One Last Cast
From Alaska Outdoors Radio Magazine
By Evan Swensen
Winter hikes in the far north demand a different attitude than conventional hikes elsewhere. Hikers must adapt their mental makeup to cope with darkness and cold that can drive a person over the brink.
This is winter wilderness Alaska right out of the pages of Jack London and Robert Service. Winter hikes are not for the unprepared. A minor incident may end in major tragedy. On the other hand, a winter hike can lead to high adventure for the prepared and informed. The three most important rules of winter hiking in Alaska are: (1) be prepared, (2) be prepared, and (3) be prepared.
My experience on the winter trail has given me many unusual memories. Once, at 59 degrees below zero, I had to preheat white gas with a small fire before it would vaporize enough to burn in the Coleman stove and lantern. Cooking breakfast was a problem in subzero weather one morning when frozen raw eggs had to be peeled before they could be put in the frying pan. Pancakes cooked over an open fire were burned on the outside and nearly raw in the middle. The fire could only give enough heat to cook the batter next to the pan. The outside temperature was so low, it kept the top and middle from enough heat to change the batter to a pancake.
I have seen breath vaporize and freeze on a beard causing whiskers to break when touched. At 60 degrees below, spit turns to ice before it hits the snow, any exposed flesh will freeze within 30 seconds, and extremely cold air entering lungs can cause damage. When ice fishing, fish are flash-frozen when pulled from the ice hole.
Unexplained phenomena occur in cold, clear air. Once I saw a large, Chicago-like city with high-rises and skyscrapers. It wasn’t a cloud formation, but the refracted image of the city projected against the deep-blue southern sky. Another time, standing on level ground at night, I could see taxiway lights of an airport more than 35 miles away.
Yes, as Robert Service wrote, “There are strange things done in the midnight sun.” But, for the adventurous and well prepared, a winter hiker will find, “Arctic trails have their secret tales,” and the strangest sights of the northern lights may well be the ones the Greatland reserves for you.