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.