I was already fatigued—exhausted. And then I got cold. And when I got even colder, I decided to take a swim. Perhaps you should question the facts of this four-decade old experience, recounted by a person who was incapacitated, but there is no call to question the vestiges that have stayed with me. I suspect the experience and the lessons learned, are different from what you might expect.
I was doing research in arctic plant biology for my master’s degree in a research camp in northern Alaska. I was eager to learn the patterns in nature that hadn’t been studied before, and I wanted more data on everything so I could figure out more and more. I also was keeping a project of my professor’s going while he and his colleague were gone.
When I arrived at Toolik Camp in late May, the lake was capped with more than four feet of ice, but days were long and getting longer. That meant I could work all the hours I wanted. It wasn’t uncommon to come back from the field at 10 pm. I had little internal feedback that I was tired. The light, location, and quests were exhilarating.
Early on, the ice on the lake broke into candle-sized chunks that tinkled against one another, thousands and thousands of tinkles. The melody was so loud I’d to turn into the wind to cancel it out, and then , delighted, turn to hear it again. Leaves came out—virgin, a naïve green. There were new flowers at every bluff or vale—mats of pink, white, purple, or yellow; enormous horns of rhododendron; tiny baubles on spikes; and nodding Arnicas, yellow, like sunflowers. Saxifrages—so many. And sedges. A pair of least weasels chased one another at my feet over a rushing stream. I walked among caribou, grizzlies, moose, and arctic ground squirrels (siksiks). Mounds of ice the size of vans, called pingos, would emerge from plains. Rocks on high sites lay in geometric patterns, through thousands of annual nudges of lift from ice and then drop from thaw. Some days, rime ice would fringe the last year’s flowering stalks. Some days were sunny, too. And wind, so much wind. It blew mosquitoes into tufts behind me as I walked.
And my research? Every day was a data day. I got new data that answered questions that hadn’t been asked in all of history and all of time.
I was enfolded into Nature, as a part and an observer. Those two together, I had never been before.
~ ~ ~
The sun did not set from May 27 to July 17. I had constant light for almost two months. A few weeks after the first sunset, when days were still with 20 hours of shine, a party was announced. But I had work to do. Work was my pattern, my identity, and my joy. And I didn’t appreciate the party because the generator would be on to run lights and radios—the car batteries wouldn’t suffice. The generator was very loud.
The camp manager was off backpacking, and so the passels of PhDs and students and assistants had “free play.” There was nothing wrong with that, except that there was no one in ultimate charge, and it felt to me like a Girl Scout trip without the leader. People got into these parties. they decorated, danced, and dressed up. Outfits might be jockstraps over blue jeans, holsters of field implements, long johns with come-hither rubber boots, and mosquito nets for tube tops over random lingerie. If I could have relaxed that way, it would have done me good.
A quick run would have done me even more good. Running was tricky: pepper spray against grizzlies, truck-thrown rocks on the Haul Road, and interruptions from truckers who were concerned or curious. But running was out because of my knee, inflamed from long weeks of kneeling on the permafrost at the base of the melted soil.
So I did what made sense to me. I started the sauna, and then I took a swim.*
~ ~ ~
The sauna was a small shack that was built down by the dock, so we could run out of it and fling ourselves into the lake. Its window came from the back of a junked truck. The barrel of water inside, which we called the mosquito breeder, would gradually heat; and a couple of times a week we’d ladle that water on ourselves and each other to slop off the soap and shampoo. We heated with railroad ties that had been scavenged from left-behinds from the pipeline construction.
I hoisted a tie onto a pair of sawhorses, and sawed off a couple lengths. I split some kindling, started the fire, and hauled a few buckets of water to the mosquito breeder. I undressed to my swimming outfit (the minimality of which I will only hint at here), then waited for the sauna to heat. When the wind shifted, the music from the party blew my way and echoed under the low ceiling of sky. Mist blew, mist that verged on ice.
But the sauna was as cold as the outside air. I went to the path for push-ups, and laid down a towel for sit-ups. I tried to nap in the sauna so time would pass, but I was impatient. The sauna had only made it to 44 °F. I huffed out: swim first, sauna later;* I decided.
I ran down the path, passed the stockpiled beer, and hurdled obstacles down the length of the dock.
Then I dove in.
I surfaced to adjust my googles and to gasp, even though the lake was warm–55 °F–from heavy rains. It wasn’t unusual to take a dip after a sauna, and it wasn’t entirely unusual to swim, or to swim alone.* I thought nothing of the danger.* But we did have protocols, if not for safety, one of which was to stay away from experiments. Before the sauna I’d verified where experiments were: if I swam the near arm of the lake, I’d need to stay 20 or 30 yards from shore. That’s what I did.
~ ~ ~
From the first moments in the lake, a cold rind formed around me. I was an orange in a foreign peel. The rind ached, but I was fine: I’d swim through the cold. It didn’t diminish, though, and I swam as well as I could, ears out of the water and face down. That helped.
I reached the end of the bay and then turned back. The dock, a tiny silhouette, was far away. It had only been 300 yards, but looked to be a mile.
I swam a few strokes, and looked up, again disheartened. The view swung back and forth. I turned onto my back and drifted. The lake was shallow there, and I had to keep my feet high to avoid lake-bottom slime. And I was aware of the gentle warmth when I slowed, when I drifted: a boundary layer of water must have given insulation. But I had to swim again.
I turned onto my front and swam a few strokes, then drifted to feel the flame. Stroke and drift. The drift felt good, but I had to stroke, because I wouldn’t float without work. I stroked again, and then drifted.
When I flipped to my back, my vision was off. Things moved right and left, right and left, right and left. I turned to my front and swam and drifted. I’d hardly advanced at all. The shore at my side was close, but I couldn’t go onto those rocks*–experiments, and rocks were so large I would have struggled to clamber up them.
On the horizon was a weather station. I noticed a man there, a non-resident, who’d check the station and drive on out. He waved at me. He banged right and left, right and left, right and left, right and left. Was I languid as a mermaid? He was gone.
The dock so far away.
~ ~ ~
A grad student found me when she approached the dock for beer. I was asleep on the pontoon at the dock’s edge. My head and shoulders were out of the water, but the rest of my body was still submerged. My goggles were still on.
I believe she pulled me out, and then she ran for help. I was propped in a corner in the sauna.* My memories are of people in clothes who pushed me into position, maybe held me upright.* I remember falling sideways on the bench, my head clunking–and that was fine. I remember being given a mug of tea and thinking, what nonsense, they think I can hold this up?
And then I must have been alone again.* I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be outside.* And I escaped.
I lay on a railroad tie. I was on my back. The sky was medium gray. Sleet and fog blew over me. My neck was arched back in total comfort; my head, my arms, and legs splayed onto the ground. Only my spine was on the tie.
Can you conjure the time when you most experienced bliss? Have you felt suspended among bats of down comforters above and below, your body—and your thoughts, or lack of thoughts? That’s how I was.
Opposing muscle groups had lost control. I was more than calm. I was more than comfortable. I was more than relaxed. It was rapture, nirvana, sublime.
~ ~ ~
At some point, people annoyed me. They wrapped my body in a towel. People stumbled me to my research trailer where my sleeping bag was already spread. They got me into my bag on the felt carpet.* The generator drummed loudly nearby. I looked up at people and at the trailer ceiling, far away.
I recall a research assistant threatening to come into my bag and warm me up if no one else did, but she lay on top of the bag, instead. Someone found a hair drier and dried my hair.
But I wanted one thing only: the heaven of that railroad tie.
~ ~ ~
Long hours later, I believe—generator off, light coming only through the window–I erupted in a first shudder. It was a rippling gasp, convulsion, spasm–I don’t know. And then I drifted back to nothingness, to a vacancy from myself.
And after, perhaps long after, I shuddered again. I was aware of something wrong. Myself was “other,” it wasn’t me. That “other” flesh was cold like a water balloon or a pack of meat from the fridge. Another shudder, violent. And then another. And then more frequent. I had shivers with the “gain” turned high. A tinge, so faint, of warmth came to my corpus.
The next two days were in my tent on a mattress on the floor. I could drop my head into a hollow in the mattress that the siksiks had made earlier in the summer. I could drop a leg over the edge. A plate of food appeared from time to time by my feet. I thought my campmates were considering me a rabbit in a cage. There’s much perhaps they did. Mostly I slept. And I remember I had to pee, frequently—those muscles or sensors were disrupted, too. When I tried to stand outside of the tent, I pitched forward. I’d fall on the cushions of tundra, then work my way back to the sleeping bag and sleep again.
On the third morning, a group took me to be seen by the medic at Pump Station 4, which was near a sampling sight they had to visit. The medic asked, “What’s the day today?” but all I could think was, “Every day’s a data day.” He said, “She’s out of the woods, but get her to Fairbanks. People die quickly in the arctic.” I no longer remember the three-hour Suburban ride north the next day for a commercial flight from Prudhoe Bay. In Fairbanks I saw a doctor who prescribed rest. He suspected I was tired; maybe I’d had a virus. As for hypothermia, he couldn’t tell, but years, later a navy doctor said my symptoms were those of classic “cold injury” from submersion. I pressed her, and she said, “Injury: brain damage.”
My major professor and his wife, a pleasant, ethical, and non-judgmental pair, invited me to stay at their place in Fairbanks for a while. I slept and read two books: Winnie the Poo, and Plant Strategies and Vegetation Processes; I liked them both, but the second book has stayed with me longer. After a week, I started to walk outside. Fairbanks was lush with fireweed, willows, luxuriant grass, and even humid warmth.
~ ~ ~
After ten days I was well. I climbed into the supply cab for the bouncy ride up, some 13 or 14 hours in that rig. I was back in camp. I finished out the season, but more slowly. I left in mid-September when days were only 12 hours long, the soil surface was freezing, and the lake’s margins were covered with floating snow.
~ ~ ~
I didn’t freeze, but the experience was frozen into me. If I hear a certain frequency—an idling truck outside, a ventilation system—I’ll bolt away, or if I can’t, I become nauseated and get a crawling sensation that makes me want to run in circles. A counselor said it’s from the generator, PTSD. She decreased my reaction by a lot.
I made errors, lots of them, and so did some people around me, I suppose. But even through these errors, some good came. I visited a state so magnificent that now I know this potential. I get comfort in thinking what final rest and release may some day impart. And I have a collateral thought that’s frozen with it, too: that shear wonder at the opportunity I have each day to solve puzzles never asked before. I have that opportunity because I exist, even when I’m not on the edge of the wilds of the Earth.
*Not a good idea.