I paused, shrugged a little deeper into my coat and thought, "What a stupid way to die." I heard Helen's skis squeak on the dry snow as she caught up to me, and I kicked off again, feeling the now-familiar pain slice through my heels. I noticed that the tree shadows across the trail were changing their shapes; the sun was going to be completely gone in less than an hour, and we were going to be gone with it if we didn't get back to the truck before then.
It was February in Fairbanks Alaska, and Helen had called to see if I wanted to go on a ski and sauna outing. It was 30 below zero, but I had a new pair of ski boots I was itching to try out, and a nice hot sauna is bliss itself in mid-winter. We decided that we'd only go out for an hour or so, and then lounge the afternoon away, sweating and trying to forget that 3 hours of daylight is not enough to keep you sane.
Helen's ancient Dodge pickup started reluctantly, coughing out its white cloud of exhaust to add to the already thick ice fog. We rattled our way through town to Creamer's Field on tires made square from freezing to the pavement, and parked by the information kiosk. I absently noted the farm's historic merits as I tugged my boots tight with rapidly numbing fingers. There were no maps left, but Helen had skied here before and knew the trails. She led off, and we hustled along to work up some warmth.
Our timing was perfect – the sun had just crept above the Alaska Range and the warm pink light highlighted the brittle frost hanging on every branch. Our breath fogged around us and left plumes that hung icicles on our hats and froze our eyelashes together. The sound of our breathing and the Styrofoam squeak of our skis were the only human sounds as we glided through woods and across the snow-covered relic of Farmer Creamer's back 40.
I don't even remember when I started to get uneasy. All I remember is the sharp, clear moment when Helen paused (again) at a turning, and I compared the uncertainty in her face with the angle of the sun. And I knew, in the way you sometimes irrevocably know things, that we were now in serious shit.
My body obediently followed Helen down the trail, but my brain had started doing some starkly pessimistic math. We'd been out almost an hour, and my heels were getting sore from my new boots. I did not know how to get back to the truck. Helen did not know how to get back to the truck. We had no food, we had no matches. We had maybe 2 hours of light left. It was very simple: when the sun set, the temperature would drop to –50 F, and if we were lost in the woods without shelter and without fire, we would die.
A little voice in the back of my head started laughing at the thought of me dying of hypothermia less than three miles from home, in the middle of town. It suggested that if it came down to it, I should find a moose to stomp on me so at least I wouldn't have to die embarrassed. My legs kept working, and my arms kept pumping, and the voice in my head laughed and laughed and laughed.
Helen paused up ahead of me, and let me catch up. We'd been out over two hours now, and we had just run into our first trail sign. As I reached her, I read the sign. 10 km to the Dog Musher's Hall. We had been heading, not back toward town, but out into the boonie fringes of Fairbanks where there were cabins scattered every few miles in thousands of acres of nothing. I looked at the sun, and I looked at Helen, and we both silently knew what we knew. I turned around and led off down our backtrail.
I knew my heels were raw now, because every stride made pain shoot up my legs. I made the discovery that there is no way to ski without your boots touching your heels. I knew Helen was colder than I was, and fading fast. I'd seen her shivering when we stopped to look at the sign. I knew that we'd been incredibly stupid and complacent. I knew that we had less than an hour to make the distance we'd taken over two hours to cover when we were fresh. I knew that even if I found us a way out, Helen might not make it another hour.
Helen was what my friend Tonya and I had laughingly called a "skinny little girl". Tonya and I were built along sturdier lines, and we used to joke that if we were still cavemen, Helen would be dead. The voice in the back of my head whispered that it would never be a funny joke again.
I was shivering now, deep shuddering shivers that wouldn't quit, and I thought maybe Helen wouldn't be the only one stuck in the woods come sundown. A chickadee flitted across the path in front of me, and I spared a moment to wonder at it – a few ounces of fluff thumbing its beak at the frail humanity stumbling past below it. The voice in my head was quiet now, sleeping perhaps. I thought of the long cold sleep of hypothermia, and I wasn't afraid, but oh I regretted.
Helen was still behind me, fighting her own quiet battle in each stride, when I turned a corner and saw the farm buildings and the pickup truck. I was so cold, I couldn't even feel relief. Helen painfully levered herself into the driver's seat and started the truck. The engine turned over obediently, and we knew we would live.
Later, unlacing my boots as wide as they would go, I thought of Helen crying silently as her frostbitten fingers agonizingly warmed up, and tried not to pass out as I peeled the second layer of socks and skin off my heels. My vision sparkled white like the snow on the trail as I looked at the meat that was my heel; and I knew I was going to be ok when the little voice in the back of my head started whining about how hard it was going to be to bike to class tomorrow.