Monday, January 6, 2014

Arctic Dreams

Dogsledding near the BWCA

I am a firm believer there is a child within us all.  For some, it slumbers silently waiting for something to rouse it.  For others, it is swept up under the rug after we become an "adult", never to be brought out again.  It is truly an odd phenomena that we, as adults, find it necessary to choke this side of us as if it were a demon.  I know many adults who have completely lost the art of play, as well as adventure, and it makes me very sad.

I must be honest, there have been multiple times in my life that I too, lost the art of play.  I took myself all too seriously and lived by "shoulds" and "have to's" vs. "want to's".  Now I'm not suggesting we all run around neglecting our daily duties and ask others to support us, I'm just suggesting that no matter what our environment is, we MAKE time to have fun again.

I sit here looking out my kitchen window at the brilliant blue sky and deceptively warm sun, dreaming about a time when I was little.  As a child I cherished all the seasons.  Each one brought a new exciting gift just waiting to be unwrapped.  Winters in Minnesota would bring feet of snow and temperatures which would frequently drop below zero.  I would head out, even in the worst blizzards, bundled so greatly it was hard for me to move.  I let my imagination run wild and would often pretend to be a polar explorer.  When the snow piled up between garages, I dug tunnels through them and built quinzee huts.  I could sit out there for hours, sometimes working on perfecting my hut, sometimes just listening to the wind.  I loved feeling like I was the only person around and it was up to my quick thinking to survive.  I will tell you my mom always knew where I was, although I liked to think she didn't, and I actually never got frostbite until I was an adult.
Humans are an infant species, a mere 150,000 years old. But, armed with a massive brain, we've not only survived, we've used our wits to adapt to and flourish in habitats as varied as deserts, Arctic tundra, tropical rainforests, wetlands and high mountain ranges.                                                      -David Suzuki
Fast forward many years and I continued to dream about the Arctic.  There was a thrill I'd experience when I thought about spending time in the far North--part sheer fear, part excitement.  Right after high school I took a job working for Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis.  There, I was introduced to people like Ann Bancroft, Will Steger, Paul Schurke, Lonnie Dupre, Arleigh Jorgenson and Garth Willis.  They made my spark turn into a burning fire and I was determined to follow in their footsteps.  I consumed every book about Arctic exploration I could get my hands on (I still do this) and even read several about expeditions in the Antarctic.

Images of barren ice fields, drifting pack ice, polar bears, seals and a vast openness drew me in.  I thought there would never be a greater challenge than to survive in such an inhospitable place, even though the Inuit do a beautiful job at this.  I spent evenings poring over Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams and pictured myself leading my own expedition.

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon
the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up
to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from
as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. 

He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at
every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon
it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest
motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and
all the colors of the dawn and dusk. 
                                                                     -Navarre Scott Momaday

Wintergreen Lodge
After transferring from Midwest Mountaineering to REI, I decided I wanted to give dogsledding a try.  I knew my choices for Arctic travel were limited to dogsled, skiing with Berwin bindings, walking with a pulk sled or kayaking.  At the time, people weren't even thinking about biking up there since mountain bikes were still somewhat new and fat bikes were long from being designed.  Because of my love for animals, I chose to learn about dogsledding.  I had spent time working with the dogs at Voyageur Outward Bound in Ely, MN but had never run them in snow.  I finally got the nerve to call Paul Schurke one day and ask if I could become his intern.  I promised to do anything he needed around camp for a chance to learn some skills.  January 1995 rolled around and I headed North to Wintergreen Lodge, perched on White Iron lake near Ely, not having a clue what to expect.

My days were filled with scooping up frozen poop from over a hundred dogs, chopping up frozen chicken bits with an axe to supplement the dog's dry food, hauling pales upon pales of water, organizing massive amounts of harnesses, gang lines, food bags etc., pre-cooking food for trips, and baby sitting Paul and Susan's small children.  Finally, I got the chance to be an assistant on some trips.  On that first day out of camp, I realized all the preparation and hard work I had done the previous week or two was done for a reason.  I had learned so much through repetition and menial tasks--something I could have never learned safely on the trail itself.  Those days spent on the trail were some of the hardest, yet most rewarding days of my life.  I would wake cold and stiff, still exhausted from the day before, not wanting to leave my cocoon.  When the guests would retire for the evening, the guides and I would take care of the dogs, make repairs to gear and prep for the following day.  Our days were long and we thought of very little other than what was in front of us.  I loved it and cried when I had to leave.

After spending that winter, along with a few winter stints with Outward Bound and Wilderness Inquiry,  I somehow fell off the Arctic bandwagon.  I still thought about being a dog handler for mushers in Northern Canada or Alaska, and continued to do some winter camping, but I just couldn't wrap my mind around doing it full time.  The years rolled by and somewhere in there I began to despise winter--I'm sure living in Kona, Hawaii didn't help matters.  I became "soft" and lost my sense of winter adventure.  Although I still continued to bike commute in the winter to work, I told myself I hated it.

Getting ready to ride in sub zero temps
A few years ago, I joined up with Madison Bike Winter and decided to stop moping--or at least not as much.  The winters have rolled by and each year I awaken a bit more of my winter inner child.  I won't lie.  I still much prefer summer over winter, but this morning, when I woke to -13 F with windchills ranging from -35 to -45, I was a bit giddy to ride my bike to work.  I felt like a child once again, pretending to be an Arctic explorer.  I found pleasure in smearing my face with Vaseline (I ran out of my Dermatone) in case there was a break in my balaclava/goggle seal.  I found even more pleasure in hearing some of my co-workers calling me a "dumbass" for riding in this weather.  Truth be told, I felt much safer riding to work instead of driving.  There was not one iota of me that even considered driving.  And when I showed up to work, toasty warm, nothing anyone said could wipe the smile off my face.  I felt alive...something I strive for more and more each day.

If you are new to winter biking, there are a few things to consider.  Not everyone does well in extremely cold conditions.  If you suffer from a condition called Raynaud's, like me, or diabetes, you have to take extra precautions and should avoid long exposure without an escape route.  Learning how to dress, eat and hydrate to stay warm, but not too warm, is key.  I would also recommend learning some basic bike maintenance and practice performing simple tasks with gloves on.  You'd be amazed how hard it is to fix a dropped chain when your hands are cold.  Most importantly, take small test runs around the neighborhood.  Only when you're confident in your set up should you venture out further.  Lastly, keep a good sense of humor.  Things will go wrong at some point...count on it, and it's how you roll with it that can make the situation miserable or tolerable.

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