Snowmachining in the Bush

One machine came too close to the trail edge in Kotzebue, which collapsed and the machine sank into the hidden water below.

Setting up trail markers across open areas is one of those yearly jobs that we finish in a haphazard way, since the number we put up depends on the other demands of each day. Setting fish nets and pushing winter trails to the post office and out the trapline takes priority, and we often neglect to save energy for other chores. Still, trail markers can be life-saving when weather obliterates the trail, making them a vital part of early-winter work.

The main lake crossing covers three miles of unprotected ice, and storms can easily produce white-out conditions. Like road markers used by snow-plough drivers, the closely-spaced wands give us confidence in our travels.

Since the markers keep us always on the exact path, the packed snow in the trail makes a solid base and also creates a trench that catches drifting snow. With ever more snow in the trail, those layers begin to hold us above overflow water that often spreads invisibly under the snow. Many times I’ve stepped off the hard-packed trail into fluffy snow only to sink into four to six inches of underlying water that would make travel difficult, dangerous or impossible without that well-marked trail. Wands flagged with orange tape alert us to hazards including unsafe ice over methane bubbles or half-frozen holes in boggy swamps.

Wanding begins with collecting trail markers. Although scrubby spruce trees make highly visible markers against the expansive snow of a frozen lake or swamp, my sister Miki and I typically use willows because they’re easy to collect, fit compactly in a sled and replace themselves prolifically. Many of our local trails cut across over-grown willow flats and gathering wands is as simple as brushing trail and collecting the best four to six foot saplings.

Wand-setting techniques vary depending on trail conditions. Sometimes we can simply stab them into solid snow drifts and they stay put. If a bit of overflow lies under the snow to freeze the wand in place, they become a permanent fixture. Some years, a scant snow cover offers no base and I’ve spent hours shoveling piles of snow to stab each wand into. The disturbed snow solidifies to hold the wand firmly in place.

Occasionally when we first venture out to set the trail, a few quick blows with an ice chipper easily penetrates the ice, and slipping a wand or dog-team snub post a few inches into the hole freezes in a solid marker that lasts until ice-out. If the marker tries to slip down the hole, a bit of slush packed around it hardens instantly. The snub posts, although primarily for anchoring the dog team, also make it obvious where the trail lies.

Willows have their drawbacks, especially when they collect frost that cuts their visibility on gloomy days. I sometimes have to walk ahead of the snow machine to search for the next trail marker before proceeding a few more yards. Once or twice, I felt in danger of losing sight of the machine behind me before spotting the next wand ahead. The dogs rarely suffer this problem even if they can’t keep the obliterated trail underfoot as they blaze forward. They might drift sideways for a few yards, but always cut back to the trail when the next wand emerges from the fog.

On our first run across the lake we only erect a few big, highly visible markers because we’re also overworking to set fish nets before the ice thickens too much. On later trips we might plant a couple dozen wands on each trip, until the trail becomes a line of twigs placed every 40 to 60 yards, those six to eight dozen wands creating a lifeline to the far shore.

Making the trail perfectly straight helps us stick to an invisible trail when the packed snow is all that holds us above the insidious overflow below.

If the trail must be followed precisely, wands mark both edges of the trail, but typically we only erect them on the north side because the strongest winds hit from that direction. A nasty gust can send a dogsled whipping downwind, wiping out droves of markers on the downwind side.

Ideally we’d also place reflectors every mile or less, but it’s likely they’d blow away or we’d neglect to remove them at break-up, leaving trash out on the pristine lake. Maintenance crews on race trails like the Iditarod or Yukon Quest do use reflectors as well as brightly-marked stakes to guide tired travelers along the designated route. Coastal travelers typically prefer the highly-visible spruce trees to mark trails across the sea ice. Other wilderness trails might be marked with any handy object, including tripods, fuel drums, caribou antlers or brightly-painted tin can lids nailed to trees.

I once used brightly-colored dog booties to mark a short stretch though a barren burn, securing each bootie to a dead tree with the Velcro strap. Although I only used worn-out booties, they maintained their color for several years.

We don’t need many wands along the trapline, which mainly flows through wooded country where the trail follows an obvious cut through the trees, but we still place them across small lakes and open swamps where we might encounter drifting, overflow and bad ice. The ice here sometimes thaws from below after a snowfall insulates the warm water, but the densely-packed snow of the main trail keeps the underlying ice better frozen. Once I stopped my team on a swamp and dropped the snow hook alongside the narrow trail. It plunged through fluffy snow directly into water — no ice involved. Staying on the trail saves trouble and lives. That’s why we mark them every year.

Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books. They live in Lake Minchumina.

Recommended for you