Dog World was perched atop a glacier near the edge of an icefield the size of Rhode Island. The only reasonable way to get there was by helicopter, and eight times a day they came in, five birds, loaded with cruise-ship tourists who’d spent $500 to go “flightseeing” over the icefield and then set down on the glacier for a dogsled ride—a taste of Real Alaska.
At first, from the helicopter, the only thing they’d see was the sweeping ice, smooth and white, punched through with mountaintops. If they had never been there before, the sight was near religious, something to bring them to tears. The pilots were instructed to play Enya on repeat, piped directly into their passengers’ headphones—music the tour company believed was a properly swooning soundtrack for the otherworldly vista below.
We lived there from May to September—I and nine other musher guides, a few staff, and 200 huskies—in a cluster of canvas tents and plastic igloos. Our job was to provide a luxury experience: all the thrills of a glacier with none of the discomfort, either physical or mental, that comes with the terrain. It wasn’t that our efforts were secret; they were just invisible. We cleaned the kennels constantly so that tourists would be spared the sight of a single lump of dog poop. We raked up fur that collected on the snow and piled it behind the tents in an enormous mound we called the woolly mammoth. Sometimes we had to be creative: If my dogs’ eyes got sore from the sun, I’d put mascara around them to minimize reflected light. “Those dogs must be related,” the tourists would say, admiring the huskies with big black circles around their eyes, and because it was easier than explaining, I let them believe it.
Nothing was meant to live on the glacier, and the longer I stayed, the clearer this became. Yet somehow we all got used to it. We no longer jumped at the gunshot crack of an avalanche on a sun-warmed afternoon. Turquoise lakes a half-mile wide formed and vanished overnight. As the surface snow melted, the foundation under our camp sank steadily away, and we’d wake to find our tents, which were on skis, perched atop pedestals of hardened snow. On rainy weeks, we gave up the dream of staying dry. At night, when I undressed, my waterlogged, sunburned skin fell off in white strips, which I’d toss to the nearest dogs, who sniffed them and turned away. I wrapped my fingers in duct tape to keep my shredded skin in one piece when I shook hands with tourists. When it was foggy we probed for crevasses, working a tight grid through camp, pushing aluminum poles into the snow until our palms blistered and our muscles burned. I never saw a big crevasse, but sometimes turquoise cracks split the snow. They were usually small, just a few inches across, and when I crouched close and peered into them they seemed to extend down forever.
The camp was a closed system: If we ate cherries for lunch, we’d be picking the pits out of the outhouse pump two days later (and getting a lecture from our manager about not swallowing pits in the first place). All human and dog waste had to be packed into barrels and flown to Juneau in a sling that dangled beneath the helicopters. On a bad day, we called it the Goddamn Ice Cube. On a good day, Summer Camp on the Moon.
But if the camp was a closed system, then the tourists, with their camcorders and designer sunglasses, existed outside of it. Our job was not to give them a peek in but to build the walls of their fantasy so solidly that they could not see anything else—to reassure them that even though they were on a glacier, nothing was dangerous, all was good, and everything was under control.
Our days started at 6 a.m. sharp and lasted until early evening. Most of my time was spent guiding the tourists. Each of the eight daily tours consisted of an orientation, a lap around a two-mile trail, and a chance to pet the dogs. My groups were often surprised that their guide was a young woman, and when I first arrived on the glacier I had taken pride in disarming them with my enthusiasm and knowledge. I praised their adventurousness, offered expertly timed confessions (“I was terrified on my first helicopter ride, too!”), took photos with their cameras and let their kids stand in front of me on the sled runners, pretending to drive. At first the performance was exciting, a chance to play the role of my bravest, brightest self. But with time my end of the conversation solidified into a script, one I could deploy with pristine enthusiasm. I hardly noticed what I was saying.
The tourists were always curious about glacier life, and I did my best to give them what they wanted. I told them about the hummingbirds that stopped by on their way to the moss-covered mountains, but I didn’t tell them about the time a lightning storm closed in on us and I thought for sure we’d all get electrocuted. I told them how strange it was to live in a world almost totally drained of color, but not about the elaborate plans another guide and I had come up with to escape the glacier on foot if we ever needed to. I told them the food was great and the mushers and dogs were like family and I had the best job in the world. Then I’d go back to my tent and cry.