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 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.

First published in the September 2013 issue

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