From the notebook:
“A fantastic day in the Arctic! Surprisingly warm, clear skies and no wind — I couldn’t have asked for a better day to end the adventure on.
The landscape today was so varied: across frozen lakes, with our shadows keeping pace alongside, up steep hills, and down winding trails through Nordic forests. The trails were narrow and sometimes scary, with tight bends and downhill stretches where my rocket dogs just wanted to run flat out.
Though I came off the sled a few times, I always managed to stay on my feet — or, once, on my knees — and recover the sled without it turning into a “fall”, which in some ways was better than not stumbling or falling at all.
We waited for the first competitors from the Finnmarksløpet race to pass by, they had already been going a few hours and were heading up, up, up the hill.
Arriving back in Gargia felt like a homecoming — back to the comfortable, warm cabins with showers and electricity — and chaining the dogs to their kennels. I hugged all my dogs, though only Anneka liked it, and I thanked them all for their hard work. I’ll miss those dogs, especially the beautiful, affectionate Anneka. I’d keep that dog if I could.
Would I come back to the Arctic, would I dog sled again? Maybe. Maybe, if I was stronger in every way — maybe if I trained harder, but I didn’t ever feel like I was lacking, though there is always room to be better.
I’ve had 5 days here, maybe with more time I could get better at this? On the other hand, there are more adventures to be had. What adventure is next?”
After the unease and worry of what was to come on the last day, it was easily the most enjoyable day in every way. The weather was perfect, the terrain was varied — so I even enjoyed the occasional steep slopes. Despite being quite sedentary when I’m not training for an adventure, when I have something to get my teeth into, or like this when all my training has a reason, I quite enjoy the physical exertion.
And, on this day, everything was in moderation, there would be the hills so steep you had to give your dogs a run up at them and even then I would still have to get off the sled halfway up the hill and push. People laugh now at the thought — it seems so absurd to the inexperienced that a team of dogs wouldn’t be able to do it alone without help — but we were told early on that we were one team, with the dogs. And the dogs would perform better for you helping them out: not that they would remember your help, as such, but towards the end of the day when the dogs are getting tired a bit of help on the difficult parts earlier in the day can count for a lot with their energy.
There was also the very pointed looks your team of dogs would give you. Another thing we’d been told, but you think is a joke until you experience it. Picture the scene: A steep slope, a team of dogs, a sled, and a musher on the back. The dogs race up the hill, until about halfway up when gravity on the sled and the musher starts to equal the strength of these amazing dogs. The dogs slow or stop, and almost as one they look over their shoulders at you with a look that almost says “Come on, fat boy — get off and push”. Having been reprimanded by your dogs, you sheepishly get off and put your weight behind it.
Except by the last day, it’s not like that — there’s no question, no need for meaningful looks from your dogs. You get off and run behind the sled, pushing for all you’re worth, because now you really are one team. And you know there is no way you’re getting up this slope without them.
Of course, the steep slopes went the other way too: down. Steep downward slopes could be dangerous — your sled would pick up speed very rapidly, it would be harder to control, or worse yet it could hit your dogs. Sometimes a slope would require one foot on the brake. Sometimes we were warned in advance: both feet on the brake. Not that both feet would do a whole lot to slow down a sled over ice and snow on a steep downward trajectory, but it was enough to avoid casualties.
I’d been worried about the winding trails through the Nordic forest, but for the most part while, yes, they were winding and they were narrow and there were lots of trees to crash into, I found a bit of brake was enough to keep the sled under control enough to be able to just let the dogs take the corners and for me to just slide with the motion of the sled; just like I’d learned to do earlier in the week. Don’t try to control it, just go with it.
We stopped for a long break when we came to a point where the Finnmarksløpet race would pass. We’d been asked if we wanted to stop and watch the race pass, or carry on. I voted to carry on — I was enjoying the sledding so much, and didn’t want to stop for long. I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to Gargia, but part of me felt that if my dogs were running, then we’d keep running forever. Unfortunately, everyone else voted to watch the race, and I was called a misery for not wanting to — which I felt was unfair. I didn’t have anything against the race, but I though watching it pass was going to be a lot like it eventually was: we watched no more than 3 or 4 competitors pass, and it was mostly uneventful. We’d cheer and shout encouragement and they’d keep going. It wasn’t like there were large numbers of competitors all going past at speed. Just the same, it was good to see how the pros did it.
It was almost a little sad getting back to the lodges at Gargia: it felt like a month rather than a few days since we’d last been there. We each unclipped our dogs from the sleds, and chained them to their kennels. As my notebook says, I’d grown very fond of my dogs and hugged them all — with all except one being largely unwilling to be hugged. My beautiful dog Anneka just loved attention from me — I’m told she wasn’t used to a lot of it, and she loved being scratched or rubbed behind the ears.
I’d talk to my dogs each day in the morning before we’d set off, tell them what was ahead and how I’d be grateful for their help, and in the evenings each night thank them for being such clever, strong dogs, I thanked them all one last time. To them, I was just another stranger weighing down their sled. Except for Anneka, whom I firmly believe wanted to come home with me — or wanted us to run away and live on a farm somewhere in the Norwegian countryside.
This is where the “adventure” ended, though we were in Norway for almost a whole day more after this. And much like how the notebook ends; I’m left wondering what adventure is next.