Sunday, November 30, 2014

Terrain Skating: Selawik to Kotzebue

It began with a text invite from Brad, who’d been going every day for weeks.

“Still good ice at Nancy Lakes. I have a 21 lake loop for you, 35 miles”.

I hadn’t ice-skated in over 20 years, and never on the clapper-style Nordic skates.

I texted back, “Thanks. 35 miles seems far. Will it be pretty easy?”

Brad texted a topo map with a big red loop sprawled across the Susitna Valley’s lake-scape.

“Yup. No sweat. Tons of fun. You skate at 15 mph.”

Ever since seeing Jim Renkert’s first pair back in the 90s, I had always wanted to try the free-heel style clapper skates wearing warm, comfy ski shoes while traversing icy wetlands. But Fall has always been my busy season at Alaska Pacific University. I just couldn’t make the time, even as my packrafting partners gushed about the ice season coming up, then disappeared when the ice finally came.

The following day, a Saturday on the big loop out at the Nancy Lake State Recreation Area, Brad and I sailed across black ice lakes, accelerated along twisting sloughs lined in tall grass, and hurried skate-less over frozen trails between the water bodies, eager to get the skates back on.

Shoulder Season: So Long, and Thanks For All the Ice from Luc Mehl on Vimeo.

It felt a bit like high-tempo packrafting, where we portage our water-craft between paddles, but now shuffling along on slippery ski boots, delighting in the landscape, excited to get back on the ice. And once there, it was as if Nordic ice skating realized the promise of ski skating -- mammoth, exhilarating glides for minimal effort and no poles.

“Some years we never get out,” said Brad, “and other years, like this one, are just great. Last weekend we skated in the moonlight and lit methane bubbles on the ice for fun.”

Walking between lakes carrying our skates in our hands it seemed amazing that something so small and light could propel us faster than a fat-bike over places we never get to see in summer on foot.

Gliding effortlessly across Butterfly Lake Brad opined, “We wondered how you would react to this, Roman. Some thought it would be too boring for you.”

“Brad, my character is more complicated than most people realize. I love this. I wonder if we could skate to the Alaska Range?”

“Uh-oh. Look what I’ve created.”

The next day Brad called me. “You hear from Luc?”

That would be Luc Mehl, the mastermind behind some of the most audacious, creative wilderness trips in Alaska.

“He’s looking for people to skate from Noatak to Kotzebue this weekend.”

Now that was exactly what I was looking for.  A hundred-mile-Luc-Mehl-ice-skating tripacross the Arctic in late November.

Three days later Peggy and I had bought ourselves skates at AMH and on Wednesday we skated around Goose Lake in the dark.

“These are great! They are sooo stable. I’ve wanted to ice skate like this for years!” Peggy said.

We circled the lake over and over, dancing across lily pads that pock-marked the ice surface.  I wondered if a seven hour loop on Saturday, an hour of nighttime hijinks on Wednesday, and a half semester of commuting to work on my bike would be enough for a wilderness skate chasing a wild jock 20 years my junior.

I called Luc.

“Yo Roman. I talked to Seth Kantner in Kotzebue. He said the Noatak is open. And I have a friend, Timm Nelson, a teacher up there who's flying around. It might not be a go. But they’re giving me updates.”

Still, it seemed like a once in a lifetime chance but we were tortured with the idea that we might get way out and find out we couldn’t go onward.

Thursday and Friday we went back and forth by phone, email, text until we had settled on a plan.

On Friday, Seth snow-machined around and sent us iPhone photos and emails.

“The ice is good -- but not glass smooth. All different kinds of ice, real pretty, shallow overflow water should freeze tonight. Selawik Lake and Kobuk Lake I think would be all good ice -- but that white corrugated stuff. Noatak didn't have white corrugations -- just orange peel roughness and chunks.”

Our plan was now to fly to Kotzebue on frequent flyer miles at 6:30 AM on Saturday (November 22) morning, catch the Ravn Air flight to Selawik at 8:45 AM, and ice skate back to Kotzebue, 100 miles across Selawik River, Selawik Lake, Kobuk River delta sloughs, Kobuk Lake and whatever else we could. Finish by Monday (November 24),  or earlier.

We each carried three days of food, more than three quarts of water, headlamps, a minus twenty down bag, and multiple layers of clothing proven during the Winter Wilderness Classic in the Brooks Range. He carried the stove and fuel. I carried the cook pot and Cuben-fibre shelter. We each had ski poles and Luc even had a kite he thought he might deploy to sail across the ice.

We had no paper maps. Instead we had iPhones loaded with USGS topo maps and imagery accessed with the Gaia ap.

My wife Peggy had lived in Selawik for 10th and 11th grade where her parents were school teachers. Neither Luc nor I had ever been there to see its boardwalks and bridges crisscrossing the tundra and channels of the Selawik River. It was delightful at dawn, an Arctic Venice.

After landing in dawn's twilight we hopped on the local agent’s four-wheelers for a ride to the fuel depot where Luc bought a quart of unleaded for the stove.

He joked with Doreen and Eli at the register, “I bet I was your biggest customer all year!” They laughed and in Doreen I saw body language that Peggy may have picked up along with an Inupiaq vocabulary during her years in Selawik.

“You guys ice skating all the way to Kotzebue?” she asked.

I nodded.

“It’s a hundred miles and that’s by the short cut.”

Luc’s route mapped out on Gaia didn’t take the short cut. It went around the northern end of the Baldwin Peninsula and zigzagged through the Kobuk delta sloughs.

The northern and western horizons were purple as we clambered down and clicked on our skates. It was about 10:20 AM. My pack weighed 35 pounds.

On the ice, roughened by snow-machines flying across overflow refrozen, I steadied myself with poles. This wasn’t anything like dancing across Goose Lake or speeding around the canoe trails with a day pack. This was serious and committing and I felt weak, old, frail, and out of place.

Luc sped ahead and shot stills and video of me. I hoped he wouldn’t post any of that as I was tippy and awkward, unstable and nervous.

He moved easily across the orange ice, pitted and pocked, looking for the smoothest glide. He found it off to the side where water oozed out of the banks and over-flowed back onto the river, forming a smooth, quiet surface.

We stopped to shed a layer after less 50 minutes of skating downstream. I pulled out my phone. “We are 7.39 miles from Selawik in a straight-line!”

“Wow! I love the learning curve on these skates. We got out on the ice all awkward and unsure and now we are just flying!” replied Luc.

The sun had finally crested the southern horizon, rolling along above low white hills, casting our shadows to the opposite horizon.

We cruised along freshly frozen overflow (we only saw open water at the leads, open cracks in the lake ice),  an easterly tailwind at our back picking up as the sun rose. We stopped and looked at the skin of a caribou somebody had taken the day before.

“It really feels like the winter Arctic with that purple colored sky. You just don’t get that purple in April during the Ski Classic,” said Luc.

“Have you spent the winter in the Arctic?”

“Yea, I took a course at University Center in Svalbard during the winter and the purple light there was magic.”

Unfortunately the overflow wasn’t continuous and we had to work our way across the ice with half-inch to two-inch rugosities. In places it looked like wind had blown overflow as it froze, tumbling along globules of ice that built larger as they rolled and froze. Other places overflow had crept into surface patches of snow and only partially melted it, leaving rough patches or even snow patches. These snow patches were show-stoppers and we had to step over them as we flew along.

“When Derek and I went from Aniak to Dillingham, we skated along with 80 pound packs and would just crash when our skates caught cracks hidden in the snow.”

Cracks were another hazard. Small cracks that would snag a blade and threaten to stop you cold or snap a leg or ankle.  We learned quickly to keep full focus on the next fifty feet, carefully skating to avoid cracks, patches of snow, and roughness that might trip or slow our progress.

An hour and a half after leaving town we were at Selawik Lake, 10 miles away. Here we found a ragged crack in the ice one-two feet wide with an appealing yet terrifying color and texture. We saw no reason to cross it just yet – nor any way to do so, either – and skated on the shore fast ice for a while. The crack likely formed as the polar easterly winds blew at the lake and pulled the ice from its edge, leaving a kind of skate park for us to cruise. There was often nice, smooth, freshly frozen overflow that had apparently spilled from the crack, as I saw when the ice settled and boomed at one point, then the crack spilled liquid. Its old refrozen jumbled edge also gave us ridges and ramps to step over and skate making the skating not only fast but a new and variable terrain to travel.

Ultimately snow drifts crested off the shoreline and onto the ice as far as the shore lead. Beyond the lead was beautiful black ice, clear and solid over deep water.

Luc found a slab of ice a foot thick and angled upward 15 degrees. He herringboned up and gingerly stepped off and over the lead. It felt crazy to balance on the top of the slab with skates on and then plop down a foot and a half below. The best thing about skates is their lack of friction – it’s also the worst thing about them when you have to make any sort of static moves that involve vertical stepping.

Beyond the crack we took off at smooth speed.

“Man, this is so good. I wish we had some hot chocolate. We could just cruise along and sip coco.” The low angle sun illuminated the ice spray like golden sparks coming off our skates. This is what we’d come for, flying across a large bay of Selawik Lake, headed for the Kobuk River delta.

Slowly but surely the black ice gave way to patchy overflowed-snow. And we were forced to work our way through. I took my first fall pitching forward with a top heavy pack that held my water wrapped in my parka and slamming me onto the ice. Luc was far ahead, as usual, due to his longer skates, better style, superior fitness and technique, so thankfully didn’t see my embarrassing full body slam.

Not a true hazard, but an imagined one, was the sound of cracking and booming of settling ice. At least once each of us sensed a drop as ice boomed and buckled, and anytime I stopped I was confronted with not silence but a seemingly ever-present distant cracking and booming.
An hour or later the black ice gave way to  snow and we were chased to the edge of the lake. We walked on our skates across a small peninsula onto a small slough of good ice and followed that to a bigger channel. Left led back to the lake, right upstream.

“Let’s try upstream.”

The sloughs were surrounded by willows that seemed to slow the winds leaving waterways free of snow. The overflow had something crunchy on top that skates sliced through easily yet anchored ski pole tips, too. I found with the ski poles on this stuff I could keep up with Luc, but somehow took another fall, this one on my back.

Consulting Gaia, Luc found a way through the delta to a west-trending slough that led back to the lake. We had to follow channels and walk across a bit of marsh grass linking ponds and even bushwhacked through some old growth willow in our skates to the final slough and its incredible overflow edges. The overflow was quiet and smooth. Willows alongside gave a great sense of speed.

With momentum like this, it felt like we could skate forever, maybe make Kotzebue in 24 hours.

Around five it was time for headlamps and food and water. We’d been stopping every couple hours – well, I had. Luc stopped, it seemed, every hour to wait for me, but by the time I caught up with him he seemed chilled by the wind so I’d usually continue onward.

The skating cost little in energy and the temperatures felt well above zero so by keeping moving with the wind at our backs we felt no windchill at all, unless it came from the side.

Following the belly slide tracks of a river otter, Luc led the way and I took another face-first spill, slamming my forearm to the ice. Groaning in discomfort, I got up in the dark but could find Luc nowhere. I skated on, crisscrossing  the wide channel and looking upstream and down. Fifteen minutes later I spotted a yellow light upstream and figured somehow I’d passed Luc. So I skated back toward it, chasing a light which at first seemed to be getting closer, then getting farther and finally disappearing. 

In the clear, dark, moonless Arctic night, fifty miles and eight hours from Selawik, I was nervous to be separated from Luc. I had the cookpot and shelter and with willow everywhere I could make a fire. But what about Luc? I decided to skate back downstream toward the lake and look for him there. Then I spotted his light coming upstream to look for me.

We cruised on and I took another couple falls within minutes of each other while Luc was ahead. Each time I got up quickly to be sure where he was. While skating on some overflow (generally the only place I could keep up) Luc ran afoul of some hollow, white ice where water had drained away leaving a crust that shattered like broken glass. Luc ploughed into it and fell face first.

"Are you OK?"

"Yea," he got up and pushed on.  While I fell what felt like fifteen or maybe fifty times, he fell only twice.

A while later we hit the lake and almost immediately ran into miles of what Luc called “white death." It was the same hollow crust of drained overflow that had upended him earlier but now it was everywhere, unavoidable. Still wearing skates we crashed through it but walking, not gliding, in search of anything that might offer us more of the momentum we craved.

Looking out at the lake we were lured by the promise of blackess, but it was just the reach of our lights and we had bad ice mixed with snow. I fell again but worked hard to keep Luc in sight.

Eventually I cried uncle and said let’s camp. After more than 35 years and 14,000 miles of wilderness travel in Alaska I have found too often that pushing on in the darkness wastes time and energy. Morning brings a perspective that stubborn night travel obscures.

At about 8:30 or so we walked across styrofoam snow, found a patch of willows to get out of the breeze, took off our skates for the first time since leaving Selawik, threw down our pads and bags, brewed up, chowed down and crashed.

"That overflow was sick."

Midway through the night Luc woke me. “Roman, the aurora is awesome. I have never seen it whip around so much. Look over to the right -- it’s red.”

I unzipped the bag and sat up, looking heavenward at the snapping bands of green, yellow and red. It was amazing, but I was exhausted and fell back asleep while Luc captured the event on his camera.

“Luc, let’s get up. It’s getting light.”

A glow to the south promised another day. Frost covered us and our gear. Luc melted some water for breakfast and then heated our water bottles.

“You know Eben works for MSR and says that a tight fitting lid is the most efficient way to heat water in the cold. This cook-pot is taking for ever.”

Luc was referring to my 15 year old aluminum gallon pot, crushed in my backward landing fall the previous evening. The lid fit like a round peg in a square hole letting hot air escape and slowing the heating process.

We were out on the ice by 10 AM or so, 24 hours and sixty miles beyond Selawik, well rested after a 14 hour camp, and soon back to 7 mph on good ice. We had skated out a ways onto the lake when we heard what sounded like an airplane. Instead it was a roaring snow-machine carrying a local.

He pulled up alongside me, turned off his machine. My head and ego were bruised
after pitching forward onto the ice while trying to look back at him as he approached. He had a rifle slung around his neck and across his chest. He said he was down from Norvik, “Looking for caribou or maybe a wolf.”

“People, too?” Luc joked.

A young guy in his twenties he laughed and pulled off his face mask. Sitting warmly on a thick caribou skin he took out a half-burned cigarette to smoke and said he’d come down from Kotzebue the night before. We talked about the flashing beacons so obvious in the night that guided people’s way.

We said all we’d seen was a fox, but honestly when skating on the rough stuff I could not really look farther than fifty feet or so away or I’d trip and fall. In the silence between our words I could here the distant ice booming.

“The ice is pretty rough like this the whole way, although over there it’s glare ice.” He gestured toward the Kobuk delta.

He roared off and we drifted shoreward on patches of black ice mixed with gray and white. I took another fall, so painful I nearly cried in physical pain, writhing on the ice with an elbow I swore was bleeding.  Then we found the most beautiful overflow I’d ever seen that offered us up the perpetual motion that so exhilarates the long-distance skater.

It was smooth and expansive and aquamarine in the morning light. It was lined with willows on one side and the expanse of Kobuk Lake on the other. It was what I’d come for really, and I wished it would go on for 20 miles.

It nearly did. We made 17 miles in two hours on it,  with stops and photography, too.

Unfortunately the ice went northeastward and we wanted northwestward. I asked Luc about the route and he said we should head west as the continuing good ice would take us too far out of our way. My recollection on the flight over was that the west side of the lake was all white and the east side had shined smooth in the dawn light. I wanted to suggest to Luc that it might be farther but just as fast and more fun with good ice. But this was Luc’s trip and I kept that thought to myself.

Within an hour we’d stepped across another lead mid-lake and picked up a snow-machine trail. I took one last fall when the snow caught my skates as I glided across ice landing on my very sore elbow and said, “I’m  walking.”

Crossing short, rough ice patches along the snow machine trail in my Salomon X-C skate boots I was amazed at just how rough of ice we had often been skating the last two days. Stuff so coarse you'd never have though it skate-able. Yet we made 7 mph on it.

Luc tried to skate but was going no faster than I. Even if skating is five times as fast as walking, you need patches of ice long enough to get up to speed, and it was clear that the patches -- now reduced to a few feet long -- were not enough. Soon he switched out his Dynafit boots for tennis shoes and was cruising the snow-machine trail with me.

It was warm and easy going even in my ski shoes.  There was a hut on the shore of Kobuk Lake where the twelve mile trail to town took off. I fantasized that maybe if we got to town that night, then the next day we could fly to Norvik and do Norvik to Kotzebue in a day, taking advantage of all the overflow on the Kobuk delta’s sloughs.

But really, I wanted to make it to town that night, catch the plane in the morning and get back to my family and job. Luc wanted to camp out another night, but at 54 I also wanted to make this the fastest 100 miles on foot of my life, and spending another night on the tundra wouldn’t make that a reality, especially just to save asking Seth for a place to stay or a $100 for a bed and breakfast.

I told Luc just say when he wanted to camp. His toe gives him pain when he walks and we still had a dozen miles of walking past the hut to town. I knew all to well how it feels to have my partners want to push on when I was hurting.

We punched out the twenty miles to town in seven hours, even skating a hundred yards over small lakes on the snow-machine trail across the Baldwin Peninsula. It always felt so good to move effortlessly on skates after walking.

But the best part was reaching the paved road that leads from Kotz' water source into town. The road was covered in black ice and after trying it in his tennis shoes and ski poles, Luc switched to skates and shot off into the night. He skated up to the top of the first bridge, then turned back to me, whooping in joy about the speedy downhill off the bridge. I put on my skates and followed him in the dark, enjoying the downhill off two bridges as we skated our last mile to Fifth Avenue in downtown Kotzebue. 

There we hailed a cab to the fanciest hotel in town.

One hundred miles in less than 22 hours of travel --  a total of 36 hours including a 14 hour camp. Even at 25 years old, skate skiing across the Alaska Range with Audun Endestadt, I hadn’t gone that fast.

Selawik to Kotzebue was all that I had come for, and I was grateful to Luc for the vision, persistence, and bravery to make it happen.

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