March 9, 2014

You’d Have To Be Crazy

Unless you’ve been on a media diet for the past five months, you know all about the wicked winter we’re experiencing here on America’s North Coast. The Upper Midwest, normally a wonderland in winter with horse-drawn sleighs, pick-up hockey games on neighborhood ponds, and rosy-cheeked patrons kicking  snow off  boots as they greet friends and sip cocoa at the corner coffee shop, has been pummeled this year by every punch those grinches at the North Pole have in their skills set. Words like “polar vortex” and “arctic blast” have become part of the daily conversation. Double digit below zero temperatures are the norm, and the wind stabs and slices with a shrieking ferocity that urges every Wisconsinite to reconsider a fire and brimstone hell. White-out blizzards with razor-sharp ice seems a more fitting punishment for the eternally damned.

I tried to enjoy it at first. There’s something quite thrilling about sitting next to a fire while the winds howl. I wore plaid and ate chili. I read and did jigsaw puzzles. But how much can one woman take? I grew weary. I, like most of the snow-bound denizens of the Badger State, needed a vacation. I dreamed of sandy beaches, gentle jasmine breezes, and cool drinks with paper umbrellas. Pack me up and point me south. Alas, that guy I’m crazy about had different ideas. “Let’s go dog-sledding”, he said.

“You want to go further north?” I asked after I stopped choking. “You want to head into the belly of this beast?” He reminded me the ice caves on Lake Superior were accessible this year. He promised it would be fun.

This is the guy who asks for nothing. This is the guy who took me to Paris for my birthday four months ago. I smiled, nodded, and tried to calculate how many layers of clothing I could wear while still retaining my ability to bend at the knees. I called his sister. She was up for it. Sure she was. She was raised in Southern California and currently lives in temperate Portland, Oregon. What concept did she have about the need to smear Vasoline on every square inch of exposed skin to avoid frostbite? Common sense be damned! That last week in February Kim flew out with suitcases loaded with everything REI could sell her. We loaded up the SUV and headed north on the heels of a screeching blizzard to Bayfield, Wisconsin.

Bayfield is my favorite spot on the planet…and I’ve been to a lot of spots. It’s a small town filled with kind-hearted folks wanting a simpler life close to nature. Accessible only after driving through the Chequamegon National forest, Bayfield hugs the shores of Lake Superior and is the jump-off point to The Apostle Islands. I once read John F. Kennedy, Jr. also claimed this tiny town as his favorite. Good taste, John-John. In the summer we kayak and hike. In the winter we enjoy the snow-covered quiet. I had never been to Bayfield in a polar vortex. We spent the first day there trudging from the condo to the only sporting goods store in town, where we bought even more gear.

Dog-sledding was our first adventure. We woke early and started dressing. That took nearly an hour. The car’s thermometer read -15 and I wondered why it didn’t come equipped with a robotic voice yelling at us to get back inside. We drove deep into the woods, arrived at the base kennel, and I was immediately handed a pair of mammoth footwear by the lead musher.  “There’s going to be a lot of wind today. You’ll be very cold. Put them on over your boots.”

Boots for my boots? I looked to my man. There was probably still time to catch a flight to Bermuda. But he and Kim were smiling and ready. What we do for love, huh?

So we headed out to the dog yard, picked and harnessed our teams, and climbed onto our sleds. The noise! Scores of dogs yapping and yelling in gleeful anticipation. Our lead mushers hollered warnings to stay on the trail, even if we dumped our sleds. “Step off and you’ll be shoulder deep in snow.” With a three-two-one countdown our sleds were released from their moorings and the screeching and howling dogs fell silent. In an instant all I heard was their panting, the slicing of the sled’s runners through the deep snow, and the whistle of the wind. I held on. The dogs knew what to do. They carried me through forests of naked spruce and lush evergreens. Up hill, the lead dogs looked back at me, urging me to help them out with a kick. Down hill, I stepped on the drag, reminding the dogs they had a rookie driving. The electric blue sky, the endless white of the snowfields, the scent of the pine. My mind knew it was sub-zero with a bone-crushing wind chill. My heart never wanted to leave this heaven.  Three hours later we were back at base, feeding and loving the dogs who had given us such an experience. Meeting the new puppies. Promising to come back next year.

We had dinner at Maggie’s, a restaurant decorated with enough pink flamingos and twinkling lights to make you think you’re in Key West. At one point Kim nodded toward the window. Wrist-thick icicles hung from the eaves as snow whirled in the black night while we warmed our bellies with thick chowder and the best beans and rice north of Nogales. Sleep came early and easy.

Dressing for the ice caves demanded another morning of heaping layer upon layer.  We grabbed our poles, secured cleats to our boots, and stepped out onto the frozen tundra of Lake Superior. It was more than a mile to where the caves began and we hiked over waters so familiar to us by kayak, now a foreign world of blinding white. We were again in sub-zero temperatures with a biting wind, but I soon found my rhythm on the endless ocean of ice and settled into a brisk pace. I was careful to keep my mouth closed. My lungs needed the brief warming the air got travelling from my nose. My eyes watered in the wind and my tears froze to my cheeks. It felt great. I picked up speed, knowing the cleats would steady me. The caves were coming into view and I realized I was seeing something remarkable and rare. I pulled out my camera at the first massive ice formation and slipped out of my double gloves. I learned I could snap photos in rapid succession for about a minute before my finger would cease bending. I’d shove my hand back into my gloves, squeeze the chemical hand warmer I’d hidden inside, and focus on the blood warming again.

We’ve been back home for a week now. The snow is melting. The weather man says it’s may get up to forty degrees today. He promises that storm we had three days ago is the last snow we’ll see until November. Everyone’s smiling, eager for spring. I get it. Come on summer. Let’s have long days and lush green. Open toed shoes and light-as-air sundresses. Le me feel that bead of sweat run down my back.

But there’s something about walking right into the jaws of deep ice that invigorated me in a way I’ve never experienced. I respect you, polar vortex. You can keep your distance, if you don’t mind. But I’ll remember you fondly.