The next day was clear, calm and cold. Because of the bear sign, we had breakfast by the creek again.
Perhaps you’ve seen pictures of mountain climbers cooking their breakfast while still in their cozy sleeping bags. We dreamed of this kind of comfort as we made our oats by the creek.
It was minus 10 C before the sun reached us. We had to believe that our frozen feet would get warmer the sooner we ingested some calories and then started our engines to burn them.
“The next pass is just a few hundred feet up,” Mary said, as we set off. I thought it was more than a few hundred. Perhaps closer to 999 feet up, but it was a gentle climb.
We enjoyed lunch at the summit in calm, sunny conditions. Then we skied down to Cottonwood Creek.
The 240-metre descent here was sheer pleasure; there was 10 feet of snow over rolling moraine with no sudden drops. The hills leveled off to an evenly sloped creek bed with mature cottonwood trees occupying the whole valley bottom.
Giant balls of snow were suspended in the tree branches, which encouraged careful thought as to where we skied.
The creek had formed a solid cap of ice and snow that made a perfect ski-skating surface. I didn’t have Olympic standard equipment, but I had steel edges to bite into the crust and I could get an extremely long glide on each ski.
It was somewhat awkward balancing during the glide with one heavy, 210-centimetre ski up and a 13.5-kilogram backpack taking on a life of its own. However I knew that I would have crippling blisters if I did not give my heels and toes a break from the repetitive shuffling. A heavy application of sports tape over these heated areas was staving off immediate damage.
Because we were going downhill and downwind, the skating motion was very efficient and I could easily out-distance the others.
It apparently wasn’t possible for Gerry and Mary to skate in their harnesses. They had to shuffle along. So sorry.
We located a good place to camp just off Johoba Lake. It was calm and quite warm in the sun. We set up the tents and dug cooking shelves into the side of a depression.
Standing in the bottom of the hole the shelves were at perfect kitchen-counter height. The problem was staying standing.
Without skis or snowshoes, the lightly packed snow would suddenly collapse and one leg would shoot down leaving the upper torso in an uncomfortable position.
Hungry cooks don’t complain about working conditions, however.
Catherine gave our camp the “ski lodge look” by lounging in the late afternoon sun, skis as a backrest, book in one hand and hot drink in the other while ‘the help’ made something delicious from ground moose.
After supper, Catherine, Mary and I skied a short distance on the trail we would be taking tomorrow from Johoba Lake to the Kathleen Lakes.
I stayed out photographing late enough to see the alpen-glow warm the snowy peaks. It was 10 p.m. or so when I crawled into my flattened goose-down bag.
The trail looked easy and Mary assured us it was mostly downhill so we could take our climbing skins off.
Those of you who have not had the pleasure of skiing on the snows of Kilimanjaro may never have used climbing skins.
These fasten by glue or tension to the bottom of the ski and allow forward motion but no backsliding. They are very useful in steep, wet, icy, crusty or changing snow conditions where waxes would be a nightmare.
After climbing a summit, you remove the skins and try to ski down the horrendous conditions you have just climbed.
So, with skins off, we descended some long hills, accumulating speed quite rapidly.
The snow was glazed in some places and loosely packed in others.
Around a blind corner Catherine and I encountered moose-size holes.
I don’t mean that the moose were skiing but they must have wandered back and forth along the trail, lounging here and there. They left the trail looking like the aftermath of a ‘bunny’ class of extremely overweight skiers.
With our backpacks throwing us around on the uneven surface, we crashed and deepened the holes.
I did one ‘Wiley Coyote’ cartoon fall where my head was driven into the snow by the pack slipping up my shoulders, my arms stretched out to the point of dislocation.
It took a while to get the ski tips out of my face and back where they belonged.
Somehow Mary and Gerry cruised right through this chaos. Points for pulks!
Finally we were close to Big Kathleen Lake. As we came out of the forest the lake didn’t look frozen, which startled us at first. Most of the snow had been blown off leaving black ice.
There were small open leads close to shore but we were comfortable once we could see that the ice was at least a third-of-a-metre thick.
It was blowing quite hard as we munched on our last snacks in the shelter of the trees. Mary and Gerry decided to use their tent fly to make a sail. They each held a top and bottom corner. Catherine and I double poled and used our bodies as sails.
I found I could get close to the speed of the wind because there was literally no friction between the ice and my skis. At one point I actually passed a snow machine. Perhaps he was travelling slowly because of previous pirouettes.
I remembered a physical principle. Once an object is set in motion on a frictionless plane the object will stay in motion. My problem was keeping my knees and legs in a defensive posture in case my memory of this principle was wrong. I certainly didn’t want to fall at 30 kilometres an hour with a pack.
Mary and Gerry weren’t so lucky.
A swirling gust came off King’s Throne, the dominant mountain beside the lake, and blew them into each other. Gerry just said it was a good thing they were married.
Back at the truck I examined the contents of my boots. The discoloured white sports tape over the hot spots and burst blisters on my bony feet looked like the celebrated photo of a discovery in the High Arctic — the frozen, but very well preserved, crew member of Franklin’s unsuccessful search for the Northwest passage.
I hoped my teeth looked better than his.
At the restaurant in Haines Junction, over steaming coffee, I made a silent toast to sports tape, the modern mummification wrap — intended to protect living tissue and keep expeditions going, not embalm or entomb for future reference.
As for pulks, I reserved judgment.
I intend to do the route again soon, jingling and laughing all the way, now that I have an excellent pulk.
Rob McClure is a Whitehorse-based writer.