When I returned to Alaska this winter I received a lot of advice:
Buy your boots a size too big
Fur, leather and feathers for warmth
Black ice is a bad plan
Food that’s gone “bad” just needs a little TLC
Your definition of dirty clothes is about to change
But one friend’s advice stuck out in particular:
Every day, take an hour for yourself outside.
He didn’t say it flippantly. He stopped, looked me in the eyes and made sure I was listening.
Now, coming from California and more specifically Northern California, it is common for someone to prescribe to you the act of self-care.
Make sure you take time for you
Do what feeds your soul
Eat what fuels you
Treat yourself kindly
And yes, these are all great things to do. But, being a bit of a rebel against what is good for me has made this hard in the past and with these prescriptions there’s no immediacy, no sense of urgency.
Enter: Alaska and her precious few available hours of daylight.
I’ve always done my best work on a deadline and every day here is like a sunshine deadline. I often wake to darkness, get up, either The Chief or I make a fire, feed the dog and put on water for caffeinated beverages and just as that coffee readies, the sun begins to stretch her arms for her daily journey. It gives you a sense of accomplishment to beat the sun out of bed (even if you did only wake at 8am). But when you live in Alaska you can wake up at 8am, do a few morning chores and still get down to the river in time to watch her rise.
And then the sun clock starts ticking.
For some people, being outside is a take it or leave it toss up. A day gone by entirely inside doesn’t bother or confine them. Me, I question my entire life’s worth and meaning.
So I took my friend’s advice. Daylight hours are precious. Every day I made sure to make use of daylight and take at least an hour to walk or ski or play outside even if it was 20 below and my lashes froze.
And it was going great, until last week.
You see, last week I saw the movie “The Revenant”. I even mentioned it in last week’s post here. If you haven’t seen it go for it, it’s great. But, there’s a bear attack scene and if you live in the woods with bears it might just give you a shiver down your spine (even if it is a CGI bear). It had me a little spooked.
So, here I am in the woods, going for my daily hour of sunshine me time when I come across some bloody tracks.
I am not a tracker. Let’s get that out in the open right away.
Sometimes I forget what my own shoe print looks like in the snow and think we’ve had visitors. I’m no expert.
But prints are magical. They allow you to build up a whole story around them. Sometimes I see Lou’s (Cinda Lou the dog) prints from a previous walk and think maybe, just maybe they are from a wolf (and then I go down to the river with my friend who actually tracks and see real wolf tracks and realize I’m way off). But the point is, tracks are like breadcrumbs to a little story that you follow and put together.
So, I started putting those breadcrumbs together and working on the five W’s
What caused the bleeding?
When? Even I could tell it was very fresh. Bright red and barely frozen.
Where? (Right at my feet…that one was easy)
Detective that I am, I started following the tracks but they quickly ventured from the road into the woods and cross country skiing through knee deep snow is no easy (or smart) task. I decided to come back later for further investigation by foot. I continued the ski, losing one of the dogs (my neighbor’s) to the lure of the tracks. Lou and I continued on.
Once we hit the river trail the tracks picked up again.
And so, the following transpired:
Genius Maneuver #1: Follow the tracks of an injured animal.
Genius Maneuver #2: Break trail in knee deep snow on cross country skis towards the drop-off to the river, right to the edge, to follow those tracks.
As I neared the slippery edge and tried not to fall downhill into the ice and water I heard something that called all my senses to attention: something big was at the edge of the treeline behind me.
Lou was behind me, between me and the forest that gave cover to whatever was making the noise and “said”:
“Oh girl, you’re in a bad situation here.”
I started positioning myself to turn around, slowly high-stepping my skis to maneuver as quietly as possible and head slowly away from the noise.
Then it started coming towards me, breaking branches with labored steps.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
Shit because the figure I was starting to see in the woods did not look like the animal that I was tracking (which I had figured to be a moose), this looked like a bear tracking the animal I was tracking and suddenly, I was in between a bear and it’s kill.
I have never felt my pulse so strongly (and I used to workout for a living). It felt like my neck was going to pop.
Lou looked at me and started running towards me, looking back towards the noise every few steps.
Nothing feels better than seeing your dog spooked and running towards you. Oh joy.
Oh, and then I fell.
Falling on cross country skis in knee deep snow doesn’t make anyone look graceful.
Falling on cross country skis in knee deep snow when you’re about to fall into a river and you think a bear is coming for you I looked like someone slipping on a banana peel over and over and over again.
And while the river is beautiful I’m not looking for a swim (and bears swim faster anyways).
I like to think I’m composed in emergency situations. I always have performed well in them, been able to delegate and to act fast and get to safety or help.
But this sort of emergency was a whole new breed.
I finally got myself upright and pulled myself together with a quick pep talk (“Get it together, woman! Yes, you may have to fight a bear with two ski poles and a pocket knife. Surely, crazier things have happened. Not ideal but, this is your new reality so get moving, mama!”) and slowly headed downriver, back the way I had come. It would be a much longer way home but whatever was following me was blocking the entrance to the trail that would have me home in minutes so the only choice I had was to backtrack.
Or was it? Suddenly I remembered: there was another way home.
He could grab the snow machine and come and collect us within minutes instead of the thirty it would take me to reach home and safety. Oh, sweet relief!
I pulled out my phone, pulled up his number and pushed call.
And that was the exact moment my phone died.
Back to Plan A. I did my best not to look like a frightened animal on the run. I made long strides and tried to present myself as powerful.
More self-talk pep-talks.
You want some of this? I’ve got 130 (140? 150? I don’t know, we don’t have scales here) pounds of fightback power.
Oh, you weigh 700-1700 pounds. Ok. You win the size category.
But, I’ve got speed! Look at these bad ass skis I have attached to my feet. See ya.
Oh, you can outrun me (at 50ft./second you’re a little speedier, just a little).
Ok, so back to just trying to look like I’m not fleeing, just a passerby that doesn’t need to be eaten, despite how hungry this bear must be.
The bear kept following, his head down, headed towards us.
Lou was ahead of me but at a much closer distance than she usually keeps. She kept looking back, sensing my absolute fear, looking scared herself (yes, I’m anthropomorphizing but if you’d seen her face…).
Man, I can’t believe we are going to get eaten right now and by we I mean me because you (Lou) are faster.
This is not exactly how I saw my hour outside going.
Finally we reached the road that meets up to our driveway. Unfortunately this meant I still had twenty minutes before we were home. Also, the woods T-boned the road so that the bear had a shortcut to where I was.
We both kept looking over our shoulders. I was certain that one time I would look back and see a grizzly on our heels and then a grizzly on my back and then it would be time to fight or play dead and hopefully live to tell the story.
But that didn’t happen.
We made it home huffing and puffing and barged through the door to relay to The Chief the terror that was our time in the sun.
The next step was obvious: go out again, this time by snow machine.
As we looked for the bear, The Chief’s face grew serious and worried. A bear out in the winter is a bad thing. A hungry bear, out in the winter when you least expect it on the trails you need to utilize to get anywhere or find trees for fire is a really bad thing.
I took him to where I first spotted the tracks (I couldn’t remember their exact location since on the way there I had been in Happy Detective Mode and on the way back I had been in Don’t Die Mode). He confirmed that they were moose tracks (not the ice cream, that would have been way better).
We continued down the river to where the tracks of the bear’s prey picked up again.
And then we heard the bear. Cracking branches and heavy footsteps.
We looked up to the treeline and the figure I had seen reappeared. This time I was closer, since we were on the trail and not at the river’s edge as I had been before.
Close enough to see that…
It was a moose.
Sidenote/personal disclaimer: I wear glasses. Addition: I wasn’t wearing them that day.
Back to the story…
An injured moose. We waited for the potential predator but I think we both knew that what I had seen, what I had feared, what I had been certain was going to kill me was in fact a moose and not a bear. No prey, no stalking, just me out in the woods chasing and then running from a moose.
And, that’s legitimate. You should avoid a moose.
Moose kill people.
But a moose out in winter is normal. A bear is big trouble.
We drove home, both of us happy to see a moose, not a bear, and one of us (guess who?) a little embarrassed.
You see, it turns out that moose shed their antlers in the winter (who knew?) and with its head down and labored walk it really did look like a bear. Especially if you’re looking up from the river, knee deep in snow, not wearing your glasses and have just been scared by “The Revenant”.
So now I know (too bad that little tidbit wasn’t in my Alaskan welcome package).
The thing is, little (or actually let’s call that one gargantuan) scares like that are important out here. The moment you get too self-assured or too cocky is the moment you lose touch with reality. The reality that:
You live in the wild.
You, at 140 pounds or even 240 pounds could be taken out by an animal with the simple swipe of a paw or the closing of a jaw.
You are hours away from clinics and even farther from a hospital.
And, any day could be the day that reminds you of this, if you are foolish enough to forget (and we all do).
Hopefully the little reminder is enough for you to re-calibrate your relationship to the wild, recognize the pecking order and act accordingly (even if you learned the lesson in a way that left you a tad embarrassed).
And then, the next day, it’s time to go out again. Time to greet the sun and take that time for yourself, even if your heart does a little pitter patter every time you hear branches break for a few days.
Time to get back on the horse, detective and this time with a little more knowledge (winter = no antlers. Got it).
I think the first time I have to school a newbie, that will be part of my advice. That, and to take an hour outside, everyday. It’s worth it.