Part I: Cold Feet
The first thing I noticed upon stepping out of the car was the lack of snow. Minnesota, particularly Northern Minnesota, should have more snow than this. A few inches at most lay on the ground, but certainly no more. I wondered if the sleds could travel with almost no snow. I had seen wheeled carts on which people train their dogs, but I figured they would probably be difficult to control on the trails. Besides, what if it snowed once we left? It was unlikely carts could travel with much snow on the ground.
The lack of snow certainly had nothing to do with the temperature. It was well below freezing when we arrived. Ely, Minnesota, was very, very cold.
First thing, I was issued gear. I stood shivering outside a wooden shack with clouded breath and ringing hands while pieces of equipment were tossed out the door and onto the frozen ground. As I picked them up and crammed them into my backpack, I took particular notice of the things that were going to make camping in a Northwoods winter survivable. One thick synthetic sleeping bag with a down liner, one metal sierra mug, one spoon, a journal, a whistle, and one water bottle. That was it. I expected more. After all, I would be outside, and it was very cold. There was no special-this or emergency-that to keep me warm and safe in the event of a mishap. I routinely carried more than this on summer hikes. This was a dogsleding trip, and I would be traveling over frozen ground and water, in freezing winds. I had just arrived here with five others to be trained as outdoor expedition leaders, and already I was nervous.
After packing our backpacks, the six of us were led to the bank of a frozen river where we crouched in a patch of snow. Here we received a lecture on ice safety. We were given the basics on how to judge the strength of the ice on which we would be traveling, and it was explained what would be done should someone plunge through. What a horrid thought. Being immersed in such cold water in this weather was unthinkable. I sat shivering on the bank of the river and decided that I would concentrate more on prevention than rescue. However, it was then that our instructors called our attention to a hole in the ice in the river that ran before us. Our first task as a group was to decide who would go through that hole in order to practice a rescue.
Our entire group stood silent, faces ashen. I assumed everyone, like myself, was racking their brains for some medical condition that might preclude them from stepping forward. No man could possibly subject himself to such an abominable submersion. One of the women stepped forward.
The rest of us exhaled and smiled, patting her on the back and congratulating her on such selfless bravery and valour. She had volunteered and there was no way in hell we were going to allow her to back out now.
Four sleeping bags were zipped together so that our victim and a few members of the group could dive inside after her submersion to help keep her body temperature at a safe level. This was how we were to react should this really happen on the expedition. She was given some raggedy old clothes to change into for the purpose of this drill, and with a rope tied around her waist for safety she shuffled out onto the ice. From the shore she looked like a suicidal hobo standing at the edge of a navy blue hole of churning freezing water. Without a sound she closed her eyes, pinched her nose and splashed feet first. The expression on her face surging from beneath the surface of the water remained in my thoughts for the duration of the trip.
In Part II, I meet the dogs who will be pulling the sleds across the frozen lakes and snowy trails that lie ahead.
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For further reading on arctic explorers, I recommend the following:
Lansing, Alfred (2001). Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.