Excerpt from Kinds of Winter: Four Solo Journeys by Dogteam in Canada’s Northwest Territories by Dave Olesen
I was getting out there again. We had left the home watershed behind, and the familiar trails leading up it, and the little bastion of coziness at Maufelly Bay. From my journal:
“My world has narrowed to the contents of my sled, these ten dogs, my clothing and the things I always carry in my pockets—matches, knife, pliers, cord . . . Strip all of it away and I would die almost instantly. The cold and the vastness together would do me in. My caches are miles apart. I creep carefully, cautiously, from one to the next. An odd sensation like vertigo sweeps over me at times, in my mind and the pit of my stomach, and I have to breathe deeply and muster my resolve. The feeling is similar to an unnerving sensation I sometimes conjure up when I am flying the Husky: suddenly I see myself all alone—the plane and its engine have vanished. It is just me up there, strapped into my tiny chair, suspended a mile or more above the earth.”
My lead dog Steve had been favouring his right wrist since our midday break just north of Fletcher. In camp that night I heated some Algavyl salve and rubbed it in, then wrapped his wrist and lower leg with a neoprene brace. The pungent smell of the liniment flooded my mind with memories of the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest races. I imagine it did the same for Steve, B.J., and Murphy, who were the only race veterans in that team of ten dogs. Since we were not racing, I was free to treat Steve with aspirin, and I gave him a coated 325 milligram tablet. By the next morning he was still favouring the wrist slightly, but he was putting a little weight on it again.
Taken together, Steve’s bum wrist and the weather seemed to call for a rest day. It was day six of the trip and we were about a hundred miles out from home. In my journal I recorded the morning weather, and although it looked harmless enough when written down, there was something about it I did not trust: minus 20 degrees, very light snow, visibility four or five miles, the sky overcast at about 400 feet, and a light breeze from the east. I had no barometer, but I guessed that the pressure was rapidly falling. Something was going to happen.
The book will not be “it” anyway. “It” is the trips themselves, and my belief in the importance of them. “It” is Robert Lake, the Noman portage, 46 below at the Thelon cache, frozen dog dicks and frozen toes, the surprise of a mild February day way up on the Back River, our arrival at Moraine Point . . . “It” is the country deep down, felt and seen and slept with, mile by mile, by dogtrot and snowshoe step. The landscape is a part of me now in a way that it was not a part of me four years ago. “It” is that visceral connection, beyond the realm of language.
Lines of caribou trails in snow dropped down from the steep prow of Gibraltar Point; “More a place for mountain goats than caribou,” I remarked to the dogs. We had not crossed a caribou track since our passage down McLeod Bay on that first evening of the trip. By late afternoon we had picked up the traces of our outbound trail from that first night’s run. The dogs clearly knew we were coming into the home stretch. A few hundred yards ahead of the lead dogs a wolverine loped across the ice, making as close to a flat-out sprint for safety as a wolverine can muster. We were no threat to it, but Spruce was eager to veer off and give chase. The long patch of glare ice abeam Shelter Point was still polished smooth. Ernie, the only dog in the team who was wearing booties that day, started to slip and skid wildly. I stopped and took his booties off, giving him back the use of his toenails for traction. “Feet heal faster than shoulders,” as old Ray Gordon had once reminded me during a race.
That evening, rolling down the shore between Shelter Bay and Sentinel Point, the day’s mild air gradually cooled as the shadow of the high cliffs fell over us. With the dogs still moving gracefully, almost effortlessly, a light north breeze puffing up, caribou and wolf tracks here and there . . . I wanted it never to end. A voice in my mind asked, “Please can I just do this—this right now—forever? And never have to submit an amendment to an airplane maintenance schedule or pay my bills or buy groceries or consider what I am going to do when I am old and can’t do this anymore? Can’t we just run and run and then, in one perfect moment, like Mallory on the shoulder of Everest, just vanish forever into this cold clean air?” Long pause. “Nope. You can’t. You have to go in. Hell, let’s face it Olesen, you want to go in.”