“We spend so much time living in environments that are constructed for human beings to be comfortable,” says writer and adventurer Blair Braverman, speaking about cushioned niceties like “furniture and beds and fuzzy blankets and slippers and climate control.” Make no mistake, she adds with a laugh, “I love those things.” Reliable cellular service, however, is not a household perk. She’s calling from a friend’s place, which has better reception than the log house she shares with her husband, Quince Mountain, and their 25 sled dogs, on the edge of Wisconsin’s Nicolet National Forest. There, the landscape includes surrounding farmland and a meadow, bracketed by woods on both sides. To a New Yorker accustomed to seeing dog walkers with six leashes to a wrist, the set-up sounds surreal. “It’s perfect for mushing,” the author says, “because there are trails that go straight out of the yard.”
Braverman is attuned to everyday conveniences precisely because she understands the other extreme. In her 2017 memoir, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, she traces a cold-weather coming of age, including a year of dog-sledding school in rural Norway and seven months on a blindingly bright Alaskan glacier. In early 2019, she appeared on an episode of the Discovery show Naked and Afraid, which tracked an existential two weeks in southern Africa. That March, she completed her first Iditarod race—13 days guiding a team of dogs through “melted snow cone” terrain, as she put it in a dispatch to NPR.
In such conditions, a sip of cocoa or the sudden warmth of sunshine can be revelatory. “The singular sensation of pleasure becomes heightened because you have so little comfort around you,” says Braverman. Small Game, her debut novel out this week, captures that toggle between high-stakes tension and soft release, with a narrative that follows a group of ill-fated survivalists on a reality show called Civilization. The setting is her own Wisconsin Northwoods, bolstered by clear-eyed observations of local flora. (Braverman, usually winter-minded, turned her attention to the land’s summertime quirks, bringing notebooks on walks with the sorts of friends who can spot a turkey tail mushroom “from the back of an ATV at 40 miles per hour, 50 feet off,” she says, incredulous.) In a way, the book—fraught with struggle, brightened by a saved can of apple pie filling—is the converse of this three-day wellness diary, where there’s just one needling pain (quitting coffee) against the backdrop of an easy-going life.
That dip in caffeine, together with dog runs and trail maintenance, is all part of the author’s preparations for peak-season mushing. She and Mountain have a particular fondness for 300-mile races. (The rule of thumb, she says, is 24 hours for every 100.) “When you’re out there through days and nights, it feels like you’re passing through different worlds,” Braverman says, describing stretches that feel almost hypnotic. “If, over the course of a lifetime, you’re spending cumulative years standing on the back of a dogsled, watching scenery go by and looking at dog butts, I’m like, man, what a way to spend a life.”
Friday, October 14
7:20 a.m.: It’s a bright chilly morning, with a dusting of frost on the grass outside. I roll out of my bed and into head-to-toe fleece clothing to go stoke the fire.
7:35 a.m.: Every fall, as the nights get cool, I cut out caffeine. Come mid-winter I’ll be camping and racing overnight with the sled dogs, and if I can get my caffeine tolerance low enough in advance, I’ll be able to mush straight through January nights on one or two well-deployed espresso shots. Plus, this way I can avoid going through caffeine withdrawal on the trail, which seems like a special kind of misery. So the way I see it, cutting out coffee now is a gift I can give to my future sleep-deprived self.
However, it sucks for my present self, because all I want to do right now is sip (CAFFEINATED) coffee by a frosty window as the sun rises in the sky. Also, I haven’t figured out how to make good decaf at home. So instead I mix up some ginger tea. As I understand it, ginger has many health benefits, plus I like the taste. I drink two sips but don’t finish it. It’s just not the same.
8:45 a.m.: We have big outdoor plans this weekend, but first I have to get my indoor work out of the way. I work on a column and emails, taking breaks occasionally to watch the sled dogs playing outside. Then I sign a bunch of bookplates to send to bookstores for my new book, Small Game. It’s exciting to think of them going out into the world.
3:38 p.m.: Time for dog chores! My husband, Quince, ran the team this morning, so today I’m on dog poop cleanup. The dogs follow me around as if I’m doing something incredibly interesting. Also they know I keep snacks in my pocket.