My job was to make tourists believe they were seeing the “real” Alaska.
Then things got real.
Dog World was perched atop a glacier near the edge of an icefield the size of Rhode Island. The only reasonable way to get there was by helicopter, and eight times a day they came in, five birds, loaded with cruise-ship tourists who’d spent $500 to go “flightseeing” over the icefield and then set down on the glacier for a dogsled ride—a taste of Real Alaska.
At first, from the helicopter, the only thing they’d see was the sweeping ice, smooth and white, punched through with mountaintops. If they had never been there before, the sight was near religious, something to bring them to tears. The pilots were instructed to play Enya on repeat, piped directly into their passengers’ headphones—music the tour company believed was a properly swooning soundtrack for the otherworldly vista below.
We lived there from May to September—I and nine other musher guides, a few staff, and 200 huskies—in a cluster of canvas tents and plastic igloos. Our job was to provide a luxury experience: all the thrills of a glacier with none of the discomfort, either physical or mental, that comes with the terrain. It wasn’t that our efforts were secret; they were just invisible. We cleaned the kennels constantly so that tourists would be spared the sight of a single lump of dog poop. We raked up fur that collected on the snow and piled it behind the tents in an enormous mound we called the woolly mammoth. Sometimes we had to be creative: If my dogs’ eyes got sore from the sun, I’d put mascara around them to minimize reflected light. “Those dogs must be related,” the tourists would say, admiring the huskies with big black circles around their eyes, and because it was easier than explaining, I let them believe it.
Nothing was meant to live on the glacier, and the longer I stayed, the clearer this became. Yet somehow we all got used to it. We no longer jumped at the gunshot crack of an avalanche on a sun-warmed afternoon. Turquoise lakes a half-mile wide formed and vanished overnight. As the surface snow melted, the foundation under our camp sank steadily away, and we’d wake to find our tents, which were on skis, perched atop pedestals of hardened snow. On rainy weeks, we gave up the dream of staying dry. At night, when I undressed, my waterlogged, sunburned skin fell off in white strips, which I’d toss to the nearest dogs, who sniffed them and turned away. I wrapped my fingers in duct tape to keep my shredded skin in one piece when I shook hands with tourists. When it was foggy we probed for crevasses, working a tight grid through camp, pushing aluminum poles into the snow until our palms blistered and our muscles burned. I never saw a big crevasse, but sometimes turquoise cracks split the snow. They were usually small, just a few inches across, and when I crouched close and peered into them they seemed to extend down forever.
The camp was a closed system: If we ate cherries for lunch, we’d be picking the pits out of the outhouse pump two days later (and getting a lecture from our manager about not swallowing pits in the first place). All human and dog waste had to be packed into barrels and flown to Juneau in a sling that dangled beneath the helicopters. On a bad day, we called it the Goddamn Ice Cube. On a good day, Summer Camp on the Moon.
But if the camp was a closed system, then the tourists, with their camcorders and designer sunglasses, existed outside of it. Our job was not to give them a peek in but to build the walls of their fantasy so solidly that they could not see anything else—to reassure them that even though they were on a glacier, nothing was dangerous, all was good, and everything was under control.
Our days started at 6 a.m. sharp and lasted until early evening. Most of my time was spent guiding the tourists. Each of the eight daily tours consisted of an orientation, a lap around a two-mile trail, and a chance to pet the dogs. My groups were often surprised that their guide was a young woman, and when I first arrived on the glacier I had taken pride in disarming them with my enthusiasm and knowledge. I praised their adventurousness, offered expertly timed confessions (“I was terrified on my first helicopter ride, too!”), took photos with their cameras and let their kids stand in front of me on the sled runners, pretending to drive. At first the performance was exciting, a chance to play the role of my bravest, brightest self. But with time my end of the conversation solidified into a script, one I could deploy with pristine enthusiasm. I hardly noticed what I was saying.
The tourists were always curious about glacier life, and I did my best to give them what they wanted. I told them about the hummingbirds that stopped by on their way to the moss-covered mountains, but I didn’t tell them about the time a lightning storm closed in on us and I thought for sure we’d all get electrocuted. I told them how strange it was to live in a world almost totally drained of color, but not about the elaborate plans another guide and I had come up with to escape the glacier on foot if we ever needed to. I told them the food was great and the mushers and dogs were like family and I had the best job in the world. Then I’d go back to my tent and cry.
During my last summer on the glacier, I shared a tent with a girl named Rebekah, who became one of my closest friends. I was 20 years old, a Californian who had fallen in love with dogsledding at a folk school in arctic Norway. Rebekah was a homeschooled 18-year-old from Indiana who had never been away from her family for more than a week and who lived her life, in her words, guided by Jesus Christ and His teachings. She had cherubic curls and a constant sheen of sweat on her pink face; because she was an assistant, not a musher, she always seemed to be running from one chore to the next, fetching this harness or that shovel for whoever called out to her first.
There were a few male mushers at the camp whose teasing had an edge. One evening, Rebekah removed her boots and socks in the community tent to find that her feet had swollen like bread dough and had the pale cast of something left underwater. “That’s trench foot,” said a musher named Chad, who was new to the glacier. (Some names have been changed in this story.) “I saw it all the time in Nam. You’ll have to amputate.”
“If you amputate, you’ll go to hell,” said Dan. He was in his mid-twenties, handsome and popular.
“Shut up, Chad,” another musher said. “You never been to Nam. You’d’ve shit yourself like a baby.”
None of them were looking at me, so I didn’t say anything.
That night, Rebekah and I stayed awake longer than usual in our tent. Often we sat in silence, reading young-adult books about the end of the world and trading pieces of trail mix, but that night we talked. “I just want to go home,” Rebekah said. “Don’t you want to go home?”
She was planning a short trip to see her family, a break to steel herself for the last month of summer.
I nodded but I didn’t answer. I wanted the best for Rebekah, but when she talked about leaving my throat went tight. I was scared that she wouldn’t want to come back. I didn’t know how I could stay on the ice without her.
It hadn’t always been that way. The previous summer I’d loved the job: working with the dogs, adjusting to the spectacular landscape—not to mention getting paid more than I’d ever made before. There were more women around then, three or four female mushers at a time, veterans of major dogsled races who could handle an ice auger like an embroidery needle. I copied the way they talked and dressed, buying my clothes off the men’s rack at the Salvation Army, joking with the pilots, and lifting water buckets between tours so that I’d be strong enough not to wobble when someone tossed me a 50-pound sack of dog food. The other women seemed to belong on the glacier in a way that I—who was torn between a desire for adventure and a deep-seated aversion to physical risk—never would. But they welcomed me. And for a while, as my skin darkened and my arms hardened and I learned not to flinch at the roar and wind of the helicopters, I began to feel more like them, like the tough girl I had always wanted to be.
But the real difference between those summers for me was that during the first one Dan and I were a couple. Everyone was nice to me when I dated Dan, including, at first, Dan himself. He took me hiking, showed me around Juneau, and wrote sweet notes that he folded up in dog booties and tossed to me across the kennel.
“You’re good on a snow machine,” he told me one night. Then, when I blushed: “What I mean to say is, I think you’re pretty.”
I lost my virginity to him in a cheap tent in a campground on one of our days off. By the next day, our relationship had changed. Sex seemed to make Dan a different person, focused and cold, insistent even when my body was sore. “You’re not supposed to like it yet,” he told me repeatedly over the next weeks—practice would make perfect. That sounded wrong to me, but I couldn’t argue from experience. I cobbled together boundaries where I could.
One line was agreed upon: Dan and I would never hook up on the glacier. For one thing, we were disgusting, covered in grease and sweat and a days-old film of dog poop. And sleeping in each other’s tents would risk both our jobs; the company was strict about single-gender living spaces. But more important, there was no privacy on the glacier; nothing you did in your tent belonged just to you. Every thump, every murmur, traveled clearly across the ice from one tent to another. I wanted the other guides to see me as a musher, not a girl. The last thing I needed was for them to hear that.
A few weeks after our first time together, though, Dan slipped into my tent while I was alone, promising that he just wanted to hold me. Before long he was tugging my long underwear off my hips, kissing me even as I pressed my mouth shut. Tensing his arm when I tried to push his hand away. Pulling a condom from his pocket, rolling it on. As soon as I saw it, my heart sank: He had come here for this. I told him I didn’t want to, and he told me yes, I did, he could tell. When I clenched my knees together he shoved them apart. “Shh,” he whispered as I squirmed, no place to pull away between his body and the tent wall. “We don’t want everyone to hear us.”
“Everyone” meant the men on the other side of the canvas. They couldn’t know. I couldn’t face them if they knew. I closed my eyes and let my body go slack.
When it was over, Dan got up quickly and slipped out through the tent flap. He walked out backward, so that his floating head was the last thing I saw. “Now we can say we’ve had sex on a glacier,” his head said. “Admit it, that’s pretty cool.”
I grabbed a baby wipe from the box on the floor and rolled over to face the wall.
I wished by then that we had never gotten together, but I didn’t want to confront him and shatter the careful social balance of the camp. The only thing harder than dating Dan on the glacier would be breaking up with him on the glacier. And so for the rest of the summer, I played girlfriend the same way I played dogsled guide, learning the motions week by week, not stopping to think about what it all meant.
I started college that fall. Dan gave me a framed photo of the two of us, one I couldn’t remember having been taken. He told me I was only going to school to please my parents. What I should do, he said, was follow my heart and come north to live with him. We could drive dogs year-round. I pretended to think about it. I put the photo facedown in my desk drawer and covered it with papers.
That winter I broke up with Dan again and again, but each time he wrote to me the next day as if nothing had happened, until finally I gave up trying to object. Our correspondence lagged. He was far away, and I distracted myself with things that were closer, adopting a vegan diet, working out for hours every day until I no longer recognized the body Dan had fucked.
It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t go back to Alaska. It never occurred to me that I might not want to. Of course I’d go back to the ice. I didn’t know how else I’d get to be with the dogs, doing what I loved. And for a while on the glacier, I had felt tough. What would it mean about me if I turned back now?
When I landed in Juneau, expecting to be picked up by one of the company’s support staff, Dan stood by the baggage claim. He greeted me with a hug, said he’d taken the day off to meet me. Of course he had. We were going to have a great summer, he said, without a hint of acknowledgment of our months-long breakup. His certainty made me question my own. Had I misunderstood the whole thing?
Over the next day, as we waited in town to fly up to the glacier, I told Dan I wouldn’t sleep with him. I told him I didn’t like it when he touched me. I told him I didn’t want to be a couple. But the more I objected, the more he tried to convince me otherwise. “Just give me a reason,” he kept saying.
Later, when he slipped his arm around me in the women’s apartment, I found the only words that had an effect: “I’m not attracted to you.”
“Why didn’t you say so?” Dan said, crossing the room in three steps, smacking the doorframe on his way out. And like that, the matter was settled.
Dan had already arranged for side-by-side kennels and shared days off, which meant that we spent a lot of time over the next weeks, when we weren’t ten feet apart among our rows of dogs, pressed together in a helicopter flying to and from the glacier. We handled this at first by ignoring each other completely. But soon he began upping the ante, talking loudly to other guides about how I was doing my job wrong, how I was unfit to give tours, how the dogs would never listen to my high, girlish voice. I’d enter the kitchen tent to find him questioning the veterinary care I gave my yearlings or scoffing at something he’d overheard me say to a tourist. Once, as he escorted a couple to my sled, I heard him say, “She’s good at acting like she knows what she’s doing. It’s too bad you didn’t get an experienced musher.” But usually when I was within earshot he’d fall quiet.
I’d seen guides laugh along as Dan mocked the more vulnerable among us. He had been particularly amused by a heavyset couple who had needed snowshoes to get around and ended up quitting early in the season. After they left, he made fun of another new guide, the only black musher, for wanting to be a doctor. Dan teased him even more when he was seen exiting an outhouse with his laptop. Weeks later, that guide was fired.
When Dan aimed his scorn at me and the others followed, I was dismayed but not entirely surprised. What bothered me more was when they harassed Rebekah. Hard-working, cheerful Rebekah, who Chad tried to get to deworm the dogs by inserting the pills rectally. Rebekah, who’d fallen for the idea of Alaska, the idea of dogsledding, and back in Indiana had saved up money from making change in a McDonald’s drive-thru to buy herself a malamute and a husky, which she trained to pull her on Rollerblades. Her dream had been to mush dogs. And by the time she planned to see her family, she’d been on the glacier for two months, more than half the summer, without once getting to drive a dogsled. She kept setting aside time, getting her work out of the way—and somehow, just as she was about to go out on the trail, someone would yell that they needed her to scoop poop or fetch some booties, and the trip would be delayed once again.
But now Rebekah was about to leave, and she couldn’t see her family without having driven a sled. So I begged an hour off and we hit the trail with enough time for a quick ride before her departure. We had just taken off when five helicopters rounded a distant mountain single-file and then roared into camp, coming down fast on the ice, hot rotors thumping. Moments later, nearly 30 stunned and immaculate cruise-ship tourists stood around the American flag at the edge of the dog yard.
It was not a scheduled landing. I knew it, and everyone back at camp knew it, but we also knew better than to acknowledge to the tourists that anything was unusual.
So the other mushers didn’t even glance at each other as they corralled the tourists together with big smiles and shouts of “Welcome to Dog World!” Rebekah and I, partway down the trail, stopped our dogs and watched from a distance. The tourists seemed happy—we could hear the buzz of their excitement—and the guides ran around harnessing dogs and hooking them to their sleds as quickly as they could. The pilots huddled together behind the helicopters.
It turned out that a sudden storm, a wall of cloud between Juneau and the glacier, had blocked their usual flight path and forced them to forgo the flightseeing tour and make an early landing. Now, from the glacier, the weather looked overcast but by no means terrible; visibility was better than it often was. The pilots decided to continue on schedule. They lifted off in a line, heading back to Juneau. In an hour, they would return to pick up the tourists and drop off the next group. The mushers took off with their tours, and Rebekah and I continued along the trail.
For a while, at least, the ride was lovely—maybe the best I’d had all summer. It wasn’t raining, Rebekah was laughing, and the tourists’ voices sounded from the other trails, where other people were responsible for them. But within 15 minutes another rumbling echoed over the glacier, and a tiny figure in an orange vest zoomed toward the dogsled trails on a snowmobile. This was Malcolm, our manager. We’d been warned about orange vests: They were used to signal urgency.
Malcolm waved to the tourists as he passed them—“Stunning, isn’t it?”—and then came to a stop next to Rebekah and me. “We’re in trouble,” he said. “The pilots can’t get back.” His voice was higher than I’d ever heard it. “Nobody’s hurt, but the tourists are trapped here now. They’re trapped here.”
Rebekah was jumping a little on the sled brake. “What should we do?” she said.
He told us to let the staff know what was going on without alarming the tourists. “Just tell them they’ll be here longer than expected—maybe an extra hour or two until the weather clears. And girls? Try to make it sound like a good thing.”
Rebekah drove fast around the trail, and we were waiting in the kennel by the time the other teams returned. We split up to spread the word: “Great news! You get a longer tour than usual!” While the tourists cheered and rushed to pet the dogs, I sidled up to each musher and whispered an update in his ear. Chad snorted—“Nice one, Blair”—but Henry, an older guide whom I considered a friend, nodded and squeezed my arm before straightening up and returning to his group. I had been hoping that Rebekah would reach Dan before I did, but by the time I’d worked my way over to his kennel she was still several teams away, giggling sharply and gesticulating to a man in a cowboy hat.
When Dan saw me coming, he led his tourists away from me, toward the lead dogs, who had flopped down in the snow. “This here is Mo,” Dan said. “He’s awesome.” (I noticed he was following instructions: Mo was short for Money, but Malcolm had directed him never to use the dog’s full name, since tourists might interpret it as angling for tips.) When I reached the group, I put on my biggest tour-guide smile and gave them the news.
“Wow!” said Dan. “Why don’t you all pet Mo for a minute?” He walked a few feet off, head down, and I followed. “What’s going on, Blair?”
I told him the birds couldn’t get back. This was the closest that Dan and I had come to being alone together in two months, and I couldn’t help noticing how familiar he was.
“OK,” he said. He crossed his arms.
“Just keep them happy for as long as possible,” I said. “I’ll let you know when there’s more information.”
For just an instant, Dan looked up, and our eyes met. We both took a step back. “Don’t tell me what to do,” he said. “And next time, send Rebekah. At least she knows not to interrupt me when I’m with tourists.” By the time I gathered a response, he had walked away.
Back at camp, Malcolm and Nell, our cook, were standing around the satellite phone. They had called the cruise ship to say that the passengers would be late; the captain had agreed to wait three hours, but no longer. Nell was heating a massive pot on the propane stove, preparing cocoa. The goal was to keep things fun for as long as possible. Let the tourists hang out in the kennel, then bring them in for hot drinks. They were making plans for snowmobile rides and a snowman contest. As long as the backup helicopters arrived within an hour or so, there was no reason for the tourists to worry.
But after a half-hour in the kennel, when the weather had not just failed to clear but gotten worse, we brought the tourists into the community tent and fed them cookies. Malcolm broke the news: They were stranded. The helicopters couldn’t make it in. “No,” a man said, “that can’t be. My ship is leaving.” This met with nods of agreement. Then the tourists got angry—at the guides for misleading them, at the pilots for misjudging the weather, at the ship for not waiting. Didn’t we understand that this was a serious inconvenience? A woman had left her infant child with a babysitter. A couple was worried about standing up a dinner date. A few people raised concerns about medication they’d left behind, but their voices were lost in the general despair.
By that second summer, it seemed to me that the tourists’ unhappiness was a bomb that could detonate at any time, and my job was to keep it from doing so. I had, at that point, spent almost six months giving eight rides a day, eight hour-long rides during which I acted delighted by all things dog and glacier, fascinated by every detail that my passengers cared to tell me about their cruise—a whale that very morning!—and their trip so far, and their relatives stuck at home, and their new Welsh corgi. It all felt so fake. I was still somehow a great guide, as measured by the generous tips and teary hugs I received, and the grateful letters that arrived occasionally, wadded in a pilot’s pocket. But the truth was, the more the tourists loved me, the more I resented them. I blamed them for not seeing through me; their admiration felt like a constant reminder that I didn’t deserve it anymore. By the end of each day, my cheeks sore from smiling, it felt like all I could do was stand in the snow, watching the patterns of light on the mountains, ducking my head at another sexual remark of the kind that, without Dan on my side, I was no longer spared. “Another one, Blair,” a pilot would call, letter in hand. “What are you doing, giving blow jobs?”
Ten thousand tourists passed through the camp each summer, and I had never seen any of them get stuck like this before. But it didn’t really surprise me, either; nothing about the glacier surprised me anymore. I had learned, over months of avalanches and lakes, trench foot and neoprene, to adjust to its changes without question. I stood back and watched the tourists from a distance. They were mostly middle-aged couples dressed in striped raincoats of the type I imagined were sold on cruise ships. A little girl held hands with her mother. Another woman walked in tense circles, pointing her useless cell phone at the sky. For a moment, as I watched the tourists jostle in line for the sat phone, blatant in their desperation to leave, I envied them. And then the moment was gone. The tourists became tasks again, not people—each one simply another item on my to-do list.
Framing a backcountry emergency as an extended luxury tour is no enviable task, but Malcolm did his best. “We have a cook,” he announced, his voice confident. “We have plenty of food and water.” He laid out his plan for making their unexpected stay as enjoyable as possible, offering them as many dogsled rides as they liked.
The tourists looked grim, but Malcolm gave them a pleasant nod and then stepped outside, gesturing for the staff to follow. “I don’t care what you need to do,” he whispered once we’d gathered around him. “Just keep them happy. Do whatever it takes. Act like this is the best thing that ever happened to you. And for God’s sake, don’t do anything that could get us sued.”
The afternoon passed in a haze of card games, the tourists checking their cell phones in vain, the weather reports over the sat phone steadily bleak. At some point, it became clear that they would be staying for dinner.
Nell, who ran a tight kitchen, must not have been pleased. But she knew how to keep her cool—she had been on the glacier longer than most of us. Nell could work magic with a propane stove, making lasagna, fry bread, biscuits and gravy. In the same way that the guides monitored the dogs’ weight and food intake, Nell scrutinized ours; since I had lost weight over the winter, she had taken to pouring oil over my food. The second a staff member sneezed, she was ready with a mug of hot chocolate and orange Tang, a mixture she swore by for the vitamin C.
The tourists ate Nell’s dinner—meat loaf, real mashed potatoes, chocolate cake—around picnic tables in the community tent. The staff squatted behind the storage tent, eating sandwiches. We would be ceding our tents and cots to the tourists—we had extra sleeping bags for emergencies—and after dinner Malcolm went tent by tent to make sure the quarters were ready. He’d decided we should call the tourists “guests,” as if they had been invited over for a dinner party and just happened to be spending the night. “Put all your stuff in trash bags,” he said, “and pile it outside. We want to make sure the guests are comfortable.”
When he reached our tent, Malcolm made Rebekah and me take down the perfume ad we had tacked to the support beams. “We can’t have the guests sleeping under a naked picture of Leonardo DiCaprio,” he said. But when Rebekah reached to take down a photo of a baby at a day care center where she worked back in Indiana, Malcolm stopped her. “Put that somewhere prominent,” he said. “It makes us seem human.”
Rebekah surveyed the empty tent. “Where are we going to sleep?”
“I really don’t care,” Malcolm said.
Back in the community tent, the tourists were gathered around the three tables, playing Go Fish and Parcheesi. A few guides hung around outside, sitting on a pair of snowmobiles, not saying much. Every 20 minutes or so, one would take a long breath, stretch a smile across his face, and pass through the tent flap. “Parcheesi! I love Parcheesi! Who’s up next?” Whoever had been relieved would step out of the tent, visibly deflate in the sudden chill air, and collapse onto the empty snowmobile seat. In this way, the tourists were infused with a constant rotation of freshly conjured enthusiasm.
When it was Rebekah’s turn, she stepped off the snowmobile and headed toward the tent.
“Rebekah,” Chad called after her.
“Just remember: Jesus hates you."
After my Parcheesi shift, I didn’t feel like waiting with the other guides, so I began pacing the camp. I wandered over to the kitchen, but I could hear Nell talking to herself, so I walked over to the storage tent, figuring that if anyone confronted me I could say I was looking for something. When I stepped in, I found Chad and Henry sitting close together. They had been whispering but stopped abruptly.
I asked if we had duct tape. Chad looked at me blankly.
“To fasten a bandage,” I said.
“Maybe we could use her,” said Henry. “I could use an assistant.”
“What’s your medical training?” said Chad.
I’d needed first-aid certification to qualify for the job, but when I applied I was living in Norway, far from any official courses. Our limited training at the folk school consisted of a few encounters with classmates who hid in the woods, covered in reindeer blood, moaning over various feigned injuries that we were encouraged to remedy with birch branches and torn strips of T-shirt. Afterward, I made my own certificate.
“Some medical training,” I said.
“Good.” Henry lowered his voice. “There’s a woman here, she’s got this blood-pressure thing and her meds are back in Juneau. I’ve been talking to the hospital. They say that if she’s stuck here through tomorrow, we’re going to have to let blood.”
“Let blood?” I said.
Chad told me they’d find me when they needed help. “The guests can’t know about this, all right?”
“All right,” I said. It was all I could do to keep my voice calm.
“All right,” said Henry.
They were waiting for me to leave.
“All right,” I said again. Then I stepped out of the tent and zipped it shut and looked out at the white sea of that endless fucking glacier.
I thought about going to the kennel next, but I knew the dogs would get noisy and people would notice and I’d need a reason for being there, so I decided instead to figure out sleeping arrangements. There wasn’t much to figure out. The men had claimed the community tent, the storage tent had no floor space, and Nell would have the kitchen, which left the vet tent for Rebekah and me. That was OK. It was far away, at least. I slung our trash bags over my shoulders and staggered through the snow, dumping them just outside the entrance. Then I untied the bags and began rummaging inside. I had my head so deep in one that I didn’t notice when Dan came up behind me.
He was holding back a dog with each hand, clutching their collars as they stood, panting, on their hind legs. I unzipped the flap and threw my blanket onto the floor. “No room for dogs,” I said. “We’re sleeping here. There’s nowhere else.”
Dan pushed past me into the tent. When I followed him in, I saw that he had kicked aside my blanket and was making room for the dogs.
“Why are you doing that?” I said. “We need to sleep here.”
“The dogs are sick,” he said.
“The dogs are fine.”
He didn’t answer.
“Dan,” I said, “why are you doing that?”
It struck me that I’d never been afraid of him, not even when he had pressed himself onto me, when he’d hushed my objections. I’d been resigned, unhappy, but never afraid—at least not like I was in a storm or a helicopter. And I wasn’t afraid now, either. Unhappy, yes. Resigned. And here was Dan. It all felt familiar.
“Dan,” I said again, more softly. “Why are you doing that?”
“Don’t sleep here,” he said. “Sleep with me. We’ll find a place.”
“We could fix all this right now,” he said.
I thought about it. What would be harder, what would be easier.
“I miss you,” he said. He was crying, and the sight of that shocked me more than anything else that happened that day. “You’re different now,” he said. “I miss who you were. You were a better person before. Don’t you remember how happy we were? We could have that back. It’s up to you.”
It was up to me—if only I would sleep with him. The unspoken standing offer, now made clear.
I’m ashamed now to admit how seriously I considered it: the proposition that things could change, that the animosity, at least, could be over. I tried to remember the feeling of Dan’s mouth on my ear, the heat of his skin against me. Whether those feelings were more or less horrible than the silence, the muttered comments and strained relationships with coworkers, my constant prickling awareness of his whereabouts. It was hard to say.
“I told Rebekah I’d stay with her tonight,” I said. “Besides, there’s nowhere else to sleep.”
“We could tell Nell we need the kitchen,” Dan said, and I was caught off-guard by the absurdity of it, the image of Nell wielding ladles to defend her territory, and for a second everything dissolved and we were two people laughing.
“Fine,” Dan said. “But it’s not going to get better. When you want it to, come find me.”
We assured the tourists that the helicopters planned to come first thing in the morning, because what else could we do? We had to get to bed somehow. Rebekah and I hooked Dan’s dogs to a cable staked outside the vet tent. We spread our blankets in the small rectangle of floor between plastic chests and stacked dog crates, boxes of Neosporin and Cipro and tea tree oil. There was a folding table with mascara, zinc cream, rolls of stiff new booties. A propane heater hissed in one corner, and the rafters were draped in dark insulating blankets. Within a few minutes of lying down, curled beside each other, the tent had warmed enough to release the strong smell of piss and menthol. It burned the inside of my nose.
I had always liked nights on the glacier, the thin buffer of time between leaving the kennel and falling asleep. Most evenings I’d spend an hour or so grooming trails on a snowmobile, gunning the engine repeatedly to keep the metal grader from catching in the snow. It was an optional job, cold and loud at a time of day when most of the others were settling in after dinner, but I volunteered whenever I could. I’d realized early on that driving the trails was the only time I could be alone. I loved it when a fog came in, when I couldn’t hear voices or dogs and couldn’t see anything but white opening up in front of me, white closing in behind. When I finished the rounds I’d pull up to an empty camp, a silent ghost town with just the faint glow of flashlights showing through tent walls. Rebekah was usually asleep by then, and I’d peel off my clothes carefully, draping the rain shells and long underwear over the half-dozen lines strung from the central rafter. I hung my boots up last, upside down, catching the toes in loops of string so that moisture drained overnight. Then I’d tiptoe through fast-spreading puddles and fall onto my cot, zip my sleeping bag, and exhale.
Now, in the vet tent, Rebekah was not asleep. I could hear her turning, could make out the tiniest of whimpers. It was black in the tent, the snow’s glow blocked by the insulating blankets—the first real darkness I’d seen in weeks, and even that was unsettling. I whispered, “How are you doing?”
“My flight,” she said.
I’d forgotten. “Your parents will understand.”
She sighed. That wasn’t the point.
“I’m sorry the guys are so mean to you,” I said. It was the first time I’d acknowledged it aloud. “I wish they weren’t.”
“What do you mean?” Rebekah said.
“You know. Trench foot, Jesus. Everything.”
“They’re just being guys,” she said. “That’s how they do things.”
“But it shouldn’t be like that. You shouldn’t have to go home because of them.”
“I’m going home because I miss my family,” she said.
Not to escape, like I wanted to.
“They’re meaner to you than they are to me,” Rebekah said. “I mean, if I can say this—Dan is the worst.” She told me how she’d met him at the beginning of the summer, before I’d arrived there, and how he’d said “all sorts of things” about me. “I was pretty nervous to share a tent with you, actually, after what I heard. Then I met you and within five minutes I was like, What was he talking about? ’Cause you were so nice.”
“No,” I said, trying to make sense of it. According to Dan, we hadn’t broken up yet. I had the odd, sudden sense that Rebekah was embarrassed for me.
I thought: We were never happy. Neither of us. Of course.
It took me a long time to fall asleep. I wondered how many of the tourists were also awake, twisting in their borrowed sleeping bags and blinking their eyes against the constant, unfamiliar glow of the icefield. Where was the little girl, and the woman whose blood we might have to let? At the thought of her, my stomach turned. What would we use—a knife?
The tourists were probably uncomfortable, I thought. They were probably scared. They’d wake to realize that they were still here, still trapped—that none of it had been a dream.
Rebekah and I woke early to the sound of voices. She went straight to the community tent, but I was relieved when Malcolm directed me toward the kennel instead. I spent the morning moving team by team, working to get all the dogs fed. I wasn’t used to caring for the other guides’ dogs, and when one of them nipped my arm, I felt like throwing down the food in frustration. But reaching my own team felt like coming home. I took my time with each dog, rubbing ointment between their toes, kissing the dips between their eyes. Even though it was overcast, I spread sunscreen on the females’ bellies and over the males’ balls, extra protection from the UV rays that reflect off the ice. I took pride in brushing them sleek and stretching their muscles with my thumbs.
Every so often, heart pounding, I’d peek into the storage tent to get medical updates. There was no news on the woman with too much blood—I figured she must’ve been stable enough to stay with the group, even if her condition was serious. It would be years before I learned that she may never have existed, that the whole bloodletting thing was probably a lie made up to provoke me.
But if the bloodletting was a lie, other dangers were real. One man was an insulin-dependent diabetic, and if he were stuck on the ice for just one more day, he might slip into a coma. I heard whispered news that a mountain-rescue team was mobilizing back in Juneau, ready to cross the frozen wilderness with ropes and ice picks, carrying insulin in their packs.
For close to two hours I stayed with the diabetic man, who I guessed was in his mid-fifties. He sat on a cot, breathing slowly, radiating a calm that I envied. I tried to tell him the stories I’d perfected over months of tours—tall tales about dogsledding adventures, arctic weather, cute puppies. He was a patient listener, but the stories felt empty to me. Halfway through a secondhand story about a polar bear encounter, which was one of my standbys, I found myself wishing that I’d never started telling it at all. So instead I took a piece of paper and drew a picture of the man, taking my time. I tried to capture the angles of his broad face, his soft skin. When I finished, he admired the sketch at length, then tucked it into his breast pocket. He took my hand and told me how honored he was to be spending time with such a lovely young woman. I squeezed his hand and felt like a liar.
When the man fell asleep, I left his tent and went outside. Some of the guides were sitting on the snowmobiles, looking out over the icefield. It took me a moment to realize what they were watching. There was a figure in the distance, heading away from us. “He won’t get far,” someone said. “He’ll either get spooked and come back, or he’ll fall into a crevasse.”
“Who is that?” I asked.
“Chad,” the guides said in unison. One of them added, “Either he’s going for help or he just lost it.”
“Lost it?” someone else said. “What’s to lose?” They all laughed.
Chad waved. I knew he was just goofing off and would come back soon, but he looked so small out there that the idea of watching him horrified me. I thought about going back inside the community tent, but Dan was probably there, so instead I went to the guest outhouse and locked the door. It smelled nice in there, like biodegradable cleanser. I stood with my eyes closed, leaning against the wall, grateful to be alone. But at some point I noticed myself, a sad, foul-smelling girl, hiding in an outhouse, and once I’d noticed that, I couldn’t un-notice it. I squirted sanitizer on my hands and trudged back out into the snow.
Late in the afternoon we gathered the tourists in the community tent, planning to break the news about a possible second night. They had been remarkably positive all day, playing along with our smiles, bravely agreeing to an umpteenth round of cards. Some of the younger ones had even helped to feed the dogs, hauling buckets of soupy kibble from plastic igloo to plastic igloo. They were trying as hard as we were, but their faces in the tent were solemn.
That was when we heard the thin rumble, so quiet that at first I thought it was in my head. Everyone froze, listening, and then began to cheer. The tourists rushed out into the snow, clutching their jackets as the birds landed. I stepped back and watched from the kennel, sitting on a doghouse as some guides ushered the diabetic man into the nearest helicopter. Rebekah and the other tourists climbed into the other four.
I don’t remember whether any of the tourists hesitated and looked back. It’s true that earlier a few had made remarks about wanting to stay. “I can’t believe you get paid for this,” they’d said, fantasizing about how, if they could take the summer off, they’d love to come work here. Malcolm took this as a sign of success. But in the moment, midrescue, the dogs were in a frenzy, yelping and leaping on their chains, and the pilots were shouting, and the noise of the rotors drowned everything else.
I remember this, though: When the helicopters first came into view, all of the guests, as if by instinct, raised their arms, reaching. And without realizing it, I did, too.