Seth Kantner: Face-freezing rides not as much fun for older snowgoers

Around AlaskaFebruary 9, 2013 

Andrew Greene crossing Kobuk Lake

PHOTO BY SETH KANTNER

Recently, Andrew Greene and I went upriver for a few days. After we got back I spent the next week making sure my nose stayed attached to my face.

After all these years I let common sense get pushed aside and bought an extremely expensive yellow snowgo with a toy windshield. It also has a swept-in area at the base of the windshield, to keep your crotch chilled, I guess.

What I'm finding is, frostbite isn't as cool as it was when I was a kid. Back then Clarence Wood was the poster child for the virtues of frostbite on your face. All winter, every winter, he always had huge black scabs across his cheeks and nose. Those really were the badges of a relentless hunter and hard traveling man.

Clarence likes to poke fun and joke and laugh, and he didn't seem concerned about his face very much. He was by far our most common company when I was growing up -- unless you count mice and foxes, wolves and caribou and things like that.

In those years I frosted my face as much as possible, of course. (Did I mention common sense?) It was my best attempt to be cool. My mom wasn't impressed. Unfortunately, the scabs on my face were sort of tan colored, not black, but you do what you can, right? The good part was I didn't go to school, so I could be out in the cold every day, harvesting more.

Last night Andrew brought me over some muktuk. His nose was puffy, oozing, and recently thawed. He sat a few minutes, telling of his latest trip upriver, of wolves and the last 85 miles home with no windshield after he rolled his snowgo on glare ice.

This has been the winter for glare ice, but I wasn't handing over any sympathy. That last trip -- when I accompanied him setting his trap line -- whenever he got bored he had me go in front, for entertainment.

The river froze high this fall, and the ice in places is terribly jumbled, miles of pans shoved by current into heaps like giant glass plates. The portage trails had tussocks showing. I was on my cool-crotch rocket, my first-ever Ski-Doo, called a Tundra. It's a zippy, narrow, tippy machine that loves to lunge off any piece of ice or randomly leap from the trail and try to get its skis around a tree.

Andrew is a second generation Arctic Cat man -- what I'd always previously been -- but he's much more dedicated; he wears green jackets with the Cat logo. He even married the dealer's daughter, come to think of it.

On the trail, when he stopped to set a wolverine trap, he filled me in on the comedy show he'd been enjoying.

"You know how you like to move all the time and get lots of exercise? That machine is perfect for you. It's got a narrow little seat and narrow skis and your narrow ass is going back and forth. It's perfect for you!"

I thawed my upper lip with my bare fingers, not quite as cheery as him. He was totally getting my money's worth out of my new machine. The only payoff was he'd burnt twice as much gas as I had.

While he made a set, I drove a loop in the trees. In the woods in soft snow the machine handled like riding a piece of rope -- excellent for keeping your blood pumping and your heart rate up. Ski-Doo really missed a marketing opportunity and a chance to bring opposing factions together -- they should have called this model their Tree-Hugger.

By the time we got to the coast, an icy north wind that had been plaguing us for days was back and whistling under my face mask. I recognized that old sting of my nose freezing and thawing and refreezing. A wrinkle on my cheek I'd been noticing for the last year was frozen stiff.

On Kobuk Lake it got dark and all those pretty lights on the snowgo dash showed brighter. I hunched down close to them, beautiful white, red and blue. The machine leaped off a bump and my jaw banged into the switch, killing the engine. Now yellow lights came on.

I gave up then on that little windshield, but for some reason wasn't quite able to summon up that old pleased feeling about my face freezing. Times are just plain different now, I guess, and my perspective too.

When I got here to the house, I had to stay close for a week and couldn't play out until the skin peeled. I walked over and told my old neighbor, Wayne Hogue, about the trip. He got a big laugh, of course. "That windshield's not too short," he said. "You're too tall."

I guess it's reassuring. Times have changed, and machines too. I'm older and have no new supply of common sense, and along the way somehow I forgot how to enjoy freezing my face. Now I own a new yellow machine perfect for exactly that -- one that doesn't even have a hood to peer under, even if I understood what was under there. But I still have the same brand of friends. The kind that know how to make fun.


Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives in Northwest Alaska; email him at sethkantner.com. His column runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts and Life section.

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