Notes from a cold water swimmer
I’ll slip out of the ice, into the dry air, and my skin will feel aglow. A rush of pleasure will tumble across my body. The pain of the cold will disappear. By Jessica J. Lee.
This is my second visit to Andy. Last spring I looked after his house and his dogs because he had to travel to Whitehorse in Canada for a meeting. That’s one of the prices you pay for the freedom of living in the remote Alaska wilderness. You always need someone to look after your animals and make sure the house doesn’t freeze in winter.
And the winter is famously long in Alaska – at least six months.
In October, when the deep frost sets in and the first snow stays put, your preparations for the darker season must already be complete: the salmon caught, hopefully the moose shot, freezer bags with portions of meat, dried vegetables and preserved berries stacked up in the storeroom. And the firewood outside the cabin needs to last a few weeks. Until the river finally freezes over, a small bush plane is your only connection to the outside world.
Andy likes the seclusion. Years ago he left the American East Coast for Alaska, dropping out. Since 2008 he has been living in the Yukon on forty acres of land he bought from a First Nations native. There are no connections by road and no running water, apart from the Yukon River itself. Solar panels, a windmill and – in winter – a generator provide electricity. Andy is self-reliant through and through.
‚I like the fact that all my food pretty much comes from the land around here, except for Nacho chips.‘, he jokes. ‚If I could figure out how to grow Nacho chips, I’d be set. I’d be 100% self-sufficient, I’d have my tomatoes, I’d have my onions and I’d have my peppers. And I’d have my Nacho chips and my beer. And I’d be pretty happy.‘
I got to know Andy in 2012, quite by chance. It was July, and I had just landed my birch-bark canoe on his property while on my way to the Bering Sea. I gladly accepted his invitation to a salmon supper, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. In summer, vegetables grow in his garden: cabbage, romanesco broccoli, beans and carrots, while in the greenhouse next to it he cultivates tomatoes and paprika. 80% of his food he gets from here, or from hunting and fishing. He needs salmon not just for himself, but primarily for his dogs.
Eleven Alaskan huskies live behind the wooden house, which he built himself.
In winter Andy takes them across the frozen Yukon River and keeps the trail for the legendary Yukon Quest dog-sled race between Whitehorse and Fairbanks clear.
‚The identity of Alaska is this way of living. It’s a frontier pioneer vision,‘ comments the fifty-seven-year-old, not without a certain pride in his voice. ‚When people think of Alaska, they think about people living out in the wilderness environment, hunting, trapping, fishing, taking care of themselves, feeding themselves. And that identity is gonna be gone when people no longer live in this life-style. We’re kind of an endangered species now up here.‘ That might sound like a joke, but it’s serious. ‚There are very few young people that have chosen this lifestyle. And I really have a lot of concerns that this lifestyle’s going to go away, the knowledge that you need to live this life-style is going away. And the drive that you need to live this life-style is going away in people. And I think society’s gonna lose a lot when we lose the ability for people to flourish in this environment.‘
I have long been fascinated by this way of life, probably since I watched The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams on TV in the late 1970s, about Grizzly Adams and his half-tame brown bear Ben. I was lured by the romance of the log cabin. Back then, at eleven years old, I had no idea how much effort living in the wilderness actually was, and what deprivations one had to endure. Nor did I realise how liberating it could be.
Now, for a solid two weeks, I have the chance to glimpse what this way of life entails. Andy has to attend a committee meeting to discuss the regulation of salmon migration in the Yukon. We don’t get much time to chat, as the very next morning Andy is flying to Eagle with Gary, and from there via Fairbanks further into the Canadian territory of the Yukon.
The almost eighty-year-old pilot, who also took me the brief stretch across the still partly open Yukon to Andy’s property on Calico Bluff, seems sprightlier than his machine, which is half his age. The small blue Piper plane nonetheless defies even the coldest temperatures, and until the Yukon River freezes over properly in the winter – at the moment still mild – it and Gary remain the only connection to the outside world.
* * *
It’s nearly eight a.m. when I wake up. Outside everything is still pitch black. Once my eyes adjust to the darkness, I can make out the outline of the firs and mountain ridges on the other side of the Yukon through the window, illuminated by the pale light of the moon. I clamber out of my sleeping back, slip into my fleece-lined trousers and shuffle downstairs to the ground floor with my headlamp.
Andy’s cabin has two rooms on the lower storey: the living room, which was added later, contains a worn two-seater sofa and a battered recliner in which Andy tends to enjoy his morning coffee and listen to the radio, assuming the reception is halfway decent. In one corner is a round desk, twelve containers with screw-on lids from the hardware store stacked beside it, which he has filled with Yukon water – after having knocked a hole in the ice. On the wall hangs a cabinet he built himself with an extensive collection of guns, all different calibres, for hunting or to drive off the hungry bears who encroach on his cabin in spring. Below it, on the right, are two bottles of self-brewed beer, which he most looks forward to after a long, hard day’s work in the summertime. The room is rounded off by an enormous cast-iron oven. When it gets really cold outside, Andy has to light it – otherwise the main oven in the kitchen next-door is usually enough.
I look at the thermometer in front of the window. It’s minus ten degrees Fahrenheit, which is only minus twenty-three degrees Celsius.
It’s actually quite warm for a region where temperatures in the winter regularly sink to minus forty degrees or below. Still, I pile a couple of logs on the fire. When I got on the plane in Germany the day before yesterday, my body had got used to temperatures in the double digits, so I need a while to adjust. First coffee, I think.
Normally Andy drips hot water through a filter directly into a thermos, but for me he has provided an electric coffee maker. I switch on the water pump, drawing enough for eight cups from the bucket underneath the sink, where there is a hose. It might take a little more effort, but even in the bush you don’t have to go without the comforts of civilisation. Even TV and internet are available thanks to satellite technology, although the connection reaches – at best – antiquated ISDN speeds and is obscenely expensive.
While the coffee percolates, I pull on my down jacket and trudge the twenty odd metres through the snow to one of Alaska’s legendary outhouses. Andy has insulated the seat with a thick layer of Styrofoam, which proves surprisingly warm. And if you’re taking a little longer, there’s plenty of reading matter to distract you. Or the view over the majestic Calico Bluff, which rises abruptly above the Yukon not far from Andy’s property. I have to get out of the habit of throwing the toilet paper into the pit, or it would quickly start to fill up. There’s a small bucket nearby for that purpose. When it fills up, its contents – along with all the other rubbish – is burned in a rusty metal drum.
The dogs are rattling their chains in the yard as I make my way back to the house. They know it’s time for me to take one of them into the house, where it’ll be allowed to warm up with Solo, the elderly husky. Their eyes glitter in the light of my headlamp as I approach.
All of them have woken up by now, and they’re trotting towards me, wagging their tails in excitement, until the chains stop them going any further and they try to attract my attention by whining, howling and barking. Today it’s Iceberg’s turn, a snow-white dog and Andy’s best lead dog, even since losing an eye during a tussle last winter.
I remove the carabiner from his collar, and Iceberg sprints onto the porch in friendly anticipation of the oven’s warmth and the affection with which he knows he’s about to be spoiled. Breakfast is granola for me and dog food with a ladleful of hot water for the animals. Then it’s poop-scooping time. I pick up my bucket and shovel, gathering up the frozen poop and depositing it onto an ever-growing heap a little way away from the property. If you want to mush – to explore the wintery expanses of Alaska with the huskies – you’ve got to put up with the less glamorous bits.
I definitely get the impression that as a musher you’re primarily a farmer, rather than an adventurer or sportsman.
Looking after the animals demands similar discipline to being a dairy farmer, where the cows generally take priority. Here it’s the dogs. And dealing with everything that living off grid entails.
My next task takes me to the ‚power shack‘, where Andy has hooked up his batteries. They generate power for the main house and the electric tools scattered on a work bench in the same shack. Andy uses them to craft river gravel and antlers into ornaments that he sells every now and then, but mostly gives to his guests. I check the batteries‘ charge, which has fallen significantly over the last two days. After a few attempts the small portable generator stutters into life. Over the next few hours it will turn unleaded gasoline into kilowatts. It connects to a mini fan heater that prevents the vegetable root cellar in Andy’s new house from freezing. In the pantry are large plastic bags full of potatoes and turnips.
The new house is about a hundred metres away from the old one, and it will be completed by next winter, with more space and – most importantly – an elaborate, European-style tiled stove which will use the firewood more efficiently than the cast-iron dinosaur in the old cabin. I relight the fire in the small stove in the shed: the batteries mustn’t be exposed to the cold for too long, otherwise they lose their capacity to charge and thus eventually stop working.
By now the sun has risen. Its rays tinge the snow-covered slopes on the other side of the Yukon with a deceptively warm-looking shade of orange.
Here on the south side, it won’t put in an appearance until March. I start up the snowmobile – the woodpile is dwindling rapidly, but in the forest and on the riverbank there’s plenty more.
It takes a while to get used to the chain saw, but by the end I feel like a hunter after every excursion, bringing his prey back home.
Except it’s not moose, caribou or snow grouse but fir, aspen and birch that I bring back, in foot-long pieces that I split and distribute between the piles in the house, shed and sauna. There, in the smallest log cabin on the property, I’m going to stoke a fire in the stove at the end of the day, heating up the air and water and having an invigorating wash from a bucket. But while it’s still light, the dogs take priority…
* * *
This is probably down to my painfully obvious ‚rookie‘ status. Rookies, newcomers to dog-sled racing, are called that because it’s their first time rather than because they don’t have a clue what they’re doing. Like me. Turns out it’s not quite as easy as simply getting on and setting off.
This notion is every bit as naive as the idea that I could reach the Bering Sea unscathed in a birch-bark canoe. On that trip I narrowly avoided complete disaster on the second day, when the boat smashed on the rocks during a storm. I managed to get it repaired, but after that I had to patch over leaks almost every other day. Still, the canoe held, carrying me more than 3,000 kilometres down the Yukon, through Canada and Alaska. My experience with the dog sled isn’t quite in the same category – it’s no epic journey through the wilderness, though that’s high up on my bucket list.
I harness five dogs to the sled for my first training run. White-furred Iceberg and reddish Kugeran are the leaders, while black-furred Gambo is in swing position directly behind them, and the wheeldogs are the tireless Dickel and Brigus. This first team not only harmonises well but is strong and – very importantly – they’re halfway reliable about listening to the commands ‚Gee!‘ for right, ‚Haw!‘ for left, ‚Easy!‘ for slowing down and ‚Whoa!‘ for stopping, even when I’m the one giving them. Team 2 consists of Topaz in the lead – small, bustling and communicative, and the only lady in the kennel – the shy giant Fogo – it’s always an effort to drag him over to the sled, because he so hates being harnessed to it – the sneaky Carboneer, who takes every opportunity to dash off in an attempt to wriggle out of pulling the sled, and the father-son team Shilling and Jack, who work away like clockwork as wheeldogs, right in front of the sled.
Nonetheless, this team soon descends into chaos.
Because when it comes down to it, they all do whatever they want, no matter how many times I yell my commands or even point in the right direction with an outstretched arm. Sometimes I’m downright hoarse with the effort, even after a brief half-hour trip round the lake, convinced that the right persuasion – or possibly just very loud persuasion – will have the desired effect sooner or later. Often, however, I have to get off, disentangle the dogs – who by that point have got their tuglines hopelessly twisted together by randomly and continually changing direction for no reason – and put Topaz back on the right track. When she gives me a questioning look with her steel-blue eyes, all my rancour melts away like snow in the spring sunlight. The lady’s weapons…
It’s not just controlling the huskies that has a steep learning curve, but handling the sled as well. Simply holding on tight isn’t enough, as I discovered after having taking a few tumbles in the spring. In which case holding on tight is the only guarantee you’ll get the dogs to stop. Calling out, no matter how panickedly or imperiously, won’t make the slightest difference to them so long as they can hear the sled dragging along behind them on its runners, with or without anyone on board.
The animals seem to be aware that when they stop of their own accord, the sled rams right into the wheeldogs‘ legs.
That’s not only painful but can lead to terrible injuries. So it’s better for them to keep running until the sled tips over and gets stuck somewhere. As a musher you can’t just stand there all relaxed – you have to keep a watchful eye on the trail, noticing uneven patches, braking in time for curves, bending the knees down and shifting your weight. It reminded me of skiers in the Alps, who are also constantly shifting from ski to ski, lifting or adding pressure depending on the direction.
As the Yukon hasn’t yet properly and evenly frozen over, at first I have to limit the training run to two lakes behind the house. Alternatively I follow a narrow, curving path that Andy cut through the woods and over a hilltop to Seventymile River. And this is where it happens. At first I manage to regulate the speed, using snow and ice brakes, but I don’t notice a bump in the ground and the sled jerks off track. We slam head-on into a ten-centimetre-thick fir tree.
The force created by the running dogs‘ momentum makes the bumper on the sled crack, and the tree actually buries itself half a metre into the plastic foot boards, which is fragile at the best of times. Suddenly we’re at a standstill. My team stares at me, perplexed, and I at them. None of us is hurt, but the sled’s a lost cause. I have to undo the dogs‘ tuglines before I can free the sled. Then I re-harness the huskies and hope the remainder of the foot boards will last another few kilometres. Panting heavily, we make the return journey somewhat abashed and twice as careful, as ahead of us lies another hazardously steep descent.
Still, the next day I’m back on the same trail with a replacement sled, hoping to leave the trauma behind me just as quickly. When I tell Andy about my little accident by email, he reassures me. It’s all part of mushing, and he’s been wanting to get a new sled for a while now anyway.
As a human being you’ll never be fully in control, and that’s part of the fascination of riding through the winter wilderness with dogs.
* * *
Shortly before four o’clock in the afternoon, it’s already dark outside. I’m typing these lines on my laptop in the light of my headlamp. If you’re producing electricity in the dead of winter with a tiny generator, you learn to economise where you can. Outside the dogs are howling. Frankly I’d like to join in. The heavy snow clouds have dispersed, and the moon – nearly full – is now shining down again over the white landscape. The temperature has fallen by ten degrees in only a few hours. The thermometer is telling me it’s minus twenty degrees Celsius. Today I’ve chopped wood, swept corner to corner, done the washing up and tipped the organic waste onto the compost heap; tomorrow I’ll chuck the toilet bucket and the bag with the combustible rubbish into the rusty metal drum. When Andy gets back he’ll set its contents alight. That’s waste disposal in Alaska.
Seeing the Northern Lights dancing in the sky that night makes saying goodbye even harder.
After two weeks alone in the Arctic wilderness, I’m nearing the end of my stay. Once again, as when I’m travelling by bike or canoe, I feel that paring down my everyday routine to the essentials is what fascinates me about this life. You don’t need any ’simplify‘ slogans to appreciate how much simplicity slows things down, and that although high-tech achievements may superficially have made our lives more comfortable, they don’t necessarily make us feel more fulfilled. Maybe that’s why so many people, tired of civilisation, make their way into the wilderness, even if just for a brief moment.
So I trudge back into the dark, take five dried chum salmon that Andy caught in the Yukon from the rack and feed them to the dogs. Each gets half, and I get a quarter, fried on the gas stove in a cast-iron pan.
The winter’s been mild so far, they’re saying. But tonight the temperature could tumble to below thirty degrees. Too cold for the bush plane that’s supposed to take me from Eagle back to Fairbanks and civilisation tomorrow. I hope …
Today is the shortest day of the year, the longest night. The solstice, although not much can be seen of it here in the Yukon. The snowy peaks on the other side of the river were lit up for a few hours, but from 3pm onwards the icy night unfurled again over the land.
Then the magical performance begins.
With green, red and purple veils, the Northern Lights dance noiselessly across the starry sky, mixing with the garish brightness of the half moon. ‚Wow …‘ I stutter into the silence, breaking off immediately. It’s indescribable, I think, and stand there quietly, bewitched and awed.
The camera clicks away on the tripod at regular intervals – my attempt to capture the magic. But I’m going to fail miserably. The experience of this moment alone in the bitter cold, surrounded by nothing but snow, ice and an infinity of twinkling stars, is impossible to record.
* * *