Lynx, Snowshoe Rabbit, and Me by Brian King
This is from my nature journal January 1988: 3 days of sit-spots It was the late 1980’s I lived not far from Trappers Loop trailhead near Huntsville UT. It was a record snow year, the snow that fell on the farm that last week of October was still on the ground in May. A restaurant on Ogden Canyon Rd as well as our closest neighbor’s shop collapsed under the snow load. It was years before Trappers Loop (which is now called Old Trapper’s Loop) was to be paved and at that time was not passable by 4x4 from early November until the snowpack melted in May. It had snowed 4 feet January 2 and snowed more each day for a week. What follows is from my journal for a 3 day long series of sit spots.
Thursday, January 7, 1988, 10 PM, sunrise 8 am sunset 5 pm,
moon rise 9 pm
Latitude and Longitude: 41 15.5’ N, 111 46.3’ W
-10 degrees F outside (my thermometer only goes to -10) with wind enough to make the tree tops swing.
It is 40 degrees inside my ice cave
I came into my cave just as the sky was getting dark about 5, after changing into dry polypro long-Johns, dry wool socks, and covered my feet with my bread bags, I enjoyed my gift to myself of pemmican and went fast asleep. It is now 10 PM but awoke about 9:30 to pee. I hit the outside air and mustache froze to my beard instantly; the dry sub 0 wind is bone chilling. There are just wispy clouds high in the sky quickly pasting by a nearly full moon. In my cave, there is glow through the ice from the moon and the air inside is 41 degrees. I have a nice bed of dry pine needles with my poncho covering my bag, and I have the space blanket around me in the bag. It is a good combination, I am neither too cold nor too warm. I made up some western penny royal tee left over from summer. I feel very content. I saw a cow moose over the past 2 days I hope the smell of my tea does not lure her to fall in on top of me, they wouldn’t find me till spring, whenever that is going to be. The glow of the moon looks blue through the ice of my shelter. The now frozen water that coats the inside of ice cave now looks like the glaze on the inside of pottery bowl.
It has been a very full 3 days of perfect dry powder, 3 pin skiing, and animal tracking,
Yesterday morning I activated my avalanche transponder with fresh batteries, strap it to my bare chest (knowing that being alone its purpose was not to save my life), the snow is as deep as I have ever seen it with hundreds of inches of base in areas where the trees can be seen leaning down the grade being pulled by the snow load. I put on a cotton fish net, then polypropylene long underwear, a thin wool shirt, and wool pants. I put mohair skins on my telemark skis, secure my North Face inner frame a backpack with 2 Humming Bird ice axes, an avalanche shovel, pair of crampons, a climbing rope, a harness with its collection of ice screws, stoppers, and camming devices all secured to the outside. Inside a down bag, an emergency “space blanket”, 2 pairs of heavy wool socks, 2 empty bread bags to cover my feet at night, a bag with pemmican, a bag with instant cocoa, tea, and wild mint, a 2 qt. pot, a very old Sierra Club cup, an orange plastic pill bottle with strike anywhere matches, steel wool and paraffin for tinder, and used and abused Svea stove that the tank had cracked and was repaired with silver solder, map, compass, altimeter, and not much more yet when I shouldered it had that feeling that its weight was at my limit. “Red I,” I said and headed up the mountain alone to spend a few days telemark skiing, possibly climb an ice fall self-belaying, but mostly I just wanted to enjoy the solitude of backcountry midweek.
Yesterday morning I awoke to fresh snow, as expected. Almost as soon as I started my uphill pull I happened across the tracks of a lynx which obliged me by nearly taking me where I had planned to go anyway. Over the length of his tracks yesterday morning he chased and lost a snowshoe rabbit, at first I saw the comedy in the tracks like watching Wile E Coyote and the Road Runner. I would see his gate stop, he lay in wait, all-out run, a long arc, a zig and a zag from the rabbit, the cat ran crossed the rabbit track losing it, then the cat would slow, stop, stand still for still, then walk off. In my mind’s eye, I could see his disgust. With the next failed attempts, I could see disappointment by early afternoon I had seen the tracks of him failing to take food 3 times.
Early afternoon I dug my ice cave to make sure I was not without shelter before my own energy was spent. I have made enough of these that from start to finish I can make it without any wasted time and getting wet with snow or sweat. It is always the same, find a place with deep snowpack, with established trees to protect it from any possibility of avalanche and away from any game runs. I found a sweet spot yesterday as soon as I started looking. With the gift of snow, we have been getting it is easy to be picky where I put it. I set the bezel on my dive watch just to push myself, 11:52. Go! I dug a trench 3 shovel widths wide and about 5 feet deep. With the trench done I stood in it packed the snow a bit with the shovel above where my bed was to be. I then dug out the shelf for my bed about belly high above the bottom of the trench throwing the snow on top and giving it a solid pat with the back of the shovel. After making the shelf about 8 foot long and 5 foot wide, I would remove just enough for me for me to sit in with about a foot above my head a good sweeping out of any lose snow. What a gift to have this depth of hard packed snow.
Before I put up the wall it is easy to build a bed for me and my stove with pine needles. I have found that the snow under the stove pull the heat out of the stove faster than it can heat up requiring me to keep pumping it but if I put a solid bed of dry pine needles stops the problem. I lit my modified Japanize knockoff of the Swedish stove with snow in the pot to melt and protect the stove from droplets for the melting shelter. The crystals start to melt and the inside surface gets a glossy look, when I start to see droplets of water forming on the inside of my dome, I shut off the stove. I take the baskets off one of my telescoping ski poles and put a vent hole above the stove and one above where my feet will be. It would be easier for me to put my gear in before I build the wall and I intended on doing a bit of skiing before the afternoon sun drops below the ridge. I will take all my gear with me to ski just in case, for any reason I don’t make it back to my shelter, I could make another one where ever I find myself.
After enjoying my bed of pine needles, some of my homemade venison, bacon grease, and apple pemmican, and tea I realized that again I forgot to check how long it took me to make my shelter. I guessed 15 to 20 minutes, my watch at that point said 1:10. After securing my gear in my pack, I hefted it, and skis on, I set the bezel on my altimeter to zero. so I would not ski past my shelter when I returned. I returned to tracking the lynx, following his ever upgrade path. At this point, I was really rooting for the cat looking at all the lost energy working to get a single rabbit. By the time I needed to head back to my shelter his tracks did not show he had eaten anything. I found another failed attempt and I felt despair for the cat. I left its tracks and worked my way up the trail to get some elevation to enjoy some skiing. The cat took me away from the waterfall I had hoped to practice on; another time.
I was now high on the ridge, still warm from my climb I put on my wool shirt, down vest and parka. I peeled the skins off my skis. I enjoyed the scenery and the solitude of my mountain valley. I imagined that Jim Bridger might have enjoyed this same view 150 some years before. As I gnawed on some more of my rock hard pemmican I thought how cool it would be to hear some of his stories right from him. He would probably have talked me out of some of my modern equipment. I could see him laughing skiing down the hill now with his willow and rawhide snowshoes tied on my boots.
I surveyed the landscape for how I wanted to ski back to my shelter. There was a beautiful bowl that would be a hoot to ski but the pitch of the trees told me the snow was pulling on them, I just had a feeling inside that it was just waiting for me to score it with my skis and set off an avalanche. I played it safe and would take the safer root through the forest. [As I type this I recall that the following week with my buddies and I watched similar bowl let loose. There was enough snow coming down the mountain that the wind it generated knocked trees down before the snow got to them.] I scraped the sticky kicking wax off the skis and replace it the harder gliding wax, I replace a little kicking wax just under the bindings just to give me a bit more control and allow me to make it up a few upgrades I was going to get back to camp without having to rewax.
It was a time I enjoyed some of Utah’s finest powder, I skied back down to my soon to be cozy home in the snow. It was magical in the quite of the forest with the snow on the trees, the diamonds formed on the snow from the low sun. I did not come back the same way to camp as I went up so I had to be mindful about watching the altimeter and compass. In a short, I saw the cat tracks which led me back to my own ski tracks then back to camp. Live is good.
Without the wall up and me standing in the trench it is easy to lay out my sleeping bag and stage all my gear for a long winter’s night on the shelf under the dome. I lit the stove to get some water going for dinner.
Then an arcing wall was made in the trench with the ice blocks, to finish off my shelter a door in the bottom of the wall just big enough to lie on my back and squirm in and up onto my bed and make my shelter a home. “Form follows function,” The shape of the shelter and the placement of the door and gave a draft-free fresh air and yet conserved on heat and my own energy building it.
The next morning at daybreak I worked back up where I left his tracks. I continued tracking him and in time I found that he engaged another rabbit, this time there was pink snow and some white fur at the end of the tracks. That weekend my intent was to just enjoy some backcountry virgin powder and some solitude, instead, I made a real connection with a lynx that I never truly saw, knew it was watching me after he was content and well fed; I understood his grit to not give up.