The winter is like the desert.
We must be strategic with water, and a smoky liter in hand is a privilege. To dig the ice hole, I walk away from camp on the frozen lake towards streaky pink clouds in the west. The ice is cut with a sharpened piece of metal attached to a rod, and I am to chip away a dinner plate sized hole. My upper back is quickly hot and buzzing by the chips of fifteen inches of winter. The ice digger could be seen on other nights as a silhouette on a vast horizon, pausing to catch her breath, stare into the hole, and wonder with a sore despair if there was really any water below. The best ice becomes clear and black, and the tapping sound changes and I feel the water at last to be close. The final stab sucks me into the lake as the rod plunges into nonresistance. I imagined that I would have to kneel and reach down into the hole to get water. Rather, the snowpack presses on the lake and water gurgles up and overflows its escape, the gurgling of emotion itself.
There is an exquisite force in downing trees, hauling trunks through the snow, and splitting wood. In hacking an ice hole with that sharpened metal rod and boiling four ashy pots of water in the evening— one for dogs, two for hot drinks, three for dinner, four for snuggle bottles to heat sleeping bags. There is force in breaking crusts of ice with skis and pounding slush off dogsled skids, in peeing crouched on a vast frozen lake, and in drying toes by the fire under stars.
The force of these activities comes from knowing that these are the simplest and most necessary ways— we must work hard and endlessly across these cold days not just for radiant warmth in fire or metabolic warmth in food, but for constant muscle warmth. The force of these activities comes from knowing that this is how humans have made it unsupported to the North Pole, to Arctic regions past the sun— not at all because they are crucially different from me, but because they have systems built in experience, and an unwavering tenacity for their chosen task.
Our two priorities upon waking are fire and water. It seemed so obvious that I wondered what sideways circumstances had led me to wake up so many mornings of my life and prioritize anything other than fire and water. We start with first breakfast— fried bread and fried meat. By this time the sun is shooting out and the air itself sparkles, as fire sparks crackle into the white sky. Dogsledding is definition magic, I decide. Leaving camp, I navigate in front with the skiers, breaking trail for the dogs and testing ice with an ax across Wood, Hula, Indiana and Basswood lakes. The snow surface is crusty and I carry a bulky pack. The day-long movement is relentless, we must stay ahead of the dogs, we must find camp before dark, we must not stop. I sense in my muscles rather than my mind that my companions need all the compassion I can give them.
Winter creeps closer to me than it has before, in part because I come from a society which seeks a certain separation from uncomfortable seasons. Ice grows on the spine of my notebook, frost on the bristles of my toothbrush, and slush in the curve of my contact lens.
I empty my cup of blood into the snow and it immediately freezes. These quiet moments of squatted solitude, so much of my skin exposed to the bitter air, my naked fingers dedicating their brief dexterity, feel less like an inconvenience and more like a profound thanksgiving— one more rhythm among rhythms and rhythms. Outward Bound is always a moving reminder of the nobility of the human spirit, but most especially of the incredible strength of adventurous women. After long days of travel, Amy walks into the dark, fells tall pines and drags them back to camp. Abby tells us stories of dogsledding to the Hudson Bay. We meet Julia, whose expedition in the Arctic ran out of food. These are the women I spent my days with. These are women as women can be. Hostile environments shift my mind to my body, and my thinking being is manifest in sensing and doing. On our fourth night we track across Manomin Lake and each settle in solitude at a spot in the woods. I have a blue tarp, twine, sleeping bags, a hand saw, matches, a small pot, and a sausage for dinner. I sit on my pack on the shoreline as the sun beams upon my full, crisp cheeks and I plan my successive warmths— sunshine, the happily arduous collection of birch and pine firewood, cooking coals, boiled snow, and finally my sleeping bags. I think no words during the night alone, and am only a body crawling from warmth to warmth. Everything is pertinent and immediate. Dave notices that the Boundary Waters give no mountains or high vistas to draw even our eyes from here. Neal says how remarkable that right here is where we can survive—should we walk a minute into the frozen lake, away from our fires and shelters, we would be done for. In the right here, we each build our sustaining castles.
The following morning we track one by one back to camp, shuffle into the wall tent and sit on snow benches around the short wood stove. This is one of the few moments of our week together when we are not scattered by travel and tasks and we just look into each others’ faces. Dusty starts saying my thoughts which I didn’t think because I had only been a body, but which my body knew throughout the night as Orion turned above the treetops, ice hardened around the opening of my sleeping bag, and snow fell gently on my nose and eyelashes at fifteen below. This is it. This is in no possible sense a humble existence. Dusty’s snow cradle lined with pine boughs, my cocoon, the silence upon silence, sleeping softly amidst an immense world of sleeping life as the fire burns out—there is no greater greatness, this is the Shangri-La.
When we return to base, we sauna with eucalyptus oil and jump into the river through a hole cut in the ice. In the shower, I have a glowing conviction that, though I’m not exactly sure how, I think life can always be this good. Caroline says she loves dogsledding because for the dogs, work is the same thing as joy. Whenever the sled stops Pinky bounds three feet in the air in eagerness to begin again. Caroline says, find work that makes you feel like that. Having long, hard days, wondering at wilderness, finding huge compassion for myself and other living things, surviving simply and focusing on right now, is not for eight days in Minnesota, but for my whole entire life.
The pine-lined drive into Homeplace is marked each quarter mile by a line of verse nailed to a tree: Be tough, yet gentle Humble, yet bold Swayed always By beauty And truth - Bob Peih (founder of the Voyageur Outward Bound School in Minnesotta) I feel there’s no time left to believe a single thing and not live it, and not let my body know. That’s easier to say, I don’t know how much it’s hard work, and how much it’s just being swayed. Once every other freeze is chipped down, in the final jab the rising water through the ice hole floodingly convinces. Enough exists in beauty and in truth that only needs to be believed. The winter is like the desert. The winter is a world made of water.
Honora Spicer is an outdoor educator living, teaching, and writing outside. Her recent travels brought her to wild places in New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, California, and Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. Honora is in her fourth season as an Outward Bound instructor in backpacking and canoeing, and this piece recounts an Outward Bound dogsledding staff invitational in February 2016.
Honora completed an MA in Environmental History at Harvard University and a BA in History and English at Oxford University.
Her long-term quest is to bring these outdoor and academic worlds together through widening environments for teaching at secondary and undergraduate levels. She shares her poetry and prose about outdoor adventures and education on her blog: https://outdoorappetite.wordpress.com