In the Bob spring comes first to the junctions, where flat grass melts on the south and ten steps north snow lingers, hollowing into unwalkable with a crust on top nothingness. Deer and elk pack into the sweet spots, and feed into the 3 percent of that 3 percent of valley, cliffs to cobbles, picking root and bark through the cold. Walkers, human or hooved, play the angles of warmth as the season beats back the frozen default.
In one such meadow I came across a spread of fur, spangled around a 30 foot circle of mud and wolf tracks. The rest of the story was a midnight slick faint with blood and hashed clean with grizzly claws, snaking around logs and just over the hump. Down the hill, the creek. Under the huge old what used to be ponderosa, a bear on 80% of an elk. Up the valley as I walked and then skied towards the cornices, visible from 10 miles, the retreating wolves.
Early that evening wind, snow, and my nerves betrayed me. I made the lake, long in the mind, impatience having turned an early side-hilling error into a skin glopping, out of water battle against inefficiency and haste. The lake itself was a perfect custard drop, monolithic in the midst of pines and the high ridges, blown craggy. The lake was, as hoped, chocolate split at the inlet by 3 inches of open water, flowing for 15 feet over dark gravel. Rehydrated I made the ridge, but the final thrust into the strafed teeth of the alpine was steep and guarded, hollow in the pockets between the rocks. I probably could have made it up. I was less sure about making it back down, so I transitioned tentatively next to a ragged tree and hacked back down, fear tinkling away as drove the outside ski hard through each turn, the snow crust shattered and rattled down ahead and along.
I refilled at the magic drip I was sure would freeze into nothing by morning, melted snow to add to my pool of life, and had more minutes as the blue tent faded away to consider beyond the obvious; where my mind had traveled that long day along and apart from my legs and arms and body.
The next day dawned blank, skin and sky only set apart by the opposing line of tree and cliff. I went down, and like all things in the mountains the matter of factedness held risk. The trail, which I was determined to hold, moved between aspects, enveloped in old growth fir. The fear of yesterday passed through, not just turn to turn, but minute to minute. Skins on, then off. Boots locked, then open. Efficiency in complex terrain comes in choices sacrificed to the big picture, in allowing inevitable mistakes to melt in the face of flow and miles. Confidence, stacked moment to moment.
And thus, safety.
I counted ripstop that night at the lake, and had the weight of the moment and the last decade come together. Should I be out in the wilderness at all, given the weight of the moment? More personally, should I be out here, holding on to ambition and learning, when the familiarity upon which that safety is stacked is, increasingly, in the past?
When I thought back to Isle Royale, mug bogging around the reservoir snow blowing into my face, the answer was easy. Especially in a world gradually and suddenly shifting forever, the constant process of reminding and refinding me and my place in the world is hard to imagine in any other venue.