Breaking Trail – Another Day in the Arctic

stuckIt was a hard day for going anywhere, let alone up the Redstone Valley and over Iviisaq Pass. My Eskimo buddy Clarence Wood and I plowed through loose, rolling drifts from the previous day’s blizzard, our snowmachines dragging basket sleds loaded with gas, gear and grub, bound for a week in the upper Noatak. Barely making headway on my long-track Arctic Cat, I leaned forward over my skis, teeth gritted as the engine howled. Clarence, with his shorter, heavier machine, was having even more trouble. He lagged behind—totally uncharacteristic Clarence behavior— then stopped. I doubled back to where he stood by his half-buried rig.

“No use, buddy,” he shrugged. “Need to drop our sleds and break trail.”

People who have never driven a snowmachine might have the impression they float like boats, and cross-country travel amounts to riding some sort of mechanized flying carpet. But anyone who’s driven long distances off-trail, often pulling big loads, knows that it’s tough, sometimes brutal work, demanding a complex and particular set of skills, ranging from reading snow and ice to muscling stuck gear around to changing a drive bearing. Then comes the actual driving.

Of course, travel conditions vary, according to a blend of factors: temperatures ranging from 50 above to 50 below; various depths and varieties of snow; and sky and wind conditions, ranging from sunny calm to ground blizzards fierce enough to blow over a snowmachine. In perfect conditions, the hundred-mile trip Clarence and I were making, from Ambler on the upper Kobuk to Douglas Creek, on the north side of the Noatak, might take as little as five hours. At the far end of the sliding scale, the exact same route might be all but impassable. And just because you set out in one set of conditions doesn’t mean they won’t change, sometimes in a matter of minutes or miles.

What Clarence and I faced that day lay somewhere near the lower end of doable. We hadn’t even gotten to the pass, where things might turn really ugly. But Clarence Wood isn’t the sort of guy who turns back. I sighed, knowing what we were in for. Just as much now as in the days of the old timers and dogs, breaking trail is part of the deal.

“Breaking trail” is by itself a floating term. It can mean as little as ceremonially leading the way over good going or slogging along up to your waist, forging a trench for others to follow. Whether from booted foot, snowshoes or a snowmachine’s track, each bit of pressure—the more passes the better—packs loose snow; and waiting at least a few minutes, ideally an hour or more, lets the snow settle and stiffen.

Pretty much all living creatures, from foxes to moose, will automatically follow a broken trail, no matter which species made it. Doing so saves precious energy and time. Wolves and caribou usually travel single file in tough going, with different leaders taking turns.

Clarence and I would have to unhitch our sleds and drive until we reached better snow; then drive back, hitch up, and try again over the somewhat packed trail. That meant traveling at least three actual miles for every mile forward, mostly at low speed. In tough gullies or thick brush, maybe we’d have to make several passes. In nasty spots, traveling 50 yards might take a sweat-drenched hour.

As it turned out, conditions did worsen—we were bogging down and getting stuck over and over, even without sleds. All told, we’d spent four back-wrenching hours to cover just 20 miles when Clarence steered toward a spruce clump.

“May as well camp here and wait overnight,” he murmured. “Better trail in the morning.”

And he was right. The next day broke calm and colder; the snow settled and smoothed so much that we made the remaining 80 miles to Douglas Creek before evening. No telling what the days ahead would bring. But one thing was certain: as long as we rode this country, for better and worse, we’d be breaking trail. It was all part of the going.