As the temperatures drop in early October, the first slush comes floating downriver. If temperatures remain low, it won’t be long before the floe thickens into large panels of ice. Freeze-up on the river is a dynamic time of year. Temperatures and snow load during October dictate how the river freezes, which greatly effects my day-to-day life.
This October has brought ideal conditions. The cold temps have come early, the first floe slips by the cabin on September 30th. Of course Mother Nature has her mood swings, never predictable, yet always on time. Just as the floe starts to thicken, the temps rise and stay high for two weeks. For much of October, it appears that winter had slept in, the passing of time marked only by the daily loss of sunlight. Day after day, the river looks the same as before. Never growing in size, the ice floats by as if running in a loop, not coming from the headwaters to the north. While working around the cabin, I pause every few hours and walk down to the river to observe what’s happening.
As November draws near, I fret about the lack of ice. Soon it will be trapping season. With only a few inches of snow on the ground, I’m planning to use the river to access my trapline. Most years, by early November, the ice is frozen solid and safe for travel. My airplane is tied down on the gravel bar across the river. With no snow covering the rocky bar, the plane is still on wheels, its skis useless without a runway on the river ice. Every few days, I paddle across to look the runway over. Dodging icebergs and pulling the canoe onto the thin and slippery shore ice makes for excitement. It isn’t so much that I need to attend to the runway, but it gives me an excuse to mosey around and search, head low, for critter tracks. Such is the time of year. The excuse, “Oh, I need to check marten sign on Bald Mountain,” is all I need to fuel an all-day hike into the taiga below the mountain. I have my winter supply of meat and firewood; my traps are organized and ready to go. Just waiting for freeze-up.
A week out from trapping season, the temperatures begin to drop. As if to avoid notice, they fall slowly. The icebergs start to grow. By climbing to the top of the canyon, I can watch seventy-five-yard long ice panels glide lazily down the river. I know it won’t be long before one of those pieces gets hung up. November 2nd I step out of the cabin. Something is different. I pause and listen. What’s that sound? The wind? No, the river is making a rushing sound in the cold air. I walk down the bank and see that the ice has stopped moving. There must be a jam upstream blocking the floe. Downriver between the ribbons of shore ice, the river shines black with large pillars of steam rising into the air. It’s five below, the rapidly cooling water roars as it flows over a riffle. Fantastic! The open water will get narrower every day until the river freezes shut, making for a smooth stretch of ice in front of the cabin. I’ll be able to land the airplane here and park within two hundred yards of my front door. At first, care will be needed to skirt the open water, but later in the winter, I’ll have a long, wide runway perfect for landing, even in windy conditions.
A week later, I make my way upriver by snowmachine. In the early morning light, I strain to “read the ice.” Open water rushes past in the main channel. The eerie roar of it warns me to use caution. Unsure of what lies ahead, I don’t speed forward. Like a caribou catching a man’s scent, I halt below a dicey-looking stretch of ice. I work back and forth, judging it from different angles before proceeding. I get off the snowmachine, unlash the long pole I’ve stowed on my tow sled and press forward, axe in one hand, pole in the other. At every tenth step, I bang the axe’s blunt end against the ice, listening for a solid thump. When the report comes in weak, I cut into the ice to ensure there’s at least three inches. If I step onto thin ice and fall through, the long pole will prevent me from going under. Unlikely, but I hold the pole tight and horizontal, knowing it could save my life. The sections of jumbled ice are not as dramatic as in past seasons. Probably due to the slow freeze-up; the ice panels have frozen together like ceramic tiles. In some stretches, there are small ice jumbles to navigate, but even with little snow cover, I pick an easy path through. I’ve seen ice jams so violent that ridges were forced twenty-feet high. Although beautiful, these ice jams can be hell to traverse, even with a cushion of heavy snow. If the river freezes fast, the ice panels get jammed into the narrow ribbons of open water and create blockades. When the river pushes more chunks of ice against the jam, the pieces grate against each other with massive force. In a show of nature’s strength, the ice becomes compacted into a jumbled mess; icebergs sliding onto even larger icebergs, creating a maze of hedges and pillars. The water will often rise above these jams, then fall, creating dangerous shelf ice along the shore. To leave the river and head for shore, one must climb a steep slippery slope by the river bank.
As I round another river bend, I spot a familiar creek cutting down into the main canyon. The creek has eroded the steep walls, creating a natural path to the top of the canyon. It’s here that my father, over forty years ago, decided to cut a trail to the north. This particular climb out of the canyon had appealed to him as the best exit to the prime marten habitat farther north. As I pick my way upriver, I’m thankful that dad chose this particular creek for his dogs. Although using a snowmachine, I can’t climb canyon walls any better than a dog team.
When I reach the trailhead, I stop for a quick snack. It’s only 11:00 am. It’s taken only three hours to pick a safe trail over the freshly frozen river. Not bad. Gives me almost five hours of light. Enough time to pack trail through the taiga beyond the canyon. Enough time to get a few wolverine sets in! Although I wanted to get here last week, I’m now thankful for the slow freeze-up. The river has frozen smoother than I’ve ever seen it. I’ll travel not only this stretch of river, but many more miles below the cabin. Travel will be fast and simple. Who cares if I get my trails in a week late? There’s no running late when Mother Nature is your clock.