The reason for this Spring-ski craziness is being able to go across the landscape like a bat out of hell; to travel into areas where one would normally never go in Winter because of the deep snow and tangled brush; and the sensation of being completely and entirely alone except for the birds and animals.
I set out from my cabin on the morning of April 26 by crouching low on the skis while Belinda, in harness and tied to me with a long bungi cord set-up, raced like a mad dog across the ballroom floor of hard, crusty snow. This is the time when she is most reluctant to obey the essential command, “Get Back!” I pleaded with her to slow down.
Naturally I got a bit “misplaced” there for an hour or so while going through woods I had never traveled before. No problem---I stayed with the sun and finally wound up at an opening in the trees I recognized. Just below a beaver dam at The Lake of Time.
To get a feel for this type of travel, imagine woods where trails cut through the trees are like rivers of snow upon which one can easily travel. For most of the season that’s where you pass through. Now, when the entire snow surface turns hard, it is as if the streams were flooding, allowing the traveler to literally “go anywhere” in the “woods.”
The hardest part was getting up at 4:00 AM. I had already “squandered” one opportunity to ski the hard, frozen spring crust on April 23 when I packed snowshoes up onto Baldy Mountain and realized I didn’t need them---it was possible to walk around just about anywhere on top of the mountain wearing just boots. Sure, things got bit slushy down by Willow Creek when I descended late in the day. And the creek crossing I had used that morning was collapsed into the stream.
I saw only one snowmachine up top all day---the guy came from the Wasilla side and certainly knew what he was doing with the rifle, cooler and a deliberate riding style. On the way out I followed his Willow Creek crossing upstream of the Dave Churchill Trail and am not crossing there again. The creek is pretty low but the “ice” is mostly hard-packed snow and is rapidly melting away. I haven’t seen a single ice floe yet this Spring. That’s why I don’t think we will be having any flooding from ice jams---there’s very little ice to jam up!
All the streams up here are running open, but some of the larger lakes are still frozen enough for this “Dog-Ski-Boy“* to make it safely across. Ski-dogging across these frozen lakes is particularly rapid! And, although the surface is pretty hard and mostly free of snow, I would not take a snowmachine on the lakes.
I’ve noticed that---despite the record snowfalls this Winter---all the lakes are low, the streams are low and the ground appears to be absorbing melt-water with ease.
During the two days of rest from the Baldy climb I coated my steel-edge skis with a white “glide” wax for ice and wet snow conditions; loaded up a relatively light backpack; set a pair of alarm clocks and tried to get to sleep earlier than usual on the night of April 25.
It’s been some years since I have been able to ski extensively on the snow’s crust. We just haven’t had the right combination of wet-snow and freezing Spring nights. The idea is to get out early when things are still frozen and then find some old, hard snowmachine trails to support me and the ski-dog on the return trip.
We reversed course about noon when the hot sun made the surface a bit slow and slushy. It is strange to see the scratch marks made by us earlier in the day simply melted into the snow. Impermanence is everywhere evident.
There is always a sense of the present-time-moment to us beings with conscious awareness. But the “now” rushes along on these ski trips. And there is always a sense of urgency in Alaska anyway, even on the warmest and sunniest of days. A cloud across the sun or a sudden wind always reminds one that things can change dramatically in a very short span of time.
We saw a very few lone moose tracks which were like lines of frozen impact craters---telling of a terrible struggle just to move around. We, or rather my rambunctious dog, disturbed a pair of trumpeter swans---Belinda just couldn’t resist their honking and I couldn’t see exactly where they were so she pulled me close to the big birds---waiting for tundra ponds to melt by Deception Creek.
These trips are the most dream-like outdoors experience for me. The day begins cold (which is as it must be) but the sun rapidly warms everything. The real key to the fun is the speed and ease with which the skis glide across the land. The slightest downhill sets the skis into motion. You can just imagine the sensation with a powerful, experienced, well-trained and well-conditioned dog in harness pulling you on skis across this ice-glazed landscape. It is warm and the sun is high. There are no snow machines or skiers. You are alone with migrating flocks of geese and the new growth of Spring.
No trails are needed. You can ski great distances at phenomenal speeds with a minimum of effort and with excellent control. A mere glance at the slightest downhill grade seems to entice your skis into rapid movement. “Snowplowing” (with skis) is easy and you can even ski downhill sideways for control! A few strokes of the poles and a bit of skating will propel the skier to blazing speeds and tempt the novice to do "180s" or skidding slides. The speed of ice with the control of powder. Especially with Telemark boots and cable bindings.
Ah, but just like Cinderella at the Prince's Ball, the party will end, not at midnight, but sometime soon after high noon. Cinderella's coach will become a pumpkin, but if I stay at the dance too long, my Spring skiing ballroom floor is transformed into a sea of slush by the burning sun.
While it remains hard, you can ski the morning crust to explore wherever you please. You can buy time by returning on the remnants of mid-Winter's well-used trails---if you know where they are. Signs of these trails are usually melted into the smoothly undulating crust, although this year they were still quite evident. When the heat of day turns everything else to mush, old Winter trails remain relatively firm underneath. My ski-dogs are good at finding these pathways and following them home through a sea of softness.
Ski-dogging on Spring snow is intense. My ski dogs pull me through the trees at speed, shifting to the next available opening at my command. It is the culmination of our Winter activities.
Dogs' feet should be toughened or bootied for the gritty ice. Dogs (and Humans) should have plenty of liquids beforehand and frequent stops to cool down in the heat.
There is a different feel to Spring skiing. The freedom to go anywhere. The scraping of skis on a granular crust. Biting grains of ice kicked into my face by the dogs' flying feet. The exhilaration of blinding, teary-eyed, downhill type speeds. The ever-growing warmth of Spring.
You are completely alone. There are no snow machines and no other skiers. It is warm and the sun is high. Animals and birds are coming out of Winter hiding. You are at one with migrating flocks of geese and the new growth of Spring. Standing in the shade of a forest to cool off my dogs while hearing yet another north-flying flock. And then, absolute silence.
The dark stains of swamps begin to leak through to the surface of the snow. Plants and wildlife do not wait for the snow to disappear. Green sprouts appear around the bases of trees. The first groggy insects and mosquitoes are out. Butterflies sit atop the snow. Caterpillars and spiders crawl around on a white backdrop.
I ski to exhaustion---for seven hours this time. I never tire of the obsessive movement. The entire experience puts me into a trance. But this is the culmination of a Winters’ worth of skiing and a lot of careful preparation.
It still gets cold at night so I take survival precautions. I tell people approximately where I am going because the scratch marks of my skis will melt away by late afternoon. Ground searchers will have to wait for the snow to harden before they can reach me. And, while in the woods, I am careful not to ski into a moose or bear snoozing in the warmth of the morning sun.
As with all experiences of intense bliss, Spring skiing is elusive and fleeting. Each Winter, I vow to alert people to this fine outdoor experience---early morning Spring skiing on the frozen crust. But there are so many variables of weather and temperature that I can't predict when the best Spring skiing will occur. Conditions change daily. And when the skiing becomes perfect…I am gone!
Perhaps, if I am lucky, there may be another cold morning next week that is perfect for ski dogging on the Spring snow. The way things are melting right now I kind of doubt it.
- Rudy Wittshirk
these are the finest days of my life
when a poem is like ringing a bell
I wander beneath clouds cumulus
welling up from the Gulf of Alaska
a mass of visible vapor drifting
over the Chugach Range
behind a half-wild dog I ski
between broken trees
the splintered beams
of some fallen cathedral grand
where in it's sharpened clarity
I see the mist of time suspended
ravens hear my calls from dense woods
they approach out of the sun
and angle their sight
between tangled branches
until certain of my identity
they squawk and hit me with their shadows
then go flapping off
me laughing them cawing
it's only Dog-Ski-Boy
where will he show next
my shadow falls upon a birch
fox tracks radiate from the base
I am real in this land where I dwell
these are the finest days of my life
when a poem is like ringing a bell