Sunday, April 1, 2007

Perils of Traveling in the Arctic

This week I have had a lesson in traveling in the Arctic Circle. We decided that we were going to help a family move from our village to a nearby village. It was about 75 miles give or take. We had a caravan of one truck and two snowmobiles heading out to the village mid morning. The truck was taking our local "Ice Highway" and the two of us on the snowmobiles pretty much stuck close to the "highway". Let me explain about the "highway" so that you can picture what insanity was starting to possess us. This is a path that has been grated and cleared of snow about 2 weeks ago from the frozen bodies of water in the area, including lakes and rivers so that vehicles can make it to the village. Apparently this is not a yearly event. Not real sure what dictates the grating or lack of each year. We are traveling along at a decent speed of about 35 miles an hour when we are stopped by a very impressive "Pressure Ridge." The ridge is in the first picture. I am standing in the area that had opened in the past and frozen over again when the ice "plates" separated. I think I have mentioned these in the past. The best way to visualize them is to imagine the tectonic plates in an earthquake. This ridge is about 3 feet high and has some wood by it to help folks over. It doesn't really seem to have any real width to it so we use the wood to build up the opposite side, as it is a wee bit lower, and drive over. All the vehicles make it with little effort. I am having a blast at this point! We are speeding across a huge Alaskan lake in March on snow mobiles and it is a beautiful day! How amazing is my life! It is actually not freezing, no real wind, except what the speed of the machine is causing. I have to admit, I got to speeds of 70 miles per hour in the smoother area's. The snow mobiles really had the advantage over the truck here. This isn't a smooth ride, but it is incredible! I had never jumped a snow mobile before, and certainly didn't plan it the first time it happened. However, for those of you who know me, you can only imagine what happened after I had my first taste of that rush! Yep, then I was looking for the good snow hills to jump! My fellow snow mobile rider suddenly stops, turns around and stares back at me at one point. I quickly understood why, about 10 seconds later to be exact. We had just flown over a crack in the surface! It was an impressive 3 foot gap in the snow and ice that was about a foot deep, we had just zipped right over it! What a rush! The truck seemed to do OK and the crack was not quite as wide on the "highway." This is probably what happened as the ice ridge was shifting. It seems the side of ice we came from was being shoved up by the piece of ice we were currently on. Is anyone seeing where this story is going? Wish we had. sigh. As I am zipping across the frozen lake, there are some spots that suddenly forcefully remind me that I am on ice. Most of the surface is covered in piles and piles of snow so it is easy to forget that it is a lake. Until we got to this intersection where the lake met one of the larger rivers. When you looked at the ice, it was so clear! You can see where the cracks show through the ice like it was glass. You can even get an idea of how deep it is, maybe. I did mention that this is what we were driving on, right? We get to the village and spend just a little bit of time there. We then turn around, leaving the snow mobiles at the village because they belong to folks who live there. The wind has picked up a bit and the clear areas on the "highway" are now covered in some impressive drifts. It takes us about 2 hours to get to the point of the journey where reality and travel in the Arctic come crashing together in an extraordinary manner. The picture here shows what happens to Pressure Ridges when left alone for several hours. The fact that the weather had been getting warmer for the past few days also helps. We found that the ice slab that we were on had shifted and had been shoved under the other side, quite a bit in fact. What had been a small inconvenience had now turned into a huge obstacle. It was about 6 feet or more in width and about 4+feet high on the other side. I thought someone had shoved ice and snow against the far side until I realized that what I was looking at was actually the piece of ice that we had driven over originally. Notice the poles on each side of the "highway." They mark where it WAS safe to travel. I was told later that folks here will come out with chain saws and wood to make this passable for as long as possible. The chain saws are for the ice. I think that option may be over for this year. While we were standing there, realizing we were seriously stuck on the wrong side of the ridge, another truck showed up. They chose to drive along the ridge and JUMPED a smaller area. The ice slab sunk down where they crossed and their tracks filled with WATER! More cracks showed up where we were standing, about half a mile from where they crossed. We decided that though we were on the wrong side of the ridge, we were heading back to the safety of land..which was 2 hours behind us. We spent the night with the folks who we helped move. The decision was made to try again in the morning, only this time we would take a different path. It included more land and less lake... It is the local snow mobile trail that folk use through the winter. It is not normally recommend for vehicles but we are ready to give it a try! It is marked on the river and water areas with tree branches that stand fairly high, and on the land, it is marked with crossed poles. Everything has reflectors on them and surprisingly, they manage to withstand the weather. We head out the next morning to try and get the truck and one of the snow mobiles back to my village. We are taking the snowmobile on the chance that the truck doesn't make it, since two of us MUST be back in my village. Our little caravan is stopped once again at an older pressure ridge that is marked by the brightest fluorescent paint I have ever seen, plus little orange flags. The signs of danger are apparent by the broken snow mobiles on the far side of the ridge. It appears that they hit the ridge at some speed.... snow mobiles really don't bounce as well as you would hope. The truck was forced to turn back to the village, perhaps meant to stay there until the next solid winter freeze. Off I go on the little snow mobile back to my village. Did I mention the visibility had become an issue? While we had been sleeping happily in our little borrowed beds, a bit of a snow storm had blown in and was starting to BLOW more seriously by now. The markers that I mentioned above are about 50 feet apart and I had originally thought,"How strange that someone would make them that close." Now, I was very thankful that they were so close together! Although several folks knew where I was and what time I should be back to my village, I still would rather not be stuck out in the weather with a snow mobile that decided to break down or if I lost the trail. I had a rider with me, and it still seemed intimidating as we started to SLOWLY zip off across the trail. Slowly because the visibility not only affected our long distance vision, but it was making EVERYTHING look the same level. This was demonstrated as I attempted to toss my rider on an unexpected hill. It all looked the same! We noticed that as we continued across the lake, it showed more and more signs of "breaking up." We saw sudden shards of ice that were shoved up out of the lake at sharp angles, sometimes as large as 5 feet high! We even seemed to be traveling along another pressure ridge at one point. When we finally pulled into our village, we both gave a huge sigh of relief! Until I found that the throttle on our snow mobile was stuck open! Of course, what was I thinking?? Found this out as we popped into town over a snowbank about 4 feet high (we meant to do this part) and instead of slowing down when I let off the throttle, we suddenly sped up (didn't mean to do this part)! Up and almost over the other embankment, that was about the same size, and into a utility pole of some sort! Managed to hit the kill switch and turn the snow mobile off the embankment and onto the road, missing the utility pole. My shoulders, and low back hate me at this point. I don't think I am in the worlds best shape, but I do work out regularly. Just not usually by wrenching a 600 pound machine 144 + miles. It was one of the most amazing trips and most challenging that I have ever been on! The amazing Alaskan wilderness did show me that as beautiful as it is, it can take my life at the smallest sign of weakness. Weakness here is shown by a lack of planning for the absolute worse. When you leave your house, you need to plan on being stranded for 2 days, for the temperatures to drop, and for your vehicle to try dying. Oh, but remember, it really was worth it!