Earlier this year, writer and dogsledder Blair Braverman reached out to me about writing a guest post. As soon as I learned a bit more about her and discovered that she was coming to the Twin Cities for a reading of her new book, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, I knew we had to meet. After attending the reading and meeting up for a lovely breakfast, I admired her even more for her honesty, courage, and willingness to follow her heart. We talked about what it meant to be a “tough girl,” the challenges of freelance writing, working in a male-dominated field, and the joys of life with animals.
I chose to listen to the Audible audio version of Blair’s book, and it was such a delight to listen to her telling her own story. Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube chronicles her life from childhood to the present, and although dogsledding is a constant thread the book is really about her journey to self-discovery. Blair is candid and generous with the details of her struggles to trust herself, push past everpresent sexism, and become the woman she believes herself to be.
Blair also knows more about layering than I ever will, having dressed for outdoor activities within the Arctic Circle. Read on to hear how dressing and style choices have played into her self-understanding, and why she bothers to get pedicures!
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I learned to dogsled as a teenager in the Norwegian Arctic, a place where badass outdoorswomen wore oversize shawls and crown braids before they were cool. It was only when I went back to visit six years later that I realized I had based my entire adult style on those nordic women I’d so admired. And not just my style, but, in many ways, my expression of gender—my understanding of the ways that toughness and femininity intertwined, my ideas about beauty and competence. I was in my mid-twenties, increasingly confident in my sense of self, my individuality, and then I went back to the arctic and realized that everything I’d thought was unique about my look was based on the women I’d admired in my teens. Like, seriously: I stepped off the train—with my signature bright knit sweater and and blanket scarf and half-tangled long hair—and every woman around me was wearing the exact same thing. Not just that—they were wearing it better.
For me, learning to dress the part of a dogsledder and be comfortable in that clothing was an important part of learning to trust my skills and take myself seriously. I was a kid from California who’d fallen in love with the north, and over the course of ten years I worked my way through more than a dozen kennels in Norway, Alaska, and Maine, learning all I could about dogs and wilderness and cold and courage. The sport of mushing has, as they say, a high barrier to entry: you need land, time, dogs, and the stability to commit to caring for them their entire lives. So a sort of worldwide apprenticeship system has evolved, where traveling handlers work for established dog kennels, usually in exchange for room, board, instruction, and—if they’re lucky—the chance to race a B-team. I think I handled for around 20 different mushers in my teens and early twenties. In each case, I had to relearn much of what I’d learned before, because each musher’s methods were different. And in each case, usually in subtle ways, I changed how I dressed. I tried to dress like the more established mushers around me, a way of assuring myself that I belonged, that I could handle the intense labor and discomfort that come with training a team of huskies in bitter cold. In Norway, I wore military surplus, eschewing commercial gear for felted wool and canvas and leather clothing, most of it handmade, all of it cheap. In Alaska, on my first day off work, I bought a new wardrobe from the men’s section at the Salvation Army, hoping it would shield me from the sexual harassment that already felt overwhelming.
I met my beloved in graduate school at the University of Iowa. After graduation, after we moved to his farm in northern Wisconsin, after I’d spent ten years of my life loving other people’s sled dogs, I finally started to build my own team. I bought six huskies from a former co-worker and his wife who were downsizing their kennel after having a new baby, and suddenly—suddenly, suddenly—those dogs were mine. And for the first time, in the middle of all that joy and excitement and kennel-building and husky cuddling, something changed: I didn’t have to prove myself anymore. I no longer had to dress like a musher in order to be taken seriously, to take myself seriously. I was a musher. I just was. I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone. All I had to think about was taking care of this new canine family.
Three years later, my partner and I live with a team of 21 beautiful dogs, and we can’t imagine life any other way. I work from home as a writer, which means that throughout the day—even if I don’t have a training run scheduled—I’m in and out of the kennel, playing with the dogs, scooping poop, chopping up venison that comes donated from the local butcher. This past year I started the process of qualifying for the Iditarod, a 1,049-mile dogsled race across the state of Alaska. And I’ve learned how to dress for extreme conditions in a way that sparks joy for this tomgirl.
I’ve come to the conclusion that all patterns go well together when you’re in the wilderness, and the more and the brighter, the better. I love my hand-knit nordic sweaters, and my floral hats and neck warmers from Skida, and whenever I get a new item of clothing, I try to go for the brightest option available. There’s no such thing as “too much” in the wilderness. But bright cheerful patterns that make me smile, even when it’s 3 a.m. in a blizzard and I haven’t slept in 36 hours.
Seriously! Any manicure would chip off by the end of the day, but I like wearing different colors on my toes and knowing they’re there under my three layers of boots. (Wish I was kidding about that one.) I can’t wear any metal since it can cause frostbite, so I have to improvise my own accessories. Plus, I found sled dog nail decals on eBay.
Nothing is too “nice” for dogsledding
I dress for the outdoors every day, and I don’t want to save my indulgent clothing for special occasions. And, yes, I’m sure my indulgent clothing is a lot less fancy than some people’s—my dog food budget is way higher than my clothing budget, so I buy 90% of my clothes from thrift stores. But if you see me crossing a finish line after a three-day race, there’s a good chance that I’m wearing cashmere under that parka.
Stay warm this winter, friends! And if you come out to a dogsled race in the upper midwest, keep an eye out for me and my dogs. They—and I—love making new friends. You’ll know my team by their hot pink dog booties.