Surviving the river

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    On many occasions people have commented on my chosen lifestyle, and I suppose that is understandable since their lives are as foreign to me as mine is to them. Often I tell them that they just get the highlight reel when I talk and most of the time my life is uneventful. For the most part this is true. Every once in a while though I find myself in a bad spot that could only be described a living nightmare, it is the stuff that Jack London and Robert Service wrote about. Secretly I think this is the basis for all reality television in Alaska, if you follow someone around long enough in the wilderness they will eventually find themselves in a situation that is truly entertaining, provided you are not personally living through it. Most of the following tale could have been avoided if I was not stupid and arrogant and stubborn. When someone becomes accustomed to a situation, they no longer see the danger in it. Like the miner who has rocks falling on his head all day or the demolitions guy who will casually stub out his cigarette with a stick of trimtexx when the foreman complains about him smoking next to explosives, someone who has spent a lifetime in the artic will invariably become complacent when it comes to traveling in it. I have broken many of the rules regarding artic traveling, sometimes it is because of necessity and sometimes it is because I’m just an idiot. This was one of those occasions that could have been avoided if only I had followed the rules, or at least some of them.

    In late December of 16’ the interior of Alaska had a fairly decent wind storm, 50 mph winds toppled the burnt trees that were left after the last forest fire had come through. All of the overland trails and all of the trap lines were clogged with debris, at times a guy could cut all day with a handsaw and only make a mile or two. I had become frustrated at the effort to get the trap line and trails opened up, and to top it off we had gotten about two feet of snow after the windstorm. To say it was slow going was the understatement of the year, between breaking trail and cutting downed trees I was burning a tremendous amount of calories and I didn’t have a single pelt to show for it. By the middle of January I decided to say the hell with it and head back to town to visit my wife and resupply my cabin.

    If I had been smart I would have called my wife on the sat phone and told her that I was coming back, getting a weather report in the process. I was not smart however, I thought it would be a great idea to just show up and surprise her. When I look back I can say that it all went downhill from this point. I was about to break three of the most important rules regarding travel in the artic. As I sat at the table the night before I was to leave for town I actually thought about it, I knew I was being stupid. I slowly sipped a glass of whiskey and pondered if I should call her. The idea of surprising her won over my normally cautious nature. I would be traveling alone, but there was no other option. Long ago I had realized that I really did not enjoy the company of others in a long term situation, unless it was my wife. She is one of those unique people who can enjoy the solitude and quiet without trying to fill it up. Often we would just sit together on the bank of the river for hours, not making a sound and just enjoying the serenity of our sanctuary. She was not here though. Many trappers in the interior work in teams but I had no trap line partner, nobody to help if things went wrong. I tried it one season but I found that people constantly try to fill the silence with conversation, they seem to detest the serenity of nature unless they can fill the emptiness with noise. My second big mistake was not knowing what the weather would do, my thermometer had been destroyed by a bear in the fall and I had never replaced it. I knew it was cold, but I had no idea how cold. Every old timer will tell you that you should never take off traveling if it is colder than 40 below zero, and I agreed with this philosophy. There is just too much to go wrong when it is that cold, steel becomes brittle & snaps very easily. If I had known that it would be between 50 & 60 below zero I never would have left, but in my stupidity I never replaced my thermometer or called my wife. My third mistake goes back to that same phone call, nobody would know I was even traveling or when to expect me in. My wife and I have an arrangement of sorts, I call her every couple of days on the sat phone and she does not conn some pilot we know into buzzing the cabin looking for me. She will send a pilot out after about 4 or 5 days without contact, knowing that sometimes you can’t get a call through on a sat phone because of clouds or other weather. In reality it is not that great of a plan, I would be frozen solid after 5 days if I got injured on the trail and could not make it back to the cabin in winter. But it was our plan none the less, and the only one we had. I figured it was easier to just take off and not have her worrying about me on the river ice, I should be in cell range or with her by that time the next night and it would be one of those no harm no foul type things. Try as I might I just couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling I had, so I snuffed out the oil lamp and went to bed early.

    A woke up at around six the next morning, but I was in no hurry to get going. It does not get light until around 10 or so that time of the year, and I had time to eat some breakfast and drink some coffee. I had about 10 or 15 miles of trail put in on the river, with packed down snow, so I needed to be at the end of that when it was getting light to start the trip to town. I would be taking a single freight sled behind me, lightly loaded with emergency gear & fuel in case something happened, maybe about 150 or 200 pounds in all. After the morning trip to the outhouse I was having second thoughts about traveling, it was really really cold. Unfortunately I am a stubborn man, and without a thermometer to look at I figured I was just being a pussy so I kept on getting ready. A four stroke snowmachines is one of the greatest inventions of man, able to get you from place to place using only about ½ the fuel of the old two stroke machines. There is a tradeoff for this though, they are not prone to starting easily in the cold. Batteries must be kept inside and the engines need to be preheated with a propane torch to get them going. I heated the cylinder jugs with a torch and dropped the battery in, and to my surprise it still barely started, the only times I had seen this it was when it was colder than 50 below. It never even donned on me that it might actually be colder than 50 below, I just figured the battery was getting weak. After running for about 10 min I shut it down & put a blanket over it, trying to transfer some of the heat to the tranny. I went through this process a few times until the belt was warm enough to spin and the tranny was warm enough to shift. While the snowmachines was warming I filled three thermoses with boiling water, hoping that would get me to town before they froze solid. I still had that nagging feeling but I was ready to go, the machine was warm and the freight sled was loaded & hooked up. Donning insulated bibs, parka, trappers cap, face mask, goggles, gloves and then mittens; I took off into the empty wilderness expanses of Interior Alaska dead set on seeing my wife.

    The first part of the trip was uneventful and by 11 in the morning I was at my closest neighbor’s cabin, about 35 miles downriver from me. They are an older couple and to call their place a cabin might be understating things a bit, they had a beautiful spread that was somewhere between a homestead and a farmstead. I had not seen them in months. The law of Alaska demanded that I stop, even briefly, to share news and say hi. Much as I wanted to be off I stopped to have the customary cup of coffee and visit. We had a wonderful visit, and shared our collective troubles that we were having. They too had been having a hard time of reopening the trap line trails, and had resigned themselves to many more weeks of backbreaking labor to open them up again after the storms. In reality they could have said the hell with it and just lived off of their social security for the winter instead of trapping, but it was not in their nature. Sometimes I think they aged so well because of this trait, they were the type of people who needed to stay busy and active. After they found out I was headed to town I got a lecture about traveling on the river alone, and that rolled into a discussion about me being in this country alone without a partner to help if things went wrong. But again I am a stubborn man. I am of the belief that much of the fear old timers show toward the rivers in this part of the country is based on bad experiences with underpowered snowmachines, or dog teams that will become unmanageable in situations where there is overflow or open water. A modern snowmachines has about 4 times the power of an old Alpine or Bravo, plus a lot more track area to aid in flotation on top of the snow. After they could plainly see that they were not going to talk me out of it, they offered to put the water in my thermoses on the stove to reheat it, so when I departed I could start the clock over on my water supply. In my haste to be off I never looked at their thermometer and they never told me the temperature because they figured I already knew it. When I look back now I understand why they were so concerned about me traveling, but in my ignorance about our miscommunications I just chalked it old folks being overly cautious about the kid that lives upriver from them. We said our goodbyes and I told them I would pick up their mail from their son and bring it out when I came back in a week or so. I was off at about 12:30 and I had another 3 hours of river travel to do and about 3 1/2 hours of daylight left. After that I would be on land and eventually meet up with a well-traveled trail that was hopefully maintained by the folks that lived along it. I would later find out that as soon as I was out the door they were emailing my wife on their HughesNet connection to let her know I was on my way. It didn’t matter if I wanted to surprise her, they were rightly concerned about my trip to town and wondering about my sanity if I was traveling in these conditions. Cabin fever is a real concern living in isolation like we were and I think they thought I had gotten a touch of it, and that it was coloring my decision to travel.

    I followed their packed trails for about 15 or 20 miles downriver until I was again in the waist deep powder of untraveled river snow. The light wind had created drifts on the river ice, some areas were bare of snow other than a scant few inches, and others had drifts that were chest deep. There is nothing quite as serene as happily moving along on an unspoiled river, knowing that you are the only one who has been here for months and in all reality, one of the few hundred living people who has ever been there. It is easy to get lost in your own thoughts as the miles fly by, and you ride on in a trancelike state that I refer to as autopilot where everything just melts away. Before I knew it I was within 20 miles of where I would need to turn off on the overland trail. This is one of the trickier sections of river that has numerous creeks and 2 small rivers flowing into the main river, autopilot time was over and I had to pay close attention for both open water and overflow. Many times I would have to stop and look at the river ahead from a sandbar or area of low snow to scan for open water or overflow. This is the part of artic travel that is nerve-wracking, because one mistake can mean your end. Open water is fairly easy to spot when you stop and look for it, and generally it happens in areas where there is a hot spring keeping the ice from forming. Not to say that the water in these areas is warm, it is just warm enough to keep a small patch of ice from forming. Overflow is the greater threat when traveling, it is a condition where water has bubbled up from a crack in the ice and is on top of it. The layer of water between the snow and ice cannot freeze because the snow insulates it and you get a slushy mix that is rarely seen until it is too late. In times past I have actually dropped my freight sled and scouted ahead because a freight sled acts as a big anchor in overflow, stopping you dead in your tracks. The only thing to do when you get caught in overflow is keep the throttle wide open and pray to whatever gods and goddesses you hold dear that you will make it through before you lose your momentum and are stranded in standing water without any traction for your track to grip to. I was about 10 miles from the overland cutoff when everything went wrong, despite my best efforts I was stuck in overflow and truly screwed.

    I will freely admit that I was in a hurry, and it was because of this that I found myself in the situation I was in. It was getting late and I was going to lose the light soon, so instead of playing it safe like at all the other spots I figured I would just take my chances. Instead of dropping my freight sled and scouting the area around where a creek dumped into the river, I chose to take the far bank away from the creek entrance and just plow through as fast as I could. When you hit overflow you know it, your ground speed drops instantly even though your speedometer says you’re still zipping right along. I was in it and had nothing to do but try to power through it, there is no turning around. For a while there I thought I might make it, I had hit it at about 50 mph and was slowing considerably but I had gone a fair distance. I figured that I would get out of it, but as I kept slowing I got worried. My engine was not bogging down the way the older machines would, but I had little if any traction. If I did not have the freight sled on I know I would have had no problems getting through, but I had chosen to take a shortcut and now I was going to pay dearly for it. Though my speedometer said I was going over 60 mph and the throttle was wide open I was probably only going 5 mph. Standing on the running boards I rocked the machine sideways back and forth trying to get every foot of distance I could. I knew well where I was, and I knew that a sandbar was only a few hundred yards ahead. If only I could make it to the higher ground I would be free of the overflow, but it was not to be. I came to a halt about 150 yards from the sandbar, the clumps of stunted willow sticking out of the snow marked its position.

    As I came to rest I put my knees on the seat, picking up my feet because I had no idea how deep the overflow actually was. Being in a hurry had gotten me into this situation and now I was fucked, I needed to take my time and figure out a plan before I got wet. Once overflow is exposed to the air you do not have that long until it starts to set up into ice, but it was not an instant thing. When the snowmachine settled the water was over the running boards but not up to the seat in the back by the track but the front was higher, and the belt linking the engine to the transmission might not be completely submerged. The bottom of the engine was most certainly under water but the top and the electrical components should still be out of the water. As bad as it was, it could have been worse. All of the ropes and the come-a-long were in the box behind my seat, and I started doing rough math to figure out how far I could get. There were some burned spruce trees about 200 feet ahead of me and slightly to the right, and the clumps of willow that were dead ahead of me about 150 yards. I could reach the willows but I didn’t think that they would be strong enough to tie off to, that left a diagonal pull to the spruce trees. I knew I would get wet no matter what I did, it was just a matter of limiting the time I was wet. If you have never worn bunny boots they are a wonderful invention, having layers of felt and air encased in rubber so that they keep their insulation value even if you get water inside of them. More concerning to me was getting my legs wet for two reasons, the skin & tissue would start to freeze and it would also cool down the blood going down to my feet causing them to freeze as well. Being careful not to get wet I got all of the rope out of the box, as well as the come-a-long. I took off my mittens and my parks, securing them in the watertight box behind my seat, and mentally prepared myself for the cold plunge that I knew I had to get done. I unwound about 8 feet off of a coil of rope, and stepped off into the water. Just as I suspected the track was still sitting on some slush, the water was up a little over my knees. It took my breath away but time was now in short supply. I quickly tied the end of the rope around the skis, submerging my hands & forearms in the freezing water, and started uncoiling it as I made my way to the bank. About ½ way there it felt like the overflow ended but I was already wet and I couldn’t take the time to look behind me or consider how close I had gotten to being free. After the first coil of rope ended I tied on the second length of rope that I would attach the rope come-a-long to and kept moving. The second length got me just barely to the bank, but it was a steeper cut bank than I had originally thought. I fed the rope through the come-a-long and stretched it tight, I had about 20 feet to the trees. Leaving the come-a-long I took another coil of rope and scrambled up the bank. I tied the rope off to the bottom of a tree fairly far back from the bank, then proceeded to wrap it around the base of four more trees on my way back to the bank. Throwing the rest of the coil over the bank I climbed down after it, and attached the come-a-long to it. When you are using a rope come-a-long your progress is measured in inches with each pull. I was getting really cold now and my gloves were caked in ice. I stripped off my gloves and got out a fresh pair from the pocket of my flannel shirt. I hoped this would be quick, I could no longer feel my legs or feet and my hands burned with the cold in the fresh gloves. I started cranking for all I was worth, and silently wondering if I should have unhooked the freight sled from the machine. There was a fair amount of resistance but it was moving. After about 7 or 8 minutes I had gone through the coil of rope that fed through the come-a-long, and I had to re-rig everything to keep the operation moving. I was still in overflow but judging by my footsteps I only had another 30 or so feet to go until the front was out of the overflow. I cranked away for all I was worth but my strength was starting to go and I could tell I was in real trouble if I didn’t wrap it up soon. When I figured I was out of the overflow I ran back to the machine and started it up again, giving it a little gas. The rubber belt squealed as it tried to find traction in the metal pulleys connecting the engine to the transmission, but I kept at it. If I didn’t get something going soon I was dead. Finally there was some movement and I surged ahead a few feet. I jumped off and cut the rope around the skis, not even bothering to try to untie it. Throwing the rope out of the way so it would not get bound up in the track I drove to the bank between the willow and the spruce. The worst of it was over but I was far from safe, I was soaking wet in the middle of nowhere without someone to help me. By the time I started opening the bins that were lashed to my freight sled my hands could hardly move. Stripping off my wet flannel, thermal top, and gloves I put on my last pair of new gloves and put my parka back on. Getting the big scoop shovel off of the freight sled I frantically started clearing snow off of the edge of the sandbar, trying to find the ground and clear an area big enough for a fire and my thermarest sleeping pad. When it was clear I put down a tarp and unrolled the thermarest to inflate. Next I got the two 2×12 boards off of the freight sled and laid them down flat to build a fire on. Running as best I could to generate heat I got up the bank with the dead spruce and collected branches for a fire, dragging them back to my makeshift camp. I wasn’t screwing around at this point, I was close to dead, so I lit three flares (when you’re really cold you can’t use a lighter or matches because your fingers don’t work) and set them on the boards. Next I added the branches I had drug back. I needed energy and at this point it was all I could do to stay moving, luckily I always carry just the thing inside my parka in the winter. Fumbling with the jar I tried in vain to open it, in the end I had to warm my hands a minute to get them to work so I could get the jar open. Rendered bear fat is probably one of the best instant energy foods you can eat in situations like this, and I ate a heaping spoonful. It may be good for you but that only works if you can keep it down, and almost as soon as it hit my tongue I started to gag. I kept it down and chased it with a shot of whiskey out of a flask to get rid of the taste and thin my blood a little. I started back for more branches, trying to not think about how bad my legs and feet would be when I finally removed my bibs & boots. After another load of branches I knew I had to be done, I closed the valve on the partially inflated thermarest and spread out my sleeping bag. I got out four chemical hand warmers and wrapped them inside my spare thermals, this bundle I put in the bottom of my sleeping bag to try to jump start some heat to my feet. I tried to undo the zippers on the legs of my bibs but it would not work, they were iced up solid other than where they bent at the knee. In the end I sat on the sleeping bag and slid out of my boots and bibs, as well as the pants and thermals. I didn’t want to look at my feet or legs yet, I was not sure I could deal with it and there was nothing I could do anyway. I slipped my lower body in the sleeping bag and arranged the branches so that they would burn a little more efficiently, taking the time to set my boots close to the fire to dry but far away enough to make sure the rubber didn’t melt. Taking one more spoonful of bear fat and another shot of whiskey I removed my parka and t shirt and started zipping up the bag when I felt a burning sensation start in my legs and feet. The pain was almost unbearable, and it had only been 30 or 45 minutes since I first hit water. I opened up an inside pocket of my parka and took out an old bottle of Percocet left over from my back surgery, it was expired by four years but I figured it might still have some life left in it. I swallowed two with another shot of whiskey and zipped up the bag the rest of the way, figuring it was going to be a miserable night.

    I must have fallen asleep quickly, for when I awoke there was ice from my breath around the opening of my mummy bag and the fire was mostly out. My legs and feet still screamed in pain but it was not as bad as before. I opened two more chemical warmers and put them in some socks, then shoved them down to the bottom of the bag. I used the plastic wrappers from the chemical warmers to help jump start what remained of my fire and repositioned the branches so it would continue to burn for a few more hours unattended. I was hungry & thirsty but I could not stand the thought of getting all the way out of my almost warm cocoon to get food out of the freight sled. Luckily I had remembered to bring the thermoses over before I got undressed and I checked the temp of the water in them. All were liquid but only two still contained hot water, the other one had cooled. I drank a whole thermos of hot water, figuring the heat would help my core temperature. I put the other two by the fire, and placed my now dry boots inside my sleeping bag. Sleep again took me quickly.

    I woke up to pain, screaming pain. The fire was out and I had no more wood. I had no idea how bad my legs or feet were but I knew they hurt, and I needed to get something going or I would be wolf food in short order. I turned on my headlamp and thought about my situation. I took 2 more pills, another spoonful of bear fat, and a shot of whiskey. The water was frozen solid. My arms were red and slightly swollen from the elbow down to the tips of my fingers, but there was no signs of the severe frostbite that I feared. Knowing there was no other choice I unzipped my sleeping bag and looked at my legs & feet. My legs were red and swollen, the tips of a few of my toes were slightly white. Though it hurt, it was not as bad as I had feared. I would keep my toes. In reality the calf of my left leg looked like it might be the worst off, there were a few white splotches mixed in with the red swollen skin. I put on my thermals and socks, then zipped the bag back up to try to rewarm myself. I must have passed out for a while because I awoke a short time later feeling slightly better, enough time had passed for the Percocet to kick in. There was no choice but to get moving, as much as I wanted to just stay curled up in my bag I had to get moving or this would be my final resting place. Unzipping my bag I put on my boots and parka. My spare bibs were in the freight sled and I had to beat on the watertight tote with a hammer to break the ice and get them out. Once fully dressed I got more wood, lit a fire, and proceeded to melt snow for water. I took the battery out of the snowmachine and set it by the fire to warm, and started beating the ice off of the idlers & rear suspension. In short order I was exhausted, though I had only been working a short while it felt like I had just swam across the Yukon. I got some moose jerky and crawled back in my bag not even bothering to take off my boots. I ate some and again slept.

    It was getting light when I woke up. I realized I had fallen asleep with my headlamp still on and an open bag of moose jerky in my hand. I truly felt like shit, to dehydrated to even feel hungry. The water in the pan did little to quench my thirst, and I put more snow on to melt. While I was waiting for water, I pre-heated the engine with a torch and put the battery back in. Reciting many different prayers to many different deities just to cover my bases, I tried to start the machine. It popped and sputtered, but it started. I do not think I have ever been as relieved as I was at that moment. I was far from out of the woods, but I had hope. My machine was running and I was only 10 miles from the overland trail. I drank more water and ate more jerky, forming a plan in my mind. I would leave my makeshift camp set up, and unhooked the freight sled. No more chances, I would run the river to the overland trail and then come back for my freight after the river trail was in. I collected the rope and come-a-long I had left on the river, and packed up everything besides my bedding. I had to beat the frozen bibs with a hammer to get them to fold up and go in a tote, but everything was packed. It was time to go, as much as I hated leaving my emergency gear I had a better chance without it.

    The rest of the river trip was uneventful, cold as hell, but uneventful. By noon I had tracks on the river and was back at my camp to collect my freight. As I pulled in I saw two ravens there. One was pulling strands off of the scrap of rope I had cut off and the other appeared to be making himself at home on my sleeping bag. Part of me wondered if these were Odin’s ravens, and part of me wondered if I had just gotten raided by Raven the native deity. Either way I tried to keep a calm demeaned and not worry about my sleeping bag. When I stopped by the remnants of the fire I saw what the one was after, I had spilled a few pieces of moose jerky in my bag the night before. As far as ravens go this one was nice, there were no holes in my bag and it looked like the only place he shit was on the tarp instead of where my face goes in the sleeping bag. I collected the remaining pieces of jerky and set them on the snow next to the small chunk of scrap rope. Figuring it was a good idea to hedge my bets, I unraveled the rope and cut it into smaller six inch pieces so it would be easier for the ravens to build a nest with. I returned to the freight sled and got out a handful of loose tobacco and scattered it in the air, it did not matter if they were gods or birds I had covered all my bases. I go back & forth on religion, but in times like these it is better safe than sorry. Within a half an hour I was packed and hooked up to the freight sled. Traveling would be easy now that the tracks were down.

    By two that afternoon I was on the overland trail cutting trees. The pain had flared up again so I took my last Percocet and tried to make some time. Every few hundred yards I was stopping to cut stuff out of the trail so I could get through, but I was close to the traveled section of the trail. By four I was on packed trail and moving at a good pace, I would be at the landing in time to call my wife when she got off of work. It occurred to me that I had no idea what to tell her. As far as I knew she didn’t know I was coming to town, and I wondered if I should tell her exactly what had happened on my way back. There would be no hiding my arms & legs, but did she really need to know how close I had been to loosing body parts or freezing to death. I supposed I would make the choice when I heard her voice.

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