I’ve been feeling rather melancholy the past few days. This summer has been a challenging one in many respects. Some of it has been major like money and some of it has been silly and small like I still have grown only one zucchini in my garden. And then last week I was blindsided by a legal issue. It has left me feeling powerless. Well crap. That kind of sums it up.
So in an effort to regain some control I started to organize. And I came across a journal I kept during one freeze-up. I was transported back to the daily rhythm and routine of living through that season. I’m thinking of putting the journal on this blog.
Then I read some old stories I wrote and came across this one. It made me grateful. And it made me laugh. I hope you enjoy it.
“Nothing But My Boots
One of the key elements of dogsledding, other than the obvious, is clothes and usually lots of them. There’s long underwear, two pairs of socks, pants, sweaters, wind pants, parka, hat, mitts and boots. It’s amazing we can even move. The Canadian Arctic is a cold, cold place and there were occasions this winter when my layers of clothing couldn’t keep out the bone chilling cold. I would jog behind the team or drop my hook and stomp around the sled flailing my arms wildly in an effort to keep on the right side of hypothermia. My dogs, bless their canine hearts, took this all in stride and there was more than once when I swear my Alpha female smiled, shook her head and set to work on fluffing up a snowy bed.
It was during one particularly frosty run across an endless windswept lake that I found myself daydreaming about what it would be like to run dogs with nothing but my boots on. As I opened and closed my frozen hands willing blood to start flowing into them again, a plan for naked dogsledding began to take shape. And so, on one sunny Saturday in early May I was hanging my clothes on a spruce branch while my six-dog team was going mad with impatience.
My intention had been to do this about three weeks earlier when it was just the dogs and I alone at the fly-in lodge that we live and work at. The place had closed for the season and as the other staff waited for the plane that would be taking them back to town I realized that the weather still wasn’t perfect. My desire was to experience the wind on my skin, not full body frostbite.
My co-workers asked what I would do if a small plane flew low overhead while I was on this adventure. Why wave of course was my answer. It’s not like you can hide on a lake. Then someone else wanted to know how I would handle it if a group of snowmachiners suddenly showed up, for the trails were still decent. What could I do except act casual, as if clothes and dogsledding really didn’t go together.
Suddenly the questions were done, the plane had come and gone and I was left standing on the ice, completely and utterly alone for two weeks with my nearest neighbor 75 air miles away. And so I waited for spring but she never showed up. For 14 days I checked the weather forecast but it was always still too cold. Then the lodge manager, owner and one of the summer staff, all three of them Y-chromosomes, came back and I thought my plans were dashed.
They had their own plans for adventure however, which included a three-day trip into the bush for some trail cutting and clearing. The day after they left the skies cleared, the wind died and temps soared to a balmy 48 degrees. It was time.
I pulled out the sled, adjusted the gangline to handle six dogs and harnessed them up. The dogs were my steady, pull-all-day workhorses – the kind of animals that could be left to roam around freely if anything ever happened. It was not the day for hyperactive pups that hadn’t yet learned how to channel their foaming at the mouth power into the energy efficient pace of the older trail veterans.
After harnessing, each dog was in turn put into place on the line where they waited, patiently at first, for me to step onto the runners, release the snub and pull the hook. Then it was time for the clothes.
In seconds the only thing I was wearing was my boots and a plaid flannel shirt. The trickiest part was balancing on one booted foot while trying to remove a leg from my pants and not get either them or my foot wet. My jeans were stuffed into the sled bag just in case of encounter with planes, snowmachiners or the lodge manager, who had made a surprise appearance the night before. The rest of my clothes became spruce tree decorations. The dogs were rapidly losing patience as minutes went by – time that they could be spending on the trail.
Finally I was ready. I took one last glance down the lake, pulled off the flannel shirt, stomped on the brake, released the snub line and hauled up the hook. We shot out of the yard, caught air over a drift and charged down the lake faster than we’ve ever done it before. Being naked must make you more aerodynamic.
At first I felt a little, ridiculous I guess, mostly because it was apparent that while I possess a great Arctic tan (hands and face), the rest of my body seems to be whiter than the snow. Combine that with black Sorels and one would need sunglasses to look at me.
However, I realized that barely six months before this moment I had struggled with a potentially life-threatening illness and so I got over feeling ridiculous pretty quickly. I’m strong and healthy and the wind and warmth on my body felt great. So then I began to laugh and whoop it up. It was an experience of freedom, the kind that little kids possess as they run through a park trailing clothes and their frazzled mothers behind them.
So there I was, a naked dogsledder, laughing and singing my way across the lake. The sun on my back seemed to loosen up the various knots that have been accumulated after a winter of wrestling dogs, manhandling sleds and hauling cumbersome food and water buckets. The breeze was just enough to remind me that winter hadn’t quite released its grip, tempting me to put the shirt back on at least. But I wasn’t about to give in to a little chill and so I peddled for a bit to warm up. Jogging wasn’t an option – bras are worn for a reason.
The dogs ran the familiar loop around the lake and before I knew it, we were back in the dogyard. It was tempting to turn them around and go again but it just wouldn’t have been the same. Sometimes you really can have too much of a good thing.
So the clothes went back on and the dogs were put back at their houses. And I tucked away a memory of warmth, wind and laughter that can be rekindled next winter when I’m drowning in layers and holding hypothermia at bay.”