Winter, How Do I Love Thee?

I love this short post by Dave Olsen, our friend out on the east end of Great Slave Lake.  You can read it here:  April 29th.

I admire this writing, concise and yet so aptly descriptive.  I love the aha moment of recognition of a shared experience or feeling, combined with  the admiration of seeing that experience described so perfectly.  Spare words in exactly the right places – that’s the feeling I get reading this, and often the feeling I get reading poetry.  And I am inspired by the sentiment, shared amongst many long time northerners.  Dave loves the long northern winter and tells us exactly why. I confess to being not quite there yet – I love PARTS of winter for sure, but I am most happy when its gone for a while, and we enjoy again the open water, the tirelessly long daylight, and the life that comes back to the land – especially the birds.  The great birds have been migrating past – we’ve seen swans, sandhill cranes and snow geese.  The other day I had a bike ride on the ice road with a pair of  eagles swooping around me.  Now the seagulls are everywhere – each small rock has a pair settling into nesting and raising young, and we have ducks swimming around our floating houseboat – all manner of ducks.  The Arctic terns are back too – they are a rather vicious bird if you get too close, and they have a rough cry, but they are beautiful and graceful, with their sleek black heads, and small white hurtling bodies.  I love that they fly all the way from the Antarctic every year – can you imagine what they must see?  The frogs in the marsh are singing with the joy of spring as well.  I’ve even seen a couple fish swimming in the open water along the shores. And the marsh last week was full of pussy willows, a giant fuzzy forest of them, each bush covered with little upright grey bulbs on every tip – like a surreal forest with lights.  This week they are gone as they begin to transform themselves into leaves.  It’s such an exciting time.  Goodbye winter.

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Ice Castle and Long John Jamboree

Spring is in the air around here – suddenly the air is filled with bird song, the frogs are waking up from their long winters sleep, and the lake ice is melting.  Soon Houseboat 28 will be floating again.  It’s hard to believe that only 6 weeks ago we were walking over to see events at the fabulous Ice Castle on the lake, and celebrating the winter at the Long John Jamboree, Yellowknife’s annual winter carnival.

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This year for the first time I had more time than usual to take in the winter carnival and enjoy the concerts on at the castle throughout the month of March.  To my enduring regret, I had to work the night the Norwegian musician performed a concert on instruments he made on the spot, from the ice.  Can you imagine?  My favorite addition to the castle this year was all the windows made from clear lake ice.

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Ice windows at the snow castle

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Light fixture made of ice – who knew?

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ice window – detail

Ice xyolophone

Ice xylophone

The ice castle featured its usual rooms – dance hall, coffee bar, ice sitting area, band stand, children’s outdoor play area, and the fabulous ice slide, with great views over the lake from the top of the stairs.  There was also the annual art show.

Frozen coffee shop at the castle

Frozen coffee shop at the castle

Dance hall in the castle

Dance hall in the castle

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View from the top of the slide - endless free parking on the lake.

View from the top of the slide – endless free parking on the lake.

The castle, as usual, had amazing details throughout.

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Outside the castle there were the carvings – the local snow carvings, and the international ice carvings competition.  The snow carvings lasted the month, the detail gradually eroding and wobbling as the sun affected the surface of the snow.  The ice carvings came and went quickly –  it was very warm this year.  The crowd favorite and winning entry was the amazing mosquito with his delicate ice legs and wings.

Ice mosquito

Ice mosquito

snow bar carving - front

Drunken snow bar carving

Snow dragon

Snow dragon – a bit melted now

Snow King's ice garden

Snow King’s ice garden

ice whale emerging from ice water

ice whale emerging – how did the get the body of the whale inside the block of ice??

Another favorite of mine this year was the beer garden – who wouldn’t love this bar? I heard it was a joint effort by all the ice carvers.  What fun.

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Out on the lake, the dog sled races went on for 3 days – the start and finish line was right outside our door.  It was exciting to watch.

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Not a racer

Not a racer

Snow King, the man behind the castle, for some 25 years now.

Snow King, the man behind the castle, for some 25 years now.

Thanks Snow King, for another GREAT season at the castle!!

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A Paris State of Mind

Paris in the spring was a revelation to me – that a city could be filled with such beauty and civility was beyond my imagination.  It pays significant homage to the architecture and history of the old and revered, but its still very alive, especially in the surprising ways that the best of what is new finds a place there, enhancing the old and showing it in a new light. For example, one of my favorite memories of Paris was our late afternoon snack and glass of wine at the cafe in the Musee d’Orsay.  The cafe is in a grand old room, decorated in the traditional style – the walls iced with gold like a cake decoration, the high ceiling covered in fat blue cupids, and the chandeliers dripping cut glass all over the place, like a glaze on a dessert.  But underneath, the chairs are modern – hard plastic molded in startling deep jewel tones.  AMAZING.

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In another cafe in the same museum, the best of modern design is lit with light streaming through a huge glass clock face.  The museum is housed in a vast old train station, and while it must have been breathtaking as such, it is now a stunning place for its current collection of sculpture and art.  The idea that a building can show case art in a way that enhances the whole experience, rather than just protects it from the elements, helps me to understand the audacious vision realized in Paris.

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And the vision continues. The Foundation Louis Vutton is a new museum in Paris, designed by Frank Gehry, one of my favorite modern architects.  After having seen a few of his buildings in Spain, I found this design to be intriguingly different.  Its still recognizably Gehry, but with a French twist.  It reveals itself slowly, in many layers, as one slowly penetrates to the upper floors, with the stunning peakaboo views of the city framed by the enclosing wings of the building.

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And of course, this building was designed to showcase art.  I fell head over heels in love with the temporary exhibit on display there, a walk through the works of art that were turning points, touchstones, in the art of the last century or so.  I can’t help but think that the way these works were presented may have played some part in the way the works evoked powerful feelings in me as I gazed upon and then fell into them.  My favorite, and recurring, reaction to the art I saw in Paris was of delighted recognition – just like finding a line of poetry that described something I’d exactly felt, but in a better way that I could have ever imagined.  Its like finding someone who knows your innermost experiences even more than you do.  That happy surprise of being recognized made me laugh out loud time and time again.  My very favorite works a the Foundation Louis Vutton exhibit were some landscapes by Ferdinand Holder, someone I’d not previously known. His landscapes with their distant lake edges below wild mountain vistas, under clouds of purple and orange called up something in me that recognized those very landscapes in my own soul, although I’d not known of them before that moment. Somehow they seemed very fitting in that airy space.

photo credit - wikiart

photo credit – wikiart

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Shift

On the Arctic Ocean - photo by Martin Garcia

On the Arctic Ocean – photo by Martin Garcia

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Everything they say about Paris in the spring is true.

Both the Spaniard and I have been away for the past few weeks.  He has been traveling by dog team on the Arctic Ocean, while I have gone in the opposite direction, to experience Paris in the spring time.  When we left home it was winter, still cold and windy, and now we are home again and suddenly it is spring. The snow is gone, the days are sunny and long, and the temperatures are suddenly above zero.  The transition happens quickly ever year, so quickly that its always a shock.  Things are the same for so long, until suddenly, they are not.  (And as a result, the changes are a gift – the sight of the birds returning becomes incredibly moving, for example.) Both the Spaniard and I have changed too.  Seeing Paris in the spring time has shown me a culture that embraces beauty, and not just beauty, but beauty with substance, that best of all combinations.  That people can live and work surrounded by all of this all of the time is a revelation to me.  For the Spaniard, the way he has been changed by his trip has yet to be revealed to me, but I do not doubt that his experience on the land is percolating inside him in mysterious and powerful ways.  And no doubt our relationship to each other has also changed in subtle ways, after the rare experience of being apart for so long.

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At Monet’s Garden in Giverney

Street art - Paris

Street art – Paris

The lake ice that surrounds our floating home and is our roadway is also changing – while its depth is the same, the structure of the ice is changing quickly, almost in front of our eyes.   It’s no longer the black ice of winter, but now the white ice of spring, so that it still looks as if it has snow on it. We can no longer drive on the ice.  It’s melting along the edges, and soon we will have some open water to cross as we walk back and forth from our house to shore.  Along with the changing ice, the artifacts of the winter past reveal themselves.  Anything on the ice warms it and melts it faster, so all those fast food containers and piles of dog poo have created small depressions or pools in the ice.  It’s the same process that is happening all over the Arctic in a bigger way – artifacts of ancient civilizations, buried under the snow and ice for centuries, are now coming to the surface for the first time.  Any walk now finds me coming home with my pockets filled with trash, a reluctant archeologist.  (Although yesterday I also found a full bottle of beer, which isn’t as much as a treasure to me as it would be to some.)

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Luxembourg Gardens

The snow has sublimated, changed directly from a solid into a gas phase, bypassing the more prosaic and tedious exercise of transitioning from solid to water, and then to gas.  I can only look on this with admiration, as I too would like to sublimate myself, changing from my fully human self, complete with the usual human baggage of messy emotions, periods of being asleep and periods filled with anxieties for this world (ISIS, the drought in California, climate change) to reach my potential, of being a creature filled with peace and joy, and being a channel of this for those around me.

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Monet’s workshop

Statue detail

Statue detail

I am lucky to live in a country where the likelihood of living under the ISIS control is low.  And yet I can imagine the fear and terror of those who are exposed to a violent regime that values ideology over people.  I do worry that the drought in California will have a real effect on me;  I live in a climate with no hope of food security, and we rely heavily on imported food from California.  And I live in a region that is one of the most affected to date by climate change.  Already this year the lake is lower than anyone here has seen it for decades, and there are a pile of rocks right outside my door that are usually underwater.  We lived through the suffocating smoke of forest fires all of last summer, and by all predictions this summer won’t be much different.  My window on the world is a microcosm of what is happening in the big world beyond my horizon.

My garden is in your eyes - advertisement for an art show in Paris

My garden is in your eyes – advertisement for an art show in Paris

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Each day I walk the dogs and find my way over the changing ice.  The structure of the changing crystals is visible in both the ice color and its surface characteristics.  It doesn’t take long, looking at something everyday, to develop some expertise in reading it.  And soon I will be weaving a crooked path across the surface of the lake, as I seek out the strongest ice, the ice that will bear my weight while all around is melting, changing, and shifting.

Light through a stained glass window

Light through a stained glass window

Whether we will sink or swim remains to be discovered.

Winged Victory, the Louvre

Winged Victory, the Louvre

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The Return of the Spaniard

To my delight, Martin called me yesterday to tell me he and Max are safely back from their dog sled expedition on the Arctic sea ice.  They have at least arrived back in Inuvik, having returned to Tuktoyaktuk by sled, and then by hitching on a semi truck (along with the gear, sled and 11 dogs) to Inuvik.

He sounds well, and is happy to be back.  It was hard to be in the ‘horrible horrible horrible’ wind for the full 16 days – of course it feels much colder than the air temperature when the wind blows like that.  He sent me a photo of a tired and haggard man with a red frost and wind bitten face, and a big smile.

At this point they still have no idea how they will get back to Yellowknife – the truck in still in Simpson awaiting the part, and theoretically it should be repaired soon.  Good thing too, as the ice bridge from Fort Simpson to the shore will close down on Wednesday until the MacKenzie river melts and runs again and the ferry can get back into business.  This usually takes 4 – 6 weeks I think.

As for me, I’m off to Paris for a 2 week holiday with my girlfriends, so while the men are working their way home, I will be enjoying some great cafes in the Parisian spring.  I don’t think the wind chill will be a problem.

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The Crying Scene

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Note the Inuit traditional style sled, or komatik.

When you live in a mountain town like Nelson, you get to see many adventure film documentaries.  There is the annual ski movie, the annual mountain bike movie, the local films, and the traveling film shows, like my favorite, The best films of the Banff Mountain Film Festival. (Both Nelson and Yellowknife have been on the tour since the very beginning, which says something about the folks in both places I think – this might very well be a new and reliable marker for great communities to live in.)  So I’ve seen many, and I’m always inspired.  So inspired in fact that I come home every year from the BMFF on fire with a desire to see my own film up there on the big screen.  After a few years of resisting that impulse, I decided to look at it differently.  I probably don’t need to quit my job and spend 2 years learning how to be a documentary film maker, and I may never see my film in the best of BMFF, but I could buy a camera and make short, amateur films for fun.  So this spring I bought a GoPro to get me started, just in time for Martin’s trip.  (I kind of wish I was going along to document the whole adventure, although every night when I curl up in my cozy bed I’m quite happy to be there.)  So I sent Martin off with strict instructions to take lots of photos and shoot some video and generally try to capture some of his experience on film.  And I specifically told him to make sure he doesn’t forget the crying scene.

The crying scene is an essential element of any epic adventure story.  After months/years of planning/training/fundraising, the brave adventurer sets off, finally and joyfully underway.  Eventually there arise the unforeseen and uncontrollable challenges that create additional difficulties, difficulties which usually require significant planning and detouring/delays in the journey, and that in fact may threaten the ultimate success of the venture.  At some point, after days/months/years of backbreaking slogging in wind/rain/dust/cold/solitude/high altitude, battling adverse weather/distance/political boundaries/health conditions/financial destitution, our hero is worn beyond measure.  This leads to the crying scene.  This scene often involves Hero laying down by the side of the trail, or taking shelter from the vicious elements.  Hero is interviewed by companion, up close and candidly.  Hero is physically exhausted, thin, worn, dirty, often ill and emotionally fragile.  Hero expresses the pain of the journey and the heartbreak of the realization that his vision may not be realized.  Hero cries, openly or silently, according to personality.

I wasn’t actually expecting Martin to film a crying scene.  I know him better than that – at times of adversity he’s much more likely to get mad and to stomp around, and he might just throw the camera down some crevasse.  I’m the crier in this family.  So although he is not crying, t it seems like they have arrived at the crying scene part of their journey.  They have come up against jumbled ice.

006According to wikipedia, jumble ice is a phenomenon that occurs when ice atop a river or other flowing body of water fractures due to the different flow rates beneath the ice. On a lake, pond, or other stationary body of water, ice forms undisturbed and generally does not move as long as the entire surface of the body of water is frozen. When a river freezes, water flow typically continues beneath the ice, exerting pressure on it. If the ice fractures, pieces of ice torn free by the river’s current will collide with stationary or slower-moving pieces. After becoming stuck in place, the loosened pieces of ice refreeze irregularly, causing a rough, or jumbled, surface.  Jumble ice is a hazard for winter travelers, as the broken “ground” formed by the jumble ice can cause accidents or injuries to sled dogs. (And fireball Spanish husbands.)

Max and Martin are on sea ice of course, which is also prone to jumble ice, and it can extend for 100s of miles.  And they have been dealing with jumble ice for nearly the entire trip.  Imagine trying to ski and route find and get a 14 foot sled through those conditions.

IMG_5187Although they are skiing for 6 or 7 hours per day, they haven’t been making the 30 km/day distances that they had conservatively planned.  Its been more like 20.  Although they went out with plenty of food to spare, they have realized that at their current rate of travel, they will not make it to their food drop location in Paulotuk without running out of dog food and probably people food.  And as Martin said “This is no place to run out of food.”

So yesterday they turned around and are now heading back to Tuktoyaktuk.  Today is day nine of the trip, their first rest day (the dogs have been fighting and are torn up – punctured legs, torn ears, loose teeth.  Plus they may be having a crying day too, who knows?).  It will take them another week to return to Tuk, and then the fun of figuring out the new logistics begins.  How will they get to Inuvik- can they sled there on the winter ice road still?  How will they get their food drop gear back from Paulotuk to Inuvik?  Then how will they get home?  They can fly of course, at great expense – 2 people, 11 dogs, some 8000 dollars, or drive.  But where is the vehicle?  Aha, interesting question…

Our friend Fred volunteered to take a few holiday days and fly from Yellowknife to Inuvik to drive the truck home, as the guys were planning a one way trip ending in Kugluktuk, which has no road access. (Apparently Fred is one of those people who think a 3000 km car ride is fun.)  He saw it as a great opportunity to see the scenery, including the spectacular Dempster Highway.

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all photos courtesy of the internet

Digression: I too once drove the Dempster, for the view.  Unfortunately it was in the middle of a forest fire so we saw not one thing.  (We did get 5 flat tires, put 800 km on the lawnmower sized spare, stopped twice at the only service station or sliver of civilization on the 800 km road – what else, a tire repair shop – AND we even had two flats at once, which we managed to McGyver with a miniature toy bicycle pump long enough to limp our way off the Dempster, wobbling a little with the undersized spare).   I think you get the idea – its rugged, even in the summer.  Imagine it in the winter.  Wait a minute – this sounds like good material for an adventure film too!

Tombstone Valley, off the Dempster. I have hiked here and its spectacular.

Tombstone Valley, along the Dempster. I have hiked here in the summer, and it’s spectacular.

When the guys realized they might have to turn around, Martin called me to see if Fred had left Inuvik with the truck yet.  Of course there is no cell coverage on the Dempster, but I managed to track him down via his two way satellite based ‘spot’ device, which sends GPS location information and can also text.  Turns out he was at Eagle Plains, also known and the only service on the Dempster, some 400 km south of Inuvik. ( and the tire repair shop too.)  Fred managed to call me, and it went like this:

Fred:  I only have 60 seconds to talk

Tandi:  &(*^#())!!

Fred: I can’t go back to Inuvik.  There is a blizzard and the road is closed.  It will be closed-

Operator:  Your 60 seconds have expired.  Please deposit another 25 cents.

Tandi:  *$)(%&%^&!!

Fred:  The road will be closed for days.  I had to drive through 2 feet snow drifts. It was so windy it was windy INSIDE the truck.  Beautiful-

Operator: Your 60 seconds have expired.  Please deposit 35 cents.

Ring Tone.

Eventually, I was able to find out that the road from Inuvik to Eagle Plains had been closed for 3 days, and only opened for a few short hours, which was exactly when Fred wanted to get through.  It was then closed again.  Fred said the scenery was amazing though. So Fred continued on home with the truck.  Until a few days later, when I got another text from his spot.

“Truck going to break down.  Am limping along.  Should I go forward to Fort Simpson or back to Fort Liard?”

“Truck broken down.”

Tandi to self:  Who do I know who knows if there is a tow truck or gas station in either of these places? (Mike, our pilot friend knew – definitely go to Simpson.) Do I know a doctor who lives there? (No, that is in fact Fort Smith, no where near Fort Simpson.)  Via the miracle of modern technology, I managed to call Alberta Motorist Association who were so very kind as to let me sign up Fred for a membership, via his text and my cell phone.  They then dispatched a tow truck, at no charge.  (It took longer than you’d think – their maps did not include Fort Simpson, and we hit a brief snag when they wanted to send a tow truck from Inuvik, some 2000 km away, but they were so very nice.)

So now the truck rests, its own crying scene finished, at the garage in Fort Simpson, awaiting the end of the Easter weekend and resumption of normal services.  Fred is at home.  The dogs are having a rest day.  Martin and Max are no doubt eating dinner right now.  They’ve had a good day too.

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So I Married an Arctic Adventurer

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This is the before the trip photo

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Max and Martin have embarked on their great northern adventure, the dog sled and ski trip from Tuktoyaktuk to Kugluktuk, on the Arctic ocean.  After a long and tiring week of travel by truck from Yellowknife to Tuk, they have now set off with 11 enthusiastic dogs, one 14 foot sled, 2 pairs of skis, one GoPro video camera, and about 900 pounds of gear.

Will it all fit?

Will it all fit?

Martin's gear, except for the food bins

Martin’s gear, except for the food bins

Just getting to the starting point was a trip in itself.  They drove 3000 km in the big truck, bulging with 11 dogs, 1700 pounds of gear, (half of which they shipped ahead from Inuvik for a half way resupply) and a sled.  From Yellowknife they travelled southwest into northern British Columbia, then northwest to Whitehorse, then north along the Dempster highway to Inuvik, and finally onto the last leg, the winter ice road to Tuk.  As the crow flies that’s a distance of several hundred km, but alas, there is only one road to the coast in these parts.  The drive was long, and made longer by the fact that they stopped every 4 hours to let out the  dogs for a stretch and walk.    They were of course bouncing with enthusiasm for the adventure, and well rested after doing nothing for days.  Martin says the dogs are great, quite lovely but also big strong bruts who are very hard to take for a walk!

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That rare breed, a Canadian Inuit Dog

He called me from the camp near Whitehorse one night and the call went something like this:

Martin:  Hi Tandi.  We are here in BARK! BARK! Whitehorse, setting BARK! up our    camp BARK BARK! 

Tandi:  Hi Martin.  It sounds pretty noisy.

Martin:  BARK! BARK BARK!  Yes, it is. BARK! The dogs are staked out BARK near the tent.  BARK BARK! It might BARK be a noisy night BARK BARK!

And it was.  I expect they all are.

They have been traveling on the ice for 5 days now, and via the miracle of the satellite phone, I just got off the phone with Martin.  (I don’t know how the spouses of those first polar explorers did it – years and years without any news.  I’d be paralyzed with worry.  It’s really great to hear from him every few days and just know he is okay.)  It wasn’t a great connection, so I missed the part where he was describing the beauty of the land, and it’s too cold for him to uncover his ear for very long, but I was able to glean a bit of news.  It hasn’t been very easy so far.   The weather has been bitterly cold, with significant wind coming from the east, with wind chills near minus 40 most of the time.  They unfortunately have to spend the whole day skiing east, right into it, and they’ve both had a bit of minor frostbite.  The skies have been overcast, which makes for flat light and difficult skiing conditions, as it is hard to see the contours of the snow.  The going is very slow – one of them skis out in front of the dogs, to help with the route finding, and by taking turns every 90 minutes in this way they travel 7 hours per day.  They are moving slower than they expected.  Along with wind and the cold snow (which means the skis don’t glide at all) they have to cross pressure ridges, areas where two plates of ice have come up against each other, and have created a ridge, or wall of ice, which must either be crossed by going over, or around.  There are lots of pressure ridges.

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Special ski bindings which you can use with any warm winter boot - much warmer than a ski boot

Special ski bindings which you can use with any warm winter boot – much warmer than a ski boot.  These are made in Australia and were found through the power of the internet.  How did the early explorers manage without it?

Martin says the solitude is amazing, wide open endless white in all directions, although they have seen the sun shining on the cliffs along the coastline, off to the south.

While they are mainly warm enough, the real challenge is to keep dry.  The dampness that arises in the sleeping bags and tent at night has to be overcome, as once the gear is wet it is no longer warm.   With only a cook stove its hard to dry things, but they are managing.

The caribou skin is for sleeping on - incredibly warm

The caribou skin is for sleeping on – incredibly warm.  Note the big fur overmitts for driving the sled,(complete with a harness to allow for them to slip off and on easily), and the anorak with a big hood and wolverine fur trim

Warm fleece under layer - this one has been up Mount Everest!  ( A cast off from  Everest guide Tim Rippel)

Warm fleece under layer – this one has been up Mount Everest! ( A cast off from Everest guide Tim Rippel)

Martin sounds good, but says it very hard going, and he is tired.

Do take care my love, take very good care.

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