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.