Suddenly the white becomes a perceptible image; bursting through the curtain of snow is a great big tree and it’s heading straight for me. Or rather, I’m heading straight for it. I’d lost control of my sled and as it roared on, leaving snow swirling in the bitter draft, a thought hit me harder than the piece of magical terrain I was supposed to be travelling across… why am I doing this?
I was crying out for some excitement to help me overcome a disappointing 2008. Flicking through ‘Wag!’ magazine, the publication for supporters of Dogs Trust, I stumbled upon the challenge of a lifetime - learning to mush with a team of huskies across the Arctic tundra. It was just what I needed, and the difficult task of raising £3000 in little over five months didn’t bother me at all. Part of this money would go some way in helping Dogs Trust continue to ensure a safe and happy future for our four-legged friends. The other half would pay for the trip, and that was the stumbling block.
Convincing my friends and family to support this challenge was arguably the hardest task of all. A select few didn’t hesitate whilst others promised to sponsor me when pay day arrived. That day came and went, as did the next one and the one after that. I didn’t want to appear pushy but eventually I admired the honesty of those that refused to pay for my ‘holiday’ more than those that kept making excuses. Was it too much to ask people to give up a bottle of wine or a packet of cigarettes for such a vital cause and something I believed in?
Autumn came and went, and reminding those few that they had promised to support me was pointless, especially as Christmas approached; I could hear the excuses long before the sleigh bells. The majority of local companies weren’t much help either, failing to respond to any of my letters, despite coverage of my trip in the local press. The plan was to hold a tombola stall at the late-night shopping event in town weeks before Christmas and I banked on a bit of support from a town that prided itself on keeping things local. In the end the larger chains out of town came to my rescue, sending me a vast array of goodies ranging from vouchers to hooded tops to free admission tickets for attractions such as Twycross Zoo and a tour around Leicester City Football Club.
I held other events, sold things on Ebay, saved all my loose change and set up pages on the social networking sites Facebook and Myspace. I made some new friends but very few offered help in way of much-needed cash. Thankfully, come February, I had managed to raise enough for Dogs Trust. In hindsight I guess I could have done more, pushed myself a little harder, but I was relieved that I could finally distance myself from those people that had continued to frustrate me as we entered 2009.
We flew to Oslo from Heathrow without any problems (many flights had been cancelled days earlier due to the heavy snow in England) and from there we caught another flight to Alta in the far North where the extreme-cold temperatures we were warned about finally said hello. We were also greeted by Ryan Hatcher, a man less than six feet in height but with the chest and limbs of Action Man, and the life experience to go with it. An extraordinary guy, especially as he was years younger than me. He’d seen and done most things in a very short space of time, making me feel like my first thirty-one years had been spent living with the Fritzl family in Austria.
Along with six wannabe mushers I was taken to a lodge where we ate, drank, and wondered what the next seven days would have in store for us. We also met Arne Karlstrom for the first time; a local legend and regular competitor in the Finmarkslopet, the world’s northernmost sled dog race. Over the last 28 years the race has grown from strength to strength and one day may even rival the most famous race of all, the Iditarod in Alaska. He will be competing again this year and we were fortunate enough to help train his dogs for the big race. No pressure then…
That night, climbing into our beds, we heard for the first time a sound that will always stay with me. A husky howling is mysterious, eerie and romantic. Along with that of a wolf there is nothing quite like it. It makes me shudder, drawing me closer to the duvet keeping me warm, wondering whether they are howling purely for the joy of it or because something more dark and dangerous is lurking nearby. Throw in another 49 huskies and the noise is undeniably majestic. If I wasn’t so exhausted from the flights and bloated from the wonderful food I could’ve listened to it all night long.
The next day we finally got to meet these magical animals, including the five dogs that would make up my team. We were instructed how to handle and feed them and how to negotiate a sled through some of the most exceptional terrain in the world. One of the first things you really learn about sled dogs is that they don’t half crap a lot. This, I guess, is a good thing, as it teaches you quickly how to deal with defecation. Back in Blighty your dog will normally dispose in an area where you can’t leave it behind. Here, unless you want to stop every five minutes and carry two hundred pooh bags with you, you ignore it and pray it doesn’t ricochet off the front of your sled and hit you in the face. I’m not sure what the laws are for this kind of behaviour in Norway but it seems that you are free to abandon the evil item with a clear conscience. But there’s nothing more frustrating than when one of your dogs looks at you adoringly with his head tipped to one side as you struggle up a steep incline whilst he takes a dump.
I lost control of my sled for the first time as we covered the mountain range of Beskades to Suolovuobme. I wasn’t dodging excrement. I was trying to play catch-up, frustrated by my dogs’ inability to keep pace, foolishly refusing to use my brakes. The dogs kept running, relieved to have lost the heavy burden on their sprightly shoulders, enjoying the freedom and fantastic scenery without me. Action Man leapt into, well, action. Or rather, I leapt onto the back of his sled, hanging on for dear life as his six powerful dogs chased my five.
I had been catapulted into my very own western; five outlaws making a bid for freedom as we charged across the snow behind them, weaving left and right, accelerating further, a shift in gears taking us ever closer to the fugitives. I struggled to find my footing on the sled, unable to see little in front of me beyond Ryan’s burly frame. We overtook the surprised runaways with some verve. I remember aiming a cocky smile towards my team but it was soon wiped clean off my face when Ryan calmly informed me that I had to let go of his sled and catch mine as it passed. You’ve got to be kidding, I thought, with a few stronger words thrown in for good measure. Why couldn’t I just stay on his? What kind of a holiday was this?
To my surprise I caught the sled and continued on my travels, falling off just once more that day. It wasn’t until day two when we headed for Masi that I hit the tree head on. It clearly knocked some sense into me because that would be the last time I came a cropper. I had many near misses though, including a spectacular rescue on day three through reindeer country, and it was only down to a little bit of skill and a lot of luck that I didn’t have to make another painful and embarrassing journey to retrieve my sled. The dogs have this look as you walk shamefully past them; an unmistakable grin as yet another sucker is seemingly picked off.
On day three we traveled from Masi to Nedre Mollišjok covering about 35 km. According to the manual extra care had to be taken to prevent the dogs chasing after reindeer. Sadly for us, we didn’t even see one of these amazing, hardy creatures. It didn’t bother me. I had enough trouble trying to get my dogs to chase after the other teams let alone reindeer, and the thought of seeing these animals after devouring them the night before in a stew was a little hard to stomach. The stew was delicious, and reindeer is a wonderful meat, but try telling that to your four-year-old niece on Christmas Eve. A word of caution before I continue – if you get to visit the fantastic souvenir shop in Alta and see a plush polar bear you know your niece or nephew will love, just make sure you check it thoroughly before buying. It wasn’t until I was taking it to the lady behind the counter that I realised my cute little soft toy had a dead seal covered in blood hanging from its mouth.
Day three was the hardest. Temperatures hit minus forty as a brutal wind attacked us from the right. With one hand on the sled and the other trying desperately to stop the blast from doing serious damage we struggled to Nedre Mollišjok. My dogs were once again failing to keep up with the other teams but the thought of jumping off my sled and helping them was too much. Instead of helping, which in turn would have kept me warm, I froze, quite literally, my head drawn slightly back and chin tucked in, concentrating instead on trying to keep my face from protruding into the cold, or touching my balaclava and neck guard that had long since frozen solid. I had been bitten but fortunately Ryan had spotted it. He wrapped me up like my mother once would, making sure the cold would be kept at bay, and although my sight was limited the dogs I had been cursing for the last hour guided me to our sanctuary and I would never show frustration with these resilient animals again.
The next two days were the most wonderful days I have ever experienced. From Nedre Mollišjok to Jotka and onwards to Detsika we witnessed some of the starkest and most stunning landscapes we will ever see. Descending through the magical forests on the final day of sledding was simply outstanding but we also had the sunshine to complement our surroundings. Don’t get me wrong, we were still well into minus figures (alarmingly, Norwegians never say minus) but after the vicious winds on day three I was actually tempted to whip out my Speedos and raise my middle digit to the elements. Just for the record, I don’t own a pair of Speedos.
One of my favourite moments of the whole trip happened on day five when I finally recaptured an ounce of pride. The week had taken its toll and the group was struggling to climb the many hills we were confronted with. This gave me and my team a great opportunity to catch up, but with other sleds floundering we were left to wait impatiently at the bottom of each climb. It was here that Ryan told me to disembark my sled and race my dogs to the top of the snowy mound. I will never forget their disapproving faces as I galloped past them; revenge for all the defecation I had the pleasure to witness. After that my cockiness knew no bounds. Sledding with no hands? Piece of cake... I was getting as cocky as Luke Skywalker after he took down his first X-wing.
We ended our final day with mutual respect. The dogs had been awesome but I had also worked my self into the ground. Hence the DVT scan when I reached England… Not only was this the hardest and most demanding ‘holiday’ I will possibly ever encounter it was also the greatest and most fun. What better way to reward ourselves then to have a drink at the legendary Ice Hotel in Alta.
Work on the Ice hotel generally starts around New Year and takes about five weeks to complete. A balloon is pressurized, covered with snow and watered to make the igloo common rooms. Now with 30 bedrooms, a sitting-room, a bar, a bridal suite and a chapel for weddings they are celebrating their tenth year. It takes your breath away. Not because of the cold but because of its beauty. Ice sculptures are everywhere, lit by fibreoptics and candles. The temperature stays at minus 4 and minus 7, nothing to us hardy travelers, until every spring, when the hotel melts and runs into the Alta River. It’s hard to capture its exquisiteness with your camera; this is something you have to see for yourself.
I wish I could say the same for the Northern Lights. Sadly, despite the week before having two clear sightings of this phenomenon we were only treated to a slither of green here or there. And yet, not witnessing this spectacle in its full glory has given me the perfect reason to one day return. As if I need an excuse…
We enjoyed more wonderful hospitality and beautiful food on day four and five, not to mention a much-needed sauna and hot-tub. Until that evening I’ve never understood all the fuss about saunas. Supping on your own sweat hardly seems like a bundle of fun, yet when you combine it with snow everything becomes clear. Whilst others were making snow angels I decided to borrow a swing from a neighboring house. To go from one extreme temperature to another is exhilarating; feeling the bitter cold breeze on my hot, almost naked body as I swung back and forth was something I will probably never get to experience again. It’s not like our local leisure centre will be able to cater for my needs any more. Running out of a sauna and rolling about in a car park when it’s hammering down with rain is hardly the same thing.
The hot-tub was also something I could seriously get used to. The alcohol may have been far too expensive but staring up at the stars with a beer and great company whilst the tub waved its magic wand was a wonderful feeling. That night we all stayed up as late as we could psychically manage. It was our final night in Norway and nobody wanted to go home. I had hardly brushed my teeth or had a wash all week, my poor excuse for a beard was starting to irritate me and I ached all over. I had lost half a stone in just a week, my clothes were starting to dress themselves and all I could smell was dog. Heaven…
I want to thank Arne, Ryan and the others that made this trip so memorable. Norway has made me appreciate the simple things that make life so wonderful. It’s a completely different way of life out there and I’m insanely jealous. Our mobiles refused to work, we had no access to the internet and the sound of a television set on our penultimate night freaked me out! I feel guilty for posting my photos on Facebook! We have a lot to learn. I also want to wish Arne good luck in this years’ Finnmarkslopet. I’ll be watching your progress online and I wish you well. I hope I get to witness you accomplish one of your greatest triumphs. The internet is good for something at least…