By Joseph Robertia
Taking our first steps on the Hidden Creek Trail, spruce-scented air filled our noses, and the thin canopy of fir branches along the narrow path sheltered us from the soft snow that was sifting like powdered sugar from low clouds overhead.
We quickly wound our way through the old burn of 1996, where the world seemed monochromatic from the thin skiff of snow that crunched underfoot and dusted the scores of old charred tree trunks that lined the ground in every conceivable angle.
We weren’t eager to get to Skilak Lake, but were moving steadily, likely the result of our lively conversations and the positive energy that comes from receiving winter visitors. My wife, Colleen, and I, along with our 2-year-old daughter, Lynx, were hosting some British friends, a husband and wife, the former of which just returned from several months work in the pressure cooker known as Afghanistan.
We wanted to treat them to something completely different than the hustle and bustle of the busy London metropolis, and even more stressful Kabul, where our friend only knew travel by wearing a bulletproof vest and riding in an armor-plated vehicle.
What could be more tranquil, more peaceful, more rejuvenating to the soul than a winter day spent in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge? A 1.92 million-acre wilderness that, for us, serves to be as therapeutic to our mental state as it is recreational, during long winters where sunshine is often weak, if present at all, for months at a time.
When we arrived at the shore of the 15-mile-long, 4-mile-wide Skilak Lake, we knew we had made the right choice for our hike.
The lake’s surface was like a shattered mirror, as there was an ankle-high expanse filled with hundreds of thousands of frozen geometric fragments — triangles, trapezoids and parallelograms — each stacked and piled in their own unique way, forming an all-white mosaic.
I have seen larger jumble ice while mushing on rivers, but never on a stationary body of water like a lake. It appeared to be created when a thin skin of ice formed first near the shore. But, Skilak, being frequently windy, must have experienced strong and sustained gusts during the freezing process. Ice along the edge of the expanding frozen surface seemed to have fractured, tore off and then been thrown back onto itself, over and over again, creating a frozen masterpiece.
Humbled by the beauty, we fell silent as we made our way farther out onto the ice, taking in not just what was underfoot, but also what lie ahead. The Kenai Mountains on the far side of the water had only thin veils of snow compared to the thick blankets of powder in which they would normally be shrouded this time of year.
We were scanning the panorama when my friend’s wife noticed something a few hundred yards from us. Out near the center of the lake a creature was moving swiftly. In the world of white that surrounded us, its dark, discernible shape was impossible to miss.
Within seconds we realized what had completely captivated our attention — a black wolf. It had materialized out of the icy mist and was trotting with intensity and purpose. It was wholly and undeniably magnificent.
Few creatures represent the spirit of the wild for me the way wolves do. I get why they have become such an iconic symbol for so many, from the old oral traditions of Native cultures to the modern animal rights movement.
This was only my second time seeing a wild wolf outside Denali National Park. The first was a more typical, sable-colored animal several years ago, also in the Skilak area. I was moved by the sight of the more-rare black wolf, and had to remind myself to breathe. The look of awe on the faces of the other members of my hiking party told me they were equally enthralled by the moment.
Even in Denali, most of my wolf sightings happened from a bus full of tourists, but we were glimpsing this one together, just my family and friends. It was like nature was sharing a secret with us alone. Everything else fell away and it felt as though time were standing still.
The wolf continued on its path, cutting across the lake and vanishing into the tree line along a spit of land to our west. We decided to walk that direction, contemplating and discussing what would have lured the lone wolf onto the ice and into the open. We didn’t have to wait long to get an answer.
As we neared the shoreline to begin making our way back toward where the return trail connects with the lake, we found the carcass of moose, or what remained of it. The skeleton looked to have been eaten on by any number of wildlife — wolf, coyote, eagles and magpies — based on the prints in the powder and the scat left on the scene. It was mostly just gnawed bone that was left, but even in the scraps of spine and femur, the deep scrapes of canine incisors could be seen.
It is impossible to say with certainty if the moose starved, was taken down by one or more wild canines or fallen to some other force, but it didn’t seem like a leap of the imagination to speculate the black wolf we had seen was working its way back to the carcass for which it was perhaps responsible.
Again, we grew silent, each pensive about the passing of the animal, thinking of all the possibilities that could have led to its end, and of all the animals that would survive because it did not. It’s easy to let the cool, dark, dampness of winter — particularly a miserable one such as this has been for snow lovers like my family — seep into your body, mind and spirit.
However, it is possible to see things differently through the lens of a day spent in nature. The wolf, encountered in a place and time of year where animals still own the land more than humans, reminded me that perseverance is a virtue. The moose reminds me that things could always be worse. And the day outdoors with family and friends in the splendor of the Alaska backcountry makes me realize that if you look hard enough, you will always see what is really important in life.
Jospeh Robertia is a freelance writer and musher who lives in Kasilof.