Last week's Wintergreen winter camping trip was an absolute joy - and a timely education in the hazards of cold weather camping. A mild case of frostbite (known as frostnip) threatened to halt my polar ambitions in their tracks.
The weather was relatively mild for January - even at its coldest a mere twenty degrees Fahrenheit below freezing - but my fingers and toes fell victim to a combination of factors - poor circulation, taking off my mittens to take photographs with just my liner gloves for protection, ski boots that were just tight enough to stop me wriggling my toes to generate heat, and spending a lot of time face-down in the snow when my sled dog's strength and enthusiasm outstripped my skiing ability.
The upshot of all this was that, although I enjoyed a wonderful 4 nights of camping out under the stars and 5 days of spectacular snow-frosted scenery, I ended the trip with two blistered fingers, a few numb fingertips, and a couple of toes that the team had to tenderly nurse back to warmth and health (Chris, our wonderful Wintergreen guide, bravely cradling one foot between his hands, while Sari, an ER doctor from New York, warmed my other foot in her armpit). For someone who prides herself on her strength and independence, this was a humiliating experience.
But of greater concern than my wounded pride is the long-lasting effects of the tissue damage. My fingers and toes will now be more susceptible to future frostnip, and this is an issue that HAS to be addressed before I can venture back into the cold.
Yesterday, as I headed from Minnesota back towards the West Coast, I was listening to some inspirational podcasts by Jon Benson, from his M-Power series (highly recommended). There was a motto of his that really resonated with me: "I control nothing; I manage everything."
The double entendre is deliberate: manage can mean either you cope with something, or that you influence events to steer them in a particular direction.
So what I took from this is that although I cannot control the cold, I can still manage to deal with it. I can take measures to improve my circulation through nutrition and maybe even acupuncture, and I can get myself some better cold-weather gear to protect my fragile extremities. There will be opportunities to do some rigorous field testing in Minnesota and elsewhere, and I am hopeful that I can come up with a winning cold weather strategy.
I have overcome bigger obstacles than this in the past, and am determined to overcome this one - hopefully without loss of digits.
[photo above: Mark dog-pulking in the beautiful Boundary Waters wilderness. The dog goes in front, then the pulk (sled), then the skier]
[photo below: the wounded finger]
P.S. Thank you for all the lovely comments welcoming me back to the blogosphere. Nice to know I've been missed! And yes, the Pacific row is definitely on track for a departure this year. I will be on standby from mid-May, and Rick my weather guy wants me gone by the end of June. Precise timing will depend, of course, on the weather.
Apologies for the prolonged absence, and I will break my blogging silence soon. But not just yet.
For now, here is the quickest of quick updates. I have returned from my Christmas/New Year retreat feeling detoxed, refreshed and rejuvenated. I turned 40 on December 23, but I feel better than ever.
I have spent the last week slaving over a hot keyboard, completing the latest round of revisions to the manuscript of my book about the Atlantic row. The book deal with Simon & Schuster has now been signed, sealed and delivered, and a publication date set for Autumn 2009.
Tomorrow I start the next step in my preparations for a long term project - a trip to a Pole (whether North or South is still to be determined). I will be spending the following week on a group ski/winter camping trip, with dogs pulling small sleds bearing our gear.
The temperatures here in Minnesota are mild for this time of year, but still well below freezing. I've been out cross-country skiing every morning for the last week, trying to avoid being the slowest in the group. I'm still far from proficient (I still manage the occasional embarrassing bum-splat on a perfectly flat bit of snow), but I'm a lot better than I was.
That's all for now, folks. Check in again in a week's time to find out how the camping trip went.
[photo: Minnesota - a skier on the dogsled trip I did in December]
One day, I would love to trek to a Pole - North or South, or even both. But like many women I have a tendency to cold hands and feet. And I've read enough polar adventure books to know that frostbite is a very real danger for even warm-blooded males. So in the interests of establishing my chances of coming back with all digits intact, I decided a good first step would be to go on a dog-sledding trip as a hopefully enjoyable introduction to the big chill.
Wintergreen Dogsledding, based in Ely, Northern Minnesota, offers a positively balmy climate compared with the polar regions - only minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 29 Centigrade) the first night I arrived there - but at least it would be a first dipping of my toe in the waters (ice?) of cold-weather survival.
There were 5 of us in our group, the first of the season. We were split between 3 sleds, the two-man sleds having 5 dogs apiece, and the one-man 'zip ship' being pulled by 3 dogs. I am not a real 'dog' person, never having been remotely tempted to stop and coo over other people's pets in the street, and I had also heard that these sled dogs could be unruly, wild, strong, and very smelly. So I was apprehensive about how I'd handle the canine aspect of the project. But in fact I was surprised by how comfortable I felt with these dignified, powerful Canadian Inuit dogs, in some cases with a bit of husky or labrador thrown into the mix. Like Andrex, they are soft, strong, and run very, very long.
We quickly got to know their individual characters - bold or timid, leader or follower, noisy or quiet - and to respect their outstanding ability to run all day and then sleep out of doors in subzero temperatures. They seemed born to run - as soon as they were hitched to the sled they were raring to go, straining at their harnesses - so although we were taught that 'Hike' was the mushers' word for 'Go' it was usually entirely superfluous. As soon as the sled was unhitched from its post they were off and running as if their lives depended on it - which, of course, in an Inuit environment, was literally true. In a harshly cold environment there is no time to be sentimental about dogs - they had to earn their living by being good sled haulers, so through natural selection the gene lines that have survived are those that can run long and hard.
Having said that, they can't do it all themselves, and dogsledding is far from being a passive activity. We were often breaking trail, being the first sleds to go where only a pair of snowshoes and a snowmobile had been once before, so the terrain was often lumpy and the sled would get snagged on trees. Then we'd jump off and push the sled over the obstacle or haul it out of the undergrowth. It was a good workout, and that plus our cozy Wintergreen gear ensured we all stayed warm.
So what did I take away from the experience? Memories of beautiful Christmas-card scenes of paths winding through the snow-laden trees... the knowledge that if properly clad I can survive in moderately cold temperatures without my extremities freezing off... a set of outdoor clothing on which the unmistakable and probably not socially acceptable scent of husky dog still lingers... and an eagerness to get back there and do it again as soon as possible.
[photo: me mushing]
P.S. I know I was meant to be taking the month off, but just couldn't resist the urge to share this.
All the best for whatever you're celebrating this December, and I'll see you in '08!
This blog will be taking a break for the month of December, to return renovated and rejuvenated in January 2008.
To be sure that you get notified when the blog restarts, scroll down a couple of times on this page, and on the right you will see a small box labelled "Get Updates By Email!" Just enter your email address, click Subscribe, and follow the simple instructions. It takes about one minute in total. And you have the option to unsubscribe at any time, which you may want to do once the blog starts posting regularly again.
There will be changes afoot on this website, and possibly even the occasional stealth blog if I really can't manage to kick the blogging habit, if only temporarily, so you may still want to drop in from time to time.
Meanwhile, there will be plenty to keep you entertained with the crews currently competing in the Atlantic Rowing Race, which started yesterday. See the latest race positions on the official race website (you may recognize the rower riding the foaming wave in the picture at the top), and follow the links from the site to find out more about individual crews. Many of them are posting blogs.
Until we meet again, have a great December, and I look forward to seeing you next year!
As an aside...
Some people have expressed an interest in seeing more environmental information on this site. This will be forthcoming as I crank up the ocean awareness mission in the run-up to my Pacific row next May/June. But I have held off on blogging regularly about the environment for this simple reason: I am not directly involved in environmental action myself right now, and I am reluctant to report second-hand stories from the press. I know from personal experience that a press report is rarely 100% accurate, and I do not want to perpetuate journalistic errors. I prefer to write directly from what I have seen or heard with my own eyes, or have at least heard from a reliable source that has seen it with THEIR own eyes. It is important to me to maintain the factual accuracy of this site, so that my readers know that they are getting the truth - or at least, the truth as I see it.
There WILL be environmental information here, but only once it has been drafted and approved by various respectable and respected organizations that can vouch for its veracity.
I hope that you will understand and respect this policy of truth.
[photo: waving goodbye for now - and I'll see you next year!]