This time last week I was embroiled in internet discussions, trying without success to convince people to think outside the visitation box of American summer in the national parks, entreating them to embrace winter. Because cold and snow aren’t so bad. And we should go into the wilderness not just on terms friendliest to us.
I should know better than to picture the world as so predictable.
Perhaps our largest wolverine research trip was this week. Up the closed and snowy Going-to-the-Sun Road and beyond, off trail, into a drainage where neither of us had been. Over last weekend the forecast, which I checked often, kept calling for lower and lower temperatures, and a greater and more certain chance of snow. We were excited. And you certainly don’t have to worry about deer legs thawing when the temperature never gets above 5 (F).
The trail breaking on the way in was mild, but constant. The first DNA station had fallen over and frozen into the creek. No fur to collect. We replaced the leg and set the pole back up in a hopefully more stable location. I had a good ice beard going when we reached the patrol cabin, and was psyched for the luxury of a roof and a big wood stove. The snowfall, which had been constant all day, was accelerating, and the mercury was plummeting with a purpose as daylight, always vague through the cloud, quickly yet gradually left us behind.
This particular cabin is 100 meters from the road, and to the summer visitor must seem rather silly, if it isn’t well hidden in plain site. It had taken us 5-6 hours of steady effort to reach it, and conditions could have been far more difficult. As the continuous flakes reminded us every time we came close to the windows, they were more hostile to human ease by the minute.
But our island of artifice was surprisingly well-insulated for a log building, and free from the exacting care which is omnipresent during winter camping, we could casually and carefully regard the little oddities of a snowy night well below zero. Like rime forming inside the closed toilet, evaporation sent out from the warm earth to condense on plastic.
And on the way starlight, filtering in through dense clouds, can only be known on dense winter nights by the glow it imparts to the fallen snow.
The next day was the big one, and we woke and made coffee to the rhythm of anticipation, trepidation, and snow yet still falling. The trail breaking straight away demanded arduous patience, and was the first sign that today we would be taught a lesson in humility.
It is thoroughly awe-some that this place, reached a few short, slow miles in on the second day, felt so remote. In spring I can ride my bike here in 40 minutes, and in summer the most dangerous thing about this intersection would be turning left.
Soon thereafter the human factor made things complicated, something of a tautology, given that if we weren’t there in the first place, the idea of complication would likely not exist. Not that we’d know: even if wolverines experience the world as distinguished between the complicated and the un, they can’t tell us about it. Our UTMs for the second site were off, leading on a chase through the woods which killed an hour and had us a bit chilled. Then we had to recross the stream when it was clear we had bad beta, during which time one of Sally’s ski bindings froze open. Suddenly we were both quite cold, in our big coats, and facing a critical moment in the parking lot where five months before I had begun a drastically more casual adventure.
But our lives were simplified from what could have been a serious situation; we opened the cabin, built a fire, and boiled water for tea.
An hour later we had four functioning skis, acceptably warm cores, and were very behind schedule.
The trail breaking only got deeper as we headed off the road. Soon the knee deep powder and one impressive deadfall thicket had us doing math we could have done hours ago. We had 3.7 miles as the crow flies to the last site, 3 hours of daylight, a 1.5 mph pace, and a guarantee of trail breaking all the way home. It was barely above zero, and time to obey prudence, humility and overwhelming message of the fates that it was not our day. We turned around, resolved to radio in, get better coordinates, and salvage something of our work on the day.
Then my left binding felt a bit funny. Like it was at once unattached yet still traveling along with my boot anyway.
And an hour before I had been dwelling on how superior 3 pins were to NNN. Then I took an odd, lurching, sideways, almost-fall navigating deadfall and twisted my boot out of my binding, the force which I believe did in the rivet holding the toe bail on.
Good thing we had spare wire to rerig the bait poles if necessary.
This repair took 4 minutes, and though the wire stretched and one loop broke, held all the way back to the car.
We got our coordinates, found the site (we had skied within ten feet of it earlier), and broke trail, back the way we came and downhill, into the rising blue gloom (lead photo). It had been a noble failure, even if we could have stacked the deck a bit better by taking the conditions more seriously, and the closing night and rising storm felt like the worlds embrace, rather than a threat.
I had dinner duty that evening, and was very excited to share my contribution. I had made, frozen, and packed in 22 oz of kingly pasta sauce, a chunky and super-charged arrabbiata and puttanesca blend. Brown lean ground beef and onions, add diced tomatoes, chicken stock, and copious red wine. Reduce over an hour or two, add salt, rosemary, oregano, thyme, kalamata olives, and browned and sliced italian sausage. Finish with red and chipotle pepper to taste. I served it with angelhair and coarsely shredded parm, along with the last two canned Moose Drools.
There we were, 100 yards from the tourist highway, 100 metaphorical miles from anyone, fat warm and comfortable inside the belly of a storm which would drop 14+ inches of snow.
The morning even dawned a bit clear, and stayed open long enough for us to peruse the further details of our surroundings amidst breaks from hip-tweaking skiing through deep windpack, before settling in and finishing our exit off with yet more snow. Oddly, the last half of our exit had 1/3 the fresh snowfall, and our pace tripled accordingly, saving us a return near dusk.
So yes, you should still go in winter. But remember, at least when it counts, that such things are not to be taken lightly.