Grrrr—it

 

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Near the top of the globe, at the slipping edge of Alaska, on the southern coast of the Arctic Ocean is a small barrier island called Arey.  It is nothing more than a six-mile-long scrap of land pounded by whitecaps crashing in from the open water. The island is entirely bare; the only evidence of life, the birds overhead and the dinosaur-sized polar bear tracks pressed into the sand. Yet, the thought of this island was what I imagined every day as I paddled down the Hulahula River, shivering from a core-deep cold, the bill on the hood of my raincoat pulled down to shield  my face from the stinging shards of sleet.

When we were backpacking over the Brooks Range, and all I wanted to do was be rid of my sixty-pound pack and throw it into a ravine, I dreamed about being on the river—and this island.  But when I got to the Hulahula, I discovered that the river was sometimes dangerous and always demanding. Each morning, before packing up camp, I’d pull on my cold, damp clothes and rub my hands together to get the blood circulating. Then, I’d take down the tent, pack up our gear, and load the dry bags into the canoe. Three hours later, we’d finally push off and then for the next 20 miles battle the river’s rapids and the biting wind to the coast. 

After 14 days on the river, when we’d finally reached Arey Island, I waded to the edge of the Arctic Ocean and gathered snail shells, thinking I’d soon be going home. But, then the winds blew up, and we were stranded for another three days. The cold on Arey was worse than anything I’d imagined. The non-stop winds came straight off the North Pole and cut threw everything – our tent, my clothes, and the driftwood shelters we’d erected. We even built bonfires, but still it was impossible for me to get warm. Sometimes, I felt like there was no end to it.

When I tell people about our trip, they often ask me how I managed it, physically and mentally. The word that always came to mind was Grit.

Angela Duckworth, a psychologist and educator, popularized the word with her TED talk. Grit, she said, is the single best predictor of success in life. She got the word from the John Wayne western True Grit, in which a girl hires a gruff, one-eyed, alcoholic sheriff to hunt down her father’s murderer. Despite her age and gender, the girl refuses to let the sheriff go alone and against all odds, sets out with him to take on the rugged west. This, Angela Duckworth points out, is what grit is about: “passion and determination” for long-term goals. While most people seek immediate gratification, with grit there often is no “aha” moment, just hard work and a long wait.

I found grit in Alaska, but you don’t need Alaska to get grit. Grit is the mile runner who guts it out in the last 200 meters; it is the stutterer who returns to the classroom everyday despite being teased; it is the farm kid who trudges to the barn every morning before school; it is the dyslexic who finishes all seven Harry Potter books; it is the girl who trains to make the high school football team; it is the boy who shovels snow all winter and mows lawns all summer to pay for college.

Grit sounds like what it means — a mixture of purpose and perseverance. Grrrr—it.

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The Summer That Never Was

 

Brrr!
Brrr!

In previous blogs, I’ve written about a condition called “bush-eyes” in which I dreamed perpetually of food I could not have. On this trip, a three-week trek/paddle over Alaska’s Brooks Range and to the Arctic Ocean, I developed something I call “summer longing.”

On the second day of our adventure, I awoke to snow. It was July 26 and all around me I saw – snow! My hiking boots were frozen solid, my clothes, left in the corner of the tent, were cold and wet, and my water bottle had a layer of ice an inch thick. Had this been winter, I would have shrugged my shoulders. No big deal, just another day in the Arctic. But, this was supposed to be summer; yet, here I was buried in a 0-degree sleeping bag, wearing a winter hat, ski gloves, thick wool socks, and four layers of clothing. The Arctic cold scratched at the walls of the tent. As I unzipped the rain fly and stood looking at the icy mountains, I tucked the T-shirt I had set out to wear that day into my pack. In the following days, I would dig it out and hope that summer might come. But, day by day, that hope dwindled and I pushed my shirt farther down into the depths of my pack. By day 5, I realized that summer, despite my fervent wishes, would not come, and I contented myself with little fantasies — lying in the hammock, a cool dip in the spring-fed creek across from our house after a hard midday run, picking blackberries in our back field, and eating watermelon, fresh from the garden. I could not banish the cold, but for a few minutes every day, I could have a small slice of summer.

 

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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.

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.”