DAY 6: Jotka – Gargia

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.

In moderation.

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.

DAY 2: Gargia – Souluvombi

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From the notebook:

“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.

They weren’t to last.

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.