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.

DAY 3: Souluvombi – Lappujavri

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Photo copyright of Paul Doe

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

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Photo copyright of Paul Doe

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.

DAY 1: London – Olso – Alta

Gargia Lodge, Alta, NorwaySO. The Arctic Adventure.

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.

A new year for adventure

The Aurora Borealis over Eielson Air Force base, Alaska
U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joshua Strang

It’s a brand new year, Adventure-seekers! And do you know what this means? No, not New Year resolutions — but that the Great Arctic Fundraisng Adventure is now a matter of weeks away! No longer is it “next year”, but instead something like 8 weeks away.

Am I crazy to be swapping a nice warm flat in east London for some basic cabins in the Arctic Circle, and exchanging my days of social media marketing for sledding across frozen lakes and Arctic forests?

People ask me “Isn’t life an adventure on its own?”. So, maybe I am crazy, because the answer for me is no. When I am looking up at the Aurora Borealis, or speeding across the Arctic tundra with a pack of huskies I will know this is why I am doing it.

Not forgetting the other reason why I am doing it, either — raising £6,000 for Macmillan Cancer Support.

The new University College Hospital Macmillan Cancer Centre will open this year, and cost £100 million to build. Macmillan Cancer Support will be making its biggest ever contribution, of £10 million, towards the centre. The University College Hospital Macmillan Cancer Centre will be the first of its kind in the NHS and will redefine the ways patients are treated, using the best diagnostic and treatment techniques to improve survival rates.

Macmillan will provide a Wellbeing Centre within the building where people affected by cancer can find the best information and support, including advice around coping with personal and financial impact of cancer and returning to work.

The start of a new year can be hard when you have lost loved ones. You wonder what their plans might have been for the year ahead. It can also be tough on anyone living with cancer, or caring for someone living with cancer. Macmillan Cancer Support are there, providing help and support. If you want to find out more about Macmillan, or would like to contact them follow the links or visit http://www.macmillan.org.uk/

So far I have raised £3,359 towards the Great Arctic Fundraising Adventure for Macmillan — and this year promises more pub quizzes, more station collections, and the Aurora Borealis.  You can help support the Arctic Adventure with a donation here or by buying a fundraising calendar here.