Adventurous Spines: Slaven’s Roadhouse

Stayed two nights at Slaven’s Roadhouse. Received an incredibly warm welcome from Randy, Cindy, and Shaelyn. Amazing service in an amazing place. We started in Whitehorse and we’re on our way to Emmonak, as long as it’s safe and fun, we’ll keep paddling! We have two children in our party: Tiuri (9) and Liva (7), and the Rangers made them feel right at home. Keep up the excellent work – we appreciate it so much!
Best regards: Lars, Suzi, Tiuri, Liva, Jane and Chris
www.lifeisgoodfollowus.com

Slaven’s Roadhouse is a halfway house, a little patch of heaven in the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve. It was also our home for a couple of days and nights, time to recharge before pushing on deeper into Alaska. The Rangers were supercharged with humour, compassion and hospitality. They received us, our gear, and our kids with open arms. They were our heroes.

A little too dramatic for you?

Try a month on the Yukon River, through lightning, forest fires, heatwaves, rainstorms, and mud… lots of mud. Sure, we were having a great time, but a little home comfort was no small thing, and we found heaps of it at Slaven’s.

Slaven’s was also, for me, the culmination of a teenage dream. I had devoured all of Jack London’s books and stories about the Yukon, Klondike, and all things Canada and Alaska, when I should have been studying for my exams – all of them, over several years of school, high school, and university. When I put London to one side, it was only to pick up books about dogsled racing on the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. Dreams of the North took me to Alta, Norway, where I worked as a sled dog kennel helper for the very first time, but it was at Slaven’s, as an emerging writer, that I sat in one of the places I had read about, without realising it. There, on the wall, was a Yukon Quest poster signed by the dog drivers, and I realised I had arrived, and that dreams, once again, can come true, albeit not quite how one imagined them.

The kids had fun too. Tiuri and Liva explored the cabin, the outhouses, the woods, the dredge. They panned for gold, got nailed by mosquitoes the size of small aircraft, and we talked about bears – good eatin’, apparently. Or was it the skins that were good? It didn’t matter. We were on an adventure, staying at a roadhouse built for the purpose.

Suzi and Lars chilled out too, although the sting of a Yellowjacket almost ended Suzi’s Yukon adventure. We had talked about bee stings back in Denmark, before the trip. We had not talked about wasps. Suzi was stung earlier in the trip, with no reaction, but these Yellowjackets – about twice the size of a “normal” wasp – well, it took her out of the game for a while. Once again, the Rangers were on the case. She couldn’t have been stung at a better location.

Jane and I enjoyed Slaven’s too, although Lars’ boots introduced a percussive element to the experience that we had not prepared for – damn big boots, mate! But the Roadhouse was a chance to spread out and dry out. We hung our gear on the same lines with the same pegs used by dog drivers. We sat at the same table, slept in the same beds, and lived the Alaskan life I had talked about on trips in Scotland, in our home in Greenland. This was everything Greenland was supposed to have been – that is, an Arctic environment, with trees!

Adventurous spines drive one to find adventure in far-out, remote, and exciting places. I sent a copy of The Ice Star to the Rangers in Eagle, Alaska, and hope they can wedge it alongside their gear to leave it on the bookshelf at Slaven’s. I found adventure there, in the wilds. The thought of a dog driver dipping into my book during a layover… well, that’s another dream come true.

Adventurous Spines

A lot of books get an awful lot of abuse, but the best-loved and most abused, in my opinion, are the ones squeezed onto hastily-erected shelves in frostbitten huts plunged into darkness for three to four months each year. The Ice Star has yet to join the hallowed spines of polar greats, but it is on its way to the Arctic, in the library of an Aurora Expeditions adventure cruise ship – they just posted about it on their Facebook page.

I have discovered interesting books in remote cabins in the far north of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. Tracing a finger down the cracked and splintered spine of a much-read, and much-abused book evokes a sense of adventure for it takes an adventurous spirit to reach such cabins in the wilds.

In the same way that frost can often eat into a book in a remote cabin, books can eat into the miles taken to reach such places. When the stove is burning, your wool socks are thawing on the line looped between the rafters, and you’re kicking back in a bruised-wood chair, a sleeping bag wrapped around your knees, a cup of cocoa in one hand and a book in the other, well … you get the picture. There’s nothing better after a long trek, paddle, climb, or ski than following the path of another adventurer through the pages of a book.

I plan on sending more books into the wilds, perhaps you’ll find one someday.

Photo of Shackleton’s bookshelf from The Smithsonian.

But how many words for ice?

I was a teacher in Greenland. There were lots of highlights. Second to the amazing, and, at times, exasperating kids, was the role of external invigilator for the spoken English exams. Greenland must be one of the few places where the invigilator is flown by helicopter to schools in the remote settlements. Greenland is vast – something you understand when trying to get your head around distances – but from the air… well, Greenland can be a humbling experience. As it should be – something every invigilator should be exposed to before an exam. “You live here?” is a common thought to have when approaching the gravel landing square, marked with a rusty oil drum in each corner. Exams are one thing, but almost everything can have the flavour of a test in Greenland, and the results are not measured in grades, and they can rarely be captured in words.

You may have heard that the Inuit have a lot of words for snow. Honestly, I don’t know how many, and it is difficult to know when pop culture ends and the practicality of describing snow and ice begins. Until, that is, you’re standing on thin ice, with a kilometre or more of black sea beneath you. Then, as you begin to imagine sinking down in the black depths, I guarantee you will begin to imagine all kinds of words for ice, as if your life depends upon it, which it does, actually.

Once, when accompanying a hunter to check his long fishing line, my Western feet broke through the ice.

Despite weighing a good twenty kilos more than the hunter I was with, it wasn’t my weight that was a problem, it was my attitude, my angle of attack. Admittedly, the ice was only a centimetre or so thick – we had left the dogs behind. Apparently their attitude was similar to mine, although they were safe. No, the problem was that I didn’t glide or shush across the ice with flat feet, I walked, putting weight on my toes and breaking the ice. The hunter noticed, gave me a few words of advice, and shushed on ahead of me. I followed, pushing the sledge, skirting the bad ice, the really thin stuff, and taking a torturous route back to the village.

Rarely have I been more scared.

Rarely have I felt more alive.

If you spend time in Greenland, if you spend time on the ice, you’ll experience that feeling – that moment when you struggle to understand how you can have a cheesy grin on your face, while fighting the urge to pee, wondering if your heart is going to explode out of your chest, amazed that is hasn’t already.

Greenland, like Alaska, does that to you. Something I hope to have captured in my first Greenland thriller, and now as I edit the second.

If you’d like to know more you could try out The Ice Star – available in paperback and on Kindle or for Kindle apps from Amazon, or pre-order book two: In the Shadow of the Mountain, here:

Amazon USA

Amazon UK

Amazon Australia

Amazon Canada

Alaska does that

Alaska happened, almost a year ago, and a lot has happened since. I thought it was time, for me anyway, to reflect. You, on the other hand, might want to go get a coffee… or stick around for a moment. It won’t take too long. I promise.

The Yukon River family expedition that Jane and I were a part of was an amazing experience, but, from a much more personal perspective, it was just the beginning of a deeper experience, the stimulus for change and a change of purpose.

I suppose and hope there are a lot of people out there, young teens like I once was, that dream of Alaska. I really hope there are. I hope they read Jack London stories, and stay up late at night trying to breathe the pine sap, imagining the heat of the fire warming their hands around a small campfire in the snow, smiling at the pop and snap of twigs burning. That’s what I did most school nights when I should have been sleeping.

Some twenty-eight years or so later I finally made it north, to Alaska.

I wasn’t alone.

Jane and I went together.

We shared the adventure, in the wind, the rain, in a canoe drifting down the river, on a train clacking through the wilds, on ships lurching and rolling through Prince William Sound, and on foot in the shadow of Denali.

And now I miss Alaska.

I miss the campfires, the wolf prints on the riverbanks, the fireweed bringing colour and life to the burnt-black stumps of the fire-swept swathes of wilderness along the banks of the Yukon River. And I miss those coffees with Jane in quirky Alaskan cafés, book stores and National Parks. I miss the wash houses in the Yukon villages – strangely, I do. And I miss the vibrant cultural motifs painted on the walls, and the people – perhaps the friendliest we have ever met on all our travels.

I was surprised at that. The Alaskans we met, for all their stereotypical toughness, are incredibly kind, generous people, making their living in a wild and awe-inspiring part of the world.

Food for thought.

Alaska was the real impetus for getting The Ice Star finished and out there – the litmus test for my emerging career as an author. It was also the inspiration for The Starlighter – working title – a book for younger readers about love, loss, and the end of the world. The Starlighter is gathering mental dust for the moment, but thoughts of Alaska blow that dust into clouds of creativity, tinged with a sense of guilt and the need to revisit and revise.

My Alaskan journey started with a book. Our Alaskan adventure ended with two more – and, more recently, a third, a secret project that is gathering snow, moss, and twigs as it hurtles downhill to crash into our house, to shake the foundations, and yes, give me the necessary kick to get it written.

Alaska does that.

Perhaps it is time to go back?

Kula and Dina

This story is a scene I wrote almost three years ago as an exercise to get to know my characters for The Ice Star. The scene is set between the ice floes on Greenland’s east coast. The Ice Star is a Scandinavian Thriller and not written in the same style as this scene. (Note: the photo is from Qaanaaq – in the far north of Greenland.)

Kula and Dina

Originally published on The Author Lab.

by Christoffer Petersen

The pack ice pressed the hunter’s dinghy from all sides. Dina heard the creaking of the fibreglass hull; she felt the dinghy twist in the grasp of the ice.

“Ata,” she said, “how are we going to get home?”

The hunter, Kula Maqi, fiddled with a knot in the cord sling attached to his rifle. A small calibre .222 Sako rifle – old and rusted. He finished the knot and rested the rifle across his knees. The dinghy twisted in the ice. Kula smiled at Dina.

“We will wait,” he said.

“For what, Ata? I want to go home.”

“Look,” said Kula, he pointed at the ice to the left and right of the boat. The hunter twisted on his seat and pointed behind them. “The ice is all around, Dina. We must wait until the tide turns. When the tide takes away the ice, we can go home.”

“Ata, I am scared.”

“Dina, favourite granddaughter, we are in my dinghy, we have food, we have my rifle, we have water. You need not be scared.”

“But Ata, what about bears?”

Kula lifted the rifle from his knees and leaned it against the wooden seat. The sea water in the bottom of the dinghy lapped at the rifle butt as the boat twisted left and right in the pack ice. He pointed towards the ice. The three and a half fingers of his right hand, weathered and wrinkled, steady in the cool air slipping off the ice. “He comes that way,” Kula jabbed in the air towards the bow of the dinghy, “I will shout go away, Dina is here.” The hunter squeezed Dina’s arm with his left hand. “And he will go away.” Kula looked to the right and left of the boat, jabbing his fingers he said “go away. Go away.” He nodded at Dina, the wrinkles creasing around his eyes; he hissed a laugh between the gaps in his teeth. “Go away, eh?” Kula said and raised his eyebrows.

“What if he comes that way?” Dina pointed behind them, towards the stern of the boat, past the small outboard motor tilted upwards away from the ice.

Kula turned, twisting his body within his sealskin smock. “That way?”

Dina nodded.

“He won’t come that way.”

“Why not, Ata?”

Kula hunched his shoulders. “I told him not to come that way. I asked Imap Ukûa.”

Imap Ukûa?”

“Yes. The Mother of the Sea. She said nanoq will not come that way, only this way, this way,” Kula jabbed with his fingers, “this way.” The hunter turned to Dina. “He will not come that way.” He patted Dina’s knee. “Find the binoculars. Look for seal,” he said.

Dina stood on the plank seat in the bow of the dinghy. Her knees bent, Dina rocked with the movement of the ice, scanning the horizon with the binoculars, seeking seals between the floes, the strap of the binoculars hidden within her ink-black hair. Kula lit a cigarette and placed it between his lips. He pulled a wooden box from beneath his seat. The cigarette in the corner of his mouth, Kula opened the box and pulled out a primus stove. He closed the box and set the stove on top of the lid, primed and lit it. With a metal bowl Kula scooped chunks of ice from the sea, draining the sea water. He set the bowl of ice on the stove to boil. Dina peered at shadows between the bergs. Kula made the tea.

“Ata?” Dina said. “I think I can see something.”

Kula moved the cigarette between his lips with his tongue.

“I think it is a seal on the ice. Look there,” Dina said. She held the binoculars with one hand, pointed with the other. The binoculars shook in her grasp and she let them fall to her chest. “Do you see it, Ata?”

Kula stood in the boat, shading his eyes for the sun, he stared in the direction Dina pointed. “Yes. It is a seal. Do you want to shoot it?”

Dina whirled around to face the hunter. “Can I, Ata?”

Kula puffed a cloud of smoke through his smile. He stretched out his hand and took the binoculars from Dina as she tugged the strap out of her hair. Kula swapped the binoculars for the rifle. He turned the stove off and joined Dina in the bow of the dinghy as she pulled the rifle butt into her shoulder.

“Steady,” said Kula. “Put a bullet into the chamber.”

Dina lowered the rifle and tugged hard at the rusted handle. She forced a bullet into the chamber and pulled the firing bolt back into place.

“Check the safety, Dina.”

Dina held onto the forestock, pushed the rifle into her shoulder and pinched the safety switch between the finger and thumb of her right hand. She pushed the safety off.

“Good, Dina,” Kula said and moved behind his granddaughter. The cigarette burned between his lips as he placed his hands on Dina’s shoulders. “Steady now. Aim for the head. Aim a little lower, Dina. That’s it. Breathe in. Breathe out.”

The rifle wobbled in Dina’s grasp. She lowered it, lifted it again, and moved so her right eye was closer to the scope.

“Breathe in,” whispered Kula. “Breathe out.”

Dina rocked backwards with the shot, the small report of the rifle echoed around the icebergs. She leaned forwards. Kula puffed smoke with a chuckle.

“Good girl,” he said.

Dina lowered the rifle and turned to hug the hunter. She pressed her nose into the fur of Kula’s smock, soft; the hairs of the seal tickled her nose. Dina grinned up at him and then stopped.

“Dina?”

Dina trembled, almost stumbled as she took a step back from the hunter. Kula turned around and saw the tiny black eyes and tip of a black nose in a large white head moving towards the back of the dinghy. Kula pressed Dina into the bow of the dinghy, behind the seat. He took the rifle from her grasp, ejected the spent round and loaded another bullet into the chamber.

“Go away,” he said. Kula took a step towards the stern of the dinghy. “Go away,” he jabbed the three and a half fingers of his right hand at the polar bear, the rifle held loosely at his side in his left. The polar bear swam to within a metre of the dinghy. Kula raised the rifle and aimed at the head of the bear.

“Ata?”

Kula breathed in. The stub of cigarette in the corner of his mouth glowed. “Go away,” he breathed out. The dinghy rocked as Dina wriggled further into the bow. Kula tracked the bear as it swam past the dinghy and between the floes. It heaved itself up onto the ice and shook at the water tugging its creamy fur tight against its body. Kula twisted his body to follow the bear’s path along the floe, past the dinghy, towards the seal. Dina lifted her head and peered over the gunwale at the bear.

“You said ‘go away’, Ata.”

Kula lowered the rifle as the bear splashed into the sea to swim the gap between the floes. The hunter slung the rifle on his right shoulder and lifted Dina out of the bow of the dinghy. He set his granddaughter on the seat, turning her body in the direction of the bear.

“Look how hungry he is, Dina.”

Dina looked. “That’s my seal,” she said.

“Yes, but he needs it today.”

“What is the black stripe on his front, Ata?”

Kula flicked the butt of his cigarette onto the floe of ice pushing at the dinghy. “Oil, maybe. See how thin he is, Dina.”

“Why did he come? Did Imap Ukûa not hear you, Ata?”

Kula laughed and hugged his granddaughter. “Imap Ukûa hears everything, Dina. She knew today was your big day. Did you forget to speak to Imap Ukûa?”

“Ata?”

Kula pointed at the bear. “Big hunters must be nice to Imap Ukûa. They have to make her happy. I think you just made Imap Ukûa very happy, Dina.”

“But what about my seal?”

Kula smiled, let go of his granddaughter and picked up the binoculars from the lid of the wooden box. He pushed the binoculars into Dina’s hands, moved to his seat at the stern of the dinghy and lit the stove. Dina watched the bear through the binoculars while her grandfather made tea. The ice floes bumped and twisted the dinghy while the bear ate and Dina and Kula waited on the tide.

(1,430 words)

Denmark
January 12th, 2014
(revised January 3rd, 2017)

The Ice Star is available on Amazon.

Amazon USA

Amazon UK

Amazon Australia

Amazon Canada

Keeping It Real

I want things to be right, or as close to right as possible in a fictitious story. I had the chance to talk about that with a journalist from The Arctic Journal. This is the result – an article entitled “Seven Years in Greenland”.

As I get more and more embroiled in right and wrong in the second book of the Greenland trilogy, what’s right takes on a whole new meaning. Getting the facts right is tricky when the characters – some of them at least – are devious by design.

If the lines are blurred in The Ice Star, those same lines in In the Shadow of the Mountain are buried in lies, deceit and a hefty dose of geopolitical subterfuge. I still want things to be right, with a suggestion of today’s truth, and a hint of tomorrow’s, but boy is it fun to mix it all up a little for the sake of a good story.

Nuuk Noir

It’s a whole new genre: Nuuk Noir! As the world becomes increasingly interested in the Arctic, and Greenland, a new noir has been recognised, and it makes great use of  the name of Greenland’s capital: Nuuk. While my characters do not travel to Nuuk in The Ice Star, it will feature in book two: In the Shadow of the Mountain, and I can’t wait to explore the town I lived in for a year, my seventh and last year in Greenland.

KNR have published an article today about the growing interest in this niche genre of noir – in Greenlandic and Danish, only. The gist of the article traces the genre back to Peter Høeg’s “Smilla’s Sense of Snow”, and brings it up to date with Nina Von Staffeldt’s “Frozen Evidence”, released in January this year.

While Fenna’s story is set predominantly in the east of Greenland, with a number of chapters set in Uummannaq, she does not visit the capital. Not this time. But with a growing interest in the country, the genre and not the least the people of Greenland, it makes sense that the next book spends some time in Nuuk.

I am excited about this new genre, and very interested to see how it develops.

Curious? The Ice Star is available in paperback and on Kindle or for Kindle apps from Amazon:

Amazon USA

Amazon UK

Amazon Australia

Amazon Canada