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!

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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.”