Looking back: in the snow

The flat-footed adventurer

The Arctic AdventureLondon — like most of Britain this week — is being blanketed by snow.

It occurred to me today that I haven’t seen snow since I left Arctic Norway last March. On the day we left, everything was thawing and melting and dripping. It seemed fitting, like it really marked the end of the Great Arctic Adventure.

Today the snow brings back memories of that week in the frozen wilderness.

I didn’t write a lot at the time about anything other than the adventure itself: the events of that day, how I was feeling, what lay ahead. I remember it all now: the way the huskies would thirstily lick the snow banks by the sides of the trail whenever we stopped, or the way they would bury themselves in little bowls in the snow at the end of the day. If it snowed overnight, you’d hardly be able to see them at all in the morning. But however much some of those dogs loved and craved attention, they were tough, at peace with the cold, and they loved few things more than being able to just run.

It’s true what they say about the tundra, it can get to you after a while. I guess it’s like the desert, or being on the ocean for long stretches of time: the lack of stimulation can start to get to you. In the Arctic, it was white. Just white. All the time. You’d struggle to distinguish the sky from the ground, and anywhere you looked was just the same: snowy white hills against a white sky.

Sometimes, there’d be snow storms and we had to zip everything up. Up went the hoods, down came the balaclava, firmly placed goggles — on and on, through a whirling blizzard of flakes, where even the dogs, oblivious to the cold, struggled to run against the headwind. Other times, it would be sunny and warm. Your jacket would be unzipped, the balaclava rolled up so you could breathe more easily, and the dogs were in their element. Everyone was happy and smiling and laughing, and if you were crossing one of the vast frozen lakes, there was plenty of time to relax and look around you.

Occasionally, I’d encourage my dogs to race another sled across the ice, shouting encouragement to them, just shouting with the sheer exhilaration, and the dogs felt it too: pushing themselves harder and faster at my command, wanting only to run and to race, on and on and on.

I really grew to love those dogs, I appreciated we were one team: it wasn’t them and me, it was us together. If I was pushing the sled up the hill, or just helping to scoot it along on a flat part for the joy of it and to help us get a speed advantage over the team we were racing. There were one or two times when I yelled at them, if I fell off the sled and they kept running with it, or if I fell off and got dragged behind it, face down in the snow. Just the same, I’d rub their heads and apologise later — like they cared.

The unusual thing about the snow was none of us on that adventure did things like build snowmen or throw snowballs. There was plenty of time to have done these things in the evenings, or if we stopped for lunch and had our sleds anchored — but it seemed like a different life. It wasn’t like we had some hokey “respect” for the snow, it just didn’t ever seem the same as it does at home when it snows.

I look out the window now at the falling snow and people playing outside, and I remember how it would feel when we’d cross a hill and see an immense white plain before us: it was difficult to tell what was ground and what was a frozen lake, except that on the lakes there would obviously be no vegetation, but then again, we don’t see proper trees until the final day in the forest.

Not unlike in Peru when I’d been worried by the thought of the formidable “Dead Woman’s Pass”, I’d been slightly anxious all week about the idea of sledding through a dense forest, along narrow, winding trails. But in the end, you just throw yourself into it: whatever happens, happens — and the odds are high that you’ll survive, whatever does happen. That day the green trees were refreshing like a drink of water — and when we waited by the side of the trail and watched the racers go fast it was more people than we had seen all week. We cheered and shouted encouragement to these strangers, whose race we knew nothing about, just for the human contact.

Sometimes now I’ll just stop what I’m doing for a minute, for no reason. I’ll remember how sometimes in the evenings we’d be sat eating dinner or just talking, and then we’d stop as we heard all our huskies out in the snow and the dark howling at something together. It was unnerving the first time you heard it, but after that you’d smile, and quietly try to work out if you could pick out the sound of your own favourite dog from the chaos.

I think now, wherever I am, the snow will always remind me of those huskies barking like they are saying “run! run! run!”. It reminds me of kneeling in the snow to put on or take off their harnesses, of shouting “mush!” at the huskies just for the fun of, and hugging my favourite dog at the end of a hard day, and trying to justify why she needed an extra bowl of food.

The flat-footed adventurerBefore I went on my adventure, I had a romantic dream of sitting in the snow, next to my huskies, and looking up at the Northern Lights. It didn’t happen that way at all, but in a way the memories I do have are better.

A new year begins

New Year ResolutionsIt’s turned biting cold in London this week. It’s funny. It’s winter, it’s England, and yet we’re surprised that it’s cold. England has a way of doing this to you — it gives you unseasonable weather, and then when you’re not expecting it, hits you with reality.

Take last week on the dock, Dragon Boat paddling, as an example. I wore nothing more than a pair of trousers, a t-shirt, a bouyancy aid (it’s the requirements of the docks n the winter) and a pair of non-slip gloves for paddling. Though I started out wearing a hat, I got too warm and kept slipping over my eyes. Yesterday, there were several reports on the radio of weather warnings — and I sarcastically commented how important it was to warn people that it’s winter and it might be cold. Yet, I ignored these warnings, went out without wearing a hat — and sorely regretted it.

Today, I wasn’t going to make that mistake on the dock — and upgraded my t-shirt to a long-sleeved thermal baselayer (last worn in the Arctic wilds of Norway), and kept my hat on. It did the job, although even with gloves my hands would get painfully cold at times — particularly the one that kept dipping in the water.

But here we are, 2013. The new year is well underway, and I don’t have those back-to-work blues because I didn’t really stop working over Christmas and New Year, apart from weekends and the bank holidays.

There’s not much to report. Along with seemingly the rest of the population, I’ve returned to the gym, some old faces that I haven’t seen since last summer have returned to the docks on a Sunday morning to join us in a dragon boat. I can only imagine it’s a new year inspiration, nobody would think “Gee, it’s bloody freezing out today, I should get back out in a dragon boat”.

Even if it’s not actually a resolution, the new year prompts new adventures. For me, returning to the gym wasn’t done because it was January: it was because I have a membership, enjoy going, and need the exercise. December was just a lousy month for that kind of thing. The fact that I am also planning on getting back into rock climbing (yeah, just like I was this time last year) may have more to do with a new year: it inspires you to do the things you’ve been putting off, and unlike in the past I actually have two or three friends who want to climb as well, which will help to motivate me.

We had several new people paddling with our dragon boat team this morning; I’m not sure where they came from or how they found out about us, but we managed to get two boats on the water which hasn’t happened in a long time. After our training session, we were sitting around in the pub talking, when one of the newbies asked about competitions. She was told that we compete nationally — and she laughed. Not, apparently, at the thought that we “as a team” compete nationally, but that she could. If she stays with the team, she’ll realise quickly this is not nearly as absurd as it sounds: after all, I competed with the team in a national competition last summer, and hope to compete in an international competition this year.

The Year of the Dragon is still the adventure of the moment, and in between getting fitter and rock climbing, it looks like this year will be a big one for sports and fitness. But I don’t make resolutions.