Willem Lange: The Ski Run Was No Odyssey, But It Was Still a Personal Test
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are...
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Second College Grant, N.H.
One of the hazards of advancing age is the fact — and the perception — of diminishing capacity. Some of the facts emerge without much disruption in our consciousness. The sub-five-minute mile, for example, becomes at first uncomfortable, then painful and finally impossible. It’s no big deal; there aren’t any occasions that call for one, anyway. A few years later blooms the realization that an ascent of Denali isn’t in the cards anymore — that it has become the province of younger, stronger men and women. The desire for it gets filed away with the growing list of things that, during your last conscious days, you’ll regret not having done.
Still, there is Ulysses, that consummate outlier, who, home from the Trojan War and the many adventures of his long and much-interrupted voyage back to Ithaca, now sits on the shore of his home island at last, gazes out at the Ionian Sea, which “moans ‘round with many voices,” and decides to go for it one more time. The poem ends with his rallying cry to his geriatric former shipmates. The myths do not say whether they ever actually leave port, or where and how they die. Just as well; it’s the impulse that matters — as well as the heroes who’ve gone, and still go on before us, who rouse us from the acceptance of things that we probably can’t do anymore.
Which brings me here to a warm cabin in northern New Hampshire in February. On the weekend when for 35 years the now-moribund Domestic Division of the Geriatric Adventure Society traveled north for its annual Grand Subarctic Bushwhack, Dartmouth College now runs an annual winter weekend getaway for undergraduates. The students bunk in two nearby this one, cooking for themselves, and during the days strap on skis or snowshoes and explore the surrounding forest with college staff members.
Mark Kutolowski, the college naturalist, leads snowshoe treks in search of animal tracks, and demonstrates how to build an emergency shelter and pass the night in it without a sleeping bag (I notice that nobody’s practicing). Stephen Madera and his protégé, Zach Talmadge, who run Song in the Woods, a sled dog operation over in Abbott, Maine, are here with two teams — among them a few old friends whose furry rear ends I’ve viewed while freezing to death on a sled. Stephen and Zach give rides to the kids up and down the woods roads in the river valleys. When they’re not pulling, the dogs are tethered just across the yard. They’re all rescue dogs, Siberians and Malemutes, and the cuddliest bunch you ever could meet. Several of the students go over as often as they can to pet them and get big, sloppy kisses.
This cabin, the largest of the three near this junction of the two Diamond rivers, sits on a flat between the river and the Diamond Peaks, soaring above it on the east side and blocking the morning sun. Since the ban of DDT by the United States in 1972, the raptors and scavengers that once nested here have returned. The crawk of the raven, absent from the sky 40 years ago, is back.
A couple of months ago the producer of our TV show, Windows to the Wild, scheduled a visit to a pair of the Appalachian Mountain Club huts in the woods north of Greenville, Maine. We would ski from hut to hut — no more than 10 miles a day, on old logging roads, filming along the way — and spend the nights in the huts.
Sounds idyllic, right? Except for one thing: I haven’t touched my skis for three years, since that last major broken femur and the installation of a metal bar to prevent its recurrence. The leg feels OK, but each procedure has diminished its capacity to transmit signals from my feet and its ability to correct a loss of balance, which becomes more frequent with the approach of the ninth decade of life. Could I do it? If not, a snowmobile would be standing by to create the illusion of success — but how demeaning!
Then came the chance to come to the college grant again to tell stories to the students after supper Saturday evening. I jumped at it. If I arrived early, I’d have a chance to ski the Dead Diamond Road, which from long association, I know intimately, and could judge the likelihood of my making it from hut to hut in Maine a week or so later.
I took a pair of no-wax skis for simplicity’s sake, and a good, husky old pair of backcountry boots. Just after lunch, I snapped into the skis — a minor whoops and momentary pang in the knee on the way out of the yard — and headed up the road toward the next cabin, 2.7 miles away. The track was chewed a bit by tracks of the dog sleds, a snow machine and snowshoes, but in an easy hour I was there, rueful that the round trip used to take well under an hour, but happy to have made it at all. Then I skied back down to camp through a slowly deepening snowfall, meeting students all along the way, and monitoring my body for trouble spots. One of the worst results of unusual exercise and dehydration in the elderly is leg cramps, which create the impression that death is imminent, or at least desirable. I swore to drink at least two quarts of water when I got back, in spite of what it might mean with respect to getting up at night.
Which it did. Each time, I came back into camp with the beginnings of a snowdrift on my bare shoulders. But now, in the white light of Sunday morning, I can objectively assess the damage. Slight twinges in the triceps and adductors; quads OK; large blisters on both heels. Those husky old boots are finished if I’m going to follow Ulysses up into northern Maine.
Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.