2. To the Arctic Tundra
Before we left for the cabin, I’d asked Susan about going snowmobiling as the boys were keen to have a go.
“Well, we could snowmobile up to the tundra to see the reindeer herd if you like,” she said in her southern drawl.
And so at midday next day, nine of us, our family of five, volunteers Ben and Hans, Susan and Bjorn, set off on snowmobiles down the road and onto the ice road. Featured in a season of the TV show, Ice Road Truckers, the Inuvik ice road is the Mackenzie River. It freezes over in October and is then groomed and maintained for vehicles to drive on it up to the Arctic Ocean. It was in its final year of operation when we were there as a land road had been almost completed that would provide access to the coast year-round.
I found the snowmobiling hard from the outset. I’d never even ridden a motorbike before. It was pretty simple, just hold the throttle down to go, press harder to go faster, but the ground was hard and rough, and at times I bumped so hard I feared I’d fall off and I had to go fast to keep up. Although Susan stopped at intervals to make sure we hadn’t lost anyone, I still feared being left behind and getting lost. At first I was right behind her, but when we rode down onto the ice road, which was much wider, the others were able to get ahead of me. The constant noise of the engine meant you could hear nothing else, I was breathing fumes from the exhaust at my left foot the whole time, and it was cold. It was bitterly cold. The exhaust outlet happily kept my left foot warm, but that vicious cold bit hard at the rest of my extremities. Despite the hand and foot warmers, the thick socks, gloves, mukluks, and beaver fir mitts, they still rapidly grew cold. The thumb of my right hand, stuck out on its own, pressed against the throttle, became painful and then went numb. I tried to endure it but just couldn’t and signalled for help. Hans ran up and we changed gloves, him giving me his warmer inner glove and and extra hand warmer which he told me to shove into the thumb of my glove, right against the skin. That worked, but the constant worry about my fingers and toes would not leave me.
It would take two hours to get to our destination, we’d stop for lunch there, and then two hours back; we’d be out for about five hours in -30 degrees. I wanted to just relax and enjoy the experience, it was once in a lifetime, something I’d always wanted to do, but the anxiety wouldn’t let me. After about an hour, we stopped on a lake to gather everyone together. By this point I was desperate for the toilet.
“How much further, Susan?” I asked.
“We’re just over half-way,” she replied.
“I really need the toilet,” I said. I got the only reply I expected.
“Well your gonna have to just take off whatever clothes you need to and squat down behind the last snow-mobile.”
The others drove off the lake and up onto higher ground leaving Neville and I alone. He helped me pull off my thin wind-cheater, heavy coat, and down jacket, so I could then undo my overalls, pull them down and expose my bare arse to the frigid Arctic air. My yellow piss drilled a hole in the ice next to my snow-mobile and I laughed at the thought that it would stay there now for several months. Then it was back on with the layers and we joined the others.
The snow-coated trees gave way to stunted snow-coated bushes which grew more and more stunted until the landscape opened out in one breathtaking 360 degree expanse of ice right to the horizon in every direction. We stopped our snowmobiles and wandered, turning our heads from the tiny full moon hanging just above one horizon, to the hard orange edge of the sun just above the opposite one. Olav told us this was a mirage, the sun reflecting off ice crystals in the air, cruelly teasing. The sun had disappeared below the horizon two weeks ago; it wouldn’t return for another two. At intervals across the expanse, fish had been pushed tail down into mounds of snow, frozen markers to show the way, and we now followed these, pushing on to find the reindeer.
After a short time we came across a small cabin with smoke pouring from its chimney. I hoped we were stopping here so we could go in to thaw out, but we just sat waiting on our snowmobiles while Susan disappeared. This, it turned out, was the reindeer herders’ hut where they live some of the time. Susan had gone to ask them where the reindeer were. She eventually reappeared, remounted her vehicle, and we were off again.
The light had already begun to dim when we came up a rise to see a vast grey blur in the distance, a thin fog hanging above it. 3000 reindeer huddled in a mass, grazing on the straggly bits of snow-covered growth. They are wild, but the herders protect them from bears and arctic foxes in exchange for their meat which is sold in Inuvik. As we sat huddled around the fire that Bjorn had hastily and skilfully conjured on the ice, one of the herders rode up on a snowmobile, a rifle slung over his shoulder. Susan introduced us as her visitors from Australia who’d recently come from 30 degrees above zero.
“You’re lucky there’s no wind today,” the herder said with a short laugh. “Wind is cold.”
As the cold seeped up through the reindeer pelt I was sitting on, through five thick layers of clothing, and frigid air poked at every part of me that faced away from the fire, my mind stalled trying to imagine the cold being colder, tried to imagine what it would be like to be out there in a polar wind. And leaving us with that thought, the herder sped off down to the reindeer and we soon heard, one, two, three, four cracks of the rifle.
Susan had packed several toasting irons with cheese and tomato sandwiches and we sat toasting these over the roaring fire. She then handed out paper cups and produced a thermos of hot chocolate. And it would have, should have been, cosy, all huddled around the fire with our hot lunch, but the light was fading fast and the cold pressed at my back and all I could think was that I still had to survive, with all fingers and toes intact, the two-hour ride back to the Chalet. Having finished eating, Susan stretched herself out by the fire and smiled.
“Couldn’t you just lay here for hours?”
By the time we reached the herder’s cabin again it was completely dark. Again we stopped while Susan disappeared. A small pile of severed forelegs lay on a patch of bloody snow; Susan had gone to ask the herders if she could have them for the dogs. I watched the smoke still pouring from the cabin chimney and felt like crying.
When I saw the lights of Inuvik in the distance I thanked God that we were almost there, but we rode on and on. Finally we rode down and onto the ice road where Susan stopped everyone and hopping off her snowmobile indicated that we should line up next to each other. She walked up and spoke to each of us in turn so she could be heard over the engines.
“We’re gonna be kids again,” she said with glee.
And remounting her snowmobile, she dropped her hand and we were off and racing. I pressed my thumb as hard as I could on the throttle, more because I just wanted it to end than out of any desire to win, but I was quickly left behind. As we approached the turn off I slowed to make the corner. The others had already ridden up the slope and were stopped at the top. As I went to ride up and join them, my snowmobile stopped, and no matter how hard I revved it, it couldn’t gain any traction on the ice. I waved my hand to signal that I needed help. No one moved. I went to get off the vehicle so I could walk up to them, but as soon as my foot touched the ground it started to slide out from under me. I sat back on the snowmobile and waved both hands furiously. Still no reaction. Then they all remounted their snowmobiles. I screamed at the top of my lungs. It was like in dreams when you’re trying as hard as you can to call out or stop something and you just can’t. And then they were gone, and I was left sitting in the dark, completely alone.
I turned to look behind me and up and down the ice road; all was still. I crossed my arms on the handle bars and rested my head on them. “They’ll come soon,” I thought, but seconds had become hours and no one came. I felt myself shrinking as the dark and cold pressed in on all sides. Then a small truck came driving down the ice road and, to my horror, turned to drive up our road. I thought they wouldn’t see me and I’d be hit. I gave the snowmobile another vicious rev, but it wouldn’t move. The truck pulled up alongside me and a man got out. “I’m stuck,” I said redundantly, almost apologetically. And as the man was trying to push the snowmobile forward, the gang reappeared. Bjorn strode down and taking hold of the vehicle, yanked it hard to the side. Then he indicated I should ride back, circle around and then gun it up the slope. I did and roared across the ice and up onto the road speeding faster than I had all day, turned into the Chalet, pulled up next to the others and killed the engine. Then I climbed off, stamped up to my husband and shoved him as hard as I could in the chest before running inside and slamming the door. It was petulant, it was unreasonable, it was embarrassing and it was an overreaction to what was probably not even five minutes left sitting there, but the tension of those hours of trying to stay warm, trying to keep up, sheer exhaustion, and, I suspect, a primordial sense of vulnerability in such a hostile environment, bubbled over and my poor husband became the target. Because of the headlights on the snowmobile they couldn’t see me waving, and the noise of the engines meant they couldn’t hear me screaming, he tried to explain, over and over.
After much swearing, crying and recriminations that no amount of reassurance from the bewildered man could stem, I calmed down enough to realise that what I really needed was a drink, and we set off for town in silence.