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.

The Strokes know when you drop your pace

Royal Albert Dock

Royal Albert Dock
Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/31505964@N08/3602629469
On Sunday morning, the water in the Royal Albert Dock was calm and flat, and reflected the sky like a mirror.

Sunday mornings in Docklands are unusually peaceful.  London City airport doesn’t begin operating until midday, and the only other people on the water was another dragon boat team — there was plenty of room for our team and theirs to be far apart from each other, so far a while out there the only sound was the splashing of our paddles, and the shouts of our respective team helms.

It’s been a while since I updated about The Year of the Dragon.  Since I last wrote about it, I have raced with my team in the London Regatta — technically, we had two teams: our premier team, and our scratch team.  No prizes for guessing I was in the scratch team — but we also had some Olympic-level athletes in the premier team.  Overall, Thames Dragons came 5th place in all 3 race distances (100m, 200m and 500m) — and most importantly came in above the other London teams.

Now the BDA League is finished and the days are becoming shorter — we have already stopped training on Tuesday nights, since the London Regatta Centre requires us to be off the water at sunset, and sunset is rapidly approaching 6pm in London.  Sunday mornings have stopped requiring sun block, a hat, and a bandana to stop me from getting stinging sweat and sunblock in my eyes.  This Sunday morning, the air was cold when I left the house in a hoody and a jacket and I wondered if I was going to be able to stay warm enough out on the dock.

With the Henley Winter Series coming up,  Sundays have a focus on technique (especially for newer members, like myself) and distance paddling.  I was in the second row in the boat, which was unusual for me — but it’s a good place to be, since you take your timing from the front. It makes it much easier to see what the people at the front are doing if you are sat right behind them, and I could also look more closely to try and emulate their technique.  I don’t know if your position in the boat, other than the front row, is any kind of comment on your ability or just a matter of weight distribution.  Undoubtedly, there were better paddlers sat behind me — this is without question, the man directly behind me would occasionally tell me when my timing was slightly off, but also it wasn’t possible that out of a boatful of people I was even among the best.  That isn’t really important.

Sunday was just a beautiful morning to be out paddling; the sun was shining and the sky was clear.  When I’m on the water I enjoy the very short breaks we have, just for a minute or two to look around me and enjoy the surroundings — there’s no opportunity to look around when you paddle, even if your technique is perfect — you need to be watching the front of the boat.  Although, as a training technique we did try paddling with eyes shut occasionally.  It sounds crazy, but sometimes when you’re racing the water can be rough or there might be so much spray you won’t be able to see — so it’s important to be able to use other senses.  We’d start off with eyes open as normal, get into our rhythm and make sure everyone was in time: then it was eyes shut and keep paddling.  It’s surprising how quickly I’d lose timing: I’d be counting to myself and thinking I was still doing fine, then there’s be a whack as my paddle hit the paddle of the person behind me.

The distances are also a new experience.  In the London Regatta there was a 500m race, which was a distance some of us (myself included) had never covered before — and it was surprisingly difficult.  This Sunday we trained over distances of 1000 and 2000m.  The important thing is to focus on power and pace.

When I was at school, a long time ago now, there was a short time when I was a decent runner: but I was a sprinter.  I got pretty good, but not amazing, times for 100m, but preferred 200m. I performed well in 400m, and got a Gold award for my time, but I still preferred running 200m.  My trouble with 400m was I didn’t understand how to pace myself — I didn’t know how to start the race. With 100 and 200m, all I had to do was just run as fast as I could.  I wonder now if there is something in the power and pace techniques I am learning in dragon boating that could have been applied back then.

1000m was tough and 2000m was even harder — around me in the boat I could hear people breathing hard and panting. The Henley Winter Series involves continuous paddling for half an hour, with occasional short bursts of extra power, and for the newer paddlers like myself this is a new experience: with the short races, you are finished in under a minute.

In a campaign to be a better person, I’ve started going to the gym recently: and after only a week of activity, this week I could already feel the benefit an increase in strength and fitness has on my paddling.  With my adventures in Peru and Norway, I had reasons to train — a reason that I was missing after the challenges.  Now I am finding reasons once again: the year of the dragon isn’t just about the international race I want to build up to, it’s the fitness and training to be a better paddler, and overall being a better person.

New Adventure Needed!

When you've seen how big the world is, how can you make do with this?
Image source: http://www.seoco.co.uk/blog/set-geographic-webmaster-tool-works/

“We were brought up on the Space Race, now they expect you to clean toiletsWhen you’ve seen how big the world is, how can you make do with this?”

Pulp “Glory Days”

With the Arctic Adventure truly over, and the notebook exhausted, we take a break to bring you this important message.

I need a new adventure.

I’ve explored North America on Greyhound buses and slept on pavements in southern California. I’ve hiked the Inca Trail to the “lost city” of Machu Picchu.  I’ve driven a pack of huskies across the frozen lakes and hills of the Arctic Circle and gazed at the Northern Lights.  Now I want to know what’s next.

You think about an adventure.  You play with various ideas until one sticks, and you tell people about it.  Maybe they’re admiring, maybe they think you’re crazy, maybe they’re envious — but it all excites you.  After too long of thinking about it and telling people about it, it becomes time to put your money where your mouth is and actually sign up.  Having dreams is one thing, but you don’t want to be the person that dreams and never does anything about it.

Once you take the plunge, it’s serious.  There is now a finite space of time between you and the adventure, and a seemingly infinite number of things to do.  But there’s the other end, too — this end of the adventure when you’ve already been back a month, and you’ve got nothing to train for, nothing to dream about or talk about, nothing to have mini freak-outs about on the way to work.

I signed up for the Arctic Adventure last July, and that was several months later than I ideally wanted to (because I was a bit dense and was looking in the wrong section of the website for the type of event I wanted). Now I have been back for two months, have completed the fundraising, and long for a new adventure.

I took on John Williams and Selina Barker’s “Screw Work, Let’s Play” 30 Day Challenge — after all, these two were influential in getting me to actual sign up for the Arctic, and last year were instrumental in getting me to start writing “Atlantic City” my zombie novel.  I thought great, this will get me started on a new adventure.  After many discussions with Selina, she encouraged me to focus less on the big ideas and to instead find adventures in the small things, every day.

Away I went.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to do, or afford, 30 adventures in 30 days but would do what I could and blog about it.  Have you noticed any of those blog posts? That’s because there have been no adventures.  I didn’t think the idea out carefully enough, and even some things that I thought I would do — go to a martial arts class, learn latin dance — didn’t happen.  Things seem less like “every day adventures” and more like…just doing stuff.

Now I’m in a kind of limbo.  I still want the big adventure, I still want to save the world — I want to help people after natural disasters or in war zones, even if it’s just picking up the rubble or painting walls — and be able to help further by inspiring others to help by writing about it and taking pictures.  As strange as it seems to me, there are also people out there who see no appeal at all in hiking the Inca Trail or dog sledding through the Arctic Circle — but these people like the opportunity to live vicariously through blog posts and stories about adventures.

There’s still so much I want to do, and no practical way of doing it.

As for the every day, since the Arctic I’ve struggled a little with a lack of purpose.  Nothing to train for, no big “adventure” to look forward to, to tell people about or sometimes worry over. My fitness has taken a nosedive, and I’m now taking on the challenge to better handle my depressive moods.

In the every day, things can be a struggle sometimes — but I’m trying to resolve that while there are some things I can’t change, I can take responsibility for how I react, and what I do about it.  This week, I have taken to Tribesports to give me challenges and an excuse to get some endorphins flowing — while I try and get a handle on what adventure means to me, and what I can do, while balancing it with all the things I love so much about being at home.

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.

DAY 4: Lappujavri – Mollisjokk

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Photo copyright of Rob Thein

From the notebook:

“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.

Something changed.

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.

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Photo copyright of Rob Thein

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.

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 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.