The first real run in with the cold took place today along with what was my first proper go ‘round with the sled dogs and a race style sled leaving behind all the implements of training. Thirty miles and three hours behind six Siberian Huskies on the trail and I’m sitting here now two hours later waiting for the feeling to return in my right thumb. Temperatures ranged on today’s trip between a modest -5 and -15 degrees, deceivingly warm at the start all bundled up in your parka and moving about as you bring the team under harness, but doggone blasted chilly as you trot down the path still in the wind at 10 mph. I made what is probably a beginner’s mistake at about mile 10 and removed my gloves to fumble about with the video camera whose batteries had given way and, of course, smoke a cigarette. Before I had time to account for what had happened my digits were numb to the first joint and I desperately reappropriated my handwear, including the adornment of an extra pair of mittens for just such an occasion. However, not paying as much attention as I probably should I brought two right handed mittens to match my two left feet. It took all of 10 minutes to freeze those fingers up good and the better part of a half hour to work the blood back into them. Being the first time I have ever actually frozen a part of my body it is but dutifully that I report there is no pain like the pain of thawing one’s extremities. Most people say that their least preferred method of death would be to drown. The thought did certainly cross my mind to day that freezing to death seems, in my opinion, a far worse way to go. Forgive my morbidity as that’s not really where I was headed, but I reckon it is pertinent at this moment to underscore the unforgiving nature of the Arctic climate. It’s not a beach where if you accidentally forget your sunscreen you suffer through the burn for a few days and return to life otherwise unscathed. Subzero temperatures offer no second chances; you have to get it right the first time or it will be your last time. You cannot find yourself unprepared out here. There is no tolerance whatsoever for mistakes. You cannot go alone and get hurt or have an accident because you will not be able to drag yourself back to civilization and sit in a bar the next day with your cast, signed by friends, recounting the marvel of your escape.
You never start out cold. Every adventure here begins with some reasonable proximity to the woodstove and in its warmth you prepare to meet the cold. Today I wore one pair of long johns with one pair of Carharts on top, two t-shirts and two sweaters all under a pair of quilted coveralls, not to mention my unmentionables. On top of that, one insulated jacket and a down parka, two pairs of socks, one cotton and one wool to fill out a pair of bunny boots a size too big for me. And finally, two hats along with protection for my neck and chin. The cold sees you as naked as Abraham. It pays no mind your layers. It is in no hurry. One by one they will be permeated with the diligence of a Socratic argument unless you yourself have out-reasoned the cold from all perspectives before even setting foot to the snow. This, heretofore, is the lesson I have learned on this day.