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

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.

First published in the September 2013 issue

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