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 5: Mollisjokk – Jotka

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Photo copyright of Rob Thein

From the notebook:

“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.

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Photo copyright of Jim Weston

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.