Saturday, January 8, 2011

The coldest place on earth - a longish story

 On top of the world

 The coldest place on earth

Having recently fought off the grim reaper I am feeling extra perky this evening and thought I would endeavour to write a longish story. I do apologize to those of you not in the mood for a longish story but one must endure reading through these things periodically if one is to build character and moral fiber. On the upside, this story should meet your moral fiber requirements for at least the next week or so.

Without much further introduction I should like to relate the story of the coldest place on earth. The timing for this story, by way of the last part of my introductory remarks, was brought about a chance opening of a folder that contained a great number of photos from this ill fated journey and nothing else. Just be thankful that I didn't open the folder labeled "Roadkill 1997-2003"

So it was in the winter of  ought five that I found myself high atop a frozen wilderness plateau, about as far away from civilization or any of its trappings as you can imagine, and on that plateau I had just two things in my favour for survival. Fortunately one of those things in my favour was a sled with about two hundred pounds of provisions and survival gear and the second thing in my favour was another sled with another three pounds of gear and about 50 gallons of gasoline.

No, it would take just a whole lot of bad luck and poor judgement to get into trouble with the equipment and provision that we had with us on this trip.

I should also point out that when I say sled I am not talking about some long narrow wooden dog sled lashed together with caribou sinew but an aluminum high tech job coated with some space age ultra high molecular density plastic to reduce drag coefficients to near zero. These sleds were attached to pair of equally high tech, and high performance snowmobiles which can best be described as "goes fast" and "goes faster."

The purpose of the trip, apart from being off on a grand adventure, was to transport a pair of 18' aluminum boats into normally inaccessible northern lakes. The lakes are inaccessible except by float plane or a 20 day hike on foot - and that 20 days does not include time spent lost or swatting mosquitoes. However, when the winter snows blanket the land which is about 80 percent of the year, one can, if one is so inclined, fight their way in by snow machine. And that is what we were doing.

Ice fishing - Canadian style

The first two legs of the journey were uneventful. We had driven the 1,800 km from Kamloops to the trailhead in a long day of driving. We caught a good two hours of sleep in the cab of the truck, loaded our sleds and headed off on the trail. The first fifty kilometers was up through an incredibly beautiful mountain range and then onto the edge of a broad alpine plateau. At the east edge of the plateau was a large lake that was also the base camp for what was our outfitting territory at the time. (Please note: when I say "our" outfitting territory it is like when the greeter at WalMart says "Welcome to 'our' store")

This base camp is well stocked with warm and efficient cabins and the layover was appreciated. The trip in was pleasant as the weather was warm, about -20, the sun was bright and there was little or no wind to contest with. We double checked our gear and machines the next morning and headed off across the frozen lake and made our way up a small creek bed and then up and onto an even larger plateau.

In the northwest corner of B.C. there are a number of large, relatively flat, alpine plateaus that stretch out for what seems like forever in all directions. These plateaus are important areas for the caribou, moose, grizzlies, wolves and other northern species. These plateaus are also virtually void of all animal life once the snows come. Most mammals know that this area can not support life as we know it when the wind is hitting 80, the temperature is -40, and a hard crusted snow clings to everything. It was into this icebox that we were headed.

As long as we were moving it was alright. Dressed for the weather and fighting the large machines as you finessed your way up mountain pass or along willow-choked valley bottoms one did not worry about being too cold. But once we reached our far mountain outpost, it was a different story.

Down in a lonesome valley and exposed to all four winds was a smallish, say 10'x16' cabin. This cabin was used in the fall by hunting parties that would have ridden in by horseback or would have been dropped off by floatplane. When the weather is in around the freezing mark it is a pleasant cabin and the little airtight heater throws off enough heat to warm you and to dry your clothes. In the winter it is a different story.

Because of the lack of timber of suitable size in the area the cabin was built with the logs on the vertical instead of the traditional horizontal orientation. The upright logs were held together with wooden splines that ran their length and were to provide a measure of chinking against the outside elements. The splines probably did their job well for the first ten or so years of their existence, but by the time I got to the cabin they had sort of lost interest in what they were supposed to do. The wind, apparently straight out of the arctic circle, would rush down that long narrow valley and would cut through the cabin as though the walls did not exist.

The life jackets, kept inside for safe storage would swing violently above my head as I lay on the bunk huddled in my sleeping bag, teeth chattering like a squirrel on crack. The little airtight would being glowing red hot but unless you had actual physical contact with the metal of the stove, the heat would disappear like a politician's promise the day after an election.

All night I lay there in the bed thinking of places I would rather be than there in that ice box. I am sure that the ptarmigan outside, huddled in the snow where warmer than I. In hindsight I think it was the orientation of the cabin and the splines within the logs that created a vortex in the cabin and in fact amplified the windchill factor within the confines of that space.

To steal a line or two from Robert W. Service:
If our eyes we'd close, our lashes froze
Til sometimes we scarce could see

When morning finally came there was little reprieve from the cold. I managed to get enough heat into some eggs and bacon pressed hard against the stove that they actually cooked. We gobbled down our breakfast, fired up our machines and "got the hell out of Dodge" without looking back.

The next day we continued on our journey and made our way across yet another mountain range and finally to the frozen lakeshore where we were to drop our boats. Our return trip was much faster as we had  a broken trail to ride on and were not encumbered by our heavy loads.

The original plan was to spend a second night in that little icebox of a cabin but I suggested we press on through as the warmer cabin to the east was only another 50 kilometers away and freezing to death on the plateau in the dead of night was preferable to voluntarily spending another night in the cabin.

Again, the more astute of you will surmise that I did not in fact freeze that night on the plateau but did make it back to civilization. The trip back had some adventure to it but I grow weary at the keyboard and the NyQuil is now kicking in. I shall write of those adventures another time, but for now I think I shall retire to my warm bed and dream of being in a warm bed.

Morning- the clouds have to thaw out to begin moving again

Me on the trip home - happy that I am not frozen

 I must cross the river but the ice bridge is gone


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  2. After reading this story i have some doubts about these Coldest Places on Earth that how would citizens of these places manage their lives, food etc


Please feel free to leave a comment. Ever since old Rebel rolled on me and I've been strapped to this old hospital bed I've enjoyed whatever posts come my way.