Out in the Cold Again: The Woods of Northern Minnesota

Article excerpt

A couple of years ago I went on an expedition to the North Pole. We skied over the sea ice, bridged the leads and clambered over the sastrugi, and my arrogance and incompetence lost me a finger-end to frostbite. When we got to the Pole we pitched our tent, drank whisky, smoked Cuban cigars, re-told the jokes we'd told every evening and tried to think that we were significant. Snow and wind stopped the helicopter from coming to pick us up. And so for three-and-a-half days we floated on the ice; three-and-a-half days lying in my bag, urinating into a plastic jar and watching my finger turn blacker. In the fitful sleep that icy, twenty-four hour sunlight allows, I dreamt of hot forests and beach barbecues. Men aren't designed for the cold, I told myself. We evolved in hot places, and never really evolved away from them. Humans are relational animals, and there's nothing on an arctic ice floe to relate to apart from oneself. Men obsessed with the arctic are self-obsessed. Arctic exploration is pure narcissism. Cold wildernesses are sterile. In every sense they don't resonate. And when I got back to Spitsbergen I turned the heating on full and resolved never to go anywhere cold again.

I kept that resolution, switched all my attention to a remote green archipelago off the coast of Mozambique, and was thoroughly happy. My down jacket grew mouldy in a wardrobe, and I didn't care. My mummified distal phalanx, trimmed off by a surgeon, sat in a box in a desk drawer.

But the north has a way of creeping up on you. I kept being asked about wolves; an editor wanted an article about Finnish shamans; an old file of papers about the Little Auk colonies of Franz Joseph Land fell from a shelf. And so, by a very convoluted road I found myself on a sled pulled by five Alaskan huskies across a frozen lake near Ely in northern Minnesota.

I didn't want to be on this trip. I was supposed to be darting Sable antelope in Africa. I didn't like the cold, I didn't much like America at the best of times, and small town America represented everything I loathed. Well, it was marvellous. Never have I known a place that tasted of more. Just down the road from Ely are the towns of Embarrass and Aurora, which is a good start. In the Ely steakhouse they sell Pig's Eye and Moose Drool beer. When I walked into the Ely library, a polite but ugly 1950s block next to one of the town's mysteriously numerous hairdressers, an octogenarian in yellow braces was copying. Walt Whitman into a Moleskin notebook. When I walked into a bar a cliche backwoodsman, his beard tucked into his belt, drained his glass, belched, put his Dostoevsky down on the pool table, vomited, and carried on reading. It is impossible not to like a place like that. It has a matchless second-hand bookshop which sells bundles of sage used by the Ojibwa to prepare sacred space, seven types of Kentucky chewing tobacco, and undulates with cats.

The great thing about Ely is that it has a healthy, practical relationship with the country around it. Most Americans, going on a self-styled 'wilderness vacation', fly or drive hundreds or thousands of miles and then spend the vacation walking round malls drinking Coke and buying postcards with the bears on that they haven't seen. The wilderness towns gaily prostitute themselves to such people. But Ely isn't like that. It is probably lucky in the Americans it draws to its hinterland, but it has made some of that luck. It still sells axes and logging gloves instead of milkshakes. It is hard to get a cheeseburger in Ely; it is hard not to buy a canoe.

I quickly got mystical about this area. It has a resonance about it that an aboriginal would say was due to it being walked over--'dreamed'--by men who loved and understood it. And indeed it has been. This border Lakeland was the playground of the trappers and traders of the American Fur Company, the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company. The region teemed with muskrat, beaver, wolverine, otter, wolf, fox and bear. …