“How about here?” my friend Lynn gestured. The campsite seemed fine, especially on a late, snow-dusted evening after a day of rough trail. Tucked against an outcropping and a 30-foot-tall, rock-hard snowdrift nestled into a narrow canyon, the little spot seemed well shielded—pretty much bombproof compared with anything else we’d be likely to find for miles in the high, treeless country in which we were traveling. We’d be pitching our canvas wall tent right against the rocks on a patch of bare blue overflow ice. A bit hard, sure. But this was just a quick camp, a place to spend our last night on a 350-mile loop into the upper Noatak before pressing home to Ambler first thing in the morning. With no sign of a gathering storm, shoveling and stomping out a campsite in hip-deep snow in another spot, a few dozen yards away, seemed more work than we needed. The three of us—Lynn, his wife, Carol, and I—set to work unpacking our sleds in the cold. Within a half-hour, we had the tent pitched, caribou skin pads and sleeping bags unrolled, and the sheet-metal woodstove stuffed with scrub willow and roaring away, heating the interior enough that we could strip down to long johns. We dried our damp gear, ate a quick dinner and burrowed into our bags. No trouble sleeping, we figured.
About two hours later, the first gust slammed into camp like a gigantic fist, followed by another and another, each one more gut wrenching than the last. We were about to be dealt an object lesson as to why that particular patch of ice had been bare and exactly what had piled up that monster snowdrift we’d snuggled against. Instead of finding shelter, we’d pulled a double dumb ass and camped in the throat of a wind funnel, a spot raked by williwaws—localized, terrain-driven wind squalls that rise out of nowhere and can reach hurricane force. Maybe if we hadn’t been so tuckered out we’d have figured what the country was trying to tell us. I’m sure some of our older Inupiaq friends would have spotted that drift and known. As it was, there we were.
Low tech as they are, there’s nothing wrong with canvas wall tents. They’re tough, adaptable, easy to pitch and time proven; arctic travelers have relied on them for more than a century. Hell, you can pull an entire snowmobile inside for repairs if you have to. And we’d pitched our little 7-by-9 tent well: stout, A-frame spruce poles front and back, guyed out between two 500-pound snowmobiles, plus a loaded basket sled anchoring each sidewall. The problem was, we hadn’t pitched it a bit lower and shoveled snow on the resulting flaps as we would have if we’d been expecting a storm. Now the wind was getting underneath the tent and lifting it like a sail. With each gust, the tent billowed and leaped skyward, hauled the stovepipe and stove along with it, and then slammed back down. Over the wind shrieking, the tent walloping, and the metallic clatter of the stove, we had to shout to each other. At least the stove was down to ashes and embers, so when sections of pipe separated, as they were bound to, we didn’t face being smoked out or set ablaze on top of everything else. Half out of our sleeping bags, numb-fingered and half-panicked, we hung on to fistfuls of canvas like it was all we had—which was pretty much the deal. All that stood between us and being snow-blasted in the 50-mph subzero darkness was that thin envelope of thrashing cloth. If worse came to worst and we lost the tent, we’d be in a survival situation—clothes and gear swept away and drifted in downwind, us getting soaked as wind-driven snow filtered into our bags and melted. The good news was, we were holding our own—so far. But we couldn’t let go and gather gear, plus get into parkas and boots without surrendering the tent. So of course, we hung on and hoped for the best.
I wish I could say that rough night was a one-time event, but I don’t have enough fingers to count the times when a poor choice of campsite, a numb-brained oversight, or plain bad luck has led to an assortment of shelter-related beat-downs in crummy weather. Twice, tents have spindled and collapsed under the force of a storm with me inside. Once, I watched helplessly from a mountaintop as my nylon tent, 3,000 feet below, pulled out of its stakes in a sudden wind and pinwheeled half a mile down the valley like a Technicolor tumbleweed before fetching up, much worse for wear, in an alder clump. Another 50 yards, and it would have blown into the river and been swept away. Another time, I left that same blow-way tent at home by mistake and was forced to camp with Sherrie at the Kobuk Sand Dunes in mosquitoes about as dreadful as they come, thousands of them enveloping our bodies in a whining gray veil that might as well have been a living cyclone. And, as if to add insult to injury, Lynn, Carol and I hit an even nastier, tent-yanking williwaw a few years later, less than 20 miles from that first one, in a spot we never could have guessed. Again, we rode it out by the slimmest of margins. As for that trusty 7-by-9 wall tent that survived so much bad weather, it departed this world in a flash, burned to the ground by yours truly on a chilly fall day up the Nuna, when I accidentally sloshed some tent sealer on a hot stove pipe and the whole thing erupted into a Viking funeral pyre. Scarred, torn and patched from years of abuse, it probably wanted out, and I could hardly blame it.
How long before that squall in the canyon blew itself out? I have no idea. In situations like those, hours don’t matter much. You’re caught in a single instant, suspended above time until it passes. And when the wind faded, as abruptly as it had set in, the world was damn near silent. Drawn into our bags, we drifted into a chilled, exhausted sleep. The next day, we packed sleds and broke trail for 70 trackless miles, back to the village and the strange-seeming land of warm, hard shelters that wouldn’t blow away.
—Readers can contact Nick Jans at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book, The Glacier Wolf, is available at nickjans.com.