Heavy winds howl off the Innussualuk Glacier, whipping Tay Bay into a winter tantrum, trying to huff and puff and blow my house down. How long has this blizzard blown--two, three days now? What does it matter? The sun vanished months ago, leaving this wasteland cloaked in blackness and life sucking cold. An hour, a day, a week, they all feel the same to me, huddled in this sleeping bag, sealed in my solo tomb.
When the sound becomes muffled, I know our ice-trapped yacht, the Roger Henry,
has disappeared completely beneath the drifting snows. If I can, I'll dig my way out when the winds abate. If I cannot... well, that takes care of itself. The nerve-shattering shriek of those winds is now only a dull groan. If I could vocalize my aching loneliness, it would sound exactly like that. I have tried so hard to adjust to the darkness and solitude. I even triumphed momentarily, but in the end it was futile. Light and laughter are the core fuels of the human spirit.
Halifax, my calico kitten and my only companion, is buried deep beneath my feet. I listen to her breathing, grateful for her company but concerned for her survival.
The mast shudders. I like that; it reminds me of being at sea. I can feel the rumble through the hull and fantasize that I am sailing, all canvas set, heeled in the southeast trade winds, steaming for New Zealand, toward my wife, Diana, her blond beauty and warm touch. I anchor and run in warm sunlight up the beach to her. I pull my hands from the sleeping bag and rest them on the sweeping curve of her waist, now growing from vivid to virtual in the black void before me. Whiffs of her skin-warmed coconut oil and sweet frangipani lei flood my senses. I pull her toward me.... but it's no use. I'm pulled back north to stark reality when my hands start throbbing from the cold.
I probe the darkness for the slightest flicker of orange flame in the bowels of the heater, but the shadows outside have buried the flue pipe and extinguished my feeble source of warmth. It's probably best, for I am dangerously low on fuel. I can't afford to waste it on personal comfort, which I now define as anything warmer than the outside temperature of fifty degrees below zero.
In seven months the ice will break up,and I will attempt an escape to the south--that is, if
the ice breaks up this year. If it does not, I will face another year of frozen wilderness north of Baffin Island. I must be as patient as the Inuit. It is only a year, a finite, even countable three hundred sixty-five days. In the grand scheme of things it's not an awfully long time.
Reluctantly, I crawl out of the sleeping bag into the cavelike cabin. I am driven by extreme thirst, for in spite of the intense cold, the Arctic is a desert, and the dry air sucks the moisture from my lungs. My fingers are stiff and shaking so violently that it's hard to strike a match to light the kerosene stove. I break two matches, exceeding my daily ration. I'll have to make it up later. Finally the burner roars to life, and I huddle over the precious flame for a moment, letting it thaw the ice in my beard, before I slide a pot of ice chips over its warmth.
The sleeping bag beckons, but I should relieve myself while waiting to drink. Fluid in, fluid out. I shuffle to the forepeak where my waste bucket lies. What with food scraps, human waste, and dishwater, I should empty it every other day, but this blizzard has disrupted everything. I turn on my headlamp, and the darkness retreats a few feet, revealing that the bucket is absolutely full. Damn! Nothing is simple up here, nothing!
I'll have to go outside. It takes ten minutes to dress: mukluks, thick bibs, fur-lined parka, gloves, and goggles. Crawling up the steep, narrow steps, I test the hatch. As expected, it is buried beneath heavy snow. I kneel on the top step and shoulder the hatch like Atlas hefting the earth, pushing slowly with all my strength. At first there is no movement and I fear my injured back will come apart again; then, slowly, the hatch moves away. Being forced to take action now is actually a fortunate turn of events, for I have drifted toward lethargy. Any later might have been too late.
Snow fills the cockpit. The covering tent tarp slats like the crack of rapid rifle fire. I crawl outside, pulling the bucket behind me. Fully exposed now, I push through the frenzied air to the disposal pit. When the heavy cylinder of ice slides out of the bucket, I am caught off-guard and the fierce wind rips the bucket from my hands. It is an essential piece of equipment. Without thinking, I sprint after it as it tumbles just out of reach. I race a long way, eased along by the heavy wind on my back. My dim headlamp beam bounces around my target, trying to zero in. Each time I am about to dive on the bucket, I think, No, better get one step closer or I will lose it forever.
Then suddenly I freeze, recalling stories of men who perished just yards from their camp. The bucket disappears into the polar night. Very slowly I turn around into a blank wall of white wind.
Excerpted from North to the Night by Alvah Simon. Copyright © 1999 by Alvah Simon. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.