Call of the Wild: A Trip of a Lifetime

After a year from hell, Peggy Orenstein rejoiced in the bracing cold of the Arctic, the furry warmth of her sled dogs and the chance to come to terms with the body that had betrayed her

by Peggy Orenstein
peggy orenstein dogsledding image
Leader of the Pack: Peggy Orenstein, in front, rushes through the wintry landscape.
Photograph: Michael Todd

Nico Hobi, a sharp-eyed, deeply dimpled 34-year-old Swiss man, peered at me. “Will you take an ice bath?” he asked expectantly. I’d just traveled for two days from California to Finland’s slice of the Arctic Circle, lugging my suitcase the last quarter mile through snowdrifts and subzero temperatures. This was to be my last night in civilization—a cozy inn—before a five-day dogsledding expedition through Pallas Ylläs National Park. After that I’d be sharing a one-room cabin, lacking heat and running water, with seven strangers, including Nico and his perpetually amused wife, Michaela. The weather report predicted record cold. An ice bath—whatever that was—was the last thing on my to-do list. “After the sauna,” Nico persisted in clipped, Swiss-German-accented English. “Will you take a bath in a hole in the ice in the lake?”

Michaela laughed. “He’s joking,” she said. Nico only nodded. “I will dig a hole, and you will see,” he said. “You will take an ice bath.” This was not the first time—and would not be the last—that I wondered what I was doing here.

Six months earlier, I had weathered a different sort of extreme: lying in an intensive care unit recovering from a mastectomy after a return of breast cancer. I had first been diagnosed and treated at age 35; by 50, recurrence free, I figured I had it beat. Then one evening my fingers grazed a small, hard knot under my lumpectomy scar. Just like that, my passport to the land of the healthy was revoked. In most cases, you can’t have radiation to the same body part twice, so though my tumor was low grade and small and I would almost surely survive it, the whole breast had to go. My doc sculpted a new one out of my abdominal fat, essentially giving me a tummy tuck in the process (now aren’t you jealous?). The downside was a grueling double surgery—eight hours under the knife—followed by a long, slow recovery. A month after leaving the hospital, I couldn’t stand up straight. Two months after, a walk around the block left me gasping for breath. The idea of dogsledding in the Arctic Circle seemed preposterous; it was also, on my darkest days—when my energy ran low and my terror ran high—a hope I could cling to.

Markku and Mari Rauhala, the owners of Pallas Husky, gathered our group after breakfast: There were Nico and Michaela; a pair of 27-year-old German PhD candidates in physics (whose habit of explaining the mechanics of virtually everything earned them the nickname “the Einstein brothers”); a photographer in his late thirties based in Los Angeles; and an Australian architect in his fifties. There was also Margarete, another German, who was 70. At least, I thought selfishly, I won’t be the weakest on the trip. In my woolen long underwear, fleece pants and hoodie, down jacket, two pairs of socks, gloves, scarf, neoprene balaclava and goggles, I looked like the love child of a ninja warrior and the Pillsbury Doughboy. Yet I could already feel the cold seeping in. At the Rauhalas’ farm we added bib overalls, anoraks, fur-lined caps with earflaps, clunky polar boots and leather driving mittens that looked like oven mitts. When I stepped outside again, the day felt almost balmy. I recalled my childhood in Minnesota, with a climate not unlike Finland’s—one, incidentally, I’d eagerly left behind—when my mom bundled me in so many layers that I was red-faced and sweating by the time I left the house. Dressed like that, I could play in the snow for hours. And I did, making forts, snowmen, stockpiles of snowballs and fields of angels.

Markku showed us our sleds, simple birch contraptions with boatlike prows and runners about two thirds the width of my boots. There were two foot-operated brakes: a metal bar with claws that dug into the snow, stopping the dogs immediately, and a flat pan we could step on to slow them down. We’d each have our own team of five. Everything else, Markku said, we could pick up as we went along. “Um,” someone asked, “how do we steer?” Finnish is an uninflected language that makes anything Finns say in English sound vaguely ironic. So it was unclear to me whether Markku intended to be quite so deadpan when he answered, “You don’t.”

I’d expected sled dogs to have a touch of the wolf in them, but my lead pooch, Bambi, looked at me with the melting brown eyes of her namesake and immediately tried to crawl into my lap. Her daughter, Ninni (named after a character in a Finnish children’s book), was equally sweet. All the dogs were, instantly forgiving me for jamming their harnesses on upside down or mercilessly torquing their paws as I tried to hook them to the sled. The howling of some 40 dogs eager to run spiraled from din to pandemonium. They didn’t even sound like dogs: They screamed like monkeys, yowled like cats, shrieked like parrots. Their energy built like fizz in a fast-shaken can of soda. I began to worry about what would happen when it was released.

At last I stood on my runners, one foot planted on the main brake. Markku took off first, followed by Margarete and one of the Einstein brothers. I was next. Mari, standing a short distance from me, called out one last piece of advice in that laconic Finnish intonation: “Hold on with both hands!” 

For years I had thought of myself as a Weeble, one of those roly-poly children’s toys that “wobble but they don’t fall down.” I had, after all, survived breast cancer in my thirties, an age when it tends to be especially deadly; after three miscarriages and six years of infertility, I got pregnant in my forties with my daughter. There were other crises, too, of the heart and the head as well as the body—how could there not be after five decades of living?—but they didn’t define me. I’d always popped up fine. Yet lately, incrementally, I had begun to feel defective, emotionally diminished rather than strengthened by trauma, in danger of becoming the sum of my pain. Had that happened after this latest bout of cancer or before? I couldn’t say. But I felt cleaved, a word that also means its opposite: cleaved to this body, whether I liked it or not, and from it by its many betrayals. I wanted to bounce back, but this time I just couldn’t.

My dogs lunged forward.The sled tipped left, listed right; I felt myself start to tumble. Then I stomped on the pan brake with one foot, and magically the team slowed. My whole body thrummed, but I stayed on the sled. The barking had stopped the second the dogs took off. Now it was quiet, the only sounds their rhythmic panting, the creak of the wooden sled, the scrape and skitter of the pan brake along the powder. I relaxed my death grip on the handlebar and looked around: at spruce trees whose needles were individually etched in crystals of ice, at birches laden so heavily with snow that they’d bent into arches over the trail. I’d heard that Eskimos have 50 words for snow and that Finns have nearly as many. I understood why. We sledded through crystallized snow and powder snow, compacted layers and snow as granular as salt.

I zoomed over moguls, catching air and momentarily taking flight. In truth, we averaged about seven miles an hour and covered up to 19 miles a day, but when you’re balanced on two thin wooden planks, trust me, that is blazing. One of my dogs, Harald, lifted his leg to pee whenever I rode the brake or neglected to help on hills by pushing with one foot. Maybe it was my imagination, but his gesture felt personal.

Too soon we pulled into our camp for the week: a cabin on a snow-covered lake with an outhouse, a wood-burning sauna and a kota—a traditional hexagonal cottage with a conical roof and a central fire pit—in which we’d eat our meals. Although we’d been out in the cold for hours, pausing only for a lunch of sausages roasted over an open fire, we now tended to the dogs’ comfort before our own. I stroked shoulders and cradled paws, cuddled Bambi, gave Ninni a belly rub. I chained each one to a little straw-filled house where they built their nightly nest. Mari, meanwhile, pulled around a sled weighed down with kibble and a barrel of broth studded with animal fat and parts I preferred not to contemplate.

Nico spied a volunteer staffer heading toward the sauna with an ice pick. There was a hole in the ice of a stream there, just wide enough for the bucket. The staffer cut it open twice a day to haul water for washing dishes and sluicing ourselves in the sauna (the nearest we’d get to bathing). Nico offered to take over, plotting to enlarge the hole so he could fit through it. The ice was nearly two feet thick. Michaela laughed at him. The rest of us did, too. Even Nico laughed. But he kept chipping away. “Now we have soup,” Mari said when the dogs were settled, as if this were normal, as if the whole world took a soup break at around 5 o’clock. Maybe they should: It turns out there is nothing so comforting or convivial. On successive days we warmed to steamy bowls of cream of mushroom, potato-leek, tomato, vegetable and ginger-carrot accompanied by tea, bread, white Finnish cheese and a little cake. We laughed and shared stories of the trail, holding our hands and stocking feet out to the fire. When Mari said it was sauna time, I hesitated. Finnish women used to give birth in saunas. There is an entire wing devoted to saunas in the country’s Parliament House. And an estimated two million private homes in a country of about five million people have them. There is even a sauna about 4,600 feet below sea level, in a Finnish metal mine. Taking a sauna was virtually obligatory for a visitor, but this would be the first time since my surgery that I’d disrobe in front of anyone but my husband and my daughter.

Dressed, I looked fine—better than fine: My new breast passed for natural, and my stomach was flatter than it had been since puberty. I may have felt lousy about myself, but I looked great. Beneath my clothes, however, a jagged purple scar slashed from hip to hip. My reconstructed belly button was ringed by scars, and another scar cupped the underside of my breast. They were the price of staying alive, and I was grateful for them, but I didn’t want to discuss them. Not even with other women. Still, I couldn’t skip such an integral part of the experience. Besides, I was freezing. On our way to the sauna building, I told Michaela and Margarete as briefly and casually as I could, precluding any pity. They were sympathetic, but that wasn’t the point: I was here to transcend the identity of illness, not confess it.

Here is what you are supposed to do in a Finnish sauna: sit on a wooden bench until the sweat cascades off you, until you are flushed and slimy and so hot that you can’t bear it any longer. So hot that you will do this mad thing: You will run outside, stark naked, and fling yourself in the snow. It is not something I imagined I would ever do—could ever do—yet with the others urging me on, I dashed outside, screaming, and flung myself face-first into a snowdrift. It was cold. Burning cold. And the snow was the texture of sandpaper. I stood up, turning toward the sauna, but Margarete stopped me. “Now on the back!” she said. So I threw myself backward, tush first. Then, laughing and still whooping, living nowhere but in that moment, I returned to the heat.

That night I dreamed my dogs were pulling my sled without harnesses—no ropes, no clips. We simply floated together, a unit, through the snowy nights and days. There was no cold. There was no heat. There was just being.

By morning the cup of water I’d left on the windowsill for toothbrushing had frozen solid. So had my toothpaste. So had my contact lenses. My camera would also freeze, as would the ink in my pens. I shimmied into an extra layer of long underwear inside my sleeping bag, then climbed out to check the thermometer; it was nine degrees in the cabin and 27 below outside. And although I had been trying to drink as little as possible, I had to pee. I steeled myself for the task by piling on pants, a jacket, a hat, mittens, socks and boots. The outhouse was a short jaunt down a snowy path: a deceptively quaint, snow-covered log structure with diamond cutouts in the door and back wall for ventilation. A Styrofoam seat covered a wooden hole—it wasn’t cold to the touch, exactly, but neither was it warm, and an Arctic breeze whooshed up from below. On my way back to the cabin, I passed Margarete, who waved cheerfully. She was wearing an undershirt and leggings—no jacket, nothing on her head or hands. I glanced down: Her feet were bare, in flip-flops.

That second day, my sled shot out from under me; I hung suspended in midair, flailing like a cartoon character, then was dumped headfirst into the snow. The dogs kept going, until Markku grabbed them. Everyone waited while, in the musher’s equivalent of the walk of shame, I struggled through the snow to fetch them back. I’d go down three times before realizing that mushing was in the legs: The trick was to go with the motion, not fight it—to dance with your dogs. We burst onto a snow-covered lake, a glittering expanse under a crystalline sky. It was spectacular, that emptiness, a vista of frozen potential. I took a deep breath. Northern Finland has some of the cleanest air in Europe; every inhale felt like a sip of springwater, delicious and pure. I’d assumed that we’d sled the same terrain every day and that, while lovely, it would get a little dull. Now we circled upward to the top of a fell—a small Finnish mountain—stopping at the edge of the tree line. Moisture in the air had condensed on the branches in layers, forming wild, Seussian phantasms: child fishing, queen in a white fur cape, flying dragons, sentinels. I would say it felt like another planet, but it didn’t, not at all. It felt, at last, as if we were in the Arctic.

My nostalgia for Rudolph aside, I’d been excited about trying reindeer meat, common in the Finnish diet, but it proved less succulent than I’d imagined. It’s a little chewy, like a lesser cut of beef, but Mari cooked it into a tasty stew. For dessert there were sour lingonberries she had picked and frozen over the summer, topped with yogurt and caramel sauce. Afterward, we duly donned our Arctic gear and trudged into the moonless night, walking single file along the trail (to avoid sinking into the snow) until we reached the lake. A faint green stripe fanned across the horizon, then changed direction and shot straight up. The northern lights. The Einstein brothers began to natter on about the science—something about collisions of gaseous particles—but I turned away. I preferred the Finnish explanation: The lights are sparks swept from the snow by the tail of a magical fox as it runs across the fells. I gazed up at the firmament, at stars brighter than any I might ever see again. There were Orion, the Big and Little Dippers. There were the Pleiades and Cassiopeia. There was the bright North Star, glittering like an icy gem, leading lost travelers home.

We mushed uphill all the next morning. On the steepest slopes I jogged behind my sled, pushing until the crest, then hopping back on before the dogs could pull off without me. I sweated through my many layers, that fresh Finnish air now searing my lungs. My arm ached from the dogs’ yanking. Harald lifted his leg. A lot. I can’t do this, I thought. It was too soon. I was too weak. I would have to quit. I focused on Margarete, straight and sinewy, two teams ahead of me. Hanging on to the pretense of youth mattered to her not at all. Her hair was white, clipped short for ease, not style; her face was lined; her teeth were yellowed. Yet she was tougher than the rest of us: the first one up every morning, the last one inside at night. Her beauty ran deep, a product of spirit, not cosmetics. And if she could do this, dang it, I could, too.

Nico’s ice bathwas ready on our last afternoon at camp. Michaela snapped pictures as he streaked to the hole. Somehow he persuaded the other men, one by one, to follow his lead. They returned to the cabin pink and swaggering, urging us ladies to give it a try. “Anyone can roll in snow,” Nico announced. “This is special.” It was 22 degrees below zero outside, but I am a sucker for a dare. So I sat in the sauna until I thought my eyeballs would blister. Then, before rationality could set in, I sprinted, naked and steaming, to the hole’s icy ledge, slipping and sliding my way in. The water was surprisingly gentle on the skin, less scratchy than snow. I dunked to my armpits, grinning crazily, desperate to get out, loving that I was in. Back in the sauna, I felt as shining and phosphorescent as the aurora itself. For months my body’s limits had defined me, but not anymore. It wasn’t that I felt invulnerable—those days are gone. But I was resilient. And in the end, isn’t that better?

Peggy Orenstein’s most recent book is Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.

Related: Peggy Orenstein's trip in photos
Related: Do You Want to Go Dogsledding?

Next: Where I Find Comfort in a Scary World

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First Published Thu, 2013-08-08 12:07

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