Cracked: Life as a Musher on Alaskan Glaciers

Posted by on Jun 11, 2015

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Blair Braverman had a tough job. For two years, between May and September she lived on a glacier the size of Rhode Island where her role was to give tourists the perfect Alaskan experience.

But beneath the facade, life was a challenge.

“Nothing was meant to live on the glacier, and the longer I stayed there, the clearer this became,” she wrote in a piece for the Atavist.

The landscape was always shifting – some mornings Braverman would wake up and a lake would have formed overnight. By the next day, the lake would be gone. Other days, surface snow would melt away around her tent.

Keeping the site, which hosted 200 huskies, nine mushers and other staff, clean was also a challenge. Dog hairs had to be raked off the snow and dog poop picked up as soon as it dropped. Teams would regularly go out and poke holes in the snow, searching for potential crevices that could bring rapid death.

Mushers and staff could feel the toll on their bodies. Sunlight reflecting off the snow would burn their nostrils and hurt their eyes. On rainy weeks, Braverman said her skin would peel off in long white strips.

Still, Braverman and her colleagues adjusted to the lifestyle, delivering smiles and an abundance  of wonderful memories to tourists.

Wonderful, that is, until heavy storms trapped a group of tourists for days on a glacier, a tale Braverman recounted for This American Life. What followed was almost two days of pretending life on a glacier was paradise while keeping the tourists calm. A longer account can be read on the Atavist.

Braverman is now working on a book, tentatively called ‘Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube.’  She agreed to talk to GlacierHub about her experiences and her upcoming work.

Courtesy of Blair Braverman

Alaskan ice field (Courtesy of Blair Braverman)

GH: What drew you to working on a glacier?

BB: I had spent the previous year learning to dogsled at a Norwegian folk school. Working on the glacier seemed like an adventure, a way to make some money and keep running dogs during the summer months.

 

GH: Why do you think it is important to share your story?

BB: People talk a lot about the sustainability of this kind of glacier-dogsledding operation, but of course, there are several kinds of sustainability. The company went to great lengths to practice Leave No Trace, whether that meant raking dog hair off the snow or covering everything with white tarps so that the camp was less appealing to birds. That’s one kind of sustainability, one that has to do with the health of the glacier. As for the health of all glaciers, and of the planet in general—well, obviously all those helicopter flights have a huge carbon footprint. From a larger environmental perspective, that’s devastating. Although I’ll allow some complication there, too, because the tourists who came up were often so moved by the landscape, and found the experience so powerful, that they left—by their own claim—with a renewed commitment to environmental responsibility.

Blair Braverman (photo credit:  Chrissie Bodznick)

Blair Braverman (photo credit: Chrissie Bodznick)

I wrote this story to try to make sense of a third kind of sustainability, which is cultural. What happens when a small group of people live and work together in a remote environment? Why do some people keep coming back, and some feel unable to? How does the experience change if you’re female, or in other ways set apart? What are the possible repercussions of learning to ignore bodily discomfort? I’m interested in how social dynamics play out in extreme landscapes, and this story started, in some sense, as an attempt to answer that question. I think a lot of your readers are grad students and scientists, so maybe some of you face similar concerns during extended field research.

Of course, we weren’t just living on the glacier; we were tour guides, working in the service industry, which only adds more pressure. When you’re all wearing smiles for the customers, tensions between coworkers play out in subtle, more insidious ways.

I also want to add the caveat that my experience at the glacier camp was not necessarily typical—in fact, I hope it wasn’t. A few people can make a big difference in that kind of small community. And when—spoiler alert!—the tourists got stranded, I was impressed overall by how the company handled it. They had extra supplies, they kept everyone safe and calm, and they turned an unprecedented and stressful situation into a relatively pleasant experience.

GH: Can you tell us about the experience of sharing your story on This American Life?

BB: I’ve been working on this story, on and off, for a long time. I wrote the first draft four years ago, and it was fairly long; that draft is closer to how the Atavist version turned out. When I started working with This American Life, we weren’t sure what the theme of the episode would be, so it wasn’t clear from the start which threads would be highlighted. A few weeks later they called back with a theme: Game Face, which I thought was a great fit. So we pared down the story with that in mind.

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Crew tent (Courtesy of Blair Braverman)

I’ve never written for radio before, and my producer, Jonathan Menjivar, was really wonderful throughout the whole process. The piece went through about a dozen rounds of edits between him, Joel Lovell, and Ira Glass. Jonathan also coached me through the recording itself, which was totally fun.

 

GH: Why do you think glaciers capture the imaginations of tourists?

BB: Apart from the obvious (that they’re exotic and spectacular)? Glaciers don’t follow the rules that we’ve come to expect from landscapes. They’re notable not for their life but for their lack of life—and yet they shift and glow and crack, as if they were alive themselves. Also, a lot of meaning has been assigned to them over the years: they’ve symbolized everything from unforgiving might to pristine purity (think ad campaigns for bottled water) to something that’s fragile and in danger, the canary-in-the-coal-mine of climate change.

 

GH: What do you think people don’t understand about living on glaciers or glaciers in general?

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Crew tent on the ice (Courtesy of Blair Braverman)

BB: If anything, living on the glacier really impressed upon me how dynamic it was; the landscape felt like it was changing constantly, even when those changes weren’t easily visible. But maybe all landscapes are always changing; maybe it was just my awareness that was different.

 

GH: Can you tell us a bit about your book?

BB: My book borrows its title from a nickname for the glacier, but it’s mostly about a former-seal-hunting village in the Norwegian Arctic. It tells the story of a changing community through a single local shop. Along the way, I try to explore the experiences that drew me there in the first place.

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