Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Wow, ok. Back by popular demand - Day 106: Why is this normal

Yesterday was intense. And a little to close to potential disaster for me to be comfortable with. Everything's ok (well, I think), but it was the sort of situation I have bad dreams about, and I'm still somewhat amazed it turned out totally ok.

I apologize in advance for not having nearly as many good photos of this as I should. My camera was unhappy because of some weird lighting and how cold it was, and for a signficant portion of the trip my mind was consumed with things other than photography.

Yesterday I went out hiking with a girl I met recently who seemed really nice. She's native Greenlandic and her English is pretty good, and she's one of the few people who has tried to make friends with me (she's 17). We ran into each other the other day and she said she was going to walk out to Kap Tobin, a nearby settlement. You can see Kap Tobin from Scoresbysund - its across the ice at the tip of the land.

Distances are weird out here. It doesn't look very far away, but I knew it was a fair distance, and I had seen it on a map before. To get there it's pretty much a straight shot across the ice, you can see the Scoresbysund and Kap Tobin either ahead or behind you the whole way. Almost impossible to get lost, but even though you can see the towns, you are very much extremely isolated while between them.

So this girl comes by around 1 in the afternoon. She tells me to bring gloves and a scarf because its a bit cold (which I would have done anyways) but isn't wearing much clothes herself. I dismiss this figuring that she's a lot tougher than me since she's native here. She also doesn't have a gun with her (which should have been a warning sign as to her foresight), so I borrow my host father's rifle. There's a lot of polar bears in this area, and while I haven't seen one yet, a lot of hunters get bears on the ice between Scoresbysund and Kap Tobin.

We head out and its wonderful outside - good weather, beautiful sky, and being out on the ice is incredible. Everything feels huge.

A hunter we passed:

Looking back at Scoresbysund:

I'm wearing my new Baffin winter boots which are totally awesome, although enormous. We get farther and farther out on the ice (which is quite thick, very safe) and it becomes obvious that its going to take longer than expected to get to Kap Tobin. About half-way between starting and when the girl said she needed to be home, we're still about a mile or two away from Kap Tobin.

When things go wrong, especially out in the wilderness, theres a difference between bad luck and bad decisions. This is probably where we crossed that line. By this point it was around 2:30 and the sun was setting. I wanted to turn back and head home, but the girl was already getting tired and wanted to finish the walk to Kap Tobin and see if we could hitch a ride home with someone on a snowscooter. Although I know a lot about hiking and traveling in the wilderness, I almost always figure that someone native to the area knows what they're talking about better than me. So we push on to Kap Tobin.

What the girl DIDN'T mention was that Kap Tobin isn't a permanent settlement - it's just a collection of summer cabins. When we got there, there was absolutely no one around. Theres an empty cabin at the top of the hill thats left open for anyone who needs it, so we went inside and tried to figure out what to do. By this point the sun has set, and although it was still light out I was very much against the idea of trying to race the light home (it took us about two hours to hike out, I doubted the light would last another 2 hours). So I thought we should rough it out and just spend the night in Kap Tobin (would have been miserable, but safe). But the girl said she thought we could make it, and she wanted to go home, and she thought we might run into a hunter who would give us a ride back. Not totally unreasonable, and I didn't want to make my host family nervous, so we set out again.

By this point, I am seriously worried about bears. I can see Scoresbysund in the distance - we're not going to get lost - but the night winds have started and we're walking into the wind, so its very, very cold. I'm a pretty good hiker, especially when driven by the adrenaline-fueled need to get home before dark and not to be surprised by a bear, so the walk really is not so bad for me. If I had been by myself, I could have made really good time. However...this girl. She's tired, and cold, and she is moving very, very slowly. It doesn't help that she's tiny and it takes her about three steps to match one of mine. As it gets darker and darker and we're still not close enough to home for me to feel safe, I get more and more torn between the desperate need to move faster and the fact that theres nothing I can do to make this girl move.

Eventually I end up giving her some of my clothes - it's very cold but I think I'm ok, and I'm less sure about her. I can tell she's not paying any attention whatsoever to the ice or the landscape, so I'm constantly scanning around (and behind) us for bears, and leading her around the few cracks in the ice that we come across. It gets to the point where I'll walk for five minutes, then stand and wait for her to catch up, then start walking and get way far ahead again. I can't even discribe how insanely frustrating and scary it is to know that we are in a potentially really bad position, knowing we HAVE to hurry before it gets too dark, and knowing that I could make it on my own, but also knowing I have to stay with and take care of this girl. It's getting colder and now I'm worried that even if I see a bear my hands might not be good enough to use the gun well enough.

For the last hour, its horribly tantalizing how close the town looks but never seems to get any closer. I can sort of tell in the back of my mind that I'm getting tired and something's wrong with one of my legs, but my overriding instinct to get home makes me totally ignore those things. For the last half hour, I try to ignore the fact that I really cannot see well enough to be safe. Its not completely dark yet, but I have to struggle to confirm if lumps in the distance are ice or...something else.

FINALLY we get into town, and I get the girl home to her mom, and my body suddenly just gives up. The hardest part of the hike was getting from the edge of town to my house.

And once I'm inside, things don't seem so bad. My host dad had been checking on us periodically with his binoculars, so if something had gone bad (or if we hadn't shown up), he would have sent someone out to help us - he knew where we were. My host mom was kind of freaked out that I might be too cold, but I was ok (those boots definitely saved my toes). We made it back ok, no bears, and beyond being tired I figured it was an adventure. All told, the round trip was about 12 miles.

But really, that's the sort of situation that scares me more than anything - this story could have ended very differently. If we had hit a bear, no one could have gotten to us in time to help. I'd like to think I'd handle it well - I know how to use a rifle - but you never know how a bear will act, and if I actually had to shoot it (and not just scare it) I'm fairly certain it would take at least two really good shots to take down a bear with the gun I was using. We were on the border of being too cold. I made the mistake of listening to a young girl, who wasn't nearly as strong as I assumed she was, instead of my own common sense. We should have turned around earlier, we should have spent the night in Kap Tobin - things that would have kept us safe for sure, instead of ending up in a risky situation that luckily turned out just fine.

And then today I look down and see this:

SWEET JEBUS! Normally, I never bruise. Very rarely. So I don't know what's going on down there. Currently my "doctor" is my own common sense+googling my symptoms, which leads me to the conclusion that I either have ridiculous shin splints or possibly I have some kind of stress fracture. It doesn't really hurt to walk, so I'm just going to assume I'm ok and that my heavy boots did something weird to me.

PS. Mom and Dad, you really probably shouldn't have read this post.


Laurel said...

Anonymous said...
Yeah. I was going to comment (and suppose I still am) that were I your mother, I wouldn't be very happy with you. Be smart, young lady.

And just yesterday I sent a friend an email with the subject 'sweet jeebus' - but I spell it with a second 'e'.

When you're in Longyearbyen you'll have to go out (or maybe you've already been - I don't know) to the shooting range and practice shooting at polar bear targets... really the only time I've ever discharged a firearm was up there.
4:25 AM

Anonymous said...
Laurel, Very interesting. Your poor ankle! I think I'll have a little cry now. Mom
4:50 AM

Jón and Riss said...
I think it´s very amusing that at the end you write for your parents to have maybe not have read this post then oh let´s say...the beginning! haha
12:11 PM

Anonymous said...

speaking of ice and boots and dark, did you buy the ehrlich book? if not, I'll rush it to you as soon as you say so

Anonymous said...

I haven't read anything this funny in years.
But seriously, I think the cold is much more dangerous than the polar bears.