50 below? We're not in California anymore.
We were going to the coldest spot in the continental US in mid-January. What had we been thinking?
The day before my mom and I were to leave balmy California, the dogsledding trip suddenly struck me as insane. I called the Wintergreen Lodge to double-check that the extra-warm parkas I'd reserved would be ready. "And how's the weather?" I asked.
"Oh, it's warm enough for January," chirped the Minnesota woman. "It's 1."
One? One degree?
"Yah, I'm not even wearing a hat today," she sang out in her cheerful, "Fargo"-ish accent. "Yesterday was really cold, though," she said. "Minus 50."
Minus 50? A full 100 degrees colder than it was in my garage?
Last summer, it hadn't seemed like such a loony idea. We had flipped through the brochures in my sweltering California backyard. From the pages smiled apple-cheeked people petting fluffy, snowy dogs.
"This is going to be so cool, Mom" I said, checking out the glistening icicles. "More lemonade?"
"You're fortunate," my best friend said when I mentioned taking the trip with my mother. Her mom had trouble just getting through a game of golf.
I didn't think much about it until Christmastime, and I finally realized we were going to the coldest spot in the continental US in mid-January. What had we been thinking?
I flipped through a winter-clothing catalog. Sorel caribou boots, rated to minus 40. I ordered a pair for each of us.
"I need the warmest gloves you have," I said to the guy at the camping store.
"Sure," he answered. "Headed to Tahoe?"
He stopped rummaging through the box of mittens. "Why?"
"Dogsledding," I said. "With my mom."
He stared at me for a second. "Try these." He grabbed a package of Hot Hands, little chemical patches you slip into your gloves. I dumped the whole box into my basket.
* * *
"Nice day out there, folks," the pilot said as we taxied along the tarmac. "It's 6 degrees."
In the tiny airport, I saw things I'd never seen in California: a moose head hung over the drinking fountain. Past the security checkpoint, a stuffed grizzly bear pawed the air with its club-sized foot.
"You the folks from California?" a woman in a fur-lined, camouflage parka asked.
"Okey-dokey, then. I'm Wanda." She motioned toward the taxi purring at the curb. "So, you guys ever seen snow before?"
We filed out into the icy afternoon, the low winter sun glinting across the slick highway. We sped past iron mines, a store called Chocolate Moose, and a town called Embarrass. Flakes fuzzed the windows while Wanda passed back pictures of her grandkids. She asked if we'd ever felt an earthquake.
It was 3:30 p.m. and getting dark when we arrived at the Wintergreen Lodge. Our guide, Dominic, introduced us to our fellow mushers, all from cold-weather places. One was even sporting a T-shirt.
He announced we'd start Dogsledding 101 after dinner.
"Yah, then we need to go over your clothing system," said Lynn Anne, the other guide. She was looking right at my mom and me.
I wondered what a "clothing system" was. And boy, were my feet cold.
Dominic shook his shaggy head at my question about my contacts freezing to my eyeballs. "If you get it in your mind that you're going to be cold, you'll be miserable," he said. "Besides, it's only 15 below."
We practiced saying "gee" for right turn, and "hike" for go. We gobbled hunks of baked Alaska. Then Lynn Anne picked through the multiple fleece jackets, Polartec leggings, and boots with extra liners Mom and I had brought.
"You guys are going to roast," she said.
People started yawning and made for their rooms. But we were still on West Coast time and wide awake.
"Hey," my mom said, "let's see if we can see the northern lights." Her face glowed.
"You mean outside?"
"Come on," she said as she nudged me. "We'll try out our 'clothing system.' "
We pulled on thermal underwear. Insulated snow pants. Then a fleece jacket. Another fleece anorak, and then the shell. Two pairs of socks and two hats. The minus-40 Sorels. Glove liners and mittens. And for good measure, I yanked my neck gaiter up over my mouth. I was ready to rob an igloo.
"Mmmffphrgg," my mom said, and poked an appendage toward the front door.
Outside I squinched my eyelids so only a nanometer of pupil was showing and braced for the icy blast. I gripped the handrail and started down, like Neil Armstrong descending to the moon. That's one giant step for the wimpy Californian.
The spruce trees were like giant green toothbrushes with a foot of icy, white toothpaste squirted onto their branches. We waded through the thigh-deep powder on White Iron Lake. A half-moon winked from behind a cluster of clouds, bathing everything in fairy-tale white.
"I forgot how quiet it gets in the snow," my mom whispered. I pulled down my neck gaiter and looked up. Tiny diamonds gleamed in the black bowl of the sky: Orion, the hunter; Sirius, the dog star.
We hadn't gazed at the stars together since I was a little girl. "It's wonderful to be here together, Honey," she said.
"You're fortunate" - my friend's words echoed in my head. I nodded.
My mom turned to smile at me. Well, she crinkled up her eyes, so I assumed she was smiling - I could see only a one-inch strip of her face.
We were warm enough to stand together for a long time on that frozen lake, staring at the stars moving slowly but surely across the wintry sky.