Way back in 2009, I went on an adventure to Peru. One of those once-in-a-lifetime adventures type things.
A one off adventure, inspired by people who had done or were doing similar things.
Except it wasn’t a one off and it didn’t end there.
A five day hike to the lost city of Machu Picchu in 2009 inspired this blog, the Flat Foot Adventurer.
In 2011, I traded remote mountain paths for the Arctic tundra of Norway. Instead of high mountain paths I was driving a sled and a pack of huskies through the snow and across frozen lakes.
Since then, the adventures continue. I raced on a dragon boat team, moved to Australia, tracked nesting sea turtles on deserted beaches, started a street roller hockey team, and kept looking for more adventures.
Adventures in 2017 and Beyond
It’s now 2017.
In December, I travel to WA’s Thevenard island to join the flatback turtle monitoring program, counting tracks, tagging turtles, and collecting data.
In September 2019, I plan to embark on my biggest and most challenging adventure yet. I will be joining Raleigh International as a volunteer on an expedition for three months in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Volunteers will be working with rural communities in remote areas of Central America. Protecting one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet, projects can involve working on a water and sanitation initiatives to bring clean water to rural communities, or constructing school buildings for indigenous communities.
On the expedition as a volunteer communications officer, I am not getting paid. Due to Raleigh International being a registered charity I need to fundraise for them, and various charity fundraising activities and begging will follow. In addition, there will be some unashamed requests for funds to help me cover the period I will be in a remote Central American jungle instead of at a desk in Perth.
This will make the next year a challenge all of its own.
London — 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.
Before 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.
I was up and out of bed early this morning (*cough*forasunday*cough*) because — of course — Sunday mornings means training with the Dragon Boat team. Yesterday, there had been a message that it was possible training would get cancelled today because of weather conditions. We can’t go out on the dock if it’s too windy. But this morning my alarm went off at 8.45 and there was no word to say training was cancelled, so I showered, dressed, layered up, packed my rucksack with clean, dry clothes to change into, and headed out to the dock which is about a 10 minute walk from my flat, if that.
Yes, it’s December, and yes a lot of the time at the moment it is bloody freezing out: but that’s no excuse not to go out in a Dragon Boat on a cold Sunday morning when you have been out the night before, drinking and bowling. When I stepped outside into the Sunday morning air my first thought was that it actually wasn’t all that cold. That could have had something to do with the long thermal underwear, two t-shirts, a hoody, jacket, and hat I was wearing — but it was a nice morning, and when you’re paddling in the boat, you tend to stay quite warm anyway. There was also not a very strong wind, so I could see why the training was still on.
Except on the way to the dock, I began to have doubts: crossing a small footbridge between Royal Victoria Dock and Royal Albert Dock, the wind was quite strong and the water on the docks looked rough. And I was right: when I arrived I was told we might not be able to go out, and we were waiting for the final word: it didn’t take long for us to be told “No”.
While we were waiting, I picked up a copy of the Docklands newspaper “The Wharf”, and read an interview with Sir Ranulph Fiennes, wherein he talked about how he will lead a team across Antartica during the winter. I’ve mentioned before how this expedition is being described as the last adventure open to be had (which I disagree with).
It was interesting to read Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ own words, since I describe myself as an aspiring or freelance adventurer. What struck me most was where he was asked if he was “excited or scared” by the prospect of his winter adventure in the Antarctic. Apparently, Sir Ranulph’s teams for his adventures are chosen on the basis of the individuals being “someone who hasn’t got much emotion”. Being a former British Army officer, Sir Ranulph is described as “emotionally detached”, which is something I can imagine is important in the Armed Forces (and probably one of many reasons I didn’t get very far when I once tried to join the Royal Air Force).
I can’t imagine contrasting with Sir Ranulph much more than I do. Adventures both excite and scare me, and I think emotion is important to my adventures. I don’t do things just because they’re there, I don’t do them to beat someone else (like wanting to beat the Norwegians to a trans-Antartcic winter adventure), I do them because they excite me, I do them for the people in my life I care about, I do them because I get to a point where I can no longer imagine not doing them.
There were times during the Inca Trail I was scared: the morning of Dead Woman’s Pass I remember feeling very confronted by what lay ahead, since not everyone is able to make it — often due to altitude sickness, a lack of fitness, or under-estimating the mountain and trying to do it too quickly. There was times during the Arctic Adventure that I was unhappy: I was hurting from falling off the sled and being dragged behind it, I was cold, and I felt I just wasn’t good enough. I would never make it onto one of Sir Ranulph’s teams: finding something exciting would immediately preclude me. A history of depression would also not count in my favour. Being sometimes so excited and inspired by everything there is in the world to see and do and experience and share and wanting to do it all now, at once, without delay, all of it certainly are not the qualities of the man the Guinness Book of World Records describes as “the world’s greatest living explorer”.
I wonder what motivates Sir Ranulph, if these adventures don’t excite him? Does he get that same wanderlust that I do, that it’s been a while since a big adventure and there’s a siren call just outside of hearing? Does he unexpectedly one day think “I want to travel the entire distance of North and South America in one trip and by any means necessary“? Or does he approach everything with a detached, scientific outlook? “This has not yet been done, and so I should do it before someone else does”.
I write about my adventures because I write compulsively, and I like to share my adventures: I hope that they will inspire people to have adventures of their own, in the same way I am inspired by adventures I read, and for people who prefer to read than adventure I hope to give a vicarious adventure. What drives Sir Ranulph? I’d like to ask him myself, but I don’t think he’d approve of me.
Adventuring has been quiet of late. For the entire month of October, I didn’t leave the country — and it seems strange that it has become normal for me to be packing up and flying out, dashing from one place to the next, waking up in the night and feeling a sense of panic when I can’t remember where I am. As I say, October has been quiet.
But November is back to business as usual: this week holds a last minute trip to Paris for a couple of events, and some time digging stuff, then a couple of days at home before I board the Eurostar again to Antwerp These are a bunch of first times for me: my first trip on the Eurostar, my first trip to Paris (as a disclaimer, I have visited France before, and even driven my car to Lille on one occasion, just never Paris), and my first trip to Belgium. We can expect more blog posts with pictures and journal entries from these new cities: and I should really brush up on my French.
In other news, last month I presented to a crowd of about 500 people at the Hacker News London meetup. As I had arranged for my company to be a sponsor, I got to have two minutes just to say a few words about us. I had planned my presentation carefully to be almost exactly two minutes long and cover all the important points I needed: but on the night, I changed my mind. The sponsor before me said only a few words, and I didn’t want to look out of place giving a more prepared and much longer intro — so I followed suit, just explained who I was, who my company are, and told the crowd to come to our next user group meeting. I regretted this when the two sponsors who followed me did give longer intros. I have resolved to do better next time, and to somehow make it interesting and if possible slightly funny. It’s not beyond me: I can make people laugh with self deprecating humour when I perform at open mike nights, I just have to work on it.
At this Hacker News I was lucky enough to see a presentation from Linda Sandvik on, in her words, “Making things better”. Linda was inspirational to me as an adventurer: she takes Mondays as an opportunity to force herself to do things she wouldn’t normally do, from little things like making phone calls to much larger things — such as the longest, toughest horse race in the world, the Mongol Derby.
Linda decided one day to enter the Mongol Derby, despite not being a professional nor having ever competed in anything more strenuous than gymkhanas and openly admitting to not having been fit in several years. Linda just decided she would enter — and what’s more, she did it, too. She didn’t just talk about it, she didn’t give it up as a bad idea: she actually went ahead and competed in the Mongol Derby.
Admittedly, she didn’t complete the race and was hospitalised for several days with a collapsed lung, and other injuries, but to me it’s the taking part that’s important. Linda is the kind of person who would enter the Dakar, even if they had never ridden a motorbike before — and even if people said it was crazy and dangerous. After all, when I first started talking about it people said that my dog sledding challenge was crazy and that I’d freeze to death.
For the minute, I have slightly less lofty goals: as well as the year of the dragon (which is progressing well, even if I think it will take many years to master the art of dragon boat paddling) I’m discussing the idea of presenting at one of my work’s conferences some time next year. Not being technical, all I could present on would be community management. My boss is fully supportive of the idea, to the extent that with her encouragement I am founding a meetup group for community managers: just a place for people like me to discuss their experiences, and on opportunity for me to learn what I have to offer. I would also like to present a whole talk to the Hacker News London meetup, rather than just the two minute intro.
These might not seem like big adventures, but they form a part of trying to be a better person: as well as getting fitter (I am now visiting the gym several times a week, as well as dragon boat paddling), and trying to be more positive (to be happier), I am also trying to be the person that does things, and doesn’t just talk about them. I also have to balance this with trying not to take on too much or risk burning out: so there’s an adventure in trying not to have too many different adventures all at the same time.
“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.
“Thankfully a short day today — the wind was howling and blowing up snow. Though, at first, it was on our backs this didn’t seem to last and soon the wind was side-on. The dogs love the cold, but they struggle to run against the wind.
Most of the terrain today was flat, across vast frozen lakes — and visibility was limited to a couple of sleds in front.
It wasn’t too challenging, which was good — but with nothing to see, the day also wasn’t much fun.
One of my rear dogs broke their neck line and wasn’t pulling properly, plus the sled always seemed to be swinging out to one side.
As we left the lake, buildings came into sight and the wind dropped. Suddenly, it was a nice day — and part of me wanted to continue in this good weather like yesterday for another few hours.
Tomorrow, we start early to avoid getting caught in the big race — and I’m a little nervous about how technically difficult it will be. If nothing else, at least it will be the last day. Go carefully, go slow — and enjoy it.”
As the notebook says, we woke up to a howling wind on the fifth day. It wasn’t snowing, and it probably wouldn’t even be that cold — if it wasn’t blowing a gale. We had a very slow start to the day, in the hope that the wind might die down or drop altogether, and there wasn’t a long distance to cover. In the end, it became clear the wind wasn’t going to go anywhere — so it would have to be us that made the first move.
And after all, wasn’t it this kind of thing we’d come to the Arctic Circle for? We’d had blizzards and we’d had blue skies and sunshine — now we were going to have icy Arctic winds. I’d said many times before I went away that the cold was the least thing I was worried about, since we’d be kitted out with cold weather gear. Now it was the time for this gear to earn its keep.
The Arctic suit was zipped all the way to the top, the full face balaclava was pulled all the way down and tucked inside the suit, the snow goggles covered the only part of my face that the balaclava didn’t, and my hood was pulled up over to the top. Once my rocket dogs were patted and told what clever, strong dogs they were and fastened onto their lines (by this time I had grown very fond of my team of dogs), I had two pairs of gloves to protect my hands.
Most of this day is just a white blur to me now, much as it was at the time. Because the wind was whipping up the snow so much, the conditions were almost a total white-out so there was no scenery to admire, and no real way of knowing how much lay ahead.
When I mention in my notebook about it being easy terrain, the connection seems obvious to me now. The weather conditions were bad because we were low down, the terrain was easy because we were following the Jiesjokka River and across frozen lakes.
The cold and the wind wasn’t too disheartening — after all, it wasn’t hard work so I had to work harder to keep warm. Sometimes I’d get off and run behind the sled, pushing it in front of me, just to help the dogs out in the wind and to do something to get my blood pumping. Other times, I’d hold on tight to the back of the sled and do squat reps to make sure blood was flowing to my feet and toes. As I say, there wasn’t much to look at so we had to make our own entertainment sometimes.
Lake Jiesjokka is apparently the biggest lake in the Finnmark area, although it was often hard to tell when one lake ended or another began. Sometimes it wasn’t immediately obvious you were sledding across a lake until you noticed the ice under your foot brake, or the lack of vegetation.
When we crossed the lake, the buildings of the Jotka mountain lodge came into view and the wind disappeared completely. With the sun shining down on us and the chance to breathe a little, I didn’t want to stop — it didn’t feel like we had been going that long, I wasn’t tired or hungry, and I was enjoying it too much.
This was the last evening before our final day of sledding, a day that had been described as “the most technical section as we sled through narrow trails downhill through dense woodland, and you will put into practice all that you have learned over the last few days”. This had be worried. I’d just about mastered the art of not falling off the sled, was I supposed to have learned some skills like how to turn the sled when going downhill along narrow, winding trails? I had visions of being dragged behind my sled all the way down a mountain. I told the group leader later that evening I was worried about it, but he reassured me that it wasn’t actually that bad.
But to add to my slight unease was the knowledge that we had to set off especially early the next morning, because the route we were taking was also the route that the famous Finnmarksløpet covered — except that they were coming from the opposite direction. If we weren’t out of the way by the time the race came up the mountain, there would be big trouble. So — no pressure.
That afternoon/evening was the last night we were going to have with our dogs on the trail, so I took the opportunity to get some photographs with my dogs — and especially my favourite dog, Anneka, who was especially affectionate and loved attention.
“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.
“Today has been incredible! It was a late start, and a hearty breakfast — after feeding 70-something hungry huskies.
The dogs went off like a rocket; through the woods and down the trail — there’s no need to shout instructions or directions or “faster”, the dogs know the way and you just have to try and slow them down.
Down slopes, over humps — the sled takes off briefly, before landing with a thump — the dogs just want to go, just want to run, on and on and on.
We started the day in blue skies and sunshine — the day even felt quite warm when we had to help the dogs up hills — then before we knew it, it was cold and windy and we were having to make sure everything was covered and protected”
Reading back over the adventure’s itinerary, I’m wryly amused that this first real day of dog sledding from Gargia is described as follows “we are briefed on how a dog sleds works and how to use the ice brake and snow anchor. We then put the theory into practice and some time is spent getting used to the basics of sledding. This is followed by a session where we are introduced to the dogs”. This makes it sound a lot more…instructional than it was. First of all, how does a dog sled work? Four dogs pull the sled, you stand on the back and don’t fall off.
We’re not talking about driving a car, here — theoretically, if you shift your weight to one side you should be able to steer it. I don’t think I ever got the hang of this. The brake that was mentioned: to return to the car analogy, imagine if you had brakes that stood little to no chance of actually stopping the car.
You stand on the brake, which was a metal bar between the two runners and that dug hooks into the snow and ice to slow and stop the sled. I would typically use one or both feet, and with varying amounts of firmness, depending on how much I wanted to slow the dogs. But when the dogs wanted to run even standing on it with all my weight and both feet wouldn’t hold them back. Four eager and hyperactive huskies against a marketing nerd…
This leaves the snow anchor. It was described as looking like a medieval torture device — and, yeah, it did exactly what it said on the tin. It was a brutal-looking heavy hunk of metal on the end of a piece of rope — exactly a “snow anchor”. You would throw it down into the snow alongside the sled, stamp it forwards to dig it in, then let the dogs pull the sled tight. This anchor, and only this, would keep the sled stopped. This briefing on how the sled works and how to use the break and the snow anchor probably took less time than it took me to write that.
This was undoubtedly a good thing, as we reflected a few times: in the UK there would probably be hours of practice and health and safety briefings before being equipped with protective pads and helmets and gentle lopes around a circuit. In the Arctic they told you what you needed to know, and you’d pick up the finer details as you went along.
The dogs were a new experience for me. I mean, dogs in general are. I’d never had a dog, growing up. I’ve had friends and girlfriends with dogs, and always been a little nervous around them — the dogs, that is, not my friends. I’m generally OK with a dog once I’ve known it for a while and found them to be all bark and no bite, but faced with 70 huskies I felt a little uneasy. Especially at this time of day, first thing in the morning when the dogs have been fed and are eager to go — the sleds are all ready, and the dogs know that their day is about to start. These dogs love nothing more than to run, and they aren’t known for their patience.
70 dogs all barking and howling was a lot to take. We were shown how to harness our dogs, and how the two lead dogs always have to be put on to the sled first — with a chain between their collars, to stop them from running opposite sides of trees and posts — followed by our two back dogs. Before long we were ready to go, and I was feeling nervous — this was a completely new experience for me, and the familiar “What on earth were you thinking?” question was going round in my head.
I was glad to not be the first person to set off, just so I could see how other people were handling the speed and the first bend, off into the woods. With only 13 of us in total, it was quickly my turn — I took a big gulp, pulled the anchor out of the snow and before I had fully straightened up, the dogs were off. I don’t exaggerate when I say in my notebook they were like a rocket, I would affectionately call them my “rocket dogs” — it makes me smile now to remember how terrifying this first part was, and how I spent the first few minutes desperately trying to slow the dogs down, so I wouldn’t break my neck.
The accommodation for the night in Souluvombi was almost as good as the first: we all had beds, plus there was heating and electricity. The first day sledding was the perfect way to start the adventure — just enough difficulty and adversity, but not too long a day. It obviously was not an accident: they would want to break us in gently, but we were fortunate to have favourable weather conditions.
After months of planning, months of training, and countless feakouts when I thought about what I was doing, it was no longer “next year”, or “next week” but instead…now.
To avoid an early-morning cross-London Tube journey with heavy bags, I chose to spend Sunday night in a Travelodge in west London near Heathrow airport. Despite walking the wrong way out of Hounslow West station to catch my bus to the hotel, the Sunday night was not time for adventure. I got up early Monday morning, showered, checked out and waited outside for my taxi.
Which it turned out the hotel staff had forgotten to book.
We were instructed to assemble at the Scandinavia Airwarys check in desk at Heathrow Airport, three hours before out flight was due to take off. It had been a similar set up when I went to Peru, but I remember that feeling slightly easier: I just had to look for people in hiking boots, Macmillan t-shirts and large rucksacks. But what did people look like when they were going to the Arctic?
Lucky for me, one guy was already there and waiting — while he might not have been dressed in a snowsuit, he did have that outdoorsy look. People started to join us quite rapidly, with each new arrival asking “Across the Divide?” or “Dog sledding?”. Before long, there was quite a group of us assembled — but no trip leader. We began to wonder if we had been deliberately told to get there early so that the group could begin to bond with each other, or if it was a plan to get everyone to the airport on time.
Eventually, everyone was together — including the trip leader, the trip doctor and a rep from Across the Divide who wasn’t actually coming on the trip itself. We checked in, dropped our bags, and killed time in the airport.
The flight to Oslo was short and largely uneventful. I say “largely” because I was sure this was the first flight I’d ever taken that didn’t have a safety briefing — it wasn’t until our return flights that I realised there was one, but it was done entirely in Norwegian, so when I hadn’t been watching I hadn’t known what was being said. Oslo airport’s internal transfers terminal seemed very Scandinavian: it was smart, clean, quite small, very expensive, and not worth noting for much more than that.
From my notebook: “7pm. Alta from the air and in the rapidly-approaching darkness seems icy, snowy and rocky. Dark lakes and fjords, reflecting a bright moon and stars. The cold fresh air, and a feeling of excitement”. We took a minibus from Alta airport to our first night’s lodge at Gargia — the main part of the town of Alta (for it seemed to cover quite a large area with not much to see) was quickly left behind to darkness, snow, and the occasional red-painted farm building.
The picture at the top is the Gargia Fjellstue lodge, our base and accomodation for the first night of the adventure. There were half a dozen lodges, the main building which included the dining room, and the kennels for our 70-something dogs. The first night was luxury; the lodges had under-floor heating, showers, electricity and there was a bar in the main buidling. Dinner was cooked for us by our hosts, Cathrine and Pål — a delicious reindeer stew called something like “Beadle”.
After dinner we mainly rested and talked — until it was decided to check for the Northern Lights. At first, it seemed like there was nothing to see, but then when you stood for a minute, faint misty patches in the sky that looked like cloud would begin to brighten.
Again from the notebook: “10pm. Aurora Borealis!! Green sheets of light, appearing, brightening, then fading. My camera can’t capture them — but what a sight!”. Yes, unfortunately, it seemed my compact Canon camera wasn’t going to be up to the job — I just couldn’t find a setting for long exposure, but seeing the Northern Lights was as good as capturing them on camera. You could stand out all night watching them, but it was time for an early night — because the next day the adventure was to really begin: a 30km journey by dog sled from Gargia to Souluvombi.