We found our new world in the Arctic
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The challenge and adventure we’d dreamed of in Europe turned tame in Toronto and Vancouver—until our isolated, perilous and wonderful year inside the Arctic Circle
“It happened to us”
This Is another of the series of personal-experience stories that will appear from time to time In Maclean's . . . stories told h.v Its readers about some interesting dramatic event in their lives.
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It was noon on a January day. The southerly horizon had brightened rapidly lor the past half hour and suddenly my four sled dogs stopped their even trot. I looked up, too, and stared at the flaming red ball that rose over the hill, enveloped the frozen Arctic lake and its surrounding mountains in a golden-red glow for a half a minute, and sank. The sun had come back.
As so many times before 1 felt 1 should pinch myself to realize I was not dreaming, that it was really 1 who was clad in a hand-made caribou parka and driving a dogteam, my own dogteam, through deep powdery snow toward my logcabin home fifty miles north of the Arctic Circle. It had only been a dream a year before. Now it was real life.
When my husband, Peter, and I arrived in Canada from Berlin in 1952 we were just like any other New Canadians. Although we had no money we had many hopes and wishes. But Peter and 1 did not dream of security. We wanted adventure.
It seems almost unbelievable now, after having lived and worked in two of Canada’s biggest cities, that when we came here we expected to find a frontier. Instead, we stepped off the train into the heart of streamlined Toronto where there were more automatic gadgets and pushbutton controls than we had ever imagined using back home. It would have been easy and normal for us to take up a comfortable urban existence. But in spite of the lure of the automatic washing machines and TV sets, or perhaps because of them, we did not lose sight of our dream. We did not want to grow old without having known the other side, the more primitive and down-to-earth way of life.
Toronto offered us the opportunity to find jobs and save hard. In Germany Peter had been a white-collar man; in Toronto he swept a factory
floor. In Berlin I had studied secretarial English; in Canada 1 had a chance to put it to use. Then we joined the Toronto J^ublic Library and began studying our new continent.
That was when our Arctic adventure really began. The more we read about the North, the more surely we knew there would be time for civilization later. First we wanted to find out whether we had the stuff in us to pitch a tent at seventy below. We wondered how long an Arctic night would seem.
Our first move was westward. We crossed the continent in an old Ford car, and on our way we visited Bud Helmericks, an Alaskan big-game guide, lecturer and adventurer. His books had so fired our imagination that we had written asking whether it was possible for us to meet him. Bud had replied promptly, “Please come and visit us at my parents' home in Montrose, if your way should lead through Colorado.”
Upon our arrival in June 1953, Bud and Martha Helmericks and their nine-year-old son, Jimmy, were just packing up to fly back to their fishing business on Alaska’s north coast. During the lew days we stayed with them we became good friends.
When we left them we drove to Vancouver more determined than ever to see that fabulous north country, but to get there wc needed— money. Again we found jobs, and in the evenings we attended a night-school course in prospecting.
Then Bud Helmericks wrote us: “Would you like to join us in Alaska?”
He could use our help, Bud said, during the summer to build a new hunting camp on Walker Lake. In return for our work he promised to initiate us in the Arctic way of life.
"This is not a dream any more, it's reality,”
Peter said that night. continued on page 46
I his was the life we’d yearned fe
We were a hundred miles from the nearest outpost. We had to learn how to live off the land —or starve
Continued from page 24
Rugged mountains separated us from our closest neighbor. Would winter isolate us completely?
“Do you have as much courage as you say you do? No electric lights, no running water or movies,” Peter continued. “Instead, plenty of hard work and many hardships. D’you think you can take it?”
“No better time than now to find out,” I replied.
We made preparations and bought outdoor clothes, a rifle and fishing tackle. Our friends shook their heads. “We wouldn't go even if we were paid for it,” they said. “You're giving up good jobs and security. What for?”
“To fulfill a dream,” we told them.
At the beginning of May 1955, we loaded our equipment into the car and drove to Fairbanks. With our visitors’ visas we were admitted into Alaska for six months. On the first of June a DC3 airliner took us from Fairbanks two hundred miles due north. We had hardly touched down in Betties, about forty-five miles north of the Arctic Circle, when we saw Hclmcricks' Cessna 170, the Arctic Tern, land smoothly on the Koyukuk River.
Bud walked toward us with the long stride of the north. With a broad grin on his boyish face he greeted us. “Welcome to Alaska.”
Half an hour later Peter and I were peering down from the air at the Land of Little Trees, as the Indians call this part of the Brooks Range, and I was thinking, "Here’s the country I have longed to see. I should be extremely happy and excited now.” But somehow when Bud pointed out our future home, Walker Lake, I felt we had hardly left civilization.
As we landed, Martha and Jimmy came running out of a log cabin.
“Is that your standard footgear?” was the first question I asked, pointing at the hip-length wading boots she wore. “Yes, they're most practical,” Martha replied. “You see, I catch our meals fresh from the lake every day.” She led us into a cabin that had no floor or furniture yet, but in one corner stood a shiny new wood-and-coal stove. Martha pointed
proudly to it and explained, “It came by mail order from Seattle to Hughes, a hundred miles south. Bud flies there about once a month and brings all our supplies and mail. Even our two boats came in the Arctic Tern.”
Only then 1 realized how far removed from civilization we really were. A hundred miles of rugged mountains lay between us and our closest neighbor. Just one hour by air, but to get out by any other means would require the hardest kind of travel by canoe and portage. In the winter it might not be possible to get out at all, I thought.
That night Peter and I pitched our ten-by-twelve-foot tent under a group of birch trees. When we were ready to turn in it was still light—we were in the land of the midnight sun. I looked around me. The crystal lake, surrounded by snowcapped mountains about six thousand feet high, was one of the most magnificent spots I had ever seen.
But this was no holiday. To me it seemed we hardly did anything else the first month but fell spruce trees, peel ofT their bark and drag them out of dense underbrush to the building site. We were constructing a log cabin with two rooms, one for Bud’s future hunting guests and one for storage of equipment. We also helped Bud finish his own tworoom cabin.
This work was new to us, as were the head nets we had to wear to protect ourselves against clouds of bloodthirsty mosquitoes. Bud showed us how to notch the logs and fit them into each other, and how to chink the cracks with moss.
“I hope you can handle it from now on,” he said one day in July. “Martha, Jimmy and I are going to spend the next two months on the Colville Delta, fishing.”
But the night before the Helmericks left an important decision was made. “Why don’t you stay and live in the guest cabin this winter?” they suggested. “We'll be spending part of the winter in our own cabin here. We should have a wonderful time together.”
A winter in the Arctic! Peter and I agreed enthusiastically.
Left alone on Walker Lake. Peter and I felt like real pioneers. In that northern solitude, with no means of signaling for help if we needed it, one slip of the axe or one bad fall could have been fatal, but we discovered that our natural response to isolation was the use of common everyday caution.
We must have made an odd pair of pioneers. Peter, six feet tall and muscular, soon became proficient in notching logs and building the walls of our cabin. But I, five feet tall and a puny ninetysix pounds, showed no remarkable skill with axe and saw. I gathered moss for insulation and drilled pegholes, but some of the holes were so cockeyed they came out at the side. "When the cabin is finished,” I resolved. “I will not touch another log.” How wrong I was!
If I was not much help in cabin building, at least I became a good wilderness cook. Luckily I never faced the question, "What shall I cook today?” Our standard diet during the summer was fish— trout and arctic grayling were plentiful —supplemented with home-baked bread, cornmeal, sugar, powdered milk and tea. Things like eggs and fresh vegetables were unobtainable. Not that we missed them; the diet of fish three times a day seemed to make us stronger and healthier than ever.
The Helmericks returned from their expedition at the end of August. They had news. “Our scintillation counter clicked decidedly when we flew over a spot about seventy-five miles from here. It's high in the mountains.”
Uranium! In our moneyless state Peter and I were quite determined to follow up the signals. We flew to a small unnamed lake, the closest to our goal we could find. Bud arranged to return to pick us up ten days later, and took off again.
As Peter and I shouldered our heavy packs we said little. Later we confessed to each other the thought of being utterly alone in unmapped country had bothered us both. All we knew about our route was what we had seen from the air, and winter was just around the corner.
Our objective was a bowl-shaped valley, and to reach it we covered forty miles of rugged terrain. And all this walking was done in hip-length wading boots! Peter was right when he said, “Surely a more uncomfortable foot-gear has never been invented.”
We came home to Walker Lake without having found uranium or any other mineral. But we had found something almost as valuable to us, confidence. After this trip we felt we could handle any situation that might arise.
This confidence was put to the test on a windy October day. just before freeze-up. We were hauling firewood in two canoes. Peter and 1 sat in one while we towed the other and—typical of our inexperience—the wood load was poorly distributed. Suddenly a stiff breeze sent water splashing over the gunwales. Within two minutes the canoe in tow capsized. I grabbed my pocketknife and cut the towline. We kept shipping water as we crept on toward shore, slowly, so very slowly. But we made it. Then Peter remarked in his casual manner. “Do you know that human beings can survive only a few minutes in water that cold?” I shuddered.
During the first week of October, while the water was still open, the Helmericks had to fly their floatplane out again.
“We'll be looking after our fishing business for the next three months,” they
told us. “But you’ll be okay. You can expect us back around Christmas.”
On our own again, we lived without feeling the pressure of civilization's deadlines. Clothes had to be made or mended, caribou shot and skinned, water hauled, firewood cut and split. Yes, there I was back again at the other end of Peter's saw\ felling trees and saw'ing them into stove-size pieces.
On October 23 winter came. Quickly, quietly and peacefully. That afternoon the lake froze over in a few' hours. Almost immediately it grew colder, first ten below', then twenty and thirty. We were glad to have a cabin rather than tent walls around us. We huddled near the drum heater we had made from an old oil barrel. Our tent stove was mounted on top of the heater for cooking. Our sleeping bags were spread on the floor. Bunk-bed. table and bench were not made yet and our door was still a small piece of canvas. The window panes— flown in from Hughes — were covered with heavy frost. I've had better homes, but of this one I was very proud. I had helped build it. At last 1 was an Arctic housewife.
Meal planning was again no trouble at all. Hunting season had opened in September and now we had meat instead of fish. For dessert we had blueberries and cranberries I had picked in the fall, put up in old butterkegs and frozen in the biggest deep-freeze any housewife could want — the whole outdoors.
“Your turn” meant jump
Hunting caribou was a necessity, not only for the meat but also for their skins. Peter shot our own parkas on the hoof. He is no man to kill for the sake of killing, but when you must eat and clothe yourself killing assumes a different aspect.
It was after the shooting and skinning that I came into my own. Now my small size did not matter. I was quite strong enough to push a needle, loaded with sinew, around the rough contours of caribou fur boots, and I was also quite strong enough to soften the hides in true Eskimo fashion. Peter made a scraper for me from an old shotgun barrel and I worked the hides soft and pliable, and made parkas and fur boots by following the instructions and drawings in the book Oolak’s Brother by Bud Helmericks.
While the temperature dropped steadily until, one night, it reached a minimum of seventy below, I turned out fur clothes, snug and warm. I also made two winter sleeping bags entirely from caribou hides.
People always ask, “How could you stand it? How could you cut wood and hunt in such bitter cold?”
Inside our cabin it was always warm enough; we often opened the door to cool off and the outside air streamed in like dense fog. The drum heater threw too much heat for us to sleep comfortably, and we let the fire go out at night. Then the temperature inside the cabin would drop to about zero.
Getting up in the morning to start the fire was real sport. Peter and I took turns. “Your turn“ meant: jump out of the warm bag. slide into socks and parka, light the gasoline pressure lantern, shove pre-cut kindling into the stove, pile wood on top, hold a match to it and hope for the best.
Peter's first trip each morning was down to the lake where he chopped the ice out of the waterhole and filled two old gasoline cans with water. He hated the days when I decided to wash clothes, because it meant hauling lots of water. But so did I. Not that I minded the
scrub-board, but the washing never seemed to get really clean. I suspect this also applied to us whenever we took a bath in the washtub.
By the beginning of December the sun slipped from our days and we were so busy we did not even notice the date. There was always enough twilight, reflected from brilliantly clear skies, and even moonlight—in the day time—to do the chores by.
One reason for being so busy was our dogs.
The Alaskan game law forbids the feeding of game animals to dogs. We were now faced with learning how to set fish nets under the ice to catch dogfood.
When we tried to set our first net we broke the handles of both ice chisels and Peter worked all evening to make new ones. The second attempt was not much better. We had only just chopped a row of eight holes, about six feet apart in the two-foot-thick ice, when we saw a herd of caribou. We got the rifle and went after them. Coming back several hours later we found all our holes frozen solid.
Next day we started again. When all eight holes were open, we tied a long line to a pole. Peter bared his right arm —it was about thirty-five below—shoved the pole through the hole at one end, guided it to the next hole, and pulled it through for a moment. Then he shoved it on from hole to hole until we could pull it out at the last one. Peter did this only once. After that he smartened up and used two sticks with hooks on the end rather than his arm to reach into the water.
Once the line was under the ice, it was easy to attach the weighted fifty-foot gillnet and pull it under.
In December we ran out of all “civilized” food, such as flour and sugar, but fared well on meat and berries. It was not too much of a hardship—we had good appetites and liked caribou meat. But then we ran out of fuel for our pressure lamp, and that was bad.
I said to Peter, “At least now I don’t have to clean house. Can’t see the dirt anyway.” We had a box of candles to tide us over, but by their light it was difficult to go after our evening occupations of sewing fur clothes, mending snowshoes or typing letters and radio scripts.
Just a few days before Christmas the Arctic Tern, now outfitted with ski landing gear, landed in front of the two cabins. The Helmericks brought staple foods, fuel, parcels and mail—for us the first in three months.
“D’you think we’re missing anything?” Peter asked me.
“Do you?” We were both thinking the same thing. We weren’t missing the outside world any more than it missed us.
Making Christmas preparations was just as much fun as anywhere else. Martha and I baked cakes from flour, moose tallow, and raisins that came from the trading post for seventy-five cents a pound. The men were busy setting traps, splitting wood, hauling water and picking the fish net. Jimmy brought two small trees from the hill and decorated them with wolf hair and aluminum foil.
And then came Christmas morning. I stepped outside and saw the sky brighten to a pale blue. The mountains around us stood in white, lonesome splendor. There was no sound, except the hissing of my own breath. It crystallized as soon as it left my mouth. It was fiftyeight below zero.
This was the Christmas Peter and I had always longed for, so different from the noisy ones in the city. There was no electric light, no running water, no
turkey, no whisky, not even a radio— but there was a real Christmas spirit. We had everything we needed; health and strength and eyes to observe the tremendous beauty around us. We had so much to be thankful for.
As we sat down for our dinner of caribou roast, cranberries and freshly baked bread, we heard a howl in the hills. The wolves were singing. Our dogs outside the cabin raised their furred muzzles and answered the wolves with a savage howl.
We had four huskies now. Bud had brought Duke and Prince from Hughes. They looked very undernourished and their heads and wolf-like teeth appeared unnaturally big. Those two lost no time in showing us they had too much wolfblood to qualify as pets. They began biting each other as soon as they were hitched to the sled.
At the beginning I disgusted and disappointed myself by being frankly afraid of them. “Show them this,” Peter said coolly, handing me a length of chain. “Somebody’s got to be boss. It had better be you.” To tell the truth I was afraid to beat the fighting dogs for fear they would tear me apart. But it was a case of learn to drive dogs or else go back to cutting wood.
So I became a dogsled driver and nothing equalled the sheer delight of this when I had once learned how. I would hitch the dogs in their home-made harnesses and drive the home-made sled up the hill where the firewood was stacked. There I would tie the logs securely to the sled and give the dogs the sign to pull.
It was all downhill with no chance for me to stop the dogs, but I always tried my best to steer the sled around trees and bushes by hanging over to one side or the other like a crewman on a sailing boat. Often the sled overshot the snowshoe trail regardless of my efforts, and I was left digging it and myself out of waist-deep snow, unloading every piece of wood, and bringing it back to the trail. If 1 did not tie them, the dogs would take off for home with the empty sled, me after them! It sure kept me in trim.
“What made me come here?”
I also drove the dogsled on hunting or trapping trips. Peter would take the trail through the woods to service the traps, while I brought the sled, loaded with our sleeping bags and food, over the easiest route to our overnight camp. It required constant vigilance, not only because of the dogs’ liveliness but also because of that unpredictable menace, overflow from the lake. Once I drove the sled for twenty-five miles over Walker Lake toward the overnight camp without mishap, but only a hundred yards from shore I ran into deep slush. The ice had cracked and water had seeped through and remained unfrozen beneath the blanket of snow. Immediately, the sled runners clogged with freezing slush and my snowshoes became like lead weights.
1 pushed and pulled the sled and finally took part of the load on my back, but it took more than an hour to travel the hundred yards to shore. At the end I was so weary and desperate I kept asking myself, "What made me come here?
I wish I was back in town.” Later, when I sat on a caribou skin in the little tent and warmed my hands on the tiny sheetiron stove, my miseries were forgotten again. I chewed a piece of dried caribou meat and it suddenly occurred to me that back in the city I would not have been satisfied with so little. But here I was.
With only meat to eat and only a tent between me and the Arctic cold. I was happy. Life north of the Arctic Circle is in some way a curiously carefree one.
Once a big, grey timberwolf ran afoul of one of our traps. He was only caught by a single claw, but I had been walking the trapline with Peter and would not miss the chance to take pictures. While 1 set up the camera the wolf lay down, but his sparkling green eyes flashed at us in hatred and fear. Then, just as Peter looked away for a second, the big animal leaped high into the air. He was free! Before we recovered from the magnificent spectacle the wolf was hundreds of yards away. Peter fired offhand and missed, then ran after him on his snowshoes, but never got within shooting distance again.
We had let our first wolf get away.
There were other experiences I won’t forget; the sight of the migrating caribou is they walked slowly down our valley; the proud and awe-inspiring call of wolves who hunted them; the spectacle of the northern lights; the sight of the
returning sun and how it made me feel warm and unspeakably happy.
Once the sun was back, time seemed to pass even faster. By March we dared not go outside w'ithout wearing dark glasses and sometimes I ran behind the dogsled in shirtsleeves, although it was still below zero in the shade. It was a wonderful time of the year. But our visas would expire in May, and besides, it was time for us to earn a living again.
We began to prepare ourselves for leaving the Arctic.
“A fresh salad will taste delicious,” I said.
Peter nodded. “D’you know, as soon as I get a job I’m going to learn to fly. It might be useful — sometime — f’rinstance up north—when we come back again.” I looked at him and I knew he meant it .and my heart lightened.
We are planning to go back to see more of the land that, to my mind, has been given its rightful name by the famous Arctic explorer. Dr. Vilhjalmur Stefansson. He called it The Friendly Arctic. ★