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.
A Great 40-Below Day
The day was cold, calm and clear. It was minus 37 when we packed up in the morning, and minus 40 and dropping fast when we made camp. Cold is a relative term in the arctic. Today was actually one of the most pleasant days we’ve had so far, thank to no wind. There is a spiritual boost on these clear arctic days. If if the sun produces no heat, its brightness illuminates the cold. And with the high pressure from the cold, the air is definitely charged.
We were all vigorously active yesterday, pushing heavy sleds up steep slopes, breathing deeply. It was the best everyone has felt so far. When the wind isn’t blowing, it is very easy to regulate your clothing, to vent off excess heat when active, and zipping up to warm during periods of inactivity. During strong winds, this isn’t so. Burst of exercise produce heat, but removing layers isn’t an option when is windy, because the driving cold makes it almost mandatory to stay zipped, or else there are cold consequences. Above all, you don’t want your body to rapidly fluctuate, from sweating hot to cold chills. This will wear your body down fast, and long periods of this teeter-tottering activity can make you sick. But today there was no wind, and no sweat, and we kept our body and energy in equilibrium, despite the strenuous work.
On clear days like this, there is also an added one hour of light on each side of sunrise and sunset. The sun isn’t rising all that much earlier than a few weeks ago, but what is noticeable are the longer twilights, which are lost on cloudy days. So today was a great minus 40 day in the arctic for us. We are always thankful when the wind doesn’t blow, and clear skies are a bonus on top of that.
Signs of Minus 50
It was minus 48 degrees, under clear, calm skies when we broke camp. We were high on a 600-foot knoll overlooking the Great Slave Lake. It was a voyageur view, looking northwest. High country and big lakes that seemed to go on forever. Our intimate surrounding resemble high alpine country. Dwarfed spruce that dwindle in numbers, giving way to barren summits. This high country glowed red in the morning sun, as we mushed out in deep snow. The valleys below were grey-white and cold. Fog hung in the steep gorges, a testament to water open flowing, pumping out steam into the frigid arctic dawn.
As we descended into one of these hovels, the sun set again behind steep granite walls, and the temperatures dropped further. We were warm and comfortable, a typical arctic paradox, for wrestling sleds uphill kept warm blood pumping to our limbs. We all gave thanks for the clear day, and that there was no wind, and that we could see the valleys around us. Whiteout conditions would have snuffed this glad spirit of the day.
There are certain signs, not so subtle, when the temperature is in the minus 40’s, inching towards the minus 50’s. In the tent that evening, my usual job of starting the stove was the obvious giveaway. I handles the one-liter aluminum fuel bottle with bare hands, and also pumped the metal stove without mittens. But this time my fingers burned when I picked up the fuel bottle, similar to the feeling of touching dry ice. Likewise, this cause my hands to recoil, and I shook my arms to get warm blood flowing to the fingers. I ended up putting on five-fingered gloves, a painful maneuver at first because the fabric was at minus 40, and it caused my fingers to sting. But these are just minor inconveniences, reminders of the environment we are traveling in.
A quarter pound block of butter snaps when it is cut by a knife at 40 below. If it breaks with a concoidal fracture, it means it is near minus 50. During the day, when we descended into the shadowed valleys, our eyelashes began to freeze. The moisture around the eyes can freeze the lashes shut. Often, at 50 below, it is necessary to heat the lashes with bare fingers, in order to open the eyes.
On calm days like today, the heat from our bodies and the dogs leave a trail of vapor behind. Thick vapor trails at the bottom of steep hills tell of intense exhaustion, of pushing sleds in the deep, calm cold. We traveled today in a world of splendor.