Have you ever played a video game, or watched a movie, or listened to an album, that is just so good, you don’t want it to end? You just want the music to go on and on. I’m assuming you’ve probably been on a holiday that feels like that. Normally it’s just because you don’t want to go back to work, there being this completely unrealistic expectation that if you stay in the hotel room, or beach house, or chalet, that you can continue to do what you’e been doing for the last seven or fourteen days…living the life of riley, doing fun things, not having to work, at least not on your own terms. Of course, reality is that if you did that you’d probably run out of money very quickly, and even if you could generate wealth, your ‘holiday’ would very soon turn out to be just your typical everyday existence. Inevitably that would become work. Personally I don’t trust anyone that tells me they are glad to be back from holiday and back in their day job, unless they’ve had a holiday from hell, or their family drives them up the wall. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy my work, far from it, I’m just saying that when you are sat there on holiday on your last day, work is typically the last thing you want to think about.
The thing about the Fjallraven Polar was it was no different. I didn’t want it to end. But it’s taken me some months since Part 2 to write this Part 3 because for that very reason I didn’t want it to end. Once I’ve written this final part then it is effectively over. Of course, all good things must come to an end and in reality the Fjallraven Polar ended well over 3 months ago. No doubt the frozen lakes we crossed have now melted, signs of our camps have been eroded away by the elements and the dogs have probably forgotten the twenty eight strangers that fed them and made sure they were warm and comfortable enough in the freezing night. Needs must. In fact the very competition that won me a place on the Polar has just launched again, trying to find this years winner. I’m going to enter, I don’t expect to win, far from it, but that is not the point, not this time. Enter here.
Anyway, back to the Polar itself…
So, the night before the final day we arrived at the camp at Sevujärvi. Once all teams had arrived we were summoned by Johan Skullman for some training. First up was how to build a fire using birch bark and firesteel. A relatively simple process that the rest of the group took on board fairly quickly…tonight we WILL MAKE FIRE!!! Much beating of bare hairy chests ensued as the menfolk looked on and tutted at the posturing females. Ok, that didn’t quite happen but it helps the story. Johan then proceeded to tell us that we would be sleeping outside that night and how we should prepare for it. We needed to dig a trench large enough for two people, use our water bottles with hot water to make ‘heaters’ and do things like put the bottom of the sleeping bag in our polar parkas. This was something I was looking forward to, but there was the odd worried face. Trust in the kit. It was going to be cold.
Team UK merrily danced back to our encampment, we found our shovels and ice saw and began to dig. We wanted a bit of luxury, so we were going to build two rooms, a ‘living room’ complete with fire-pit and one large bedroom. A double room wasn’t going to satisfy us, we needed a room that was going to sleep four. We then made a bit of an error. In the excitement of arrival earlier in the day Charlie noticed the trees were covered in a kind of black hair, I still don’t know what it is, but he pulled off a clump of it and set light to it with his firesteel almost instantly. Eureka! With this in mind we hadn’t paid too much attention to Johan’s instructions on how we SHOULD be making fire. We gathered a whole arm-full of this ‘hair’ along with some dry branches and set about making not a fire, but a bonfire. It was going to be big and was going to keep us warm all night.
Two hours later and with fairly black faces, Charlie and I gave up on our quest to make fire the ‘easy’ way. Emma meanwhile had been diligently chopping up bits of birch like Johan had been showing us…but it would have to wait, we were invited to a BBQ.
Johnny and his ‘favourite’.
Fjallraven had invited a bunch of media types from all of the different countries taking part. We sat around a large bonfire in a small copse, eating barbecued reindeer and drinking hot chocolate whilst the media folk engaged with us. A band played some songs and high in the sky the faint shimmering of the Northern Lights danced with the tunes, there was even a meteor. Magic. All too soon and it was over. We went back to our camps, and now, employing our secret weapon, Emma, the bonfire sprang into life! Time for bed.
To this day I don’t know why, but that night, under the stars, in -15C temps, in a sleeping bag with not much else, I had the best sleep I’d had for months. I swear, I don’t think I moved the entire night. I wish I could sleep like that every night. Bliss. Consequently, waking the next morning to sunlight just touching the tip of my nose felt like the best feeling in the world. What was most surprising is that everyone else had pretty much the same experience. No one was cold, we all used our kit properly and it protected us from the elements. For one night only it felt like we had returned to nature, we’d abandoned our artificial shelters and opened our souls to mother nature and she had rewarded us with a gift, a recharge of the batteries way better than any holiday on a beach in the Maldives, or wherever.
Our camp. Image courtesy of Hakan Wike – Copyright 2015
It wasn’t long before everything was packed away, the dogs were fed and attached to their lines on the sled. It’s surprising just how quickly you pick up the technique of harnessing the dogs and just how quickly you forget about how unhygienic the whole process of living and working with pack animals is, you just get on and do it. Sten started with his favourite trick of being the village idiot, wailing like a banshee and trying to pull the whole sled himself. Rap told him to shut up on numerous occasions. We were held at the start until every team was ready, they wanted us all to go through the start line one after the other, for the media of course. Some of the other teams took a while to get ready so we had to hold for a long time. Consequently when we set off the dogs were full of beans. We were rocket fast. It wasn’t long before we’d left the other teams behind, we were out of sight. Emma and Charlie were up front, then me, and then Tom at the back, shooting lots of video, talking into his camera, trying to be the next Bear Grylls or whomever. Today, our final day, wasn’t going to be very long, about 45 kilometres, again over frozen lakes and through forest. This was easy, just standing on the sled runners on the back. The sun was blazing, what a feeling. Just the panting of the dogs to disturb the peace. That was until I made a bit of an error of judgement.
Image courtesy of Hakan Wike – Copyright 2015
I had attached my GoPro to the handrail and was filming the sled moving forward from a fixed point when I decided to turn the camera to face the other way. Choosing a section of the trail where we crossed a flat frozen lake, I stood to the side of the sled so that the camera would capture Tom behind me. Of course when you put all of your weight on one of the runners the sled tends to slide in that direction. The trail was quite hard but the snow to the side of it was very soft. My left runner, the runner I was standing on, suddenly sank a little into the snow, enough for me to lose balance and step off. Still holding the handrail I tried to run with the sled, but the snow was too soft and I couldn’t keep up with it, I had to let go. I had actually slowed the sled a little so Jan, Emma and Charlie were quite a way ahead, but without anyone to brake the sled the dogs just kept running. I shouted something to alert the three ahead whilst I jogged on helplessly. They all stopped and Charlie deployed his anchor with the intent to ‘capture’ my runaway dogs. He jumped off his sled and into the path of my dogs who without the weight of me to slow them down were going at quite a pace. Rather predictably at the last moment they ran around him, but the sled behind them didn’t turn, instead it ran straight into Charlie, striking his legs and throwing him five or six feet clean into the air. I saw his leg twist and he landed in a crumpled heap. He didn’t move. All sorts of things flashed through my head at that point. At worst he’d been killed (unlikely, but when you can drown in 6 inches of water…) at best he’d broken his leg. I felt sick, and not just from the running. Arriving at the scene Charlie was moving. He stood up and groaned. He’d taken a big hit but miraculously he hadn’t broken anything. All he’d done was gain a rather impressive bruise. Thank goodness for that. No more GoPro shenanigans, but an Oscar for Charlie next year please, great acting, or stunt work, whichever it was.
As we got closer to the finish our altitude steadily dropped, we crossed more lakes and descended more small hills and the snow cover seemed to get less and less. I could sense we were nearing the finish as things began to warm up, it felt almost springlike. Layers came off and with each one I got a little more melancholy, it was almost over. We stopped a few kilometres from the end and allowed the other teams to catch up, it has to be said, that took quite a while (damn, we were fast!). Eventually we set off in convoy over the last few kilometres. Finally we turned a corner onto a large frozen lake and there it was, the finish line, about 500 metres ahead. To say I was gutted would be an understatement. I cried. Of course they were tears of sadness, but also of joy to have experienced such an amazing thing. Knowing that I only had a few more moments with my team of dogs was heart wrenching though. I’ll admit that at the start, despite being a ‘dog’ person, I’d struggled to really bond with my dogs, but the hours spent watching them run, witnessing their characters, their little habits, feeding them, ensuring they were warm enough at night, looking after them, and them returning that favour tenfold by tirelessly hauling my fat arse through the Scandinavian wilderness, well by golly, I was going to miss them. This was it.
Team USA doing handstands at the finish.
We crossed the finish line to applause from the media and Jan immediately took us away from it, we continued up a small track by the huts near where we were to spend the night partying, deployed anchors and disembarked. Yep, gutted. Instructions were received about where to pile the equipment we weren’t allowed to keep (the tents, the sleeping bags, etc) and we removed all of our personal effects from the sled. One final surprise, Jan needed us to mush the dogs to his trailer a few hundred metres away up a track. It was only a few hundred metres, but I’m so glad we got to do them (not everyone did). Unencumbered by a heavy payload the dogs flew, I mean seriously, it’s scary how fast they can go. If the rest of the Polar was a marathon, this was the 100 metres sprint. Wow. Massive respect to the dogs. We helped Jan put the dogs in the trailer, careful not to put certain dogs with others (they’d fight) and then we manhandled the sleds onto the roof. One final goodbye to the dogs and that was it. All over.
Katri saying goodbye.
I won’t go on about the party we had that night, or the sauna and the ice hole in the lake (brilliant), the free flowing alcohol, the great food cooked by our personal chef for the evening, the emotional speeches, the thank you’s, etc…even the terrible dancing by some of the participants. Those are special memories shared only with my twenty seven new friends. It’s safe to say the Polar really was a once in a lifetime experience. You can go dog-sledding anytime, but this was something else. Twenty Eight strangers all gathered together with one common goal, to learn new skills and complete the Fjallraven Polar. We all did it, it was tough at times but by no means hard. It was character building. It was full of incredible highs and some pretty rubbish lows. However, everyone kept smiling, everyone had fun. It was brilliant.
Thank you Fjallraven and Outdoor Photography magazine.
Me and Rap 🙂