A Jack London moment
In retrospect it may have been a little foolhardy, but after several days finishing off late season tasks around the ranch, I was up for a small winter adventure.
So last week, with the mercury down to minus 18 degrees celsius, I took Karu, the braver and more dexterous of our two German Shepherds, and set off into the wintry bush.
For months I had wondered about a particular stretch of wilderness on the far side of our river, a small sliver of land between the mountain and the water.
Of all the spots on the river it is the one most favoured by the grizzlies in the autumn and we have also seen black wolves up there in the early morning.
Long intrigued by the spot, I even took a couple of our most intrepid guests in this year, balancing on driftwood to cross the river and hopping across small gravel islands.
What we found was even more alluring, a small labyrinth of wildlife paths, wet wallow spots and brush. Among the many tracks were grizzly, wolves, moose and elk.
One especially shy grizzly mum with cubs that we had been watching had passed that way recently, bolstering my suspicion that it was an important wildlife route.
Instead of heading straight across the river as I had done before, I decided to bushwhack in from the north and take in a wider swathe of land.
I wasn’t completely unprepared. In my pocket was a GPS and I also had a heavy mountain jacket which I bought for the mountains of northern Iraq several years ago.
At first all went well. Leaving the car where the road ended I found the remnants of an old logging trail that headed south, hugging the river.
On the way upriver I had plugged my destination, a bridge, into the GPS. I was reassured to see the spot was only 4.4 km away, as the crow flies.
Easy, I thought to myself, I would be there by lunchtime and home shortly afterwards. I would even have a couple of hours in case the trip took longer than expected.
For the first half hour or so I followed an ancient trail, almost skipping through the forest, the dog running here and there in high excitement.
To help with the icy sections, I strapped on two mini-crampons. But we had had almost no snow and the going was better than easy.
After a while the trail, which hugged the mountain, moving up and down with the riverside terrain, became a little fainter.
Fallen trees began to block the way, but nothing I couldn’t easily climb over or walk around. For Karu, a particularly athletic dog now in his prime, this was light work.
Then the path became more difficult still. Sometimes it was so faint I lost it for several hundred metres. At other times I had to make wide detours.
So I tried my luck right down on the riverbank. But here I was caught up in an endless jungle of driftwood and logjams, each more treacherous than the last.
I doubled back, first this way, then that. I tried the forest again and then the shore again. By now I was getting tired and frustrated. I looked at my watch and was shocked to see that three hours had gone by since I left the car.
The GPS was longer working because of the tree cover but I felt that I must have covered the lion’s share of the route.
Finally when I broke out one to a section of old river bed, I took out the GPS and oriented it. For a while it hesitated and then it clicked in.
More than two kilometres to my destination! I had covered a total of 1,800 metres in a straight line. How was that possible?
I began to look at this stunning winter day in a different light. The beginning of the afternoon shadows, so alluring and magical, seemed suddenly treacherous and full of foreboding.
The beautiful river, fast-flowing and set around with an edging of ice, was menacing, a frigid barrier between me and the gravel road that would take me home.
With only about two hours left until darkness, I decided to push on. It was in any case too late to head back.
I calculated that there was a spot only about a kilometer to the south where we could both scramble across the river.
It would mean a long walk back to the car in the dark, but at least we would be back on the gravel road.
But after half an hour I had made less than 100 metres headway. I tried scrambling along the icy rocks by the river, but that route soon went from dangerous to impossible.
Then I backtracked and tried scrambling through the forest. But the slope now was almost vertical. As I move from one tree to the next, one slight slip would have sent me tumbling dozens of feet into the freezing, fast-moving river below.
For Karu the dog this was all becoming treacherous too. He was now crying incessantly as he scrambled from one precarious foothold to the next.
I became more and more frustrated as the bush bit at my face and neck and I struggled along treacherous ledges.
And I was becoming clumsy too as my body tired and my impatience and anxiety grew. I didn’t fancy my chances if it came to a night in the open at minus 20 without a sleeping bag and began to fight a rising sense of panic.
Eventually we got to a point where I could go no further. Karu was stuck a few feet behind me. The proud male dog of an hour or so ago was a thing of the past – he looked pathetic now, all whimpering and shaking with fear.
So, reluctantly, I turned around. My options were beginning to run out.
The best course it now seemed was to strip off, hold my clothes above my head as I waded or swam the river and try and make it back to the road and the car.
The water was fairly low and the current not unmanageable, but it was now extremely cold and I wondered whether I would be able to get my clothes back on before my muscles began to cramp.
Then, of course, there was the matter of Karu. Well-insulated enough for a quick paddle, could he survive a thorough soaking in these ungodly temperatures?
I tried to think back to what I had learned from Jack London and the story about the man who died trying to light a fire in the freezing Yukon winter.
But I couldn’t remember the point of the story, or if there was a lesson at all.
Then, as I desperately wandered the shoreline looking for a shallow spot to wade or swim, we had our first lucky break.
A large tree had fallen right across this section of the river, high above the hurrying waters. On top of the log was a thin layer of snow. In the snow was a single set of wolf tracks.
If a wolf can make it across on the log, I thought, so could I, and also, probably, so could the dog. So I gritted my teeth and began to inch across the log.
A slip from either of us and we would be in trouble, but the grip on my boots was good and Karu followed me closely.
When we finally made the other side, a sense of relief swept over me. There was a spring in my step as we bounded off in the direction of the road.
And then, as the rushing of water once again grew noisier, came the awful realization – we were now on an island. Far from crossing the river we had only traversed one branch of it and were now mid-stream.
We either had to turn around and head back or… and then just as it seemed that we were in for a frigid dip after all I spotted another log that had fallen over the river.
This one was a little thinner and there were no tracks at all on it. But it was strong enough to support my weight. I leaped on to the log and began to edge my way across.
Don’t look down, I thought. Just keep moving towards the other side. Karu swallowed his fear and followed just a few inches behind. Just one little move this way or that and we would end up in the water, but somehow our luck held.
Less than an hour later we were back at the car and half an hour after that warming our toes in front of the fire at the ranch.
Kristin looked at me thoughtfully and said. “You did something stupid, didn’t you?” I shook my head.
As I write this now we are already in Europe, nine time zones from home, fighting the usual jetlag.
Here in Budapest, the streets are full and the crowds are pushing and shoving as they seek out Christmas bargains.
It is all so far away from our lovely, lonely valley with its incredible wildlife and seemingly endless space.
And though I am itching to see family and old friends again, I am already missing our treacherous but beautiful wilderness.