When the Sun Don’t Shine

100_0753On the seventh morning of our trip across the Arctic, I awoke to the sound of rain. Ugh! Another day without sun. July 31st marked a full week of cold and clouds. Even my joints moaned and groaned. I pulled my clothes out of my sleeping bag. They were still wet and, even worse, smelled like stinky feet. Each night I stuck them inside, allowing my body to heat and dry them while I slept. But, somehow they had gotten pushed to the bottom. I grit my teeth and slid the shirt over my head. Boy, what I would give for dry clothes.

At the cook tent, my dad had just finished making oatmeal. And this time, he hadn’t added dried berries or whey. As we neared the end of the backpacking portion of our trip, our supplies were getting low. We’d hoped to catch fish on the Chandalar River, but the rain kept coming and the water was high, so the fish weren’t cooperating. I was starting to get “boat-eyes,” fantasizing about what I would eat when we got to where the bush pilot had dropped off our folding canoe and two bear barrels of food. In one of those bear barrels, I knew I had a bar of dark Lindt Chocolate. That alone kept me going.

Now, my dad was cursing. He’d spilled his bowl of oatmeal. When he stopped swearing, he grabbed his spoon and then, without hesitation, began eating off the ground. “Five minute rule,” he said, grinning. Before we did dishes, Dave passed around the oatmeal pot for us to scrape. “When did scraping the oatmeal bowl qualify as a treat?”

An hour later, after taking down the tent and packing up our backpacks, we were off. The mist hung low over the mountains. I imagined myself walking through the Western Highlands of Scotland–Campbell country. The tundra was like a sponge beneath me. With each step, my boots filled with water, until finally I had to stop to dump them.  As soon as I plopped myself down, I realized my mistake. I had just soaked my butt, too.

Finally, after seven miles of steady marching, we got our first glimpse of the Hulahula River. From, the distance it looked like a snake, curving back and forth until it reached the horizon. I imagined the mountains slowly falling away, the land leveling out, the tundra turning to sand and gravel. The river would lead us to the coast, to the Arctic Ocean.

That night I fell asleep to the cold roar of the river.

I woke up to the sound of my dad celebrating. He was hollering like he had just seen the Packers win the Superbowl.

“Get up, Aidan! Come out!” he shouted.

I was not in the mood for optimism. I closed my eyes and tried my best to ignore him. Even in the Arctic, I needed my beauty sleep.

“Get up,” he yelled again.

I crawled out my sleeping bag, rolled my stiff shoulders, cracked my neck, and stumbled out of the tent. I looked around trying to figure out why my father had woken me.

And then, I realized. The sun!

100_0786

 

 

Blood and Guts at 35 Below

Downriver hunting for caribou. We were two weeks into our winter trip, and the Korths were low on meat. Only one caribou foreleg hung from the meat rack. And Edna, in particular, was worried. Not only was she cooking for Heimo, who like a caribou seems to have four stomachs, but for my dad and me, too. She announced that unless we wanted to eat beaver tail and porcupine for the next week, we were gonna have to kill a caribou.

At first light, Heimo, Edna, and I headed downriver to hunt. Dad had hurt his back when the snowmachine rolled on him and he was still in pain, so his job was to stay at the cabin and tend the bannock bread and the goose roasting in the slow cooker. Besides, Heimo could only take along two people, one behind him in the snowmachine and one in the sled.

Dad was worried about me. A freak warm-up, which had sent the mercury climbing to minus 5 just days before, had opened large leads in the river ice. If the sled tipped and I fell in the river, the current would suck me under the ice, and I’d be a goner.

But today it was 35 below, so he bundled me up like a child. By the time he was finished, I was buried fiver layers deep. All that was left were eye slits.

“You take good care of her,” Dad said to Heimo.

Edna caught the edge in his voice. “Oh gosh,” she laughed. “Jim’s like a mama grizzly. Don’t wanna mess with his cub.”

Thirty minutes later, I was sitting in the sled, skidding through the black spruce trees and nimble willow branches that slapped at me like whips. Heimo stopped the snowmachine, after one long section.

“You alright?” he yelled back.

I gritted my teeth and gave him the thumbs up.

After weaving between gravel bars, we headed straight south along the river. It was so cold and the wind was so strong that my eyelids froze shut. I couldn’t see, but I could still hear, and when I heard the sound of open water, I clung to the sled and listened for cracking ice, praying that I wouldn’t fall out.

Finally, after two hours, Heimo and Edna spotted a caribou crossing, the tracks still fresh. Heimo slowed and studied them. My eyelids thawed, and I noticed wolf tracks weaving back and forth across the trail, predators following their prey.

“You guys post here,” he said, stopping the snowmachine. “And I’ll go down river.”

Edna and I sat with our backs to a willow thicket that helped to cut the wind and in the gray light we scanned the woods and the river for caribou.

Thirty minutes later, we heard a gunshot. We waited and then we saw the snowmachine. Heimo had a dead caribou in the sled. He pulled it out of the sled, yelled something to us, turned around, and hit the accelerator. Then he headed downriver, hoping to get another, leaving this one for Edna and me to butcher.    

I’d help field dress and butcher deer before, but butchering a caribou at 35 below is cold, hard work. My job was to hold the caribou, moving it into different positions so Edna could make her cuts. She began with the hind legs and made her way up to the forelegs. Then she moved to the intestinal cavity.

I watched her make a shallow, cautious cut, taking care not to puncture the intestine or one of the four stomachs and taint the meat. After opening up the gut, from the caribou’s anus to its diaphragm, she handed me the knife and plunged her hands into the steaming carcass and held them there for half a minute.

When she pulled them out, they were wet with blood, and the snow around us was stained red.

“Now you try,” she instructed.

I drew a deep breath and stuck my numb hands into the opening and kept them there until I could feel my fingers again.

“Okay,” she said, as I pulled my bloody hands from the caribou, “Now for the organs. Just wait till you eat the heart and the liver. They’re so good.” 

Once we finished with the butchering, we piled the meat and the heart and liver on the caribou skin. Then Edna pulled a needle and thread from her pocket and sewed it up. She made her last stitch just as Heimo arrived.

Edna and I lugged the 40-pound legs into the sled and Heimo slung the skin, bulging with meat, over his shoulder. When we were done, he looked at me. I was spattered with caribou blood and shivering.

“You gotta be tough up here, don’t yah,” Heimo said.

Edna put her arm around me. “Don’t tease her. This girl did good today.”

Later, back in the cabin, we sat back after a supper of bannock bread and speckle belly goose. Edna sipped the last of her tea.

“If there’s ever a caribou butchering competition,” she announced, “I want Aidan as my partner.”

I smiled. “It’s a deal!”

grittygal at 35 below

 

 

 

The Arctic Icebox

38 belowGrittygal in front of the Arctic IceboxThey say that winter in the Arctic is a revelation. To that I would add the adjectives shocking, unkind and brutal. This winter, while my Dad and I spent 3 weeks in far northern Alaska, our home away from home was a 10 X 10, double-walled tent, called the Arctic Oven, surely a misnomer.  It didn’t take my dad and me long to re-name it the Arctic Icebox.

On our 3rd night in the bush, I woke to a chilled tent and a leaky wood stove sputtering smoke and creosote. It was 2:00 am, and I was cold, cranky, and coughing. For the third time that night, the fire had gone out, and unfortunately for me, it was my turn to rebuild it. On the other side of the tent my Dad was burrowed in his 20-below Arctic sleeping bag, snoring. Whining like a wolf pup, I rolled out of my sleeping bag, and grabbed a log, some paper, and thin-cut kindling. My hands were so cold they barely worked. I opened the door to the stove, and put in the log. Then, taking the kindling, I built a lean-to against the log, and stuffed paper underneath. I struck a match and held it to the paper, and then prayed for the kindling to catch. A minute later, I heard the sound of success, the reassuring pop and crackle of a freshly started fire. I opened the vents to give the fire air and waited until it was blazing. Then I added another log, triumphantly shut the vents until I could see only a sliver of light inside the stove, and nestled back into the depths of my sleeping bag.

Two hours later, the cold crept back in. But this time, it was my father’s turn to do the dirty work. I curled up like a cat and snuggled down deeper into my bag while my dad muttered something about the “damn fire” and the “crappy sheet metal piece of **&%$@! that needed stove cement.”  Then I heard him shut the stove door and felt the icy tent slowly warm.

When I woke that morning, I was shivering. I could see my breath rise out of my sleeping bag in a cold cloud. The log that my dad had added before leaving the tent and letting me sleep was now smoldering in the stove, giving off little heat. My body was stiff and slow to respond, but I wrestled myself out of my bag, and dressed hurriedly by the light of my headlamp. Then I poked my head outside. The air was frigid, but Heimo and Edna’s cabin chimney was puffing smoke. I jumped out of the tent, closed the flap behind me, and made a mad dash. I darted in, almost banging my head on the low-cut door that Heimo had built small to contain the cabin’s heat on the coldest winter days.  “Good morning,” I mumbled, crouching as close to the big stove as I could without burning myself.

“Good morning, Ms. Aidan,” Heimo said.  “Thermometer says 38 below. How’d you sleep?”

“Long night,” I replied. My dad nodded his head in agreement.

“Bet you’re wishing it was summer,” Heimo laughed.

Could it be? In summer, while peeling cabin poles for hours on end, I had cursed the hot, sweaty sun and the hungry clouds of mosquitoes. But, given the choice, I would gladly choose mosquitoes and 24 hours of light over minus 38 degrees. In fact, I wanted nothing more than to den up like a hibernating grizzly and wait until the sun and warmth returned. Or, better yet, to call the trip off, fly home, forget the extreme cold, and say good-bye to the Arctic Icebox forever. But that wasn’t going to happen. I had 18 more days left.

Too much Winter

Rundown Mountain
Waning light. The sun officially sets on December 3rd.

There they were, two large duffels and one backpack, all packed to the point of bursting, a month’s worth of extreme cold weather gear that included snowshoes and pants, parkas, expedition suits, bunny boots (cold weather boots), gaiters, sleeping bags, gloves, mittens, bomber caps, hand warmers, foot warmers, fleece jackets, scarves, socks, long underwear, face masks, skis, and ski boots.  For the past two weeks my dad and I have packed, unpacked, whittled down, and repacked, ever mindful of Heimo’s story about poor ‘ol frozen Roy (Blog August 22nd: The Cold Here Can Kill Yah) and of Jack London’s warning. The Arctic, London said, could kill a man a thousand different ways.

My issue with the Arctic is the cold. Like my mom, I’m warm-blooded.  My father and two sisters can leave the house in the middle of winter in jeans and a sweater. But not me; I run cold. Opening the freezer to pull out a pint of ice cream makes me shiver. In winter, I dream of places like Costa Rica. The Arctic conjures images of pre-Perestroika Siberian penal colonies.

But, there’s hope. Thanks to the generosity of Clam Outdoors (Medina, Minnesota), and the Coleman Company, I at least have a chance of staying warm, even at 40 below. The key to survival, it seems, is to look like a human marshmallow. Fashion, my dad told me while we packed, “is not a consideration.”

During my summer trip, I had the luxury of a never-setting sun and temperatures in the 70s. My worries then were bugs, bears, and sunburn. But on this trip, my biggest fear will be frostbite. The temperatures will be 20-40 below. Instead of staying in the cabin we helped build over the summer, we will be sleeping in a double-walled tent with a little woodstove. Our days will be spent splitting wood, running the trapline with Heimo, ice fishing, and hunting moose, spruce grouse, and ptarmigan. When I’m not traipsing across the tundra, I will get a lesson in Arctic cooking from Heimo’s wife Edna who can turn porcupine, moose nose and caribou heart into mouth-watering meals. I’ll help her as best I can. If I get cold, I’ll huddle near the stove, soaking in its warmth.

Robert Frost, ever the Romantic, said that you can’t get too much winter in the winter. Obviously, Frost never set foot in the Arctic. If you ask me, minus 30 is too much winter. Then there’s the sun – or the lack of it. If the cold up here doesn’t get you, the darkness will — 24 hours of it.

Last summer, Heimo accused me of having bush eyes, of dreaming of food I couldn’t have. I wonder if there’s a winter equivalent. I bet there is. I know I’ll be dreaming of the sun on my back and 70 degrees.

Alaska Bound

Gritty Gal and her backpack outside her home in Lodi, Wisconsin
After weeks of preparation and packing, I’m finally ready for summer in the Arctic.

I find myself at the beginning of a journey, bound for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the world’s last great wildernesses.  My father will be my travel companion and together with my dad’s cousin, Heimo Korth, a veteran of the Alaskan bush, we will learn how to survive life in the wilderness.

In Alaska, my home will be my tent, my bed will be a mat, my bathroom will be a hole in the ground, my water will come from the river or from a spring, and my food will be whatever we manage to kill, catch or gather. Over the course of the next year, I will be making four trips to the Alaskan Arctic, staying for one month each season. For my first trip, we will help Heimo Korth build a new cabin from scratch and then head for the high country in search of caribou.

And, so, unlike most kids my age, I will not be spending my summer vacationing at a summer-house, tanning at the pool, shopping with friends on State Street, or binge-watching Pretty Little Liars for hours (as I may have under normal circumstances). Instead I will be 130 miles above the Arctic Circle, 3 hours by bush plane from Fairbanks, in one of the most remote and isolated places in the world, swatting clouds of mosquitoes, and praying I won’t encounter an angry mother grizzly (a sow) protecting her cubs or a territorial moose. In other words, I will be in the middle of nowhere.  There is a better chance of reaching Santa at the North Pole than reaching Aidan Campbell in the Arctic.