Survival is just the tip of the iceberg in Blair Braverman’s memoir on Arctic life

“On a bad day we called it the Goddamn Ice Cube. On a good day Summer Camp on the Moon.”  

Cover of Blair Braverman's memoir
Cover of Blair Braverman’s memoir (Source: Anna LoPresti)

In her memoir published July 5, writer and musher Blair Braverman recounts her time living in the isolated wilderness of the Arctic, and her struggles to reconcile the many contradictions—both real and perceived—that accompanied her journey. Over the course of its 274 pages, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North provides an honest and eloquent narrative of Braverman’s personal pursuit to create a home in the fjords of Norway and glaciers of Southeastern Alaska.

While Braverman’s experiences in the north were not always positive, she persistently returns to the Arctic to overcome her fears and self-doubts–seeking safety in extreme environments and confronting her status as an outsider in a “man’s world.”

Her Arctic roots trace back to a young age. Braverman spent a year in Oslo when she was 10-years-old and continuously returned, feeling connected to the country in a way that she never felt in her hometown of Davis, California. A year as a high school foreign exchange student in Norway helped her reestablish her connection. But a host father who made her feel unsafe also made her time there difficult. Braverman was insecure, but not defeated.

Lillehammer, norway, Where Braverman spent a year as an exchange student (source: Maksim)
Lillehammer, Norway, where Braverman spent a year as an exchange student (source: Maksim)

As testament to her personal strength and character, she pushed herself to return to Norway and struggle through the extreme physical and mental challenges of survival training and dog sledding in the Arctic at the Norwegian Folk School 69°North.

“I knew I would never be a tough girl,” she writes in the memoir. “And yet the phrase, with its implied contradiction, articulated everything that I wanted for myself: to be a girl, an inherently vulnerable position, and yet unafraid.”

In the far reaches of the North, there were many things to fear—the biting cold, the seemingly unending darkness of winter, being buried alive under the snow. However, Braverman approached these physical challenges head-on throughout her time at 69°North and in the years to follow.

“Of course I was scared. But at least I was scared of dangers of my own choosing. At least there was joy that came with it.”

There were other equally pressing physical and emotional dangers that Braverman faced, one of which is not exclusive to the Arctic: the danger of men threatening her safety and encroaching on her body. In the eyes of the men Braverman encountered, the Arctic was seen as exclusively male territory. Despite the intimidation, harassment, and dismissal by men, Braverman was determined to have an equal right to also call the Arctic “home.”

After completing her survival training at the folk school, Braverman left Norway to work at a summer tour company on a glacier in southeast Alaska. Living on a remote glacier with an aggressive boyfriend, the irony of her job cannot be lost—providing a comfortable experience for tourists to be “explorers” out in the wilderness, when the reality of living in such an environment is anything but comfortable.

Mendenhall Glacier, visited by Braverman while working in Alaska. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)
Mendenhall Glacier, visited by Braverman while working in Alaska. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

She writes in the book that she was also “discouraged from acknowledging climate change, even as the glacier melted away beneath us.” While the majority of people may prefer to sweep difficult truths under the rug, Braverman is admirable for her desire to seek it out, regardless of convenience.

While Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube is, to a large degree, a story of emotional and physical struggle, it is also one of deep admiration for nature and the Arctic. Braverman’s love of the environment is contagious and brought to life through her vivid descriptions of living and racing on the ice. Her connection to the sled dogs, and their dedication and loyalty to her, is a source of strength for Braverman in the face of other obstacles.

During her first time out on the sled, she describes her fascination with the sled dogs. “The dogs flowed, a perfect thrilling engine. Their legs stretched out like pistons; their ears and tongues bounced in unison. Their running had nothing to do with me. They wouldn’t have stopped if I’d asked them to. They were beautiful. They were so beautiful.”

Author Blair Braverman dogsledding (Photo: Aladino Mandoli)
Author Blair Braverman dogsledding (Photo: Aladino Mandoli)

Many times Braverman would have to rely on the dogs—their sense of direction, memory of the trails, their speed and strength—to bring her to safety. In the isolating world she lived in, the dogs were a rare example of companionship and trust.

The ice itself also carries significance for Braverman. While beautiful, the glaciers she worked on in Alaska were also cold and unforgiving. In her words, even otherworldly: “A desert, a moonscape—I found myself groping for a metaphor, trying to make sense of the alien world that extended to the far horizon.”

At times, her home, the glaciers of Alaska, also proved to be inhospitable and harsh—not how any “home” is typically described. Yet, the pristine and staggering beauty of the Arctic was never lost on Braverman, and is described so thoughtfully it’s presence carries throughout the narrative of the memoir.

After her time in Alaska, she returned to Norway numerous times to continue relationships she has built over the years and work odd jobs in the small northern town of Mortenhals. Since returning to the United States, Braverman graduated from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and has been a fellow at the Blue Mountain Center as well as the MacDowell Colony. She is currently living in Mountain, Wisconsin, where she races sled dogs and pursues her writing career. “I made my own north,” she says—and for Braverman, that means she has made her own home.

Blair is currently training for the Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska.

For a limited time. GlacierHub readers can purchase the book for a discount. Promo code GlacierHub20 is now active on harpercollins.com. The promo code, which will remain active until Sept 3, allows for a 20% discount off the retail price of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube and free economy shipping.

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