Find Part 1 of this Blog, Fjallraven Polar 2015 – Part 1 – “It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside” here.
Can you hear that? The sound of silence.
My four legged friends, they howl and bark,
Then chaos gives way to full compliance,
Eager to run, whether light or dark,
Only their panting breaks the sound of silence.
It’s all too easy to sound overly dramatic when someone asks you “So, how was it, the Fjallraven Polar…Life-changing?”. Not quite for me, but could I say it is perhaps one of the best things I’ve ever done? Yes, probably. As I stated before, it’s had a profound effect on me. So, what makes it so special? It is a potent mix. Twenty-eight people of all backgrounds, religions (probably) and nationalities, thrown together to tough it out in the Arctic. Everything is organised, nice lodgings and great food, an itinerary such that you are never left wondering what to do, tried and tested instruction, more outdoor kit than you can imagine, personalised where appropriate, and stunning isolated landscapes. Alone that would be enough to make it a special. Then throw in the weather and most of all six willing four legged friends who just absolutely love pulling you on a sled, well, then it becomes special. As someone has since said to me ‘a sum greater than all of its parts’. Perfectly put.
After the euphoria of the snowstorm and the problems that created with regard to logistics, the route needed to be shortened and we needed a new start point. The plan would be to cross the border between Norway and Sweden by coach and start mushing from Abisko. A shortened second day avoiding the main mountain plateau, tundra and permafrost region (a big shame as it was this area I was most looking forward to experiencing and perhaps photographing). Our estimated travel time was 3-4 hours. We’d harness the dogs, load the sleds and we’d be off, probably at about lunchtime. Wrong. As with the flights from Oslo, and the weather the previous day, if things can go wrong, then they inevitably will at some point. Moving 210 dogs, 35 sleds, snowmobiles and equipment to a new start point must have been a logistical nightmare…but the guys in charge handled it brilliantly. Occasionally you could overhear the heated phonecalls and see the grimaces on their faces. The least we could do as participants was make it as easy for them as possible. What right did we have to complain?
After spending about an hour at a service station, eating frites (chips) and getting to know each other better, we received the green light to get back on the coach. The dogs had crossed the border and now it was our turn. Twenty minutes later we were at the Norwegian crossing…along with a few dozen trucks and cars. The road was closed and we had to wait for a snowplough. Snow was still falling over the passes and blocking the road. After a relatively short time the plough turned up, the gate opened, and most of the vehicles proceeded in convoy. A couple of miles later we reached the Swedish crossing…and ground to a halt. Sitting stationary on a coach for four or five hours is never going to be an option, not when there is plenty of the white stuff around. Twenty-eight adults suddenly rediscovered childhood…
The thing was, as much as it wasn’t great, all the delays, they gave us all a chance to really bond as a large group. I think that is a powerful ingredient in making this experience unforgettable for all. Twelve hours of frustration turned around by the sheer positive attitudes of all involved, that is pretty rare and quite special. Of course, spending the best part of the day on a coach rather than mushing across the wilderness is going to have a knock-on effect with the plans. When we finally managed to cross the border and crawl towards Abisko along the icy roads it was obvious it was going to get dark soon after we arrived. I don’t think I’m the only one that thought the organisers would just put us up in the cheapest hotel they could find at short notice, or make us sleep in our tents by the road. But, as the coach neared it’s destination, headlights lighting the road ahead, Johan made his announcement…
“Everybody, once we arrive, make sure you have absolutely everything. Get your headtorches ready, we will load the sleds, the dogs are harnessed and ready to go as soon as we arrive!”. Wow, we were going to head off into the night on the sleds, with only our Brunton headtorches to light the way. This was going to be special, very special. No other Fjallraven Polarists have had this chance, and we were going to do it, most of us complete amateurs on a sled. Once we arrived it was organised chaos, again. 210 dogs all barking is quite something, it appeared to be complete madness, but it was actually working like a finely oiled machine. The guides had got all the dogs ready to go (except my dog Sten, he was tied to a car, his insatiable desire to pull would have left him with bloody paws on the hard surface long before we managed to set off if he had been on the line with the others). As soon as the sleds were loaded, Sten was attached to my line and then…we were off, into the night. The dogs were fresh, and so so powerful, we were racing into the night, leaving the noise behind us and entering a world of darkness and peace, only the soft panting of the dogs for company. Along a narrow track and over a few bumps and turns, it was crazy and we were going fast. Moments later we went down a small incline and emerged onto a frozen lake, nothing ahead of us except the darkness. And so it was, for the next 2 hours we traveled through the night in our small groups, towards our camp.
Arriving in pitch black on the edge of a frozen lake near Kattuvouma at about 10.30pm, we had to move the dogs on to a static line, remove their harnesses, feed them, put their jackets on, put up our tents and dig trenches for them and cook our own meals. Given that the waterhole was out on the ice, in the middle of nowhere, and the snow was soft powder under a hard crust, this took a long time. Even with snowshoes on I kept falling through the snow on top. When this is every step it is exhausting. Needless to say it took a long time to get every job completed. As I turned in at 3am there were still folks working hard. However, there was a small reward for all our effort, the Northern Lights came out to play.
The next day we awoke at about 6.30am, today was going to be the longest in terms of mushing. The clear skies of the night had been replaced by thick cloud and there was a touch of melancholy in the air. The routine of the night before had to be repeated except in reverse (although no matter what, the dogs were always fed first). The food for the dogs was a type of sausage meat, chopped up and left in boiled water for about 20 minutes, then served together with a healthy dose of dry mix. The stoves for boiling the water for the dogs (10 litres each stove) seemed far better than ours, something I think every one of us noted. Whereas it took about 15 minutes and half a bottle of paraffin to boil 10 litres for the dog food, it seemed to take hours for us to boil barely enough water to fill half our flasks. The Primus stoves were good, but I’m not convinced we ended up using them most efficiently as we had been shown. After some more training about how best to use our sleeping bags (something we needed to understand for the following night), we hooked up the dogs and were ready to roll.
In the excitement I must have missed the first team get away, because when we set off I was convinced we were first. It’s not a race, but the competitive nature of our team from the UK (and Sweden) meant we were desperate to take the lead in the event and be first down the 50% hill. A comical start left some of the other teams picking up trailing rubbish in our wake (sorry guys, but when these dogs start, they want to START). We set off across the frozen lake at speed, through snow showers and flurries. At times the Sun even tried to make an appearance, casting an eerie light across the landscape.
The dogs are lively today, they just want to run!
Top left is Choco, with Schnapps on the right. Abalbo middle left. Unknown dog middle right (let’s call him Blackie). Rap bottom left and Sten bottom right.
Team UK stretching the ‘lead’.
After about twenty minutes I noted the small figures of another group ahead. We weren’t first we were second…but we were catching them! Another two lakes over and about an hour later we had caught them. I thought that was it, we’d just sit behind them, but no, Jan our guide took his dogs around the outside…and where his dogs go, ours follow. It was probably the slowest overtake you are ever likely to see, not quite in the same league as Formula One, but it was an overtake. The guide on the other team didn’t look happy, but Jan was a rule breaker, a renegade. I don’t recall seeing him even wear gloves or a down jacket for the entire trip, in even the worst conditions. Only Johan is harder (fact). We left the other team in our wake…sorry guys.
Keep on Mushing!
Across the frozen wastes.
On and on we mushed, kilometre after kilometre across the frozen lakes of Sweden. Silence. This was perhaps my favourite time on the sled. Others said they found this bit a little boring, preferring the winding trails through the woodland, but I liked the apparent solitude. There was little danger of falling off the sled during these times, you just had to stand on the skids, the dogs did the rest. We even perfected a YMCA dance routine between our four sleds (Jan I think was oblivious to this out front…or just didn’t care much for 70’s disco). It was silent out there, all you can hear are the sled runners over the snow, a kind of swooshing sound, and the soft panting of the dogs. Wonderful. And then of course, occasionally, some magical light…
Where You Go We Will Follow
We stopped for some lunch and gave the dogs a snack, and then we resumed our course. The long frozen lakes gave way to short stretches of forest, and then rivers. The track got more technical and we found ourselves rapidly learning how to get the sled around tight corners at speed. Jan gave us a little advance warning of the 50% hill (so called because 50% of polar participants fall) and we gave each other a little extra room. Coming around a tight right hand bend I saw Charlie ahead turn sharply left, almost tip his sled and disappear downward. Emma was stood on the corner ahead warning me to slow down. That confused me because she was supposed to be on the sled in front of Charlie. Of course, she had fallen at the bend. My dogs didn’t slow down, they didn’t want to. I touched the soft brake and the dogs took the apex of the corner tightly, too tightly. I ended up cutting the corner and almost tipping my own sled. Goodness knows how I stayed on but I did. Seeing the hill for the first time was a heart in the mouth moment, it was steep, short but steep…and at the bottom were about a dozen camera crew and various persons connected with the Polar. A welcoming committee, ready to laugh at everyone who fell. I made it. As did Tom behind me. Emma was the only one in our team to fall. We were the 75% club.
A few more kilometres passed by until eventually we reached the camping area at Sevujärvi where media from around the world were waiting to interview some of the participants. Luckily they left Team UK alone. We started the routine we had learned the night before. It was much quicker and easier in daylight. The other teams filtered in and I took the opportunity to do a little photography. There wasn’t much ‘landscape’ around so I decided to try to get some nice photos of some of the participants and their favourite dogs, and then it was time to prepare for our night of survival…
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In Part 3 of this Blog, I’ll share some of those images, it’s our last night on the trail and this time we are sleeping without a tent. “Relight My Fire!”.