Towards the Arctic

The olive oil froze into a gel in the bottle last night.

Amazingly, I slept warm: wool socks topped with big polar fleece socks, a wool shirt under a thermal shirt under a tee and a pullover and a big wool sweater with the hood up over a hat, all inside my sleeping bag.

I lined the sleeping bag with a silk sleep sack, cinched the sleeping bag opening to a tiny hole (which I covered with the silk), turned the tiny hole down toward my mat. I tucked two gloves into the seat of my thermal tights for extra insulation– anything that sticks out gets cold.

It could have been colder– the clear evening grew overcast, bringing night rains.

There’s much more to note about canoeing the Yukon River: the eagles, the sweeping hills. Campsites are cleared for soft tenting, and often have old ruins to explore: wild roses and raspberries thread through collapsed log cabins with grass-covered roofs. Giant mushrooms erupt beside the path.

It’s just: the cold is the constant thing. It’s the thing you worry about, even when the sun shines.

This close to the Arctic, our shadows point north. From the north flies the prevailing wind, icy into our faces.

If the sun is out and the breeze is calm, you can lie back. I put my feet up on the gunwales by the bow, lean back on the drybag that holds our sleeping bags. Flat this way, the wind passes over my rain gear, and the sun reaches every limb.

If you sit up, you have to paddle. Even with two pairs of wool socks in boots and rain pants over pants, the shadow of my torso means my legs will get cold. So we paddle with the current less for propulsion than for muscle warmth.

Then comes the rain.

You can see the storms coming: a dark cloud down the river extends down tentacles of rain. The current pulls. Soon, you see drops on the water, on your rain pants.

Almost everything is waterproof already. Drybags hold our clothes and sleeping bags; our food is stowed in plastic barrels. I pull off my gloves and wool hat, the only things not built to keep wet out. I tuck them into the neck of my raincoat to keep them dry to sleep in.

We paddle for the warmth that effort brings. My knuckles redden in the wind and wet. These hands stay curled at night as though around a paddle. The skin chaps and everyone’s faces have leathered red.

But it’s calm, too. Easy drifting. When the sun comes out, it sparkles on the water. We raft up, point out eagles where they perch. Mountains slip by, giving way to the inevitable: downstream, and north.

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