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Wild, free and freezing: Blair Braverman's life in the north

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Blair Braverman and one of her sled dogs
Blair Braverman holds one of her sled dogs.
Christian Bodznick | Courtesy of Blair Braverman

Blair Braverman grew up in California's Central Valley, where summer temperatures climb over 100 degrees on a daily basis.

'Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube'
'Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube' by Blair Braverman
Courtesy of Ecco

It's a long way from the Arctic, from 40 degrees below zero, from a team of sled dogs pulling you across the tundra with no idea of where you're headed.

But that's how Braverman likes it (minus the being lost part). Her obsession with the North started when she was small: She remembers poring over her mother's books about Alaska, and tying her dogs to herself while she Rollerbladed, like her very own sled team. ("This is a terrible idea," Braverman said, for the record.)

Flash forward two decades later, scrap the Rollerblades, and Braverman is still at it: She lives in Mountain, Wis., about an hour and a half north of Green Bay, where she runs a kennel. She completed her first qualifier for the Iditarod, the famed 1,000-mile sled dog race across Alaska, earlier this year.

"I have to do 600 more miles of qualifying races if I want to be eligible in 2018," she said.

Braverman's winding, lonely, often-frozen and occasionally terrifying path from her California childhood to owning her own sled dog kennel is captured in her new memoir, "Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube."

The book explores Braverman's fascination with the remote, frozen corners of the Arctic, and with the people who make their home in these dark (as in, no sun for three months) and frigid places. Braverman has already been hailed as a "21st century feminist reincarnation of Jack London" in early blurbs for the book.

Blair Braverman in the ice
Blair Braverman fell in love with the North -- freezing temperatures and all.
Hanna Alerud | Courtesy of Blair Braverman

Her deep attachment to the "great white North" can probably be pinned to the time she spent in Norway with her family when she was 10. After returning to the U.S., she was desperate to get back.

During her senior year of high school, while friends applied to colleges and jobs, Braverman found herself applying to folk schools, the uniquely Scandinavian institutions that allow students to focus on a particular subject for a year. Any subject. Even dog sledding.

She found a school in Norway, with just 40 students, that taught dog sledding and winter survival.

"It was Arctic all right — closer to the pole than all of Sweden, Iceland, and most of Alaska," she writes. "I sent in my application and transcript, hoping beyond hope that my straight As would be enough to place me in the top of the applicant pool; in fact, as I later learned, the school only used transcripts to make sure that applicants hadn't failed gym."

That's how she ended up out on the tundra in heavy winds, lost and disoriented in the middle of the night, with just one other student and six dogs. She'd never driven a sled before.

"We lost complete track of everyone else on the tundra," she said. "Our dogs were moving forward, until pretty soon they couldn't. They were sinking to their bellies and armpits in the snow. We had to take turns trudging through the snow in front of them with a headlamp, which only cut a little circle in space."

"We kept moving because it was too cold to stop."

After nine hours, they stumbled into a reindeer herding camp. "The dogs had known the way the whole time," Braverman said. "But we certainly hadn't."

Despite the fear and the freezing winds, Braverman was hooked.

"I did feel very connected to myself when I was there," she said. "I felt like I was turning into a person I wanted to continue to be — which, when you're 18, 19, that's your job. I was desperate to find a way to stay connected to that landscape."

After a year at the folk school, Braverman left the Arctic for college, and went on to earn her MFA in writing. She tried to stay connected, spending summers on a glacier in Alaska accessible only by helicopter, tending to sled dogs. But life intervened. More time passed without a return to Norway.

"At one point, I had a terrible time on the glacier, and I ended up running away from the North, and putting it out of my mind — which didn't work," Braverman said.

Her memoir opens with her return to Norway, a place "I was trying to get back to, even if I was avoiding it," she said.

That return put her back on the path with sled dogs, a path that may one day take her to the Iditarod. Sled dog racing, Braverman points out, is one of only three sports when men and women compete together. (The other two are sailing and equestrian.)

Blair Braverman and her dogs on the trail
Blair Braverman and her sled dogs completed her first qualifier for the Iditarod, the famed 1,000-mile sled dog race across Alaska, earlier this year.
Aladino Mandoli | Courtesy of Blair Braverman

"I do this because I love it. There's no money in it. I'm not trying to get to the Iditarod for glory or money or anything like that," Braverman said. "For me, qualifying for the Iditarod means spending that many miles on the trail with my dogs, getting connected to them, getting better. I'm always trying to get better."

For now, most of her dogs are summering in Alaska, pulling tourists around Seward in temperatures more comfortable for their thick fur. "They're huskies — they're not meant to be in 80 degrees."

When Braverman reads at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis at 7 p.m. on Thursday night, though, she is hoping to bring one of the remaining dogs along.

"If you don't come for the book," she laughed. "Come for the husky."

Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube