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

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.

First published in the September 2013 issue

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