After a fifteen-year career as a sled dog racer, musher Dave Olesen turned his focus away from competition and set out to fulfill a lifelong dream. Over the course of four successive winters he steered his dogs and sled on long trips away from his remote Northwest Territories homestead, setting out in turn to the four cardinal compass points-south, east, north, and west-and home again to Hoarfrost River. His narrative ranges from the personal and poignant musings of a dogsled driver to loftier planes of introspection and contemplation. Olesen describes his journeys day by day, but this book is not merely an account of his travels. Neither is it yet another offering in the genre of 'wide-eyed southerner meets the Arctic,' because Olesen is a firmly rooted northerner, having lived and travelled in the boreal outback for over thirty years. Olesen's life story colours his writing: educated immigrant, husband and father, professional dog musher, working bush pilot, and denizen of log cabins far off the grid. He and his dogs feel at home in country lying miles back of beyond. This book demolishes many of the clichés that imbue writings about bush life, the Far North, and dogsledding. It is a unique blend of armchair adventure, personal memoir, and thoughtful, down-to-earth reflection.
Dave Olesen has a B.A. in Humanities and Northern Studies. A veteran dog musher, he finished the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race eight times. Olesen has lived since 1987 on the northeast tip of Great Slave Lake with his wife, Kristen, and thirty huskies. He works as a bush pilot and guide. Kinds of Winter is his fourth book. His 1994 collection North of Reliance was re-published in a 2016 edition by Raven Productions of Ely Minnesota.
Over the Boulders, Eager.
As the sun went down in late afternoon on the 28th of February 2003, I raised my voice above the roar of wind, calling out gently to the team of huskies stretched ahead of me: "Who-o-oa there now, who-o-oa." The low tone of my command was muffled by the ice-encrusted hood surrounding my face and it did not carry far. The dogs heard me but they hardly slowed at the sound. "What? Surely he's not thinking of making camp here?" I stood heavily on the sled's steel brake claws, forcing them deeper into the wind-packed snow. Our momentum fell off and ten frosty dog faces turned back, baffled, to see what I was going to do next. "Whoa," I said again, and dropped the snow hook. I kicked it down with my thick mukluk. "That'll do. Home sweet home."
It was time to camp, and the blank white sweep of tundra offered no shelter. The northwest gale had dominated our day, howling at us head-on, shifting slightly, probing for weakness like a tireless sparring partner, hour after hour. The rush of air had dropped perceptibly at day's end, but it still packed a wallop. With the temperature near 40 below zero, the wind was still eager to freeze any skin I might carelessly expose to it. I moved forward up the team and unhooked the toggle at the back of each dog's harness. Now my intentions were clear to them all and as they felt the toggles come free they each pissed, shook, circled, and curled up on the snow-tail over nose, furry shoulder turned toward the brunt of the wind. Work done, day over . call us when supper's ready, boss.
The dogs and I were about halfway between the upper Thelon River and the east end of Great Slave Lake. We were westbound for home, with about a hundred miles to go. It was time to stop the day's marching, dig in, pitch the tent, cook food for us all, and rest for the night. We would find no oasis of spruce trees, no cozy hut on these rolling plains. One barren hillside was as good as the next and darkness was coming on.
I started the chores. The dogs would sleep in harness that night, stretched out in pairs across a smooth blank slope, so I only had to secure the forward end of their gangline to one of the stout aluminum pickets I carried in the sled. I walked to the head of the team again, poked the 30-inch stake into the packed snow, and made the gangline off to it. That done, I set up and lit the two-burner camp stove, heaped big chunks of snow into a square cooker kettle, then sheltered the cooker and stove with a sheet-metal windscreen. Over the next half-hour or so that snow would grudgingly become hot water. With that hot water I could melt big blocks of frozen fat, then pour the water-fat soup over the dogs' dense kibble. I moved up and down the team, putting a bright blue windbreaker on each dog and taking off the cloth booties that they often wear on long runs in deep cold. Next I staked out and raised my red tent alongside the sled, only a few feet away from Jasmine and Schooner, the two wheel dogs at the very back of the team. Every time I set something down I secured it somehow or threw something heavy on top of it, and by doing so managed to make camp that night without losing any bits of my gear to the wind.
Through the two hours of dusk and deepening twilight I worked steadily. Finally, with everything done outside and the dogs all fed, I could retreat to the tent to cook and eat my own supper-a steaming kettle of caribou meat, rice, and butter, seasoned to simple perfection with salt and pepper. An hour later I could begin to get ready for sleep. This is a laughably laborious half-hour project when tent camping in winter: change clothes, arrange bedding, prepare the stove for quick lighting in the morning; wriggle into double mummy bags with their confounding tangle of drawstrings, cord locks, snaps, and zippers. At last I rolled sideways in my cocoon of goose down and synthetic fluff, and blew out the candle.
Pure blackness. The incessant wind still battered the fabric of the tent. Almost at my elbow Jasmine shifted in her snow bed, and sighed as she settled again. I marvelled, as I teetered on the brink of consciousness, at how utterly alone a man and ten dogs are in such a place on such a night. A warm glow of deep rest crept up and down my limbs, then deep, dreamless sleep.
And suddenly dawn-the first morning of March. Daylight tinged orange by the red-and-yellow fabric of my tent. And-could it be?-silence! For the first time in four days the wind had calmed.
Once I had the stove burning full bore I made a brief foray out from the warm tent. Tundra and sky all around, shaded pink to the east-southeast where the sun would soon rise. Forty-one below zero, according to the little thermometer slung from the handlebar of the sled. Dogs all drifted in, some completely invisible beneath the snow, and not one of them even stirring at the sound of my footsteps. After a couple of minutes outside in that ever-astonishing cold, I dove back into my little nylon haven and the comforting hiss of the camp stove. Just as I sat down and began to fuss with making coffee, one of the dogs barked, and another: short barks of alarm which told me something was amiss, something was moving or approaching our little camp. Reluctant to leave the warm tent again, I poked my head through the door flap.
Eighty yards or so beyond the lead dogs stood a truly enormous white wolf, thick with frost on his mane and pelt, staring at the camp and the dogs as if transfixed. A second wolf, tawny grey, stood just behind the white one. All the dogs were on their feet now, some with clumps of snow still clinging to the sides of their heads, shanks, and nylon jackets, giving them a dishevelled just-woke-up look. No one moved or made a sound. A third wolf, white and slightly smaller than the others, probably a female, trotted in from the northeast.
By then the tips of my frost-battered ears were going numb, and I pulled back into the tent to fetch my hat. When I stuck my head out again the two smaller wolves were ambling away, but the big white fellow still stood and stared. Finally he turned, stepped away, paused once more to study us, and slowly followed his comrades out of sight over the rise. I crawled back into the tent as the dogs settled into their beds again.
It seems necessary to begin every piece of writing about Canada's Northwest Territories with a refresher in North American geography-even for many Canadians. Because my family and I live in a little-known corner of these remote territories, we spend a lot of our conversations when we are "down south" in exchanges like this: "No, not the Yukon. No, not Nunavut. Not Alaska ." Puzzled look, scratching of head. "What's next, going east . Greenland? What the heck is straight north from Alberta and Saskatchewan, or straight north of Montana? Pass me that atlas, please."
That blank in popular geography is part of the wonder, and at times the frustration, of living in this place so far on the fringes of modern North America. It is an enormous stretch of land and waters over a thousand miles across, yet its entire human population could easily take seats to watch a ballgame in a metropolitan stadium. In 1999, when Canada officially established the territory of Nunavut to the north and east of us, the diminished yet still enormous Northwest Territories faded even further from the southern consciousness-perhaps not such a bad thing, considering the implications of the alternative.
The journeys I describe in this book took me out from and back to my home at Hoarfrost River, at the northeastern tip of McLeod Bay on Great Slave Lake. Once a year for four consecutive winters I hooked up a team of dogs and set out on long trips away from our homestead, travelling toward one of the cardinal points of the compass: south in 2002, east in 2003, north in 2005, and finally west in 2005. Having gone out, I turned home again. It was as simple as that. My narrative will make many digressions, but the days and nights and miles of those four trips are the main trail wending through the pages ahead.
As I look back on these journeys a steady stream of images comes to mind: that bare-bones camp on the tundra; the stunning cold morning after the wind died; those wolves. Other camps and fleeting moments are fixed permanently in my memory as all the little details begin to fall away: The headwaters of the Back River on a bright, amazingly mild day in late February 2004. I knelt to chip some ice with my knife, since I had boasted to my two little daughters that we would raise a toast to my return with lemonade poured over Back River ice chips. A moment on the first trip, south, on the divide between the Snowdrift and Taltson watersheds, standing alone on snowshoes miles from my camp and dogs, on a day so clear and frigid that the air was like some new solid, some surreal essence of cold. And a sunny pastel afternoon on the final trip, moving west across the enormous expanse of Great Slave Lake, mile after mile, slow hours passing, until the far western shore, a land of wood bison and sinkholes and poplar, rose into sight like a new continent in the distance.
When a person lives in a place for many years, it becomes a centre point. Moving outward in any direction from that physical centre, the geographical place, one will eventually and certainly encounter change-or else all places would be the same. For my journeys and motives the four cardinal compass points provided suitable direct headings-I would hook up a team of dogs, and with them hold a heading until...