One Yukon Learning Event, by S.H.

On a mid-November day years ago, I set out to walk over a high, broad, timbered ridge through some apparently uninhabited spruce, poplar, and birch woods in the Yukon Territory, Canada. I was headed over and down to the lower part of a long creek about seven direct miles away. I carried metal tags that I’d received from the Mining Recorder’s Office for nailing to two sets of placer claim posts that I had cut, labeled, signed, and recorded a few weeks before, one set done by Power of Attorney. Daylight hours were now becoming seriously short at that subarctic latitude, and direct sunlight would be blocked by surrounding ridges, even at midday.

The recent weather had been mild for the season, with daytime temperatures often a little above freezing. The pleasant weather had rendered me complacent, and I was about to experience a Yukon learning event. The sky had become rapidly overcast, and a few snowflakes began to fall. The time was about 10:00am, which was too late to begin my hike with any expectation of reaching the claim posts before late in the evening. I felt prepared to spend the night in the open by a fire and planned to be back at my camp by the next evening at the latest. I had made the trip out and back in about fourteen hours in warmer, sunnier weather. I knew that this time the hike would take longer, but I didn’t realize how much more.

I was dressed and equipped for seriously cold weather, if need be. I wore sturdy, felt-lined shoepacs that were almost as warm as native mukluks, and carried a pair of extra felts. Likewise, I wore and carried thick wool socks. I had on navy blue polypro underwear shirt and trousers; a heavy, long, grey Woolrich wool shirt, military surplus O.D. wool trousers, a combination grey wool/Thinsulate jacket, and over everything a set of baggy, white milsurp poplin trousers and smock. I had an excellent brown sheepskin trooper cap with earflaps, and grey milsurp woolen gloves inside heavy woolen mittens, that in turn were covered by leather chopper mitts.

I wore a Load Bearing Equipment (LBE) patrol harness under the smock, with two canteens optimistically filled with water, although I knew the water would freeze shortly if the air temp dropped much more.. The LBE kit included a metal canteen cup and two ammo pouches filled with compasses, matches, candle stubs, and other paraphernalia. I brought a large, light blue camp coffeepot for thawing snow to make more drinking water. I had six bacon-and-cheese sandwiches packed in the buttpack on the LBE. I carried a very sharp Estwing axe with a blue, 26-inch, plastic-covered metal handle. I had a brown leather sheath for the axe that attached around the yoke on the LBE harness so that the axe rode on the middle of my back. I had a standard, stainless Buck Woodsman knife in a black leather sheath. I toted a permitted, push-feed Winchester Model 70 bolt-action rifle in .375 H & H caliber with a 20-inch barrel with three rounds in the magazine, one round up the spout with the bolt closed and un-cocked, and twelve spare rounds in my pack. I carried the rifle inside a canvas sheath that I had made and that was open at the buttstock to make the weapon quickly accessible but protected the action from getting too wet or soiled.

I was prepared to carry a battery-powered flashlight in one hand and the rifle in the other, often switching the hands. I wore a pair of black plastic, prescription military glasses that served somewhat as goggles. I had a nose band that I had made from a strip of cloth cut out of a beautifully warm, white wool blanket. The nose band served well to keep my nose and cheeks from freezing in severely cold weather. I really didn’t anticipate severe cold to set in for some time yet but did want to be prepared for eventualities. It’s a good thing I had been a Boy Scout and took the “Be Prepared” motto seriously, an attitude strongly reinforced by practical experience.

I was beginning my hike by walking up an established creek trail to a cross-country jumping-off point from which I planned to head directly for several miles over the high ridge and down to the claim posts. Dark fell amazingly fast, as the overcast quickly grew very dense, and the falling snow continued to increase in thickness to about half a foot. I was startled to see a varying hare dart past me uphill to the left side of the trail, followed by several very large wolves. I flipped on the flashlight, cocked the rifle bolt, and fired a 300-grain bullet into the ground at as harmless an angle as possible. I did not necessarily feel directly threatened by the wolves but wanted to discourage them from getting so close to me. They kill daily as a group for a living, sometimes taking moose big enough to challenge an elephant. The farther away from me that the wolves stayed, the more comfortable I remained. No doubt the falling snow had kept the wolves from detecting me in the first place. I hoped. Anyway, the wolves instantly disappeared from my view. My ears rang from firing the heavy .375 round, but I felt some comfort in the feeling that the shot would be heard by potentially dangerous animals for miles around, hopefully making me at least not less safe during my solitary errand to the claim posts and back.

I reached my planned turning-off point, used the flashlight to read a compass heading, and took off up the high ridge. The higher I went, the deeper the snow was already getting, some of it almost knee-deep. I took off the Army wool trousers and the jacket and tied them to my butt-pack. I stayed warm inside the poplin white camo outfit through exertion, although the poplin itself iced up like a tent. Every couple of hours I ate a sandwich, so it didn’t take long to devour all six. The air became continuously colder, and my flashlight batteries became apparently useless. I reached the claim posts some time during the night, built quick fires from downed spruce limbs to supply light near each post as I went along driving nails through the holes in the metal tags, using the blunt head of the Estwing axe for a hammer.

I had drunk most of my water fairly soon into the hike, and what was left in one canteen had frozen. I was operating in near-total darkness most of the time, now. What little ambient light that I had between sunset and sunrise was likely just scanty moonlight or starlight that managed to filter through the overcast and falling snow. I was alright, though, when I could find deadfall spruce, and there was plenty to be found, even in the deepening snow. I found several very long, good-sized, seasoned spruce trunks that I knew had been pushed over by a Caterpillar some years before. I got a fire going and crossed the logs over the fire. I had a nice bit of heat from that fire for several hours, crossing and re-crossing the dwindling logs, as I rested for the return hike back to my camp. I put on my jacket and Army trousers to keep warm while resting, although it was an annoying necessity to remove and re-don the white camo poplin clothes. Sparks from the spruce logs would jump on me and burn small holes in the poplin if I got too close to the fire, so I had to be careful to maintain a proper distance. I eagerly looked forward to seeing daylight again on Day 2 of my hike.

I discovered when I went to trim green spruce boughs to put down on the snow for a mattress that an axe was not the proper tool for the job. The Buck Woodsman knife that I carried was the best kind of blade for making “fuzz-sticks” for fire starting, but it was even more useless than the axe for trimming boughs. I longed deeply for a Bowie-type knife and the efficiency it would have provided. Never, never again will I go without one in a wintry spruce forest.

With the arrival of an overcast, snowy dawn, I was compelled to realize that I had better make straight tracks for camp and not make any foolish navigational errors, or I would too likely fall asleep from exhaustion and not wake up. I was burning fat now like there was no tomorrow, tightening my belt a notch every few hours. An estimate of metabolizing 500 calories an hour might not be too far off. As I traveled upslope towards the high ridge along what I estimated to be my previous route, the snow began to get seriously deeper, first knee-high, then up to my hips, then higher. Walking began to seem more like swimming, one step at a time. The snow was so powdery that my feet would hit the ground with each step. Snowshoes would have been useless, and I was glad that I had not brought mine.

Every hundred yards to be marched in the sometimes shoulder-deep snow started looking like a mile, and daylight quickly passed into near pitch-darkness again. I was consumed with the urge to press on and didn’t even consider trying to look at a compass in the dark, but I put my confidence in God and navigated by the seat of my pants. I had in mind a particular spot to arrive at on the creek trail I had first headed out on at the beginning of the hike. I melted snow continuously in my mouth for moisture and could feel that I was getting some frostbite in the roof of my mouth. Unbelievably, daylight came and went again as I labored up the back side of the high ridge. Exhaustion really began to set in, and I began to wonder if I was actually going to make it back to my camp at all. I’d had a fair amount of experience in wilderness country, though, and never really panicked, but I did my best to maintain a reverent and rational mental approach to the situation. Believe me, though, if I ever was in a continual state of prayer, it was then.

I picked a spot to stop and make a fire. I gained an energy boost when I ate a vitamin pill that I found in my kit. I managed to get a fire going and set in to melt snow in the coffeepot so I could rehydrate. I made a serious error in using a spruce stick for a pole to suspend the pot over the fire. Some spruce sap dripped into the pot and when I drank the water, and the sap attacked the frostbitten roof of my mouth, as well as making me feel very ill. I eventually managed to gather some energy and stepped uphill again.

I finally stopped to rest again, by necessity, and realized that I had crossed back over the ridge. I had instinctively found the almost exact spot on the creek trail that I was looking for, after many miles of sheer dead reckoning through deep snow and often-thick timber. It was a miracle, really.

By now the air was getting seriously cold. By experience I felt that -55 below or lower had found me, which is very dangerous and has killed many. I knew I absolutely had to have a fire. With luck I found a stand of small black spruce that had been scorched by lightning some summer. The tree roots did not go deep in the permafrost, so I was able to push a dozen or so small trees over in the snow to make a platform for starting a fire. The Estwing camp axe did great work, splitting the spruce trunks rapidly to make dry splinters appear. I maybe panicked a little when I found that my windproof matches that I had been saving for last would not ignite. I was down to my second-to-last stick match when I got a fire blazing. The heat from the burning tree trunks had no difficulty in driving away the snow beneath them. I had an earth berm at my back and was able to get really warm from efficiently reflected heat for probably the first time in 72 hours.

As my fire died down from a declining wood supply, I began to get a bad feeling about meeting an undefinable threat and thought about firing a shot from the rifle again as a general precaution. There was definitely a bear den close by, and that bear may not have gone into what used to be called “hibernation” yet. I had been carrying the rifle in a canvas sheath, and I had previously cleaned any oil out of the bolt. Nonetheless, when I went to work the bolt I found that the safety was broken, fortunately in the “Fire” position. I feel that water vapor from my hands or the air had gotten into the works and frozen things up. I held the rifle close enough to the fire to thaw the bolt and enable a shot. The cartridge did not sound normally loud to me. I wonder if the powder hadn’t been cooled enough by the cold air to take quite a bit of the power out of it. Just a guess.

I dozed off a little and woke up to find a clear sky with a bright crescent moon. The brilliance of the snow was like broad daylight. And then the air really began to turn cold. I only had a couple of miles to hike down the creek trail to camp, though, and I barely made it to my canvas tent and sheet-metal stove in time to keep my toes from freezing solid.

Reflecting upon thoughts I had as I trudged through the endless Yukon wilderness snow:

  • How uniquely quiet it is, when all the noise you can hear is from falling snow.
  • How precious is a good axe, although some axes are said to be subject to shattering. All I can say is that the Estwing camp axe stood my torture test, in deep cold, too.
  • The axe could be a useful weapon in a chance encounter with predators and wouldn’t freeze up or jam like a more complicated weapon could.
  • Difficulties with a bolt action rifle versus the virtues of a rifle with an external hammer that you can manipulate, to give you confidence that the weapon is not frozen up, or maybe a hand cannon carried in the properly-designed covered holster, maybe even a fur-equipped holster, would be preferred.
  • There is the question of ability of surviving the unlikely-but-too-possible attack from cougar, wolverine, wolf, moose, or even insomniac bear, when you can barely see your hand in front of your face in the pitch dark. Yes, cougar live surprisingly far north.
  • Silk underwear under woolen clothes might be a best option.
  • Taking the trouble to find a weather forecast before setting out on any hike might be a good idea.
  • Without the poplin white camo outfit that I wore, or any of the other clothes for that matter, I would have either frozen or dropped from exhaustion. The poplin camo was just like wearing a tent.
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