The Cold Here Can Kill Yah

Hauling supplies up the Coleen River
Bundled up in my many layers.
During the downpour
During the downpour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I talked about my upcoming trip to Arctic Alaska, most people assumed I would be spending my summer suffering from, not the mosquitoes or sun-stroke, but from the infamous Arctic cold. At the time, I had laughed it off, telling them that was another Lower 48 myth: there were no penguins or igloos where I was headed, and in fact, in July, it could get up into the mid-80s. I would be experiencing Alaska at its best and brightest, in summertime, when the whole world would flower under a never-ceasing sun.

That was before we went downriver.

The truth of it is that on the day we canoed to Heimo’s lower cabin to get supplies, it was 40 degrees Fahrenheit, cold but, I thought, tolerable. But then, we began paddling into a driving rain and into the teeth of a biting wind. Though I was wearing nearly every piece of clothing I’d brought, I was still shivering. My joints ached like an old woman’s. “It is the middle of summer,” I muttered to myself, “and I am freezing cold. What happened to the sun?”

I’m from Wisconsin, I’m a Nordic skier, and I’m accustomed to cold and crappy weather. But not in the middle of July. My sisters were tubing and water-skiing. My friends were sun-bathing in their bikinis and playing volleyball on the beach with the sun on their backs and the sand beneath their feet. But not me. I was bundled up in 4 layers of clothing: a Smartwool shirt, a fleece pull-over, a rainjacket, and a lifejacket. Kate Upton may have been able to strip down to a swimsuit in Antarctica, but even a fat-modeling contract could not have convinced me to shed a stitch. I was cold, miserable, my fingers were already numb, and we’d yet to catch and clean fish for dinner.

When Heimo saw me shivering, he gave me a serious look and told me that if I didn’t put on some fat before winter, I would be one unhappy girl. “It is only gonna get colder,” he said. “When you come back in October you will be lucky if it’s 10 below. That will be `a nice day.’  In winter, it’ll be 50 below. The cold here can kill yah. You gotta know that.”

Two hours later we were on a gravel bar, and I was stripping the guts out of our 3rd grayling, my hands colder than ever. As we fished, Heimo entertained us with a story about a friend in Fort Yukon who invited him to play cards one night in his garage. The man was Fort Yukon’s casket maker, which meant that he fashioned wooden boxes for the deceased. They were having a good time, when Heimo’s friend gestured to a blanket next to Heimo and said, “Hey, Heimo, there’s Roy.” Heimo was confused.  The man repeated himself, “Heimo, there’s Roy.” This time, Heimo looked closer. Still confused, he lifted the blanket and jumped back. Under it, hand outstretched, eyes open, frozen still as a statue, was Roy.  The casket maker explained that a week before, poor Roy had suffered a heart attack and lay unconscious on the floor of his cabin. The fire in his stove had gone out, and Roy had frozen to death. Days later they found him. Chuckling, Heimo’s friend informed him that they were still trying to thaw him out.

The moral of the story? Heimo never said. He was laughing too hard.

Conditions in Fort Yukon
The closest town, 100 miles away

Bathing in the Cold Coleen

Ready for a river bath?
Ready for an ice cold river bath?

After spending my first week in Alaska in the same sweat-soaked, sap-stained, and sawdust-coated clothes (little did I know, this would be my every-day outfit for the next month) I finally took a bath in the river. For days, I’d been smelling dead animal. But it wasn’t until Day 7 that I finally realized that, lo and behold, the dead animal was me. I smelled worse than the monkey cage at the zoo. So while my dad and Heimo fished for supper, I stripped down to nothing and took an ice-cold bath in the Coleen River.

Bathing in an Arctic river is not easy. It’s a painful experience and has to be done in increments. First, the feet, then the legs, and finally the rest.

I began by wading ankle-deep into the river. When I could no longer bear it, I dashed back to the gravel bar. I gathered my courage and returned to the water. Gritting my teeth, I watched as the water rose up my legs, to my belly button, to my chest. Again, I ran back to the bar, my body numb. This time, I lathered up, did a few pre-plunge jumping jacks, sprinted to the river, and dove in like Olympic Gold Medalist Missy Franklin springing from the blocks. Every part of me was screaming. My head throbbed with the most painful brain-freeze I’ve ever experienced.  After only 20 seconds, I leapt out of the river and made a run for the beach, clutching my head like a mad woman.

Upon reaching the gravel bar, I grabbed my handkerchief-sized towel (I was not allowed to pack my big soft, fluffy one) and attempted to cover myself. I failed miserably. The towel served better as a loincloth. I dried myself off as best I could and then sat butt-naked in the sun, not caring who could see me. I was a 130 miles from the closest village. Who might be watching? A bear, a moose in the willows, an osprey flying overhead, a grayling rising in the river?

As my body thawed, I picked up my clothes and slipped a chocolate from my pants pocket. Sitting there under the Arctic sun, free of dirt and mosquitoes and stink, fresh and clean and sugar-happy, I read the inside of the wrapper. It said, “Life is good.”

Beasts of the Northern Wild (yes, yet another entry about mosquitoes)

Off on an adventure

In Arctic Alaska they say that summer is nothing but a sweet dream, a six-week window of sun and warm breezes, when flowers bloom and berries ripen. But what they don’t mention are the mosquitoes. And believe me they need to be mentioned. Minus the grizzlies, they are the real beasts of the northern wild.

July is known to be “mosquito month” and it was just my luck that this year happened to be one of the worst years on record. In fact, most people like Heimo, who live in the bush and survive winters of 50 below, usually leave during the month of July, just to avoid the skeeters. I had been warned about the bugs. A biologist in Fairbanks told us stories of clouds of mosquitoes driving huge herds of caribou to stampede into the waters of the Arctic Ocean and of driving grizzlies to the point of madness.  So I came prepared with a Thermacelle, countless cans of Deet, anti-itch cream, headnets, and the illusion that I could keep the mosquitoes at bay. Now, I know just how deluded I was.

I’m from Wisconsin, mosquito country, but nothing could have prepared me for the onslaught. No matter how much bug spray I wore, no matter how many layers I had on for protection, the mosquitoes still managed to leave every last inch of me–most annoyingly, my behind–covered in red, itchy dots. But gradually, I got used to the fact that I could never pee in peace. I learned to pick out mosquitoes that had flown into my water bucket, my pancakes, my nose, my mouth. I accepted that every time I walked through the brush or hauled water from the river I was mosquito meat. But, though there wasn’t a cute guy within 200 miles, I was NOT OKAY with big red bites on my face. So I spent my days in a hot headnet. I had to remember to lift the net to drink, eat, and spit. Had there been a cute boy, I still wouldn’t have taken it off. When we finally got out, I inspected myself in a full length mirror. My body was full of bites and blotches, but my face—perfection 😉

Thank god for the tent
Thank god for the tent

Blueberry – and Skeeter – Pancakes

Early Mornings in the Arctic
Grin and bear it!

Every morning by 7:00 A.M. I am sitting by the fire, sipping a cup of cocoa, while my Dad or Heimo makes breakfast (I am the camp’s lunch cook). Usually we have oatmeal for breakfast, but for a treat my dad fixes his special crispy pancakes with fresh-picked blueberries. After a steady diet of Arctic grayling (fish), I gobble them up like a ravenous grizzly coming out of hibernation. The mosquitoes, it seems, are as hungry as I am. Whether it’s warm or cool, I’m dressed in layers, determined not to leave a stitch of bare skin for them. They swarm around me as soon as I leave the tent and no amount of swatting or spray or smoke from the fire discourages them. They also like the pancake mix, so along with the blueberries, the mix usually contains a dozen or so mired mosquitoes. “No big deal,” my dad says. “We need the protein.” When they drive me to the point of madness, I jump through the fire like an exotic circus performer. I hear that sizzle and crackle and I am filled with a sense of satisfaction. I’ve gotten those “dirty little bastards” (Heimo’s phrase) back.  Inevitably some of the dead mosquitoes end up in my pancakes. Though I’d prefer pancakes with sun-soaked blueberries from the Arctic tundra, blueberry and skeeter pancakes are pretty good, too. They taste sweet – like revenge.

Gritty Gal at the campsite
Me at the campsite

Mumford and Sons to the Rescue

Cabin pole almost peeledCabin Wall

For the first 10 days of my Arctic adventure I peeled 25-foot log poles, using a drawknife, in a clearing 50 yards from the new cabin site and prayed that the mosquitoes that swarmed around me would keep the grizzlies in the high mountains. Dad and Heimo worked down a narrow trail at the cabin site, swinging axes, notching logs, driving in 12-inch steel spikes, and practicing their Wisconsin accents. Since we arrived, my dad and Heimo (a former Wisconsinite) had been performing their own rendition of the musical “Guys On Ice”, making jokes about ditching da wife and heading to the tavern to thrown down a few PBRs and cheer on the Pack with da boys. Though their humor was pretty feeble, they cackled like little kids, and I admit that the first few times I laughed with them. But by day two, I was completely sick of it and eager, despite my fears, to get as far away from them as possible. Though Heimo said that with all the noise, an animal wouldn’t get within half a mile of us, this was my first time in the Alaskan bush and my head was full of big bad grizzlies. I wore a bear bell around my neck that clanged as I worked and had a loaded shotgun leaning against a nearby tree. But what saved me was Mumford and Sons. I turned the volume up on my Kindle and blasted them across the Arctic landscape.

Do bears like British rockers?

bush plane drop-off
Bush Plane Drop-off
Coleen River and Brooks Range from the air
The Coleen River and Brooks Range from the Air