“Today was a great day — such a change from yesterday. The terrain was easier, the weather was kinder, and it felt good. I decided first thing that I’d stay at the back of the group, so I could go slowly at a pace I felt comfortable with — and at first I was hesitant and nervous of falling off. Then someone behind me told me not to hold my dogs back, to let them run.
The best I can describe it is it felt like snowboarding — you relax, bend your knees and just slide with it. If anything it was a little easier than snowboarding, with the sled to hold on to. From there I was on top — I didn’t brake unless it was a downhill and I might run over a dog.
I passed half of the group on the straight, and the sun shone on the frozen lake. The patterns made in the snow looked like the curtains of the Northern Lights.”
I’d started the day with a knot of tension in my stomach, worried that the day would be like the day before — that I’d be constantly falling off and in pain. Someone must have been looking out for me, because it was about as different from the day before as it is possible to be.
I reassured myself that if I was at the back then nobody would be held up by me, and I could just enjoy the adventure without worrying about falling off. I can hardly describe the change it made when I just relaxed and let my rocket dogs run as fast as they can. As we cleared a hill my sled left the ground for a moment, and as always came back down with a thump, but instead of braking and slowing, I just flowed with it.
Almost the whole day was following snowmobile tracks over frozen lakes and rivers — you would only notice it was a lake by the fact that a large area was completely flat and free of vegetation. Occasionally, there would be a bare patch with no snow and underneath I could see the opaque blue of the ice.
Sledding across lakes was a great feeling — the dogs could run their hearts out, and I’d shout words of encouragement to them. I no longer felt that I had to stay at the back of the group, and let my dogs overtake over sleds if they could. Sometimes, we’d get into a race — and I think the dogs liked this even more, I’d think they were running as fast as they could, but when the sled beside us wanted to race I would start yelling “Go on boys! Faster, faster!” and they seemed to smile and find an extra burst of speed.
I felt like there was nothing I couldn’t do, and as the sun shone on me I could see a shadow of me and my sled racing along and keeping pace alongside me.
The second night in the Arctic had brought more displays of the Aurora Borealis — and I had found the right settings on my camera to try and capture them.
We woke early the next morning for what promised to be a “real” day of sledding from Souluvombi to Lappujavri. While the first day may have been light on instruction it also hadn’t brought any falls, or anything that was too technically difficult. The cabins had been comfortable, the weather kind and the terrain was just challenging enough.
I was nervous of what this next day promised — especially as we had been told that in the afternoon there would be a paved road, with traffic, and we would have to stay close together to stop our dogs from trying to overtake the sled in front. Fortunately, we were told, there was snow on the road this year — something for the foot brake to dig into.
The itinerary for the day had changed from the original plan of Souluvombi to Maze — apparently the cabins at Maze had decided to dramatically increase their rates, and now everybody was passing by instead of stopping there for the night. This meant a slightly longer day than normal, and the trip leader hadn’t stayed in Lappujavri before.
From the notebook:
“Today I spent more time falling off my sled, running after my sled and being dragged behind it. Everything hurts — my neck, my wrist — and I feel pretty unhappy.”
The first time I fell off my sled, I made the fatal mistake of letting go. You don’t expect to fall off, and maybe my reactions were too slow but one minute you’re hanging on for what feels like dear life, the next you’ve hit the ground with a thump and your rocket dogs have carried on away with your sled. I tried running after them, but I was winded from the fall and hindered by the big Arctic snow suit.
Luckily, the dogs will rarely overtake the lead sled — I say rarely, it’s unfortunately not something you can rely on, but in my case saved me from complete disaster. The second fall had my sled tip over, and again I lost my grip on it — and away it went. This time, I think the sled being dragged on its side through the snow was creating enough resistance to slow the dogs down, so when I ran after it I was able to catch up with it — and dived to grab it.
I avoided looking like an idiot and caught the sled — it could so easily have gone the other way, and I would have been lying face down while the dogs continued gleefully running. As it was, I did catch the sled — but still the dogs kept running. I was being dragged through the snow, holding on with one hand while desperately trying to unhook the snow anchor with my other hand to stop the sled.
The third time I fell — because these things always seem to come in threes — I learned my lessons from the previous tumbles, and held tight. And guess what? The dogs still didn’t stop. The sled stayed upright, however — which was a blessing, because although I was being dragged behind a speeding sled (and hoping desperately none of the dogs decided it was time for a mid-run toilet break) I was able to use my hands to press down on the foot break and slow the sled enough so that I could get back on my feet.
Again, from the notebook:
“I hated sledding on the road. The road was iced — but barely, and keeping my sled under control was very difficult. Braking on the concrete was next to impossible, because of the lack of ice — so although I could put my foot down hard on the foot brake, the effect was greatly diminished, and I was finding it hard to grip the sled with my left hand, having wrenched my wrist falling off earlier. I got in trouble for not closing “the gap” [the distance between the sleds], but for me it was that or fall off my sled into the road.
Our Norwegian trip leader came over to my sled while we were stopped after we had left the road and said to me “You, my friend. Were you sleeping yesterday when I said to close the gap?” I explained that, no, I had heard him and had understood him, but I was having trouble controlling my sled, and hadn’t wanted to fall off in the road. He told me that because I had caused the dogs on sleds behind me to try and overtake each other, breaking the single-file formation, and risking injury from cars coming the other way. I felt bad about it, but also felt that the people behind me could have tried harder to slow their own dogs down and not try to overtake each other.
When we passed through the town of Maze, I felt slightly reassured — this was the name of the place that been the original resting place for the night, and I remembered that where we were going was only meant to be 90 minutes further on.
A blizzard in the afternoon brought an end to the good weather we’d experienced on the first day — this was the Arctic conditions we had expected and were suited up for. Before I went away people were always asking me about the cold, if I was worried about the extreme cold — and I’d always answered that the cold wasn’t something that was concerning me. I knew we would have all the appropriate Arctic clothing, and so long as I wore it, I’d be fine. This blizzard gave me a chance to put this theory to the test. My Arctic snowsuit was zipped all the way up, my balaclava covered all of my face — other than my eyes, which were protected by goggles — and my hood was pulled tight over my head. While occasionally my hands would get cold — even inside two pairs of gloves — I just had to keep flexing my fingers to get the blood moving again.
The snowstorm didn’t help lift my mood. I was hurting from having fallen off the sled so often, and now cold, too. The snow reduced visibility so much there was nothing to see — and with no landmarks or distinguishing features, I had no idea how far we were from the cabins.
When we eventually made it to the cabins, I couldn’t understand why we were stopping — my watch had stopped in the cold, and I had no idea what time it was. It was only when we started to unharness the dogs and chain them up that it really sank in we were done for the day.
The Lappujavri cabin was the kind of basic accommodation we had been told to
expect. Compared to Peru, where we had slept in tents, I thought beds and cabins sounded like luxury — but it didn’t seem so luxurious when you were inside a cold cabin with no power, and the only heat came from a wood burning stove. I was struggling to warm up, and was completely uninterested in the idea of sleeping outside in a heated tent. I’ve slept in lots of tents over the years — several years of Duke of Edinburgh award expeditions, plus camping holidays and hiking the Inca trail meant that I couldn’t see the appeal of a tent in the Arctic. There weren’t enough beds in the cabin for everyone, so volunteers were encouraged for the tent, but wild horses — or a pack of huskies — couldn’t have dragged me out to the tent.
As well as electricity, the Lappujavri cabin also lacked running water — so the more gung-ho members of the group struck out to lake Lappujavri to drill for water. Eventually, the cabin got warm, and our Norwegian trip leader showed that he was not only ex Special forces and practically superhuman but also a talented cook — preparing a huge pot of spaghetti with a choice between a meat sauce and a white sauce.
The evening passed pleasantly, there were plenty of candles about the place and stories to tell. I resolved that the next day I would stick to the back of the group, where I wouldn’t be under any pressure to go faster than I was comfortable with. There was still many days ahead of us, and miles to go before I sleep.