Vo l . 6 N o . 2
Contorted by Cold I am afraid of the below-zero, silent bite of Interior Alaska in January, the wind-howling chill of the Bering Strait. I am frightened of cold seeping in through the teeth of a parka zipper, fingering his way into mitts, slowly turning my boots, my toes, the blood running through my feet and fingers, to ice. Cold is a ghoul who plans to trick my senses and consume me, longs to whip the essence from my body like steam from a winter camp kettle and blow me away. I have seen photographs of men, who, in search of fame, were left drained corpses on the ice of polar worlds; with a shiver running up the hairs of my neck I find myself wondering where the spirits of these men have gone. Josh and I were working as dog handlers for Jerry Austin, an Iditarod musher, who lived in St. Michael, Alaska. It was our first confused winter in Alaska, and Jerry was a good trainer. Always well-prepared for trips out with the dogs, we had extra hats, gloves, chemical handwarmers in our sleds, we brought snacks and hauled sleeping bags. But the finer points of staying warm and remaining safe we learned the hard way. We were running to Klikitarik one day, an abandoned village site across the bay, twenty miles east of town. After snacking the dogs, we were to run back. We booted tender-footed dogs as the yard went wild with anticipation for the run. Leaders were harnessed and hooked to the gang line of each sled first and then team dogs followed. Once all the teams were ready, once we were standing on our snow hooks and brakes, Jerry gave the thumbs up and took off first. Two minutes later I careened out of the yard after him, Josh two minutes behind me. After quickly descending the snow-covered beach and bumping out onto the bay ice we crossed the three miles of frozen ocean, rising again up the tundra on the other side of the bay along a knocked-down telegraph line to Unalakleet. There the space between teams grew; we spread out across the rolling white expanse. The morning preparations for the run had been smooth. I had activated the chemical hand-warming packets and placed them in my mitts so that after bootying the dogs, after enduring the thawing sting, my fingers came back to life. The day was gray, and colder than we usually ran, thirty below. Having never experienced hours out at that temperature, I didnâ€™t really know what to expect.
23 The chill settled in toward me like overflow through boot seams and wool socks. My parka sounded crisper than usual. My belly sensed the breeze through my parka and snowpant zippers even though they were both snapped shut. I wore a neck gaiter pulled up to my nose, a beaver hat down to my eyebrows. My eyes felt dry, like the moisture was being sapped right from the surface of my eyeballs. My upper cheeks felt slightly pinched even inside the extended wolverine ruff, which kept out the roughest fingers of the wind. A slight breeze blew that day, but it felt like a slap against my body, a wave of cold that refused to back off. Part way to Klikitarik, with Jerry now a speck in the distance, a miniature Josh following behind me, I found myself doing aerobics on the sled runners. Bunny boot leg-lifts, sled runner jumping jacks. The dogs kept looking at me as if Iâ€™d gone nuts. I tried to explain to them that Jerry had given me strict directions not to run next to the sled to warm up. There is something inexplicable about being out there on the tundra with a team of dogs, their breath streaming behind them, leaving frosty beards on their faces, their feet quietly patting the trail. I was a tiny particle in that vast expanse, easily lost; at the same time every movement I made was clamorous, my crackling parka, the brake on the snow, my own voice reverberating inside the silence of open space. I rode toward Klikatarik, doing leg lifts, arm circles, experiencing the hush of winter tundra, watching a world, which appeared to have just been created. People and dogs have been wandering the west coast a long time in human terms, though signs of them are sparse. To my left, tundra descended towards sea where cracked and jammed ice sculptures rose like ghostly bodies from the flat expanse near shore. The empty white of snow-drifted ice spread toward the horizon, an unpainted canvas stretching to the edge of my imagination. European, Canadian and American men had come to St. Michael after the last Franklin Expedition, looking for the lost, trying to find some trace of them. The searchers asked for signs and followed stories up and down the coast and inland hoping to find people or remnants of them. But during the time of the search around St. Michael, it appeared the arctic had swallowed the expedition whole. Now we know the men, possibly suffering from lead poisoning from their canned meat, did starve and freeze in this northern region of our planet. Whisked from fragile bodies, do these men still wander the north searching for a route home?
A Journal for the North Pacific Rim