On DOGSLEDDING, tHE Culture of cold, AND the investigative memoir

Photo by Hanna Ålerud

   Blair Braverman’s infatuation with dogsledding, freezing landscapes and the cultures that celebrate them started as a child. In fact, you could say it started with her mother, whose Norwegian blood set in motion a magnetic pulsing in the direction very north of Blair's Davis, California upbringing. But what was once an infatuation turned into a love affair; and, eventually a book. Welcome to the God Damn Ice Cube is an investigative memoir traversing the emotional and physical landscapes of the Arctic in both Alaska and Norway.


Blair’s book is a “discussion of the perils involved, not just from blizzards, isolation and wild animals, but from the sexism and violence faced by women adventurers daring to enter the male-dominated field.” It earned rave reviews which “set it apart from either travel narratives or other memoirs of self-discovery.”


In the book, Blair’s narrative swings from external landscapes of blizzards and ice to an even chillier internal landscape. She lets her readers inside her mind when coerced into sex by a lecherous boyfriend, for example. Even the natural world around her had a violence and demanding force to it. When describing life working on an Alaskan glacier, Blair writes, “those of us who lived on the glacier learned to expect nothing from the landscape, to adjust to its changes without question . . . We no longer jumped at the gunshot crack of avalanches on a sun-warmed afternoon. Turquoise lakes a half-mile wide formed and vanished overnight. . . . The glacier was a closed cycle.” In Blair’s world, nature imposed its will on you, not the other way around.


Reviewers have struggled to categorize the literary genre of Blair’s novel as it breaks the conventions of arctic adventure classics like those of Jack London or more contemporary writers like Seth Kantner, James Campbell or Jon Krakauer. In Blair’s novel, the reader will find some classic adventure tropes, however. There are adrenaline-pulsing stories of night mushing, lost in the Norwegian wilderness; rescue stories marked by the incessant sound of a helicopter’s blade chop during a white out; and the terror of waking up trapped in a snow cave buried by the snow of an all-night blizzard. There are depictions of the Scandinavian folk school that Blair attended near the 69th parallel, learning the sport of dog sledding and winter survival skills. However, the reader will also find reflections of sexism and past trauma  woven into the story. It is not unlikely to also read a depiction of life in a small Norwegian town where beach bonfires and feeding the sheep mark peak excitement for the day.


Blair’s book has fallen into many literary genres including memoir, adventure writing, coming of age narrative, and Blair’s least favorite descriptor, traumoir. She prefers to describe the book as investigative memoir. “It’s a story that’s based on my past but relies on interrogation and adventure in the present,” Blair tells us.


Investigative memoirs are memoirs that “are investigative rather than declarative,” meaning they “are records—not of something that’s done with—of the past—but of psychic processes that are perpetually ongoing. These books, I’m starting to understand, become parts of our lives,” writes investigative memoirist Marco Roth. Most memoirs and adventure writing tell a definitive story of “what happened,” with a clarity of purpose. By contrast, the writing of an investigative memoir itself is “part of a process of recollection that requires [the author] not to be “done with” or “over” something precisely in order that we may go on with life in a meaningful way.” In other words, the writing itself explores the past as if for the first time, without any decisive judgments on its meaning. It is an exploration- an investigation- rather than an assertion of events.  

Above: Malangen Peninsula in Norway, where Braverman spent time in the Village of Mortenhals.

 This form of memoir may serve not only as a therapeutic tool for the writer but a more profound experience for the reader. Recalling a declarative past allows readers to know “what happened” in a story. However, to read an author’s investigation of their past invites the readers to be part of the author’s therapeutic process. The story, the investigation, therefore, remains a living, evolving organism that both the author and reader experience together. Thus, creating an intimate connection between the two. Blair says, “the book was me trying to make sense as much as possible of all of the gender dynamics that had been playing out around me in these very isolated places.”


Blair Braverman has been enthralled by the craft of writing since childhood, marked by the consumption of countless adventure stories. After her first two trips to Norway, she returned to the United States to attend Colby College in Maine. She graduated from Colby College in 2011 and then went on to the University of Iowa earning a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction. It was during the summers in her undergraduate years that she worked in Alaska on an [intentionally] unnamed remote glacier. In 2015, she was featured on This American Life on the "Game Face" episode segment entitled 200 Dog Night. In this episode, she read aloud an essay about her experience working on an Alaskan glacier for a dog sledding facility aimed at entertaining tourists. She was selected as one of the inaugural class of the Outdoor 30 Under 30 list by the Outdoor Industry Association in 2016. Publishers Weekly dubbed her the "21st-century feminist reincarnation of Jack London" and the book was recommended by O, The Oprah Magazine as a summer must-read.  In response to being called a feminist, Blair writes, “I think any time you look at gender very closely it is feminist, because the default is to not look at it.” She has also written other articles exploring gender, such as What I've Learned From Having A Trans Partner, which was published in BuzzFeed in 2016, and online harassment in When I was scared, my gun-owning neighbors helped me feel safe, published in The Guardian. Blair's work has appeared in The Atavist, BuzzFeedOutside, and the Smithsonian, among others.


In addition to her writing, Blair hasn’t stopped chasing the cold. Upon returning from Norway for the second time, Blair nestled herself in the midst of it in the United States. She currently lives in Wisconsin, where her home sits on 35 acres in the Northwoods.  She lives with the company of her husband and 21 dogs.


Since her training in Alaska and Norway, mushing has become a love and a lifestyle for Blair. She continues to train as a musher in general and for the Iditarod in particular. Blair plans to compete in this 1,150 mile dog sled race through Alaska in 2019.


Despite her training schedule and caring for 21 dogs, we were able to catch Blair for an interview to learn more about her book, the craft of writing and her life, training as a musher.

interview with blair braverman

 There seems to be a lot of focus in your book's reviews of categorizing the kind of writing you have done. I have heard "travelogue," "memoir, "coming of age narrative," "adventure writing," and even your most hated "traumoir." If you had to make up a new genre to explain what this book has meant to you, what would it be?


It's not my invention, but I think of the book as an investigative memoir. It's a story that's based on my past but relies on interrogation and adventure in the present.


As a way to confront trauma, you put yourself in more harsh conditions and more male dominated arenas (rather than recede to gentler landscapes to heal). This seems ironic. Why do you think you were compelled to do this?


What I needed, I think, was to know that the things that had happened to me once wouldn't happen again. In gentler landscapes, I always felt limited by fear, because I knew that I wouldn't have chosen to be there if I weren't afraid. But by putting myself in similar situations--harsh wilderness and male-dominated communities--I was able to prove to myself that I knew more, that I trusted myself, that I could rewrite my own story.


 Can you name a time when you surprised yourself with your own emotional reaction?


Oh, gosh. I think that I surprised myself on every page of the book! And that writing it was a process of better learning my own responses.


You mention that you would never recommend writing as a form of therapy for trauma. "It's hard, it's time-consuming, it doesn't work, you're half likely to make the trauma worse" but you wanted your book to help you let go of the control your experiences had over you. In what ways, other than writing, have you been able to find some closure and/or acceptance of past experiences, good and bad?


Time, therapy, and a good partner.


What sources of media (books, podcasts, poets, etc.) have you referred to for inspiration or have made an impact on you?


Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard, is the book that I've read the most times over. I also find myself returning to Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. And I don't know anything about them, but I love music videos! Reading is exciting for me, but not relaxing--I'm thinking too much about every decision the author made--so when I want to relax, I look for genres of art that are unfamiliar to me, like dance and music.

Photo by Aladino Mandoli

 Can you name a quality about yourself that helps make you a successful musher? 


I'm good at problem-solving and I love dogs.


Can you describe what most fascinates you about the experience of mushing?


Thinking like, and with, my dogs. When we're in the wilderness together, I'm still a human, of course, but I'm also something bigger than that--part of a pack, wordless, caught up in the movements and senses of my team. It's a true interspecies collaboration.


What is something about life in the arctic or dog sled mushing that most people don't know? OR something you learned that you didn't expect.


Arctic folks don't enjoy the cold. We're just better at dressing for it.


You mention in another interview in Bitch Magazine, that your manner of style and physical appearance and dress stood out amongst your peers but when you returned to Norway you realized how it had been shaped by the culture and the women there from previous trips. Did you feel more authentic in your presentation of self when set apart from your peers as "other" or when you were included in your common appearance with other women in Norway? How or does one's physical or external appearance shape your sense of agency as a woman?


Clothes are important; they're how we frame our bodies to be seen by the world. We all adjust to the people around us, but dressing specifically to fit in--with no regard for what feels good or right--is fearful. I feel most comfortable and authentic when I'm dressing out of pleasure rather than fear, whether that means I look the same or different from people around me. Dressing for myself first, however that plays out, is a way of taking ownership over a female body that I did not always feel permission to own.


"Ten years after leaving Lillenhammer, eight years after attending folk school, I made my own North." You said this North was a place where you had your own sled dogs, where you no longer needed someone else to give you permission to be a musher. Can you expand on this and what changed internally for you?


That's a big question--bigger than I can answer right here!--so I'll give you a glimpse. I live in the northwoods, on 35 acres, with 21 sled dogs and a wonderful husband. Every morning I make coffee and head out on the porch and count my huskies' wagging tails. I'm self-employed as a writer, so I adjust my schedule as much as I can so that in the winter I can run my dogs thousands of miles through the wilderness of the upper midwest. What changed is that I'm not looking for anything new anymore; I'm not proving myself to myself or anyone else; I'm at ease. I'm home.

Photo by Christina Bodznick