From the depth of darkness into flat light

December travel, eh? Cancelled trains, strikes, traffic jams, white out so bad you can’t see a foot ahead and snow drifts as high as your chest with a sheer 3,000 foot drop below.

We all have our transport issues throughout the festive season. Though when I lived in London, if the train turned up, I got on. I never dithered on the platform, wondering if it might plunge off Blackfriars Bridge into the Thames.

Open water close to the trail

We made one successful trip to town in mid-December, only 5 hours each way with breaks, to pick up a new snowmachine. Since then, we got turned back twice.

The new beast

We have two routes. A 160 mile round trip, heading away from town downriver for 20 miles and then going up over the mountains.

Caribou causing a traffic jam

Or an 80 mile round trip, straight up the river to town. Depending on ice conditions, it is not necessarily faster. And, as it requires more checking of ice depth and bludgeoning through jumbled chunks and slabs, it is often a while before we’ve got that route in.

We had our hearts set on a booze up with pals before Christmas. By then, we’d made our trail upriver, halfway to Dawson, where it linked with a route put in by a fur trapper friend. What could go wrong?

Testing the ice on frozen overflow

The driving was smooth and fast. I whizzed along on the new Skidoo, thinking of all the things we’d get done in town, now we’d be there so early.

But wait, what’s that ahead? Looks like water. Lots of it. With a cloud of grey vapour steaming above. Looks like this beautiful trail drops straight into the river. Now, that can’t be right.

We stopped the machines on the bank. Neil waited with Homer, our extremely brave husky, whilst I walked out on the ice to check. Neil is heavier and so more likely to break through than me, and he can pull me out more easily. Therefore, it’s better I do all the dangerous stuff. That’s what Neil and Homer tell me anyway.

Note vertical cracks opening in the foreground ice

The ice had opened into a dark gash some 30 feet across with chunks of ice sweeping by at 8mph, in the full force of the Yukon River. As I got closer, I had the unnerving sensation the ice was shifting, almost floating beneath my feet. Neil started screaming- “Get off, it’s cracking! It’s coming away!” Probably that was all in our imagination, but the river was cutting new channels into the ice before our eyes and the pops and cracks were most definitely getting louder.

At another open lead downriver. Look who's been sent off to test the ice..

We could go no further on this side as the water was flowing over the ice ahead, so turned back and tried to cross at a steep bluff. We were almost across, dammit, testing the ice depth with our axe as we went, but then I noticed Homer stopped. Usually we ignore him, as a dog that’s scared of his own blanket is not to be trusted, but Neil said, “What’s that noise?”

Almost across

The main channel of the Mighty Yukon River was thumping and tumbling right below our feet. Usually, the ice is so thick you don’t hear it, but we were hearing this loud and clear. At -35°C, and tired from 3 hours on the trail, we didn’t fuck around. We turned back.

Testing open water at another dubious spot

A week later we tried for another knees up, taking the longer route over the hills. It was 30 below and blowing a hooley. The snow had drifted up to my chest in places and our river trail was gone - blown, buried, disappeared. We stopped the machines in the pitch black, a few hundred yards from home.

Storm blowing in

“We aren’t going to make this” I screamed at Neil above the wind. “We’ll just go a bit further.” I broke trail in deep snow the whole way. It took us two hours to go 16 miles. Then, suddenly, miraculously, the storm blew itself out. Stunned by our good fortune, we flew into town. Cold, very cold, but happy.

Sun flaring above Dawson City

With fresh trail to follow, coming back will be easy, we thought. We had a fabulous evening with friends and after shopping, set off at 2pm the next day. That’s a bad time to travel on a snowy-blowy day. It snowed overnight, and with the sun already set behind the hills, you have a shadowless, featureless light, known as “flat light”.

Neil is about 50 yards ahead of me on a skidoo, completely obscured by spin drift

Trees lost in the mist

At times, I couldn’t see even a foot in front of the machine. 15 miles up into the hills we met a pal heading back down.

You can just about see the trail in this one, if you squint

“I just gave up,” he told us. “If you come off the road on those drifts up there, you’re on a 3,000 feet, one way, vertical trail to the river. And you ain’t coming back up. Try again tomorrow. Gotta take it as it comes.”

We set off at 8am the next morning, as it’s easier to pick out a trail in the glare of a headlamp against the night. It would be dark until 11, and we should be over the mountains by then. I was able to pick out our trail from 2 days before, and we skimmed across the hills, sliding in the fresh snow.

Hope we don't miss our turn off! Luckily there's a sign

As we drove down into the Yukon valley a storm blew in behind us and the mountains were lost again in the swirling grey. If we’d set off an hour later we might not have made it.

Someone didn't make it. Found this abandoned machine

Gotta take it as it comes. It is annoying to spend half a day packing a sled, get up at 6am, plug the Skidoos into the generator to warm up as it’s 30 below, dump all those buckets of water we collected from the creek by hand as they will freeze and the pails bust, get all dressed up in a thousand layers, and after all that, turn round a few miles down the trail. It’s a pain in the ass.

But no one forces us to do this. No one grabs us by the collar and pushes us into a badly made hardboard box, that fills with snow from the spindrift as they hurtle over lumps and bumps, slamming us up and down and side to side. Spare a thought for poor Homer.

Quick roll in the snow

We let him out to run sometimes, but we would be putting all our lives in danger if we went at his pace to town, so he is shoved in his “misery box.”

Misery box on the back of the sled

Once, on a very long journey to the Yukon-Charley Preserve, he refused to be caught and boxed. (Homer Thinks Outside the Box) We were too cold to keep trying, so drove off at top speed for 5 miles and left him, lost in the wilderness. When he eventually caught up, staggering with exhaustion, he had learned about the Internal Combustion Engine versus legs. We’ve never had a problem boxing him since.

So, imagine his terror when the crappy old latch his careless human owners fixed on the box came off, the door flew open and he tumbled out and off the sled, maybe 15 miles from home.

Homer running behind the machine, storm blowing around the bend

And imagine the shock when the humans got home, only to find the box empty and beloved dog disappeared. It was -37°C and we were too cold to turn back straight away. We got a fire going, made tea and watched hopefully for a tired little husky to come tottering round the bend. Happily, he appeared just as I finished my tea.

So exhausted he lay on his dreaded blanket

Travel gets easier as the winter goes on. Unless of course, it doesn’t. March is usually the best travel month. Unless, like last year, it isn’t and we go from Dodgy December quickly through to Maybe March(March Warm Up)

Jumble ice

So we need to get all our winter travelling done whilst we can. We must collect our broken snowmachine, some 50 miles downriver, we need construction materials for our never-ending log cabin project, gasoline for the spring and this is our chance to visit friends along the river.

The next couple of months will be full of things not going to plan, lots of toppling from sleds and Skidoos and all the wonder and excitement of winter. But, just like rush hour journeys in London, it is all beyond our control and we’ll take it as it comes.

The title is a nod to a current installation at Tate Britain by the very wonderful Anne Hardy. Anyone else out there in the depths of midwinter darkness- Check out this link- and bring some light into your life.


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