Mills Creek on April 29, 2020. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak)

Mills Creek on April 29, 2020. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak)

Out of the office: Summer arrives

What was I doing?

I asked myself that as a struggled frantically to wiggle my telemark boots into the bindings and continue down the miners trail at the base of Mount Manitoba midafternoon last week.

The day had started wired with urgency.

I rose at 5:30 a.m., which is awfully early for a sports editor, even a partially furloughed one.

The goal was to get to Manitoba and, with the snow still frozen sidewalk hard, climb to where I wanted to ski.

Even with the uphill climb generating some heat, the morning was cold enough to numb my hands for the first 20 minutes or so. That cold kept me moving, so I was on the tabletop at 3,700 feet overlooking Summit Lake and the Seward Highway by 10 a.m., making the entire climb in tennis shoes.

A friend of mine says I’m always planning my escape. At this early hour, I began to do just that.

I wanted to ski down the mountain when the warmth had softened the snow just enough to silence the icy chatter of my skis.

At the same time, I didn’t want to ski down so late that the bottom had fallen out of the sparse snow covering in the alders below, which would make for an arduous passage to the hard-packed miners trail that covers the final 1.5 miles of the journey.

The wait ended up being an hour and a half. Darting to different ledges, I examined mountains and valleys and imagined future trips.

But I was never comfortable. A cold wind kept me moving the whole time, kept me from relaxing.

Once 11:30 hit, so did my escape. The ski down was a bit more chattery than I’d like, but the snow held all the way to the miners trail.

Luging down that trail, I arrived at a closed gate, removing my skis and prompting that question.

What was I doing? Why was I in such a hurry to get my skis on and continue careening down the trail?

I was hot and sweaty, wearing way too many layers. I was hungry and a bit thirsty, oweing to the long climb to start the day. I had no reason to hurry back — the snow on this miners trail would be perfectly passable for the rest of the day, and like I said, I’m partially furloughed.

Then it hit me. Duh. Winter was over!

Winter is all about planning your escape. Get out of the car to cross-country ski, and the clock is ticking until hands go numb. Climb a mountain and watch the top of the trees or snow in the areas just ahead to see if the wind will pick up and you’ll need another layer. Stay at a cabin and have your fire-starting kit positioned perfectly in your pack for arrival.

My friend always lamenting the planning of my escape had clearly never had to figure out how to regularly take in food and drink when hiking in minus-40 wind chill.

Summer is different. Summer is, well, more chill.

I took off those extra layers of clothing, calmly putting them in my pack. I listed to the birdsong all around in the budding trees. I wistfully looked back at the mountains.

The afternoon sun soaked winter from my bones.

Farther down the trail, when the snow had run out, I sat on a log and ate a whole package of bacon jerky. I leisurely and totally rearranged my pack — something I’d never do in winter — stowing the tele boots and skis and slowly pulling the tennis shoes back on.

Then I walked to the bridge over Mills Creek. Sun blasting overhead, the rock-hard snow I had skied that morning all seemed to gush and spray beneath this bridge in the afternoon.

Summer had arrived. I had made my escape.

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