Bella and I were cooped up in the house for 3 looonnngggg days. Little kid cooties are quite virile and my cold/cough morphed into pneumonia last week. I mostly laid on the couch and whined all weekend, with intermittent breaks to use the restroom and then stare in the fridge and complain there was nothing to eat. I am a terrible patient. This afternoon I was feeling a little more like myself and in need of fresh air. The benefit of an ATV is that I can ride it for miles on frozen trails, or take it to the land where I trap, or just go for a short spin. Today it was a short spin.
I always have my .22 rifle with me in case of grouse or a hare. If you have been following this blog, you know that I have claimed there are no grouse in Alaska. Until today! I came around a corner on the trail and there he was – a plump male. Sasha and Bella both saw him but they listened to my command to stay beside me. The angle was right with a safe back drop in case anyone else was out in the woods. I aimed just below the head and fired. The shot was sure and the grouse was dead.
This was the first time Bella had heard a gun close up and it didn’t phase her the least. Sasha, who has been a little gun shy, also didn’t even flinch. Bella ran to the bird and well – we need a little work on the idea that retrieving means bring the bird back to Peg. She did pretty good though. She ran a little away from me but came back when I called her. The look I got when I took the bird from her was, well, not very supportive but when I field dressed the bird and handed the human inedibles too her and Sasha I felt the love once again. Before field dressing I melted a little snow and dribbled it into the grouse’s beak – water for his trip to the other side. It’s important to me to honor every life. I kept the wings as an attractant for trapping and tomorrow is roast grouse with wild rice!
My heart was full and we continued down the trail. It was about 2 hours before sunset and the light was the kind that is soft and speaks of Nature’s glory. It was warm today too – about 35 F – and I stopped often to bask in the warmth of a sun that will soon enough shine but not have any heat to it. The trail I was on is known as the main winter trail and is part of a system that will, truthfully, take you anywhere in Alaska or beyond. The Yukon Quest, a 1,000 mile dogsled race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse (it alternates every year), uses part of this trail. From our end we first go through what everyone calls the hay fields.
Another mile down the trail is what we call the second hay fields or also “the place where Peg went through the ice at 20 below.” A few years ago I broke through some ice and muskeg and buried the ATV up to its headlights. Our machine has a winch which is great. What was not so great was the trees I could have hooked to were all behind me and my winch cable was about 20 feet too short. I spent about 2 hours that night slogging through thigh deep water to the trees and back, burying short poles under the tires to help break the suction of the mud. Then I tied rope and gangline (the set up sled dogs are attached too) together, thought about the physics of it all and finally got the machine unstuck. A year later, that same sinkhole sucked in my friend and his dog team. He had it worse than I did because he had to unhook each dog and tie them to a tree. Once free he had to hook his team up again. Here is the view from the safe end of that field.
When I am on the trail I am always considering “what if’s.” What if a moose comes charging out of the trees? What if the ATV gets stuck? What if I meet another dog team and have to do a head-on pass? What if I have to make camp and start a fire? Knowing how to start a fire is an important skill. Some folks have found themselves in real danger when they were stuck somewhere and their knowledge of fire-starting was limited to a lighter and newspaper. Don’t get me wrong. I carry a lighter but when it doesn’t work at 40 below or when it’s pouring rain, I have a knife, steel, fero rod and various tinder options. One of the tinders I like to collect and keep on the ATV or in my pocket is this stuff – Arctic cotton. When it’s dry, it’s excellent fire starter.
Another good source of tinder is this greenish-yellow stuff, called Witch’s Beard. It’s easy to collect and find. Here in the Interior of Alaska, it’s not as abundant as in the SE of Alaska, but it can be found.
We made it as far as The Willows today. It’s also known as Little Africa. I have to laugh when I think of these various names. The Willows is this small stand of, well, willow, next to a field of grass and muskeg (hence Little Africa). All the names make sense to me now – Potlatch Creek, Slough Trail, Jenny M trail, Christmas tree trail – but when we had first moved here and mushers, trying to be helpful, would talk about all these different places as if it all made sense. The Willows is this:
The challenge is that there are hundreds of clumps of willows. For a few years now, this particular fork in the trail is also described as The Willows on your left and the Willows with the CD hanging from a branch on your right.
The trail also has signs designating it as a route for dogs first and foremost. I imagine these signs have been up pretty much since the development of the trails.
And what do you find on a dog trail? These two:
Here is a more “modern” version of trail signs:
This winter I will be sure to take a photo on the Christmas Tree trail. At the crossroads is a scraggly spruce adorned with lights and bulbs – in the middle of nowhere. It’s really something to be mushing along, lost in thought and see that tree all lit up (by solar).
We made it home safe and sound. The fresh air did me a world of good.