This (Dangerous) Winter Wonderland

About a month ago, we were still sinking in the mud right off the boardwalks. Every day, the temperature dropped a few degrees, the ground grew a little stiffer, and the boardwalks became frostier.

I was like a little kid, antsy and excited for the first snowflake to fall. When it finally did, lots of other snowflakes followed it down to Newtok. Kimberly and I ran outside to catch them on our tongues and slide across the slick boardwalks. It was only October, and the Natives say that it hasn’t snowed this early in many years. Just a couple weeks later, we had our first blizzard! The storm threw open our front door and filled the arctic room with snow; the silver sky whirled and howled all night long. After this first blizzard, I was introduced to snow drifts—large collections of snow that make little mountains of the frozen white powder, perfect for jumping into and acting like a little kid!

Kim and I took a walk to the river, where the water had begun clinging to itself, forming massive ice chunks that float down the river like little glaciers. In the next few days, we got the news of another blizzard being concocted in the bellies of a billion snow clouds. I was in the hallway at the school, opening the window to feel the freezing air and to revel at a little frozen pond, and Grant walked by and said, “The weather’s showing off for you, Audrey!” Kim’s first year here, there wasn’t a single blizzard until after the Christmas break. Considering everything I’ve gotten to see, taste, and do here in such a short time that could have just as easily been impossible, Kimberly has deemed me the luckiest person in the world. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but that’s how blessed I feel right now. And I’m so unbelievably thankful for it all.

The huge blizzard hit suddenly and fiercely; with hurricane-force winds up to 65 mph and the Bering Sea’s swells reaching 35 feet, this storm turned out to be one of the worst storms in the area since the 1970s. Just standing outside in the cyclone of subzero wind and snow was a workout—holding yourself up against the forceful blows, putting all your weight into each step just to walk in the right direction. We live on the side of the village nearest the river, and since the chilly water exceeded its banks and began to flood the village, the gusts of winds became stronger and stronger as the river moved closer. Our entire house shook with each gale, and our window buckled and creaked. Many of the Natives around us evacuated to the school for night to be on higher ground in case the flood reached their doorstep. Other nearby river-side villages evacuated every single person into their schools, where families slept on the gym floor, in the library, or in the hallways. Those little glaciers that Kim and I saw just a few days before floated their way right up behind some of the houses, daring the storm to shove them further into the village.

Kim & little Eskimos playing on the ice chunks the day after the blizzard

Before the sun set and before the blizzard got too bad, Kimberly and I went on a walk out to the river and then close to the airport. When we started, I asked, “Are you sure we should do this?” She said, “Do you trust me?” I said, “Yes…” and then I remembered all her near-fatal incidents on her adventures, and I changed my mind: “No, actually, I don’t.” She laughed and kept walking. She’s been in a hundred blizzards, and she knows her boundaries. I figured I’d keep going until I felt in danger.

So we set off into the tundra, sinking to our knees in the snow with every step, cracking frozen ponds and anxiously sprinting across them. We crawled up hills that we couldn’t ascend on foot, punching our fists deep into the snow for control and leverage. We collapsed into waist-deep drifts and had to roll out of them. Oh, did I mention that I don’t have snow boots? So I hike with four pairs of wool socks in my rain boots, which are still too big; so my toes clung desperately to my shoes with each step. The wind and snow was relentless. Imagine you are in one of those hurricane simulator machines at the mall or one of those money-wind-whirling machines… except it’s -5 degrees and there’s ice swirling all around you, pelting you in the face. The ice cakes into the crevices of your clothes, slowly but surely turning you into a human ice cube.

At one point we laid flat on our stomachs behind a small hill to get out of the hurricane-force wind and stinging snow, and my heart crumpled into my stomach as I looked all around and saw nothing but white. I was disoriented and couldn’t even figure out in what direction the houses were; I couldn’t even see twenty feet in front of me because of the tumbling sheets of white. I felt like I’d been swallowed by Winter and was deep in the pit of the white monster’s stomach. With a hint of humor and a load of seriousness, Kim said, “This is life or death… This is not a drill!” I asked, “How long is this blizzard supposed to last?” wondering, if we DID get lost or hurt, how long we’d have to wait it out. “Until tomorrow morning,” she said. If we waited THAT out, we’d be icicles. In my panic mode, I screamed through the deafening wind, “Why did we do this? I’m going back!” It was my first major blizzard experience, and it was scary being frozen to the bone and unable to see where I was, realizing I was going to have to find some strength to get myself home. Kimberly’s complete calmness set me at ease. “Trust me, we aren’t as far away as it feels,” she would say. She knows her tundra pretty well. Her eyes smiled behind her goggles, and she said, “The boardwalk’s that way.” So I pulled my boots up again, rolled out of a drift, and crawled up another hill. We walked for a long way, sinking, crunching through snow, fighting the wind, and wiping the white from our goggles every few seconds.

A little while later, we were standing on the boardwalk, and I was recuperating from panic mode. When we finally made it home, every muscle in my body ached with the pain of cold and exertion as I unpeeled the frozen layers away from my body. Of course, I’ll go on adventures again and test my own boundaries as safely as possible. But my adventurous spirit will never amount to the kind that my sister has: the deadly Alaskan tundra is her playground, and the whiteouts and frigid flurries are recess time.

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One response to “This (Dangerous) Winter Wonderland

  1. awesome times! next time maybe we can start a fire!

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