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 Just like that, my passport to the land of the healthy was revoked.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.”

First published in the September 2013 issue

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