are Alaskans. Odd lot. But the smell of fish slime and guts makes them tolerable in the tent at night. Yes, there is a spike in alcohol sales when the Chitina dipnetting season opens.
After filling the ice chests with salmon, if not at midnight or some such time as usual, one will usually stop in downtown Chitina, for the story value. The locals will know you are a dipnetter. Spirit Mountain Artworks offers fish art for the people who were there when the run was not hot.
The problem with Chitina Dipnetting is that your neighbors were there also. Everyone shows up at the subsequent pot lucks with Chitina Reds. Yeah, same recipe of lemon juice, pepper, onions, garlic and the like. Yeah, I wrote this story while stuffed on Chitina Red and golden caviar, late at night after another pot luck.
Yeah, leftover salmon is in the frig. Breakfast.
Stories 2, the next page.