:: 2017 FALL TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST WINNER ::
Tundra, Alaskan huskies, raw meat, disorientation, gang lines, the blue hour, Svalbard, wind songs, lifeless batteries, sea ice, isolation, reindeer hides, Carmen, melting minerals, canine telepathy
& the compass of instinct.
It was like watching the Earth being flattened, sledding into the whiteout. It was like the whole Earth was being flattened in a closing book—the kind of story you look up from with longing. The eight dogs pulling my sled looked like they were being erased, snow filling their fur. Their ears were back, tails down in concentration, and it looked like they were halfway gone. We were on our way back from an overnight trip, and we had made it to a neighboring valley, twenty kilometers from home. The mountains, the sky, the tundra: everything was lost.
Storms like this, the ones that take over Svalbard out of nowhere, move like ghosts. Sometimes I see them sneaking in from the other end of the valleys, or spilling over the glaciers, and other times it storms as if nothing else ever happens in the north. I could take my attention off the landscape for a few seconds—to check the pulling lines on the dogs, to look at my watch—and the next time I’d see the land it would be nearly invisible, swallowed by one flat shade of white-gray. The wind pushes the snow so fast that it seems like the flurries move in slow motion, a grainy tape recording and unwinding itself.
In some stretches of tundra, the wind had blown away all the snow, leaving bare sheets of ice and rock jutting from the ground. I trusted my dogs. One of the leaders, Carmen, was guiding us among the fragmented skeleton of tundra. I held tightly to the sled, shifting my weight to avoid tipping over. Like driving a dogsled on the moon. We could have been a million miles from anything.
An archipelago halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, Svalbard is a chain of islands that feels forgotten. How could any form of life exist in a place so lonely? There’s a scale of light and darkness that never quite balances—months of night, blue hours of twilight, the sun that stays above the horizon all summer. The energy in the body sinks to hibernation in the polar night and I spend the end of winter waking. That first shock of sunlight hitting the mountaintops in a pale pink glow—the kind of color that exists in dreams. Every time I start to know this place, it shifts again; meltwater channels carve the glaciers, rivers open in the spring, snowfall shapes the land like clay. What alien world is this?
Every time I start to know myself, I shift again. Before moving to Svalbard, I had never driven dogs or lived in the Arctic. It was all easily romanticized: being a dog musher in a postcard version of winter, carefully formed snowfall and reflective light. In reality, the days were getting shorter and I didn’t know anything. I had a hundred moments of waking, the hypnic jerk that startles the body before drifting asleep. That moment of opening your eyes before falling from the cliff.
Every time I start to know this place, it shifts again; meltwater channels carve the glaciers, rivers open in the spring, snowfall shapes the land like clay.
There were times when I couldn’t wake fast enough. I lost a team of dogs and they ran six kilometers home without me; I got my hand bitten when breaking up a fight; I fell from a sled and was dragged across ice, black bruises blooming on my knees for weeks afterward. So many times I failed, felt like I was imagining an identity I never deserved. Everything I knew about myself was suddenly wrong for where I was: I couldn’t shoot a gun, or measure the thickness of sea ice, or free a truck from a snowbank. How easily we find our limitations in an unknown landscape. When the darkness came and I searched for the opposite side of the fjord outside the window, there was nothing, just my own sinking reflection.
The farther we went into the valley, the harder it was to tell if we were moving or standing still. We were in a two-dimensional space, a void between here and there. I stood on the brake and laid down the anchor so I could find the GPS inside my bag. Carmen looked back at me with confusion, as if to question my decision. She threw herself into the snow and rolled around. The rest of the team started eating snow, panted and then tried pulling some more, jumping in place on the gang line. This is how dogs deal with being lost: they continue.
The GPS was dead, battery drained by the temperature. I was glad to have Carmen with me; she was one of the most experienced dogs in the pack. She was calm, brave and confident in her direction. Sometimes I’d watch her during bad weather and she would be stoic, looking into the storm. While all the other dogs barked and jumped and howled before running, she lay down and waited, staring ahead at whatever path we were taking.
Before Willem Barentsz discovered Svalbard in 1596, most of the Arctic was unknown. It was a white space on the map. He stumbled across it while sailing to find the Northeast Passage, which he did not. He did find Bjørnøya (Bear Island), the southernmost island on Svalbard, which he named after his battle with a polar bear upon arrival. He described the surrounding land as full of “jagged peaks” and brimming with life—whales, seals, walruses, bears and a variety of birds. According to Barentsz, the sea was filled with so many bowhead whales that ships had to break paths through them; a person could walk across the fjord on their backs.
His discovery set the pace for hundreds of years of exploration and exploitation. European ships first went north for the whale blubber; the whales were harpooned and pulled to the side of the boat, where long strips of blubber were cut off. Whaling stations were built on shore, huge copper boilers that turned the blubber into oil. When the whales eventually withdrew from the fjords, the hunt took place in the open sea and the blubber was boiled on the boats. By the end of the eighteenth century, most of the whales were gone.
I learned to live like a dog. I spent every day with the pack for months, trying to understand their language. They were eighty-five Alaskan huskies, their own complete nation. When one of the dogs was loose or injured, they all reacted instantaneously with barks and howls—even the ones on the opposite end of the yard. If other teams of dogs passed through the area, the pack was loud with claiming their space. They were connected by some invisible web, the same brainwave that alerted to anything.
The yard was in the valley, ten kilometers outside of town. Each morning I loaded the truck with boxes of raw meat and warm water so it wouldn’t freeze on the drive out. I woke up during the drive on the only road leading out of town, listening to a Norwegian talk show while heat rattled from the dash.
As soon as I got close to the yard, the dogs exploded with energy; they knew the sound of the truck and that it meant food. It was heavy work, especially if it had snowed the day before, and feeding all of them sometimes took hours. There were days of crawling on two-meter-deep snow to avoid sinking down, days of digging snow out of all eighty-five houses. I grew muscles that I never knew existed. There was something relieving about being there, just me and all those dogs, nothing around us. Sometimes the wind would blow through the chain-link fence in an ethereal, drifting song.
The wind pushes the snow so fast that it seems like the flurries move in slow motion, a grainy tape recording and unwinding itself.
I left work every day covered in dust, dog poop and raw meat, completely drained of physical and mental energy. I woke up, drove out to the dogs, drove home, ate and slept—a simple existence with not much room for anything else. On some days when the exhaustion bore down to the bone, I wondered how much longer I would last there. It was hard to recognize myself.
When I first started running them on the sleds, I was anxious and clumsy, always tipping over, unsure of my leaders. I couldn’t find a reason to explain why I was doing any of it. A part of me liked the discomfort, the physicality of working outdoors, an observation of dog psychology rather than human.
I remember standing outside and feeling like the gale could carry me, like if I let myself go I could just be gone.
The dogs were my motivation. They never lost energy or their will to run. It was perseverance in its truest form, and not only did they accept the harsh conditions of the environment, but they seemed to thrive in it: running headfirst into the wind, sleeping outside their houses during below-forty windchill. There was Diesel, a male built like a tank and with a childish cry; Fernet, who always wrapped his front legs around my shin in a clinging hug; Lucky, who liked collecting stones. On days in the yard when the weather was tame, they would lie on top of their houses and sleep.
I kept going out on the sled alone, experiencing problems and having no choice but to learn their solutions. Whenever something happened, which it inevitably did—a fight, broken lines, getting stuck in deep snow—I looked to my best dogs and watched how they reacted. I learned to follow their energy, and they did the same for me. We read from each other. If I was calm, they were too. There was a balance, a type of trust that wherever we were going, we would help each other get there.
Every time I went out in storms, on heavy trails, on longer trips or in any kind of uncertain condition, Carmen was my leader. Learning everything from the beginning was less intimidating because of her. I could depend on her to continue and keep the rest of the team together. Even when she was leading alongside a bigger male, she wasn’t afraid to push him toward the right direction. She never turned around or lost focus, and she was smart about saving energy, resting at her house when there weren’t any trips, never exerting the eager calls for attention that the rest of the pack did. I wanted her same composure, that ability to stay grounded when it felt like the whole Earth was shaking.
Everything I thought I knew about the world was lost. The storm was chewing on all of it: the mountains, the cabins, the mines, the sky. Carmen listened to the directions I gave her, but she was reluctant; she knew I doubted myself.
The day before, I had set up camp on top of an overlook in Hell’s Valley, named for the red-orange color of the minerals melting from the mountainsides. I anchored the dogs in a circle around the tent to act as polar-bear guards, dug a toilet, started a fire, boiled water for the freeze-dried pasta. I tossed small blocks of meat to the dogs and they ate quickly, curled into balls with tails over their noses and slept.
That night, there had been a small sliver of light on the horizon and everything was washed in a deep indigo—“the blue hour,” as the northerners call it. Before I went to sleep, I looked at the way the clouds swam overhead, the distant mountains brimming with snow threatening to slide, and I knew I was in a place that I could never truly understand, that it would always be a little bit out of reach—but if I tried hard enough at the right moment, my fingertips brushed against it. Witnessing power of that magnitude, is it awe or devastation that echoes through the heart?
After the whales disappeared, the fur trappers came north, first from Russia and then from Norway. They were men (and a small percentage of women) with dreams of the free life, of adventure and conquest in the wilderness. Most of them were after polar bear and fox fur, but when more people began overwintering, walrus and seal also gained interest. The landscape became a system of base stations and trapper cabins, and in order to be profitable the trappers had to catch as much as possible during ten to eleven months of the year. When the trappers returned to the mainland after their year on Svalbard, they were greeted not necessarily with economic wealth, but with social praise: they were regarded as heroes, as conquerors of the Arctic.
All over the Western world, people became taken with the idea of the north. What is it about this place that draws people in? Is it the space, the transformation, the shifting light? The physical manifestation of the unknown? The race to the North Pole began, and countless expeditions passed through, or tragically ended on, Svalbard.
The storm was chewing on all of it: the mountains, the cabins, the mines, the sky.
With increased knowledge of the north, different countries began dreaming of ways to profit from the land. Coal mining began in the early twentieth century, although most often it wasn’t lucrative due to the equipment expense and harsh conditions. With coal mining came settlements and cities, the division of land in order to lay claim to its resources. Svalbard had always been a no-man’s land, an ungoverned place that anyone could use. Even after the Svalbard Treaty was signed in 1920, handing over sovereignty to Norway, Svalbard remained the Wild West of the Arctic—not its own country, but a mine: of imagination, desire, paradox.
W atch the way polar puppies experience the unknown. They’re born in the cold, or in the dark—the midnight sun, if they’re lucky. They fit in an outstretched palm, their fur sleek and thin, faces wrinkled, eyes tightly shut.
How they wake up: all at once. Suddenly, the world is in front of them. They learn how to leave the warmth of their house, how to wobble awkwardly on their newly discovered legs.
When I brought them outside their pen for the first time, the rest of the pack was howling at us, curious about what we were doing. The puppies were shy at first, standing up like it was the first time they had ever done it, but then something caught their eyes—a tuft of moss or reindeer fur—and once they stumbled forward they never stopped. Bravery was in their bones. They followed each other in a clump, bounding toward whatever strange thing happened to be in front of them, and this was how they found the world: waiting for them, endless. I watched them watching, how they were struck by anything, and it felt like learning to see again.
W e had been going in the same direction for an hour when I saw it: the tall cabin that marked the far side of the valley, directly opposite from the yard. All we had to do was cross the few kilometers to the other side.
I shouted to Carmen to go left and she did, pulling the rest of the team with her. If we continued straight, we couldn’t miss the yard. Eventually we would get to the road leading outside of town, and crossing that would bring us home. I thought I heard the low drone of snowmobiles in the distance, but they never materialized. Maybe we were the only living things left.
I lost a team of dogs and they ran six kilometers home without me; I got my hand bitten when breaking up a fight; I fell from a sled and was dragged across ice, black bruises blooming on my knees for weeks afterward.
I hoped we would be lucky, that the storm would fade. I tried to imagine myself hours from that moment, outside of it. It was the part of every difficult journey where people try to bargain with unknown gods, as if nature cared about our sudden realizations of mortality.
The abandoned coal mine on the mountain above the dog yard had always been a beacon. As we continued, I looked for its faint illumination through the blowing snow. There was nothing.
Svalbard is scattered with deserted mining materials, whale-blubber boilers, broken fur traps and forgotten furniture. There’s a Russian mining ghost town in a fjord north of Longyearbyen, often traveled through by polar bears looking for food.
Every year, countless human-made structures are destroyed by avalanches. Windstorms rummage through buildings. The polar night drains energy in a way that leaves everyone half asleep, lost in dream.
Nature continues, fiercely. The Arctic will never belong to anyone.
Shortly after I moved to Svalbard, a storm hit the valley where the dogs lived. Before the governor closed the road and evacuated part of town, I drove out to the yard with a couple of coworkers. We would spend the night there to make sure the dogs were safe.
It felt like the end of the world. The storm hadn’t started yet, but the weather report said it would be bad. A bomb of anticipation had exploded and left a quiet layer of eeriness in its wake.
We spent the whole night chasing everything the wind threw down—mostly doghouses, equipment. The shed holding all the sleds collapsed. It rained and rained. We made a fire inside the barracks and sat on reindeer hides, and whenever all the dogs started barking we went to check on them. They were made for those conditions; many of them were still outside their houses, wagging their tails and trying to play in thirty-meter-a-second wind. Carmen was sleeping outside, under her house. In the barracks, I drifted in and out of sleep and felt like the roof was going to fly off, like the windows would shatter.
They followed each other in a clump, bounding toward whatever strange thing happened to be in front of them, and this was how they found the world: waiting for them, endless.
“Let’s go feel the weather,” Trude, my coworker, said. We got in the truck, drove to the middle of the road and cut the engine. She told me she loved the north because of its power, the elemental forces that humans could never compete with. I thought she was right; maybe that’s why this lifestyle had become so intriguing to me. There’s something to be said about feeling powerless, about realizing the scale of how small we are.
When we climbed out to feel how strong the wind was, it was almost impossible to open the door. I remember standing outside and feeling like the gale could carry me, like if I let myself go I could just be gone.
The successful expeditions were the ones that merged with the landscape and forces that ruled it. Fridtjof Nansen built a ship designed to get stuck in pack ice, which would carry him farther north than any of his predecessors. There was no point in trying to subdue that which always continued.
Instinct wins. The dogs have a switch that flips and there’s no shaking them from it; two dominant males fight to kill, a wandering reindeer will send some dogs into hunting mode, the pack tries to take out the weakest of their own. Times like those, a veil comes over their eyes and they disappear into their own nature. It once took three people to make one of the males release his hold on another dog’s ear.
I searched for that level of boldness in myself: breaking up fights by pinning the dogs down and biting their ears; growling; rewarding good behavior through play and affection. It was a new way of speaking, a voice I had never used before.
In front of us, the same cabin we had passed fifteen minutes ago appeared again. We had gone in a big circle and not realized it. We were trapped in the belly of something.
We tried again. All we had to do was find the road. Carmen started pulling to the right on her own, and I stopped the sled to correct her. There wasn’t enough snow for the anchor to hold, so I couldn’t leave the sled to guide the team myself.
“Gå fram!” Go forward. She turned to look back at me with a stubborn gaze as if she was unimpressed, unfazed by this whole situation. She always had her own ideas, as any good leader does.
According to Barentsz, the sea was filled with so many bowhead whales that ships had to break paths through them; a person could walk across the fjord on their backs.
“Come on, Carmen, let’s go,” I told her. Still nothing—she wasn’t convinced. She kept trying to pull to the right.
I gave in and let her lead. To drive dogs is to yield to unpredictability, to at some point release control. She was the expert at navigation, even when there wasn’t a trail in front of her. Sometimes it felt like she was the one training me.
People came north to make something known out of the unknown. The human mind wants to understand it all; it longs for knowledge or some glimmer of meaning. It wants to know the world, what’s beyond the ice, when the storm will end. It wants to run and keep running.
The silence and noise of dogsledding: when the sleds and gang lines and harnesses come out, the dogs lose it. It’s a cacophony of barking and crying and howling. They have only one desire: to go. They are impatient; they throw out a lifesaver and drag me to the surface.
And then: the release of the anchor, the release of sound. The sled goes flying forward whether you’re on it or not, and the dogs are focused, mute except for the push of their paws through snow, the steady rhythm of their breath. Silence. Dog and landscape meet: bold, harmonious, complete. I feel the tension draining from all of us as we settle into the cadence of motion. We turn, alert, to the present moment.
Svalbard is a dream lost upon waking, the kind you startle from and feel but can’t explain. We walk around with outstretched arms in the dark, looking for the right words; we come up empty-handed.
The first mention of Svalbard is in Old Norse historical documents, the Icelandic Annals of 1194, which state, “Svalbar∂i fundinn—the land of the cold coasts has been found.” There is no documented evidence of this journey, nor is there clarification on what the cold coast was; it could have been the edge of an island, the edge of pack ice, the edge of anything.
Even a year after her death, what I remember most about Carmen is her eyes. Bright, sharp and glacial blue, they almost seemed to mirror the landscape itself. She ran with the wind, and then she became it.
The sound came out of nowhere: howling, one drawn-out song between the dogs and the Earth. It was as if they were calling to us. Carmen was leading us toward the sound, and the whole team started running faster, sure of where they were going. The outline of the mine materialized, and then the small cabins surrounding it in the valley. The real world began there.
We were on the cold edge of something—somewhere between lost and found, between dog and human nature. All I had to do was hold on, watch the arched bodies of the team as they ran. We had made it, but I knew it wouldn’t be the last time. There are hundreds of ways to get lost in the north, to get swallowed whole by the landscape. So many times, the dogs have pulled me forward; we run toward the brink of what we know, and we continue until there’s only blank space, all the uncharted territory of mind and landscape merging, and then we work our way back home.
Kelsey Camacho guides dogsledding trips in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, where she is also learning how to knit sweaters. Her nonfiction and poetry has appeared in Proximity, Entropy, Coldnoon and elsewhere. She was recently a writer in residence at Artica Svalbard, where she began writing an essay collection based on her experience in the Arctic.
Lead image: Aaron Burden