Off The Grid
Having tried to blaze and maintain a short trail through the woods near our property, I have developed enormous appreciation for: a) anybody who maintains hiking trails in Alaska forests and (b) the ease of traveling by boat from point A to point B.
My husband’s enthusiasm for hard physical labor and chain-gang-like activity far outstrips mine, as I repeatedly discover. This is particularly true whenever sharp, gas powered tools are required. While bored one winter evening a few years ago, he decided that it would be fun and useful to renew a 3/4 mile trail that our retired neighbors had cut years ago around the lake but had not maintained recently. The path would help during hunting seasons, he surmised, and afford a nice woodsy stroll now and then.
In subsequent sunny days, we pulled on our snowshoes, grabbed a thermos and some hot pink flagging tape and marched off into the woods to replace the faded plastic ribbon we could see from time to time. However, even in winter, the woods are dense, and one tree looks much like the next, so our footprints often appeared as circuitous as those of the hares and martins that preceded us. Up and down hills we trod, huffing and puffing, occasionally flipped into the snow by a shoe caught by a hidden alder bough . I gritted my teeth as my husband annoyingly crowed, “Isn’t this fun?”
After several afternoon outings, we reached their cabin, followed our path home, and I quit. I thought.
The following summer arrived late, and it wasn’t until mid-June, after 8 feet of snow and the subsequent mud subsided, that we returned to the incipient path, dragging a plastic sled filled with a chainsaws, pruners, a weed-whacking blade, insect repellant, and a big thermos of water. I was dismayed by what I encountered. For one thing, leaves 5-7 feet above our heads obscured our colored tapes. For another, we encountered dozens of trees and boughs that had fallen on top of other trees, toppling them, or becoming entangled and hanging as “widow makers” in the fragile embrace of their neighbors branches. The formidable duo of alders and devil’s club impeded almost every step. The former are Alaska-sized weeds – shrubs that grow 8 – 20 feet tall, with 20-30 leg-thick boughs that twist vertically, horizontally and diagonally, from a central root. I’d snake around one thicket and then another, tying pink ribbons ridiculously close together so Bryan could make his way toward through living labyrinth. A compass was futile, as I marked an increasingly serpentine path.
Devil’s club, with the evocative scientific name of Oplopanax horridus, is a pernicious hybrid, I have determined, of a cactus and a poisonous snake. I’d slice off one spiky, vertical stalk, 4 – 8 feet tall, only to have the above ground root rise up and slap me in the thigh, loosening its downward pressure on all the other horizontal roots it had previously pinned down. In many places we were not even walking on soil, but on a treacherous lattice work of crisscrossing roots and slippery branches obscured by a decade of degrading leaves, ferns, and grass.
Not a breath of breeze penetrated these woods; we were meal ticket invaders of a mosquito kingdom. My husband, whose sweat or something drives these females mad with desire, looked like a cross between a Victorian widow and fireman. His face and neck were totally covered by a head net, and Kevlar chaps covered his pants. He must have sweated bullets. I am less appealing to these creatures, but since a few million trailed in his wake, I preferred to break trail many yards ahead of him. Even if that meant wrestling with devil’s club.
We advanced a few yards at a time, sometimes having to retrace our steps when we reached an impenetrable section. Bryan revved up his favorite Husqvarna chainsaw and carved out a slim path, pushing branches to the side. Exhausted after four hours of labor, I was repeatedly astonished by how little we had accomplished that day. I can’t imagine the challenge of trailblazers of old who lacked the tools available to us. Every once in a while we came across a tree our neighbors had cut, or logs they had laid across a low spot illustrating just how quickly the undergrowth had taken over. No wonder they stopped maintaining it.
Finally we reached the low muddy contours of their property line, marked by the recent footprints and pellets of several moose. We climbed up, past their outhouse and cabin, to enjoy a welcome breeze across the water. I yearned for a ten minute kayak ride home, but we retraced the 45 minute we route it had taken us more than a week to re-open.
The path was useful for hunting that fall and the next, but then our friends retired down South and we, too, neglected to maintain it. Last week I went looking for the trail’s entrance and found it was barely discernible. Clearly Mother Nature wants that path back, I’m happy to let her have it as long as she lets me keep my boat.