Like Little Red Riding Hood, our winter commute is along serpentine trails through the woods, over ridges and down frozen river beds. Depending on the distance, we travel by snow machine (snowmobile), cross country skis, or snow shoes. When we are going slowly, I notice tracks of animals that are fox and coyote size and larger. We descend down shallow access points to river basins along with many moose tracks, since they like that gentle trajectory, too. In fact, the hard snow machine trails are pockmarked by the moose's deep tread, since walking on the hard surface is easier for them than wallowing in the soft snow or the thin ice. At this time of year, at least, there is a reciprocating benefit of man to beast.
I enjoy walking and snow machining through the woods more than across the open flats of frozen bogs, lakes or meadows but there is beauty and function in each. The heavily treed areas shield us from the north wind which can be an unwelcome force, and it is rather fun to dip and rise and twist and turn through a pillowy soft winter wonderland. In the open flats, one can see the moutains beyond the trees. The close ones guide me home by their familiar faces as I wind around them. The tall, remote ones are treats to see so clearly in the winter air. They look closer, due to their height above 15,000 feet. The stronger wind is not only cold, but it stirs up the snow, interfering with good visibility, which can be a hazard on a remote trail shared by ornery creatures with five foot legs and a four month hunger. On the other hand, one can drive ten or twenty miles faster per hour along the flats most of the time which is always a plus on a long commute, and it is the only viable route for heavy loads and long supplies, like pipes and boards. My husband often drives TO town (with an empty load) along a woodsy route that is 12 miles and an hour shorter, even at slower speeds. Returning home with a heavy load, he takes a flatter route which is longer. Empty, he can get home in 3.5 hours. A full load decreases speed, increases caution and duration, up to 5 hours. Sometimes, he has to dump a load to get up a hill.
Small, nimble recreational snow machiners leave trails that are arbitrary, cris-crossing the landscape like fly casting patterns. But the ones we favor for our utilitarian purposes of hauling goods from town to the cabin are more permanent. The trails are marked by small, metal reflective quadrangles nailed into trees every once in a while. But since trees fall and die, the trail is supplemented in winter, with flagging tape tied to branches. Across treeless areas, wooden stakes are marked with flagging ribbons and reflective tape. Some parts of the trails, particularly along major rivers and within about two hours of a town, are maintained by snow machining and mushing clubs and by the nearest municipality or lodge as a regional recreational area. Other trails, particularly remote ones, are maintained by the local residents. In good visibility, well used trails are easy to see, but in flat light, snow storms or after a heavy snow, one can see only the upcoming vertical marker or tree square. As a back up precaution, my husband has recorded the two trails that connect at our cabin on a portable GPS unit that he carries with him. In our vicinity, at least, the driving protocol is to keep the stakes to our right when we are heading from our cabin to town, and keep the stakes to our left when we are returning. In this way, we will stay on the hard surface and not tip over into soft, unpacked snow.
Maintenance is a bit like building a seasonal road and then snow plowing it. As water surfaces like rivers, lakes, and bogs freeze, people need to first check how thick the ice is. Then one can travel across them for the first time in many months! Yea! Mobility! Bogs and still, shallow lakes freeze first, followed by deeper lakes and moving rivers. At this point, one can walk across those surfaces but they still need snow, for the eponymous snowmobile. Locals know where underwater springs are located, and often denote holes of open water with a tall pair of crossed sticks.
Once snow starts to accumulate, interested parties can break trails. This requires some repeat conditioning. One needs to pack down a path in the snow so it will harden and thicken to support more weight than the soft surface on either side. This generally requires two trips: a first one to pack down the soft snow, a lag of a day or two for that to freeze hard, and then a second trip to pack it down further. Some people groom trails after every appreciable snowfall. Others groom shortly before a race or outing or hauling trip. For remote people like us, a snow groomer is a useful attachment that trails behind the snow machine. This passive, fence-like contraption can chop off icy boulders, fill in the pits of moose footfalls, and smooth out dips that would otherwise feel like a washboard across straight aways or be a steep and treacherous impediment for a trailer full of cement blocks or for novice riders. Throughout the hauling season (February and March), my husband and I will often take a Sunday afternoon picnic to a spot an hour or so down the trail. With that timing, we follow any weekend hot doggers who may have eroded the smooth parts of the trail a day or so before my husband plans a weekday trek for heavy supplies. But another reason for these slower, shorter jaunts is the opportunity it gives my husband to enjoy a pretty stretch that otherwise just represents a blur at the beginning or end of long, exhausting days for him. After all, we live here partly for the sheer beauty of the place. It is important to notice it.
Last weekend we tried to combine both utility and pleasure in an outing. Armed with a picnic of tea and pumpkin bread, we drove on our two snow machines (plus a groomer on mine and a sled on his) about an hour to a river's edge. It is a pretty spot, but the reason we stopped there was because several days before, Bryan had been unable to ascend a steep, icy stretch from the river basin to the ridge with two pallet loads of supplies, each weighing about 750 lbs. We had to go retrieve one he had abandoned in the snow. He had gotten a “Man Up! Your machine can take all that weight” sort of speech from the delivery man. However, what we learned that day is that engine capacity is but one element of a successful haul. Another is the condition and angle of the worst segment of the trail. Stuck about one hour from town and two hours from home, afraid of burning out the motor, Bryan was unable to lever the top pallet load off the sled and dreaded cutting the packaging to unload each element one by one. What to do?
Fortuitously, two snow machiners happened along. Perhaps because they were good Samaritans or perhaps because Bryan's load was blocking the trail, they helped him push the top pallet off into the soft snow beside the trail, waited for him to retie the lower load, and helped nudge him up past the icy patch to an open meadow, at which point they were able to zoom around him.
On our return trip a few days later, we painstakingly unwrapped and re- loaded 6 cement blocks, 11 – 12 foot dock boards, two 8 foot wooden posts, 8 metal fence posts, and 6 - 32 quart bags of Miracle-Gro that lay in such soft snow that my feet sank to my knees and I had to pull myself up to the hardened path on one knee to pass materials to Bryan. Once loaded, we ratcheted down about 6 cables to hold everything snugly for a bumpy ride ahead. Alas, after all that work, we could not ascend the icy path even with only one pallet load this time. The big machine couldn't get any traction, and my smaller machine couldn't haul the larger plus the sled weight. Over the course of two hours, we unloaded first 1/3 of the weight, tried to leave, then 2/3 of the weight, tried again, and finally headed home with a mere 4 boards, weighing a grand total of about 100 lbs. At least we had two intact machines! But now what?
The third element of a successful haul is weather. We had to wait for the weather to change. Several days later, it snowed heavily for a night and day, covering the ice with about 7 inches of snow and adding some light texture, as well. My husband headed back, this time with a stronger companion than I, to finally bring everything home. Will all this effort be worth it? We'll know that when we start to build the fuel depot and dock extension, which is what the whole commute was for in the first place.