By Martina Halik
The nights sounded different from the daytime. In my mind the booming and cracking transformed into the eerie wails of a pod of whales trapped beneath us, calling to each other and ramming the ice from below in frustration until it cracked, splintering in long moaning waves in all directions. Every time I was about to drift off, another booming crack jerked me awake. Unnerved, half in dreamland, I would picture the illusory whales breaking through - the ice buckling and the little orange tent sliding into the icy dark water below, the two of us trapped within.
We were camped for our third night on the ice, halfway up the frozen Peace Reach of the Williston Reservoir; an arm that comprises part of the largest body of fresh water in BC, created in 1968 by a dam on the Peace River. It is the 7th largest reservoir in the world, and a place I had absolutely no intention of skiing across three weeks ago. For two straight years, my mom and I had dreamed of Alaska. Two years of living and breathing my dream, dehydrating food, pouring over maps and Google Earth, and engaging potential sponsors. It was to be a two-and-a-half month-long ski traverse from Haines to Anchorage covering some of the most epic and remote glaciated terrain in the world. It would be amazing. Then came the pandemic.
Despite being a pretty healthy individual I suffer frequently from asthma and therefore found myself on the unlucky list as one of the more “at risk” people the virus could affect, along with my mom who is in her early sixties. I’ve never been one to let go of dreams easily, so instead of giving up entirely we modified, adapted. Alaska turned into the Northern Rockies, my “backyard.” I am blessed to live in a part of the world where it often feels there are more mountains than people. More ski lines than can possibly be enjoyed in one lifetime. It wasn’t hard to switch logistics from our Alaskan trip to a 5 weeklong, local trip. It helped that it had been a big snow year here and conditions were perfect for ski traversing this spring. Together we decided we felt safer away from it all, quarantined in the Northern Rockies on a slow spring ski migration from north to south. My husband Ryan joined us for the first couple of weeks.
We’d hoped to add some adventure by packrafting the first 70km, but the reservoir was still frozen almost two feet thick. It was so windswept we often double-poled along on bare ice, teeth gritted into the relentless westerly gale. Often we walked in just running shoes (or in mom’s case weirdly, crocs) when our still unaccustomed feet complained after hours in ski boots. I’d wished we’d brought skates. With relief, halfway through our fourth day, the three of us finally left the ice. Then the bushwhacking started. It took all day to make it the 2km ridgetop, occasionally battling up 40-degree slopes choked with alder and deadfall. Through periods of sleet and rain, we hauled 10 days of food and gear in packs and homemade sleds that constantly snarled up in the bracken. Nostalgically, I thought back to the boring, easy, ice travel.
It was worth it to reach the tree line. Views were brilliant. Everything was brilliant in the open sun-filled glade the next morning. Following mountain goat tracks all the next day along a technical alpine ridgeline, we finally caught up to the magnificent shaggy white beast, finding it posing silhouetted amongst precarious rocks towers.
The weather was hot and sunny for most of those first two weeks. The snow would turn rotten and soggy, and we had to time our ascents and descents of avalanche slopes perfectly. The evening of our first wedding anniversary saw all three of us huddling in the lee of some scraggly alpine spruce trees on a high ridge. A grating wind gusting at our backs, and three pairs of eyes staring at my snow thermometer, watching its slow descent too far enough below freezing to indicate safe passage onto the refrozen slope below. Setting up the tent that night in the last vestiges of daylight Ryan had asked, “I get to pick what we do for next year’s anniversary right?”
Two weeks passed by, each day unique with new challenges and experiences. Ryan, who had never done a ski traverse before, summed up his experience with, “That was the best adventure I’ve had in a long, long time.” He left us at the first resupply with shining eyes and a wistful wave. I missed him terribly in the days that followed, knowing how much he would have loved to be there with us.
Challenging and beautiful weeks ensued, full of wind-lashed snowstorms and the patter of spring rain on tent walls. The full skies were colored an impossible blue, with a sun so fierce we were forced to mask our faces like the rest of the world - in a vain effort to avoid more sunburn.
We glimpsed graceful mountain caribou prancing along ridges, a gangly young moose walking up a creek bed, and sleepy grizzlies and black bears munching fresh alder buds. We saw a bushy-tailed fox, and a cheeky marten that made a ruckus all night until it finally succeeded in stealing my running shoe for what I can only imagine was a less-than-tasty snack. I saw my first fischer, (which had gone extinct in the Southern Rockies decades ago) chasing fluttering ptarmigans at dusk. There were songbirds rejoicing in the new season everywhere, and small trout winding their way up and down the clear fast streams that we skied alongside. Transfixed, we meandered along valley after valley of stunning old-growth forests. Tenaciously surviving the harsh mountain climate were wide-trunked monoliths, hundreds and hundreds of years old, unaware of the muddy cutblocks creeping up toward them from the lower valleys.
After a month and half, when it was all over, I was grateful I no longer had to get up and walk for hours and hours each day. There would be no more swearing my way through hauling heavy loads in thick bush or up exhausting boot packs to high summits. I wouldn’t have to rappel off sudden cliffs guarding the only passable route below, or wade through any more icy rivers. There was no more worrying about staying dry, difficult navigating, or managing avalanche hazard. No more howling winds jolting the tent walls at night or the booming cracks of ice shifting. But I would miss the epic three-kilometer-long ski descents; sunset colors teasing scattered clouds as we effortlessly skied down perfect corn snow from the high alpine into darkly forested old growth. I would miss the day we crossed the serene Vreeland Glacier with its towering guard of rocky peaks. Maybe, with enough time going by, I would even miss the suffering of all those experiences I was so happy to leave now. There is a simplicity, an elusive perfection in the migration of a long ski traverse that I haven’t found elsewhere. I will miss the novelty of being in a new place with every ski step I take. I feel grateful now to have also been given the unexpected gift of travelling through this extraordinary land so close to my home, the Northern Rockies.