It's pitch black until 8:30 a.m. Our tent is like a cold, nylon cave. The walls flap in the wind, and my breath billows out, hitting the pages of this journal, and expands like a cumulous cloud. The vapor shudders in unison to the flapping of the frosted walls.
Another shock wave passes underneath. It promises to be another cold morning, packing up the sleds.
Coaxing the Stove
I work in the narrow beam of my headlamp. Next, I take one of the fuel bottles filled with white gas. I unscrew the cap and spill several tablespoons of fuel on the stove burner as a primer. The metal bottle, filled with super-cool fuel, is like handling dry ice with bare hands. As the bottle burns my hands, I concentrate to get just the right amount of fuel on the burner. Too little and it will mean a five minute wait to try again. Too much would mean an explosion and a tent fire. This done I tightly screw the threaded top of the fuel bottle back on and place it to the side. Next, I take one farmer match from our four ounce plastic bottle, which serves as our match safe. This is a match that can be struck anywhere to light. I drag it across the stove box, it snaps and flashes, a blue-white flame lights the tent, and sulfur fills my nose. A sign that soon there will be warmth. I hold the lit match to the pool of fuel, and probe it to heat it up, coaxing it to light. This fuel is extremely combustible at room temperature, but is reluctant at 40 below. I tell that it is this temperature, because the wooden match burns my fingers but still does not light the fuel. A second match is struck, and this one works, a tiny blue flame flickers. It bursts into a string of ringlets. They dance continuously around the ringlets until they form a circle. The fire burns for almost a minute. Just when it is about to go out, I turn the knob that releases a fine mist of blue fuel. Pop! The blowtorch-blue flame ignites.
Darkness is the Real Challenge
We left Lutselk’e to the excitement of 50 young school kids. Recess brought the kids from the first through eighth grade out the front doors, flying down the hill from the school that leads to the lake. They soon swarmed the dogs and the sleds. It was a heyday. Later, time for a group photo and then off we went at 10:40. The day was uneventful until evening, when the dropping temperatures caused the ice to contract, producing deep bass rumblings from below us.
The evening was clear, with a faint yellow twilight in the western sky at 5:30 p.m. It felt good to be back in the rhythm of tent living. I bought many candles in town, and now we have the luxury of light. We are now burning four candles at a time. This gives an adequate glow, and we are even finding little use for our headlights. I could even see the noodles in my bowl last night. Darkness is by far the greatest psychological challenge of this trip so far. It has the tendency of driving the cold in deep. Cold and dark are definitely the winter shadows in January.
The return of the sun in early spring is like the resurrection. You don’t notice the effects of the darkness as you would a cut on your hand. It is subtle, always there, but once the sun comes back in the spring, its effects are obvious. With the present darkness comes a long confinement in the tents. We keep our nylon home as comfortable as possible, but it is quite cramped. It is impossible to sit up straight. But the four candles make a huge difference. There is a big difference between three and four candles, the extra light helping ward off the darkness. I have lived many winters in my log cabin in Ely, Minnesota. Light is usually rationed there too, because I light with solar, and during the long nights the battery bank nears empty. I’ve found that if I keep just one or two lights around the central activity of the kitchen table, it brings on a heavy mood.
So I always keep at least one light on in the background, behind my shoulders, so to speak. Electricity and ample light is something our generation take for granted. Because of modern lights, people today have also lost touch with the stars. The “heavens” were always central to past peoples. They would always draw spiritual energy from the night sky. Last night, for example, it seemed like you could reach out and touch the stars in the black sky, and the aurora borealis, which added mystery, was a great lift for me. The strip of yellow and green light in the darkness of the western sky at 5:30 was my first sign of spring and light and hope.
The Day After the Storm
Yesterday was a beautiful arctic winter day, the proverbial day after the storm. Crystal clear, calm and cold. We could see for miles - literally, for miles. These days are always a transformation, after stumbling through near zero visibility for two days. The whole struggle against the wind sudden lightens up to a magical moment.
What is first so striking is that you can see. The snow drifts that we blindly plodded into and the glare ice are suddenly there before your eyes. The low sun spread pastel colors across the baby blue surfaces of polished glare ice, framed by the pure essence of the snowy drifts. It was strikingly serene for us to enjoy on this painless, clam day.
The dogs were excited, obediently obeying their commands. We raced over snow patches and clear ice. We saw for the first time the high palisade cliffs that line the south shore of the long island we had been following. It was obvious that these towering ramparts had caught the wind, funneling it along the shore, and against us during the storm. This is why there is so much glare ice - the intensity of the wind.
That had all passed by now, as we mushed northeast toward Dave Olesen’s. At noon a fast team of dogs appeared. Darting rapidly towards us from the northeast. It was Dave Olesen and his racing team. How easy and sporting it seemed, watching him speed toward us.
Dave and I did our first major dogsled expedition together 25 years ago. Since that time, we have never really connected. We both went full tilt into different ventures. Dave bought land - the only private parcel on the Great Slave Lake, on the mouth of the Hoarfrost River. This and dog racing enveloped his life. He ran the Iditarod eight times. And he also married a great women from Minnesota by the name of Christine. And now his life has settled, with two girls, four and eight years old.
We met again, shaking hands on the clear day. We had lunch, and spinned yarns about mutual old friends that we had lost track of. Later, Dave disappeared quickly over the horizon. We hoped to make the 20 miles to his warm cabin, but the sled runners were bad from the cold and the ice, so we made camp ten miles away.
The cold, calm high pressure remained over us the past two days, as we toiled across the rest of Pike’s portage to Artillery Lake. It took us three and a half days to cover the 30 mile portage, which connects the Great Slave Lake to Artillery Lake and beyond. We worked out a system of teamwork in the literal sense that allowed us to negotiate the steep inclines. We went up one sled at a time, adding extra dogs, creating teams up to 15 dogs, and then all six of us would join in getting the sled uphill. Pushing and pulling, we huffed and puffed in this laborious, time intensive process. It gave me a chance to talk and joke with Eric and Aaron, who are always on the other sleds, and with whom I never get a chance to talk during the day.
It can be an isolating life on the trail. Your life revolves around your tentmate or your sled partner, which for me is either Mille or Paul. So it was a fine social event, all of us pushing sleds up the hill in the hazy sun.
Temperatures remain in the mid to upper minus 40’s during the day and night, and we have been spoiled by having absolutely no wind. During the day we were warm most of the time, and I often thought how pleasant is was having my warm blood circulate throughout my body, only to stop for a delay and be amazed at how fast my feet and hands got cold. It is so straightforward and easy to dress in the calm, it is just a matter of layering up or down or adjusting zippers. And we remain comfortable regardless of the activity. I’m sure we all gave thanks at various times for this windless blue sky and the sun, that bathed the scenery in various pinks and reds in its long twilight. It’s brilliant yellow during the day casts long shadows.
We traveled on long lakes connected by winding portage trails. This is steep country that often reminded me of the Brooks Range in Alaska. The cold pooled up on these low lakes, that were scoured out by glaciers. Often the lakes remained in gray shadows all day, the sun not high enough yet in the season to top the surrounding hills. The deep silent cold here produced vapor trails from the heat of the dogs and their breath. Like locomotives, they chugged across the lakes, leaving long vapor trails that caused the sleds in the back to disappear.
After our departures, the thick mist filled the valleys like San Francisco fog. Pike’s Portage was memorable to all of us, thanks to the kindness of the weather and the camaraderie we experienced on the uphills.
The Polar Husky Breed
Two layers of fur is what sets our sled dogs apart from southern breeds. The majority of our present stock are from a special breed I started 30 years ago. It has been called the Polar Husky since our North Pole expedition in 1986. At that time, I had a good stock of northern breeds, mostly from the Indian dogs of the Yukon River and Siberian Huskies. These dogs were great in wooded areas and temperatures down to minus 50. But in the open barrens or on the Arctic pack ice, out in the wind, their coats would fall short in keeping them warm and preserving their energy.
In the early 80’s I introduced the Canadian Eskimo dog and the Mackenzie Husky to my breed. In the late 80’s for the Trans-Antarctica expedition, I also introduced the Greenland Eskimo dog. The Mackenzie Husky lengthen the legs, making them longer paced runners, for expeditions involving thousands of miles. The Greenland Eskimo, by far the toughest dog in the world, brought many positive physical traits. This included the best coat for cold, windy conditions.
The coat is two layers. The inner layer is fine, insulating hair, similar to the down on a duck. This is shed in the summer in enormous quantities. I used to collect it, and have it spun for socks and mitts, creating some of the warmest hand and footwear I have ever had. The second layer is thick, long haired protection called guard hair. The guard hair keeps wind and snow out. It is so thick, that if these dogs are immersed in water, the insulating layer does not get wet. The guard hair allows our dogs to sleep on the ice without allowing their body heat to melt the ice. All other common dogs lack this layer. Plus, the insulation would melt the ice if they slept on it.
Our dogs optimum temperature is minus 30 to minus 40. Their problem is the opposite to what you might expect. It is overheating. When temperatures get above zero, we have to be careful so as to not overheat the dogs. On warm, sunny days, we take cooling off breaks.
Another Lazy Day Off
Our second day off. We rested the dogs for another day. The temperature rose to above zero degrees Fahrenheit, forming a thick whiteout fog. It was a silent day. We had to restrict our walks, to within 100 yards of the camp, and even at this distance it was imperative to keep the tent within sight at all times. On this day off, after the resupply, I got the feeling that we were finally 100 per cent in expedition mode. We are a tiny society within ourselves, the six of us and our dogs. It is peaceful, and everyone has their own roles down.
It was a relaxing day with no cares, the dogs sleeping quietly, their stomachs full. I read and wrote and took a walk and talked with Eric. Later I met with Paul, and we went over the route for the week, and marked out waypoints on the map and entered them into the GPS. I went to bed early, enjoying the warm weather by sleeping with my head out of the sleeping bag.
This two day rest for the dogs, with food galore, got them in sassy spirits. Last night, rivals sneered and growled at each other, a sign that they have plenty of energy and will pull enthusiastically tomorrow. We plan to make it to Baker Lake, our next community, about 320 miles away, by the end of the month. We are in a good place now to begin that final push. With fresh dogs and high spirits, we are ready for whatever the Barrens has to dish out.
I must say, I am surprised by the mild weather we have had this last week. We never expected it, and I am quite thankful for it. We hope it stays, but tomorrow will tell.
Getting Moving Again
We traveled today. It cleared off overnight, when the storm died down. Our tent was quite buried in a hard packed snow drift, sealing off our vents. In the morning, while heating water for tea, our candle slowly died out. We couldn’t get the matches to light, a sign of oxygen depletion. We had to open up the doors and let the cold air in to get things back in order.
It was very cold all day. The high was minus 38 degrees Fahrenheit, with a south-southwest wind. Many delays with the heavy sleds getting stuck on large snowdrifts, which cut across our path. On led on skis, using the GPS and compass to navigate. It was very deceiving low topography, where land and lakes were hard to distinguish. It was most important to pick a good route, to avoid rocks and have a good alignment against the drifts. Dogs and drivers had a tiring day.
Despite the toil, it was a beautiful day. In the mid-afternoon sun, I felt a twinge of heat for the first time. I faced the sun many times today during the various delays, sure I felt heat. It was crystal clear all day, and at sunset the snow drifts turned red like the orb of the sun, well-defined as it san below the horizon.
It was very cold making camp. The stars came out above us, and the northern lights cast veils of white light to the south, covering Orion and Sirus, the dog star, which twinkled bright greens and blues as it rose from the cold earth. There is heavy frost on the inside of the tent, a sign of intense cold outside. We switched over to Central Time this evening.
Hugh and I relaxed together after the long day. Our favorite time of the day is evening tea, when we get settled in. We chat, as usual, about the dogs. On expeditions like this, dogs are the central conversation currency. At any informal team gathering, they are the centerpiece of our discussions. Dogsled expeditions are a society in themselves. The individual people and the 31 dogs interact within each other.
It was sure great to get moving again. We’ve had to sit out four of the last eight days. It now seems to be typical post-blizzard weather, clear, cold and stable, some winds during the day. The only thing different is that we are getting southwest winds again. I’ve never seen such continual southwest winds in the winter. When the weather changes, I always thing the winds will return to the prevailing northwest, but it keeps returning to the southwest. This is perfectly fine with us, because the wind is at our backs. There are no weather records for this region, so no one knows for sure what the prevailing winds are, though they should be from the northwest and southeast. We got in trouble a few days back in the storm when we aligned our tent to the southwest and northeast. And the standard blizzard came in from the northwest, hitting us broadside. Last night we aligned the tent to the southwest and northeast, and then used guylines on the sides to protect us in case things turned normal again.
Crossing Antarctica, Will Steger's book on the 1989-90 expedition.
Reprinted in January, 2010 & offered exclusively on willsteger.com
Get your SIGNED copy today.
Lunch break is no picnic in Antarctica
during a 56-day storm on the Antarctic
This full size, museum quality poster is available
exclusively on willsteger.com
Get your SIGNED copy today.
Will Steger Foundation
The Will Steger Foundation seeks to inspire and be a catalyst for international environmental leadership to stop global warming through exploration, education and action.