Excerpt: Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube

At 18, determined to carve out a life as a "tough girl," Blair Braverman moved to Norway to learn dogsledding at an Arctic folk school, chasing fear and finding home in the great white North

Jun 28, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
Excerpt: Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube

Fear makes you brave.    Photo: Hanna Ålerud

I found the folk school in the spring of 2006, my senior year of high school. With around 40 students, it was the smallest folk school in Norway, and offered training in dogsledding and winter survival. It was Arctic, all right—closer to the pole than all of Sweden, Iceland, and most of Alaska. Photos on its website showed rosy-cheeked students crossing glaciers, dogsledding over frozen rivers, sitting around campfires under the northern lights, and cuddling puppies. Better yet, tuition was free, and students could do extra chores to offset the cost of room and board. I sent in my application and transcript, hoping beyond hope that my straight A's would be enough to place me in the top of the applicant pool; in fact, as I later learned, the school only used transcripts to make sure that applicants hadn’t failed gym. Anyway, two weeks later, I was accepted. And just like that, the Arctic was waiting for me.

Like most of its kind, the folk school advertised itself as idyllic: a school about life, with nature as the teacher. In reality, it was forty teenagers stranded on an isolated peninsula and thrown into a yearlong series of emotional challenges and hazardous situations, a cross between hippie commune and survivalist camp. The school was part of a dwindling, 150-year-old educational system based on the Scandinavian and socialist principles that fresh air was good for self-discovery, and that a society could not be truly democratic unless all its voters knew themselves. These purposes were diligently hidden from the students—none of whom, I came to suspect, had been drawn to such a remote outpost by accident.

The school program opened with a lamb banquet, held around long tables in an upstairs gymnasium that smelled like Pine-Sol and wet wool. I found myself sitting next to Sven, the wilderness teacher, an ebullient and gorgeous Dane who, it was whispered, had come north after police found him wandering in the forest months after a breakup, with only an elkhound for company. At one point, when someone mentioned camping, Sven climbed onto his chair in excitement. 

After dinner, the principal took the podium. He spoke of adventure, of learning the rhythms of the polar night, of learning the howls of dogs and the textures of snow. He spoke of bonding into the kind of community made possible only through isolation and hardship. The principal wore black pants and no shirt. He had binder clips pinched to his nipples, and occasionally, as he talked, he tweaked the clips with his fingers; he was proud of his tolerance for pain. He wore this outfit on the opening night because he wanted to encourage bravery, and how could he tell his students to be brave without demonstrating his own courage first? For the rest of the year, the principal wore tidy jeans and button-down shirts. He only busted out the binder clips for special occasions.

When the principal finished talking, the students cheered. Sven pounded on the table. After a moment, I pounded on the table, too, joining the ovation. I was in the Arctic, and in the Arctic things happened for a reason. I felt that nothing could surprise me. The world seemed strange and bright. 

Most of my classes that year were taught by the dogsledding teacher, Tallak, a compact Sami man with the gift of authority. Everything Tallak said, everyone believed. It wasn’t that he was forceful, or overwhelming; rather, his voice carried a calm certainty, slow and light, punctuated by little laughs. Listening to him talk about anything—dogs, racism, foster children, Christmas—felt like discovering brilliant thoughts you didn’t know you already had. “I have to be careful,” he sometimes said, “because people will believe whatever I tell them.” This show of responsibility only made the students trust him more.

At first, students were only allowed to go dogsledding with Tallak; after all, as he reminded us, we knew nothing yet. Day by day we waited our turns, waited for him to come into the common room after school, where students sat on long couches to knit and play cards and get to know each other. When Tallak walked in, we’d stop talking and will ourselves to look competent. He’d scan our faces, indicating his selection with only a quick nod at the chosen student. I was lucky. I was picked on the second day. 

September was chilly but snowless; instead of sleds, the dogs pulled welded-steel carts with room for one passenger and one driver. By the time I put on my coat and laced my boots, Tallak had assembled a team before one of the carts, which was tied off to a heavy post. It shuddered as the dogs reared up against their ropes. I settled nervously into the lurching passenger seat with my hands in my lap, as Tallak had instructed, so that my arms wouldn’t break if the cart flipped over. There were eight dogs in the team, and they were all barking and leaping, the sound and chaos overwhelming. I’d learned the names of their positions: lead dogs in front, then swing dogs, then team dogs, and finally the wheel dogs closest to the cart. The wheel dogs were the biggest.

“Ready?” said Tallak, his voice stern. The cart sank as he climbed on behind me. I started to answer “I think so—” before I realized he wasn’t talking to me. His gaze was only on the dogs, who tensed at the word, waiting. Then—

Ålright!

Tallak pulled a quick-release and the cart jerked forward, the dogs instantly at a run—fast, it felt; I later learned they maxed out around 25 miles per hour—and stones were flying up from those hind legs and stinging my face, a gob of mud on my forehead, so that by the time I opened my eyes again we were at the end of the driveway, headed toward a bridge. The bridge had a cow-catcher on it, a yard across, metal bars with open spaces exactly the right size for a dog leg to slip through. We were going too fast to stop. “Will they be okay?” I tried to shout, but we were already there; and row by row the dogs leapt over the grate, rising and falling, lead then swing then team then wheel, in a perfect wave that rolled the length of the team and culminated in the cart’s own rattly pass across the bars. A hard turn onto the road—the cart slid on gravel; I clutched my seat—and we were home free, galloping down the wide paved road of the village of Sand.

The dogs flowed, a perfect thrilling engine. Their legs stretched out like pistons; their ears and tongues bounced in unison. Their running had nothing to do with me. They wouldn’t have stopped if I’d asked them to.

They were beautiful. They were so beautiful.

blair-braverman-with-dogs.jpg
  Photo: Aladino Mandoli

I have never loved anything as hard and as fast as I loved those dogs, as I loved dogsledding itself. I could have watched them for hours. I could have watched them forever. They ran like water, and I was part of it, and I was struck with the instant and undeniable thought that I had finally come to the place that I had spent my life trying to find. Right here, of course it was here, in the Arctic, in Norway, between the gray mass of the fjord and the sharp snowy mountains, at the top of the turning world. It was almost too much to acknowledge. It was hard to trust the fact of my body in this place. But here were the dogs, pulling me, proving it.

“Fucking hell,” said Tallak. He slammed the hand brakes and shouted to the team. The wheels froze, but the dogs kept pulling, the cart skidding after them, painting black stripes on the road. Finally we bounced to a stop. The dogs were still trying to go.

Now I saw the problem: Sheep, sprawled just around a bend. “All we need is another fight with a sheep farmer,” said Tallak.

“The dogs would hurt them?”

“Blair,” said Tallak. “These are wolves you’re working with.”

They weren’t, of course, but it was Tallak’s belief that every dog, down to every last chihuahua, thought itself a wolf. 

He had me stand on the cart while he ran up and heaved the lead dogs around to face the way we’d come. The rest of the team followed in a clump, and on his way back to the cart Tallak untangled a few that had caught their ankles in the gangline. “Do you want to drive?” he asked me, and before I answered he said “Better not,” and off we went toward home.

The next week, to demonstrate efficient dog training, Tallak brought a four-week-old puppy into the classroom. The puppy had never been inside a building before, or even away from his siblings, none of whom were named yet. Tallak was still considering options. He could name the pups after a theme, like his last litter, the board game dogs: Risk, Ludo, Chess. He could name them out of spite, like the dog She Bergeton, christened after a nearby farmer following a dispute over a dead sheep. Ultimately, he would ignore all advice and name them after “terrorists”: Bin Laden, Saddam, and George Bush for the boys. Condoleeza for the girl—Condy for short. He would name the puppy in question Saddam.

Saddam was black and velvety and round, small enough to be scooped up in one hand, with a white tuft on the end of his tail and the thinnest white line down the bridge of his snout. As soon as Tallak set him down in the classroom doorway, Saddam tensed. Then he launched into a series of leaps that brought him to the center of the room, wagging his short tail as much for balance as excitement. He shook his head with his jaw open, as if hoping his mouth might encounter something in mid-air. He keened a wailing, high-pitched squeal and wagged his body against the students’ legs, crashing into tables and chairs as we all reached down and tried to touch him. Yes, I thought. This was a good school.

Tallak glanced at the clock. It was 10:35. In twenty minutes, he said, he could train Saddam to stay. He lifted the puppy by the scruff and put him in a corner, by the chalkboard. With a tap, he knocked the dog onto its stomach. “Stay,” he said.

In an instant, Saddam had scooted halfway across the floor.

Tallak carried him back to the corner. “Stay.”

Saddam rolled away.

Again and again they repeated the process—the man stern, the dog largely oblivious to the placement of his body in the room. But gradually something changed. Saddam grew cautious; his tail drooped; he didn’t leave the corner as quickly. Finally, when Tallak said “Stay,” Saddam laid his head on the ground. It was 10:51.

“He’s given up,” Tallak explained. He left the room and came back with a slice of raw reindeer on a plate, which he set down a foot or so from the puppy. Saddam’s eyes flicked over the meat, but he didn’t lift his head.

The lesson was complete. We were supposed to be inspired, but the students were mostly quiet. A girl to my left had tears in her eyes. But I couldn’t put my finger on what, exactly, was upsetting. The puppy had been trained. Tallak had proven himself right, and he would continue to do so.

Nowhere were his lessons more urgent than in the kennel. Tallak’s dogs were fighters. Almost daily they broke into terrible screaming brawls and we had to come running from the school or the cabins and pull tight fists of fur from their backs and kick their ribcages with our boots. I was always scared to enter the mass of flying heads and teeth and blood and would hold back, hoping for someone else to break up the fight first; but then Tallak called me out—“They’re hurting each other, and you just stand there?”—and I was ashamed. His dogs were valuable. Ten thousand kroner each, maybe more. We should have no reluctance, he told us, to be rough with them, and as with everything he told us, we were embarrassed to have ever not believed it. Manhandling dogs was simply learning to speak their language rather than expecting them to learn ours. To grab a dog by its scruff and whip it onto its back, then kneel on its chest until its muscles finally relaxed—that was being the boss. Tallak showed us how to grip our hands around the dogs’ snouts, to growl deep in our throats and bite their noses and ears. He liked to tell a story about being stuck in a kennel with a strange dog, who was snarling, bent on attacking him. He grabbed a shovel, raised it to the sky, and brought it down on the dog’s head. The dog fell to the ground. And then—and then, Tallak said, he unzipped his pants and peed on it. If that wasn’t dog language, he didn’t know what was. 

We didn’t, either. None of the students were inclined toward roughness, but neither were we inclined to question Tallak’s wisdom.

Once, after a fight, I found part of an ear on the ground, a velvet triangle with one red edge. I folded it between my fingers, distracted from the horror, for a moment, by the softness. Then I remembered, and threw it away from me. That dog would be fine, Tallak said; ears healed themselves. He was more worried about the other guy, who’d suffered a long cut on his chest. Tallak washed the wound with saline and stitched it up on the mud room floor, while I stared at the slime of muscle just under the fur.

We spent time cleaning the kennel and scooping poop and repairing doghouses and chopping frozen intestines with an axe into meal-size chunks, but also we were learning to mush, first with carts and then, when the first snows came in October, on wooden sleds. As soon as anyone walked into the kennel with a harness, the dogs erupted. Thirty, forty dogs depending on the day, all jumping and yowling as hard as they could, and the trick was to pick out five or six or eight and wrestle their muscular bodies into harnesses and clip them to the gangline that pulled the sled. Finally, when the team had settled down out of boredom or indignation, we could pull the quick-release that held back the sled and it would jolt forward with such force that the insides of my arms felt bruised from holding on. In that moment of stillness to speed, all the noise and screams and howls would dead stop; everything in the world shifted in that one instant when we pulled the rope.

“You are stronger than one dog,” Tallak told us. “One dog, you can pin him down, you can make him do what you want. Two dogs, maybe. Four dogs can pull a truck from a ditch. The sled’s brake is a joke. It is a suggestion. When the dogs are together you have no chance of controlling them, unless they choose to please you.”

He was right. It wouldn’t be long before I saw a six-dog team uproot a birch tree that they were tied to and take off down the trail, tree and roots bouncing behind them.

Tallak taught us the rules: Never step over the gangline. Never trust a snow anchor. Always keep your knife on your belt. Most importantly, never let go of the sled. If the sled tips over, if it crashes, hold on. Get up if you can. It’s nothing to be dragged on your stomach a half-mile through the snow. As long as you hold on. If you let go, Tallak said, the dogs and the sled will leave you, and alone in the mountains, on the tundra, you can die. I stuffed my pockets with matches, chocolate, extra mittens, and two headlamps, in case I ever got left behind.

The first time I drove a sled on snow, through a winding trail near the school, I tipped over seven times. Each time, I got dragged, my hands gripping the side stanchions, my arms aching, my mittens slipping loose, my pants filling with snow. I could think quite clearly, being dragged. I gazed forward between my outstretched arms, between the runners of the sled, at the quick back feet of the wheel dogs. The team careened around corners. Don’t let go. And each time, somehow, the dogs slowed enough that I could clamber back onto the runners. There was something thrilling about the transition, about climbing to my feet on the moving vehicle, the vehicle with six bodies and minds, the vehicle that moved whether or not I was on it, and gliding once more over the smooth terrain. 

The trails wound around mountains, across fields, alongside frozen rivers, and the runners made a whispering sound over the snow. The dogs ducked their heads and leaned into their harnesses and bounded through drifts as if they would never want to stop, as if there would never be any reason to. While they ran, while we ran, I practiced reading their movement, noticing the subtle glances and postures with which the dogs communicated. When we took breaks, they bit snow and rolled over and licked my face. There were moments when I felt I would never learn enough, never be good or tough or confident enough to drive the dogs well. And there were many more moments, standing on the runners or sitting in the snow with huskies piling onto my lap, that I was gripped with an astonished joy, and could scarcely remember being happier.

Together with the other students I learned to tunnel into the snow, to sleep sheltered against the wind, to curl up in the dogsled in case of a storm. To build a fire from wet wood in a blizzard. To force movement when my limbs were numb. We went to the Sand River in our long underwear and, one by one, walked into the frigid current and swept downstream until a classmate threw us a rope. The worst thing about cold water was the shock, Tallak told us; the best thing was that it prepared us for future cold. If we’d practiced submerging, we’d be better equipped if we fell through ice in an emergency.

The temperature dropped to twenty, thirty below. We slept outside two nights a week, then four, then seven.

I learned to grab the dogs by the ruff and yank their strong bodies toward me, pin their hips between my knees so they couldn’t get away. If my hands were numb from touching the frozen metal clasps on the gangline, I could slip my bare hands into the soft pockets of the dogs’ armpits, until the feeling seeped back into my fingers. I could kiss their bucking heads through my balaclava. 

December came, and with it the last sunset of the year—the Time of Darkness, when the sun did not cross the horizon for fifty-seven days.  The outside world was lit only by campfires, headlamps, and the pulsing, snaking aurora, which at its brightest lit the mountains a marbled green. Time passed without measure, an endless dusk punctuated by sleep, so that even I forgot what we were waiting for.

It seems almost too obvious to emphasize how much I was scared. In the morning, during the day, at night. I was often acutely frightened—of a sharp turn in the trail, of a tricky river crossing, during storms—and I lived, too, with a deeper fear: that the winter was only starting, that I had so many minutes and hours and days of cold and risk and potential injury. But it was refreshing to be afraid of something concrete. I was no longer scared of some unknown force, of confusion; no, I was afraid of hypothermia. I was afraid of being stranded in the wilderness. I was afraid of crashing the sled. I was as afraid as I’d ever been, maybe more, but suddenly that fear didn’t make me crazy: It made me brave. 

This excerpt comes from Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube ($26, Ecco), which will be released on July 5, 2016. You can order the book here

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