Welcome To Hell
(Above: The team stopped for a break in the BWCAW)
It was fifteen below (Fahrenheit) this morning. Typical, even mild, by Minnesota standards but a bit colder than we’ve had in a while.
I relished it.
“How does running up to 100 miles a day across treacherous ice, through biting winds and blinding snowstorms, and in subzero temperatures sound?” Michelle Feinberg wrote last month in an anti-sled dog piece for a People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) website.
Been there, done that. Sounds kind of normal, to be honest, and gives me flashbacks to the UP 200. But then, my sense of normal has always been a bit skewed and, as I love to say, my life is not normal.
Michelle goes on to add “I think it sounds like hell - cold hell.”
Now I don’t know Michelle and, although we come from very different philosophies and I’m no fan of PETA as an organization, I am a proponent of treating animals ethically, so we have common ground there. I’d be happy to introduce her to the world of sled dogs that I know, which I’m is very different than what I gather she’s read. I’m also going to bet, from her writing, that she’s never experienced true cold.
I doubt Michelle has run any miles, much less a hundred, behind a team of dogs whose response to subzero gusts of swirling snow isn’t to balk but instead charge forward with enthusiasm and glee. I doubt she has ever felt ice frosting on her eyelashes or sat with a team of sled dogs while the aurora borealis dances on one horizon and the moon rises on another, their breath fogging into a small cloud under stars so bright they seem threatening.
I doubt she knows that snow smells different depending on the temperature or that snow at zero degrees has a completely different feel and consistency than snow at freezing - so much so that it hardly counts as the same thing at all. I doubt that she’s seen snow materialize out of the air on a clear night or seen the sun circled by a rainbow refracting from ice crystals. I doubt that she has spent hours nestled in a straw nest with her dog team, massaging their legs and muscles with rosemary oil, wind chapping her bare hands since this is a task that doesn’t lend itself to gloves.
I doubt she has ever seen sled dogs first-hand, much less as they delight in running - leaping and barking at the start of a run or race, still leaping and barking a hundred miles or more later during a stop, demanding to know why we are stopped. I doubt she has stood with her foot on the drag brake of a sled for hours just to keep the team from going too fast, the spray of snow from the drag gradually coating her boots.
Have you ever thrown boiling water into the air and watched it vaporize before it hits the ground? Have you ever watched ravens fly on the most brutal of winds, as if it were the most fun they could ever hope to have? Have you ever sung to your dogs on a day where even the sun doesn’t warm the land? Have you ever seen dogs oblivious to the cold run and play or witnessed how much more excited they are to run on a sled team when it is approaching zero? Pulling a sled, far from cruelty, comes as naturally to them as their odd howl-barks that sound more like yodeling than “normal” dog noises.
Frozen hair, clouds of breath, the hot snuff of a dog’s muzzle on your cheek, the entire world coated in crystalline cold. You may call it Hell but we call it home and it’s where we thrive.
Whenever I try to describe how a deep freeze feels, I always come up short. It’s hard to describe, but it’s hard to describe in a good way.
Growing up in the muggy Southeast, the idea of true cold was a foreign concept, one that my friends and relatives there still have difficulty grasping. Why would I purposefully move to the subarctic wilderness to live my life and why would I purposefully go out into it again and again.
Cold can be scary to those unfamiliar with it, who don’t know how to deal with it. It’s something strange and bizarre, something to be respected but it’s also inexplicably beautiful and being out in it is an incredible experience.
If you are a husky then you, like your wild wolf cousins, are physically built to not only withstand the harshest of Winter conditions but to thrive in them. You have a thick double coat - the woolly undercoat insulates and the sleek outer coat deflects wind, snow and moisture, not to mention a tail you can drape over your nose while resting.
For those of us who aren’t huskies, however, it is still possible to dress for such cold weather - Northern peoples have been doing it for centuries. Inuit and Yup’ik anoraks, mukluks and parkas are still some of the warmest clothing and even some of the more modern arctic gear is modeled off these traditional garments.
But it’s not just about what jacket or boots you have, dressing for the cold involves learning how and where to layer and what to layer with. Terms like “wristies” and “neck gaiters”, which mean nothing to many people, become household words for essential pieces of gear that you wouldn’t dream of venturing into the cold without. Tiny things like this can completely change the cold weather experience.
Do we still feel the cold? Yes, of course we do! Much moreso than the dogs. For us, warm is relative but it’s worth it for the experience of being out in the cold with said dogs.
Of course it was the dogs that drew me here - the amazing, wonderful huskies that I love and which my life circles around. As I write this, two of them (Wizard and Poe, to be specific) are snuggled up next to me, fast asleep. My little cold weather-loving friends who practically embody the spirit of the cold.
Our subzero playground might sound like cold hell but, for us, it’s another day in frozen paradise.