‘So, you’re all set for the Arctic then?’ the voice on the phone says brightly.
‘Um … yes, I think so,’ I reply.
‘Great, then we’ll see you at Oslo Airport on Monday. Bye!’
I put the phone down. The truth is, I’ve no idea if I am all set for the Arctic. How do you know what you’re going to need in average temperatures of -25°? I’ve got everything that was recommended on the kit list and I’ve put in a bit of training as suggested, but will it be enough?
My sister Hilary and I are going dog sledding in Arctic Norway. This seemed like a great idea a year ago when we booked it. Now? Well, insane is one word that springs to mind. We are flying from Edinburgh to Oslo via Copenhagen, then on to Alta on the north coast, latitude 69.5 degrees north, deep in the Arctic Circle.
It’s snowing in Edinburgh when we leave, as if to get us in the mood. So much so, in fact, that we worry whether we’ll get to Norway at all. At the airport however, everything seems to be running as normal and soon we’re en route to Copenhagen, where we have a mere 25 minutes to make our connecting flight. We make it by running through the airport at top speed. Perhaps this is why we were urged to train for the trip? As committed fans of Nordic Noir, we’re thrilled beyond measure to catch a glimpse of The Bridge as we take off for Oslo.
We’re meeting the rest of the group at Oslo airport. There are to be 11 of us, plus a British expedition leader, a Norwegian guide, and rather alarmingly, a doctor. It’s the latter we’re meeting here; we’ve been told she is small and blonde, which doesn’t exactly narrow it down in a country full of flaxen haired vikings. We grab a quick sandwich and a cup of tea and sit down to consume them. Hilary nudges me, pointing out a fair-haired woman who appears to be in charge of a group on the other side of the café. We look at them with dismay – they are all so young! Surely this can’t be our group? Hilary texts the doctor while I watch the blonde woman, who makes no movement towards her phone. A text is received in return, ‘We’re up in the restaurant, come and find us.’ Phew! We head upstairs.
The doctor, Annalie, turns out to be a brunette (I think this mistake is mainly due to my lack of listening skills) but she is petite, and very friendly. As are the others, who introduce themselves with smiles and offers of drinks. Five of them are Irishmen; Pat, Donal, Gary, Ian and Richard, who have been travelling since 4am. They all know each other, some from work and others from school. In addition there is Conor, who is also Irish but lives in Windsor, Paddy, who confusingly isn’t Irish, but comes from Kent, and Toni and Penny, English roses from Bristol and Bournemouth respectively. We’re pleased that they are all so friendly, but more importantly, relieved that they’re all about our age and don’t look too fit!
In my ignorance I had expected the plane to Alta to be a similar size to our own island aircraft, so it comes as something of a surprise to be ushered on to an enormous jet. I’m seated next to two Norwegians, who, bizarrely, are on their way home from watching Liverpool play at Anfield. I ask if they’d enjoyed it. ‘Yes,’ they said, ‘and we have added lots of new words to our English vocabulary.’
The plane calls at Tromsø, where additional passengers for Alta embark. They come up the aisle, shaking hands and chatting with those already seated. You can tell what’s being said, even though it’s in Norwegian,
‘Hi aye, how are you?’
‘No bad, yourself?’
It’s after 11pm when we arrive in Alta, and the Irishmen are so tired that they can hardly walk in a straight line. We’re met by the two group leaders; Per-Thore the Norwegian and Brummie, from guess where? They fling our carefully packed bags into the back of a minibus, tell us to jump in, and off we go to our first nights’ accommodation at Soulovombi, traditionally a mustering place for the Samí reindeer herders. We arrive and tumble straight into bed; we’ve a busy day tomorrow.
Next morning, the sun shines gloriously from a perfect blue sky. The snow is dazzling. It’s also deep, piled 6 feet high against the walls of the bunkhouse. Breakfast is served in the restaurant adjacent to our hut, a wonderful spread of home baked bread, cheeses, ham, yogurt, jam made from locally picked berries … we are warned not to get used to this. Dimitri, the enthusiastic young restaurant manager, knows the next few days will be decidedly spartan and has pulled the stops out for us. Brummie gives us a team talk as we eat, and by the time he’s finished the morning’s noisy confidence has evaporated.
First things first, we are each issued with an arctic suit and snow boots. Once they’re on, we move like astronauts, and indeed the label inside says, ‘Made on Earth’. Per-Thore instructs us to take a sled each. They are wooden, with long graceful runners which you stand on. The body of the sled is a big blue fabric bag, into which all our gear, plus the human and canine food for the journey must go. There is a metal pedal brake, which digs a spike into the snow to stop the sled. In addition there is a snow anchor, which Per-Thore tells us to use carefully as it is possible to impale yourself on it. Heartening news indeed.
The palatial hut at Soulovombi
The lads – messing about right from the start!
Road negotiated, its uphill now. As we get higher the Finnmarksvidda spreads out before us, an icy white world, as magical as Narnia, as alien as Mars. There’s no sound but the panting of the dogs and the swooshing of the sled runners on the snow. The cold is startling; uncover your face and your eyelashes freeze, a very weird sensation. We’ve been warned about frostbite and snowblindness and indeed the glare of the sun off the snow is ferocious.
I’m beginning to think this is easy when we come to a forest with very steep uphill and downhill sections. Going uphill you have to get off the sled and run behind it, pushing, to help the dogs. If you don’t, they’ll turn round and give you accusing looks, as if to say, ‘Get off the sled and help, you lazy …!’ This was what the fitness training was for, and I had worried I would find it hard. But it’s the going down that scunners me. The dogs start to run, the sled picks up speed, the path zig-zags through the trees … and my sled mounts a snowbank and tips. As soon as I right it the dogs are off, dragging me along behind. I can’t get my feet back on the runner s and I can’t stop the sled. Eventually I’m forced to let go, shouting a warning to Toni who’s in front of me. She manages to catch my lead dogs and holds them till I trudge up to reclaim them. It’s the first of many falls – in fact I spend most of the afternoon doing what’s known as ‘the walk of shame’. Toni counts 7 times by the end of the day, and she should know as she’s got the bruises to show for it. I’m a little dispirited by the time we reach our overnight stop at Lappujavri, but tell myself its early days, and I wasn’t the only one who fell off – just the one who did it most often!
Our accommodation for tonight is an unheated hut with no electricity or running water and an outside long drop toilet. It sounds even less tempting after a day on a dog sled. Everyone’s exhausted and freezing but there are jobs to be done. Richard volunteers to light the enormous cast iron stove; he becomes our Keeper of the Flames and Porridge Maker in Chief for the week. Brummie and some of the ‘the lads’, as the Irishmen have already become known, take an enormous hand drill down to the lake to make holes in the ice for water. Hilary and I offer to feed the dogs.
Arriving at Lappujavri, our hut is on the left
There are about 70 dogs and each gets half a scoop of pellets, followed by a lump of unidentifiable meat, which comes in frozen blocks that Per-Thore is busy hacking up with an axe. We ask what sort of meat it is and where he gets it. ‘You don’t want to know,’ comes the reply. He’s right. It seems odd, but the dogs don’t drink at all; instead they scoop up mouthfuls of snow as they run along. They also do other things as they run along … let’s just say there are times when it would be a really bad idea to fall off your sled.
The hut warms up as the evening progresses. Per-Thore produces an excellent spaghetti bolognese and fortified by food we all discuss the day. Brummie tells us we’ve done 46.5km today which is the furthest they’ve ever gone on a first day and we glance at each other and smile, secretly proud that we’re the group to achieve this.
‘The girls’ and Conor have volunteered to sleep in the traditional Samí tent tonight. Conor has already lit the little stove in there and Per-Thore hands out Arctic sleeping bags and fleece liners, instructing us to wear all our clothes, plus hats and gloves as well. There’s snow on the floor of the tent and our beds are reindeer skins, which turn out to be fantastic, if smelly, insulators. We’re all roasting at first, but it’s not so warm when I wake at 3am. The dogs periodically howl during the night; one or two start up, then they’re all at it, so none of us get much sleep and we blunder bleary-eyed back into the hut in the morning.
A quick breakfast of porridge, bread and jam and gallons of black tea, then it’s time to hitch up the dogs and be off. Outside the hut it’s complete chaos as everyone struggles to harness their dogs, hitch them up in the right order, and stop them getting tangled with the other teams. Per-Thore is shouting a lot; at the dogs, at us, and particularly at Annalie’s overly amorous lead pair – ‘No sex!’ He’s like a bear, huge and irascible, but extremely competent, being ex-Norwegian Special Forces, and we wouldn’t last long in this hostile environment without him. As the week goes on though, we discover that inside he’s a less of a bear and more of a teddy.
Hilary asleep in the Samí tent
It’s snowing as we set off, with a fast downhill followed by a sharp turn to start. Actually this is how we start every morning and it separates the wheat from the chaff as people come flying off their sleds having taken the corner too fast. I am most definitely chaff. We’ve been promised an easier day today and so it turns out; we’re sledding over frozen lakes and rivers most of the day. Lake-side cabins nestle amidst the birch woods on their banks. The sun comes out and it’s beautiful again, the line of sleds arcs out in front of me, and I even feel confident enough to attempt to take some photos. It’s an idyllic day, but when the sun goes down the temperature immediately drops and I start to feel really cold. Pat is in front of me; his dogs are slow and everyone else has overtaken him. Brummie’s trying to keep his spirits up by telling him it’s not much further. Half an hour ago he told us we’d be there in 15 minutes. At last a line of huts appears, and we’ve arrived at Mollisjok.
We’re right in the middle of the Finnmarksvidda here, in the heart of Samí country. People come here all year round for the excellent fishing; arctic char, trout and grayling abound in these waters. It’s salmon we’re having tonight though, and Per-Thore has done us proud again. The food, the fresh air and the 47km we’ve done work their magic and everyone turns in early, apart from Gary and Ian, who sing us to sleep with Irish laments.
Sledding over a frozen lake
In the morning Per-Thore greets us with the news that it was -39° overnight, the coldest it’s been so far this winter. It’s not much warmer now, though the sun gamely tries to penetrate the freezing mist which shrouds the trees and buildings. It’s a short day today, only 30km, as we’re staying at Mollisjok again tonight, so once the morning chaos has resolved itself we set off for Lake Iesjavri, at 13 kilometres long the largest lake in the Finnmark region. It’s flat all the way and just as well, for as soon as I put my goggles on they steam up and freeze, making it impossible to see anything. I can just about make out Donal in front of me. When we stop for lunch I remove my goggles and am surprised to find I still can’t see anything; the mist is thicker here and the beautiful views we were promised non-existent. It is fantastic though, we could be explorers on a far distant planet for all the relation this bears to our own world.
The afternoon is spent blissfully warm in the sauna, followed by reindeer stew for dinner. Afterwards, Paddy goes outside to try an experiment. Per-Thore told him earlier that when it’s this cold it’s possible to throw a glass of boiling water in the air and it will come down as ice. We all crowd outside to witness this, our hair immediately freezing as we do. It’s true; the ice droplets hang momentarily in the air like a firework, then slowly descend, blending into the snow at our feet.
Friday morning, and we’re returning to the hut at Lappujavri, but this time we’re going over the mountain. Within minutes I’m sweating as much as I was in the sauna as I’m running behind the sled all the way up. The dogs are tiring as the week goes on; they don’t bark now when we stop, instead they curl up into little balls in the snow. We hear ptarmigan in the birch woods as we start the descent, their call echoing in the icy silence. Yesterday’s mist has gone and it’s another beautiful day, though so cold you can see particles floating in the air. We’re going 52km today, the longest day yet, but we must be getting better because we’re all surprised when we reach Lappujavri early. In a repeat of day 2 ‘the lads’ head off with the drill to get water while Hilary, Toni and I feed the dogs.
Unlike day 2, ‘the lads’ fall through the ice – the first layer has become softer in the warmth of the sun and they fall in up to their knees. Underneath them, the second layer is still metres thick but they get a fright nonetheless, and more worryingly, their gear is soaked. Per-Thore is concerned. ‘We cannot leave tomorrow if the boots are not dry,’ he pronounces, carefully hanging things round the stove (Donal has already burnt a hole in his arctic suit). ‘Idiots!’ he mutters, just for good measure. Gary and Ian ply them with drink for the shock and the evening turns into a party, to celebrate their survival, to celebrate our last night in the wilds, and just to celebrate life in general.
Heading over the mountain
Our last day dawns and we’ve all got aching stomach muscles from laughing so much last night. ‘The lads’ slept in the Samí tent and Gary in particular looks the worse for it, though how much of that is the tent’s fault it’s hard to say. Richard’s porridge works its usual wonders though and we’re ready with gear stowed and dogs hitched up in record time. I’m a bit anxious about today as we’re taking the same route back to Soulovombi that I fell on 7 times on the way out. I’d really like to have at least one accident free day. I survive the start (downhill, sharp turn) but before long we’re at the tricky forested downhill sections. I grit my teeth, stand on the brake with both feet and grip the handle of the sled so tight that my hands hurt. I make it in one piece down the first hill; and the next one, and several more after that. Before long the worst is over, just a long straight final pull to Souvolombi. The dogs know they’re going home, they’re putting in a last burst of energy. We hurtle over the final road crossing – again, I couldn’t stop if I tried – and we’re there.
Evening in the hut at Lappujavri
It’s time to say goodbye to the dogs, which is sad, but we all feel elated. We’ve sledded 220km in 5 days in extreme conditions and survived. The landscape has been amazing, the camaraderie has been great, but having all day on the sled alone with your thoughts has been interesting too, even if those thoughts mainly revolve around how to get your chocolate out of your pocket without falling off your sled. It’s been the most fantastic experience, and I know for sure that if I’m ever again lucky enough to be asked, ‘Are you all set for the Arctic then?’ the answer, without hesitation, will be, ‘YES!’
Alayne and Hilary – ready for action