In “Welcome to Dog World!,” Issue No. 49 of The Atavist Magazine, Blair Braverman writes about her time living in the sparse wilderness of an Alaskan glacier. The isolated camp was also a luxury destination for adventurous day-trippers. On a typical tour, the visitors flew to the camp in helicopters, then explored on dog-drawn sleds before heading back to their cruise-liners. Then, one day a storm stranded tourists and mushers on the ice. Joshua Hammer, author of “The Desert Blues,” Issue No. 48 of The Atavist Magazine, asked Braverman about the strange allure of the glacier and the people it attracts.

JOSHUA HAMMER: You embarked on this adventure several years ago, so how long has the idea been gestating and what made you decide to tell the story now? 

BLAIR BRAVERMAN: I started writing about the experience almost immediately. At that point, it was in fictional form, and the events were unrecognizable, but the themes—performance, control, danger—were all present. Since then I’ve come back to the project on and off. I drafted the nonfiction version four years ago. It took time to understand what had happened, to find the language, to shape the essay itself. I also had to figure out how other people on the glacier had understood the experience, which meant gathering the courage to call old co-workers and ask difficult questions. I’m not sure if this was your intention, but it’s hard not to read this question as specific to a narrative that deals with sexual assault. And in that regard, it’s exactly the kind of question I’ve been afraid of, because I question myself all the time: Why didn’t I say something sooner? Why did I choose to go back to Alaska? Sexual violence is incredibly common, and there’s almost every incentive not to share these stories. But silence can begin to feel a lot like shame. I never doubted that I would, at some point, tell this story. And even with that certainty, a strong support system, and a thoughtful editor, I think that publishing this piece has been one of the hardest things I’ve done.

You describe a pretty macho world on the glacier, where the men can treat one another, and especially the women with particular cruelty. What does that say about the physical environments in which you worked, and the kinds of people who are drawn to it? 

First off, a lot of women are drawn to these environments, too. But one thing that was striking for me, in going directly from Norway to the glacier, was how differently those two cultures responded to femininity. In northern Norway, there was space for women to be tough and feminine at the same time, if they wanted too; I remember once watching a woman knock a snarling dog to the ground, hold it down until it relaxed, then stand up and rearrange her shawl. At 18, that was a revelation for me: that being a girl and being tough could coexist without contradicting each other, and that here was a place that celebrated and made space for both of those things. It wasn’t until I went back a few years ago that I realized how much I had molded my adult self after those women in northern Norway. In Alaska—and I know that the glacier camp was a very small and limited experience of Alaska—I sensed that being female was negative, or at least being feminine was. To be taken seriously, I had to erase that part of myself: harden up, buy men’s clothing, wear vests to hide my curves. I tried to make my voice deeper. It was probably subtle from the outside, but a very conscious effort. For me, that was a kind of drag; it was one of the first ways that I came to feel that I was performing.  I know that you asked about men, and my answer was about women. But my point is, the physical environment in northern Norway was in some ways similar to the glacier, but the gendered environment was totally different. And your question is one I’ve often wondered about, especially when I compare those two places. I have a theory that the cruelty on the glacier—and glacier culture changed a lot, summer to summer, but in this case I’m talking about my second summer there—had to do with the fact that many of the staff members weren’t from Alaska. We had to prove ourselves, and the easiest way to prove toughness—what we read, culturally, as toughness—is through masculinity. The easiest way to prove you belong is to pick on someone else who doesn’t. I think the cruelty stemmed from insecurity, and a really isolated place where those insecurities could fester, not to mention the pressures of working in the service industry. Since everyone had to put on a face for the customers, those tensions played out in subtle and insidious ways. 

Do you think that tourism in such a fragile environment is a net negative or a positive? 

In some ways, the glacier we lived on struck me as hardy: it either melted or it didn’t, and I don’t think our camp made it melt faster. The company was careful about cleaning up after itself, and many of the tourists left, by their own declaration, with a renewed commitment to environmental sustainability. But even if the camp was relatively harmless, the helicopters themselves were certainly destructive—the carbon footprint for up to 40 round-trip flights a day must be huge. And obviously burning fossil fuels like that affects way more than just one glacier. If we step back from environmental questions—and I know that’s a big step back—then I think the tourism was a positive thing. We gave people a good and meaningful experience. Tourists talked about how they had looked forward to the trip for years, and how powerful it was to share it with loved ones. We heard the words “bucket list” a lot. Also, the dogs were happy for all the attention, and it was a way to keep them active during the summer months. And thousands of people were introduced to dogsledding. As a musher, I think that’s great.

How did the summers that you spent on the glacier shape the subsequent choices you’ve made in your work life, and your relationships?

Since leaving the glacier, I’ve become very aware of power dynamics in relationships, both romantic and otherwise. I’m not as easily intimidated by confidence or authority. My writing often returns to the environment, gender and justice, but I can’t say that’s because of my time in Alaska; I was interested in those things before I got there, although that experience certainly informed my understanding. And to some degree, my book—which borrows its title from a nickname for the glacier, even though it’s set in Norway—is an attempt to answer some of the questions that the glacier raised for me. I’ve spent three years traveling back and forth to a tiny village in the Norwegian Arctic, helping to open a historical museum and living with the owner of the only shop, who has become like family to me. The process of reporting this book has meant going back to a situation that was once difficult—an isolated, male-dominated northern landscape—but this time on my own terms. And really, really falling in love with it. Read “Welcome to Dog World!”