It was a simple jaunt really!
We were to go to Alta in Finnmark (where?), which is in the northern polar region of arctic Norway. Try finding that on a map – here’s one I prepared earlier in true Blue Peter fashion. Whatever else it would be cold (and it was!!). If you want a bigger scale map please click on the image on the LHS side bar.
Day 1 – on 12 March 2006 we flew out from the UK to Oslo, and then north 250 miles beyond the arctic circle to Alta. Even this was extreme with us landing almost sideways on a frozen runway sticking out into an imposing fjord in Alta. We were then transported to the nearby settlement of Gargia where we were briefed on what to expect during the next 7 days. Notice they did so after we have left the airport so we couldn’t turn round and go home!
At Gargia we were provided with what the organisers called ‘additional equipment and clothing necessary to allow us to participate in what will be extreme conditions’ – read that to mean our arctic survival suits and boots that you will see in most of the pictures, but how glad we became to have it! We also got our first look at the 72 dogs that we would be taking on the trip, and the team were already sorting out favourites in their mind (oh yes you were!).
Day 2 – the following morning after a 6.30am start (which was to become a luxury!) we got our first chance to learn how to feed the dogs. Per Thore Hansen our Norwegian guide, leader, and general ‘guy who will be obeyed’ showed us how to mix up the high protein dog biscuits with a great chunk of reindeer meat into a warm soup which would be the dogs only food morning and night on the trip. We learned how to get a routine going of feeding the dogs a dozen at a time and then getting the bowls back to do the next lot. I know my team mates reading this will be amazed at how easy and simple that process became, but on this first morning it was daunting.
After breakfast and the ‘soon to become customary’ sandwich making duties we got our first look at a sled. It was a simple wooden device covered in canvass which was tied together with string rather than with nuts & bolts (as we were to learn this allows for it to flex properly while cornering). Per Thore showed us how to rig up the harnesses and leads, and how to apply the most vital piece of equipment – the snow anchor! Fail to use that and the dogs will keep running to the pole!! Then came the big moment, Per Thore started handing out the dogs to form our teams. I’ll explain more about huskies on their own dedicated page, but suffice to say here that there are many different types and some looked like overgrown house pets while others looked the part. I was first given a small white bitch called Costella and I’ll admit my initial reaction wasn’t anything to be proud of. I wanted a big strong husky not a little lean thing that looked undernourished (what a mistake…). Costella was to be my lead dog and would set the pace of the team, and what a pace she could set! She proved to be a fantastic runner and, despite the fact she had epilepsy which I continually had to monitor, she quickly took over my heart – big softie that I am. Next came Clara another bitch and a friend of Costella’s. Per Thore reasoned that with two females up front Costella would be more relaxed than having a male trying to get at her (she was in heat) and so would be less stressed and less likely to bring on an epileptic attack. This process of handing out lead dogs continued until we were all with our front pair.
Then came the big guys. These were the engine room of the team and the big pulling power. Per Thore once again started to hand out his dogs to us strangers who were going to be looking after them for a week. And didn’t we just know he was sizing us up as well as the dogs! The pairs were handed out until there were just a handful left. On the chains were a pair of the most handsome true-bred Greenland huskies and when Per Thore handed them to me I couldn’t believe it. They were truly gorgeous dogs who happen to be brothers. The one with the spot on his head is Toq, and the other more formidable looking one is Nanuk. They feature large in my pictures (see left). We then harnessed the dogs, were given just the the rudiments of steering and braking and, with a lot of swearing & cursing we were off to make complete idiots of ourselves (which we achieved with distinction!). Per Thore as ever making the whole process look like an afternoon stroll while we had teams tangled up, dog fights, and the inevitable person falling off resulting in a runaway team. Great start!
We travelled several km out of Gargia learning quickly how physical this dog sledding would be when you come to a hill, and we were then pulled up by Per Thore to put on our balaclava’s and face protection (goggles etc). This was done carefully with Per Thore checking our faces for any uncovered areas. With some trepidation we crested the hill onto the next high plateau and were met with fierce wind that was whipping up the snow into white-out conditions with -20 temperatures, and snow being driven into any small area of exposed flesh. Welcome to the arctic in winter! We endured another 25km of this to reach our first overnight camp at Souluvombi and then had to bed down the dogs, feed them, and then sort ourselves out for some food and crash out in our unheated and extremely basic cabins (after a quick trip to the outside loo which was simple a shed over a hole in the ground!). We were so grateful of that cabin just for the protection from the cold and wind. There were some very tired mushers on that evening I can tell you! Even so we had a final duty to carry out. We all were keeping diaries (which is how I can now write this) and so, by the solitary light of a head torch, we all quickly wrote up the days events before an everyone fell asleep and what can only be described as ‘a loud silence’ descended. There is no background noise whatsoever in the arctic, an you have to experience the power of true silence; we all came to enjoy it, and its the one thing we all now miss back in the UK.
The dogs simply dig out a shallow depression in the snow and then settle down into it for the night. No bedding or comfort whatsoever. Tell that to your own dog when he is lying in the warm on his own pet bed! They go to sleep after what was to become the regular night time howling competition. Some dogs were better than others, but the sound of 72 dogs howling into the dark, still night is something I hope I will remember for a long time to come. If you are going to go on the 2007 expedition I strongly suggest taking a small tape recorder to get that noise; I wish I had done so… Okay, that’s the end of the first full day. a lot of write-up to get you used to the routine, so from here on in I’ll not make too much reference to the chores of dog feeding, s**t shovelling(!), water gathering from under the lake or from a nearby stream, and food preparation (which I ducked completely all week due to my opting for dog duties in preference, and much to the relief of my team mates who needed sustenance not poisoning).
Day 3 – the next morning we got up very early, fed the dogs, ourselves, and then headed off to Masi. Oh how easy that sounds now, but it was a hard day. It started with a road crossing from the camp site and which resulted in the first of several ‘offs’ for certain team members and a runaway team. This is a dangerous situation as they become an unguided missile just waiting to collect another team or musher as they come past. The best idea was simply to let them through and leave Per Thore to stop them when they reached him at the front. We went up a steep slope with a foot of new soft snow just off the main track on either side. Needless to say several mushers took an unscheduled snow bath! We stopped for lunch (sandwiches made after breakfast) at the top of the hill for us all to get our breaths back, but the dogs barked constantly wanting to be on the move again. When Per Thore started putting his jacket on it signalled the end of lunch and the dogs picked up on his actions immediately with chaos as snow anchors were pulled out and sandwiches and flasks were hastily stashed to be ready for the inevitable fast getaway that a stop always meant as 72 eager dogs were let loose to do what they do best – run.
They don’t have lunch and always seemed put out that we did.
We arrived at our camp outside Masi with what can only be described as the most harrowing decent we encountered. We were on a public road (iced over) going into the village standing hard on the snow brake but with no effect as there was no snow for it to bite into. How everyone got to the bottom without major crashes I still don’t know. We then went out the otherside of the village and over a small lake before reaching the huts where we would spend the night. Chores completed, mushers fed, and dogs settled down we were all asleep very early, but already aware that the next day was to be the big challenge (and so it proved).
Click here for the rest of the trip……