Strange Tails from the North

 

by John Howell

 

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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon

 

 

 

Had Ratty - the Ratty, the Ratty from Wind in the Willows - been with the Rat Pack that day he would have agreed that there is nothing, simply nothing, like your first sledge run . . .

It all began when my four-year-old daughter asked me to download pictures of huskies from the Net. Eighteen months later, there I was in the plane heading almost directly north from Stockholm to take photos myself at the end of the Annual Fjällräven Polar Sledging Race. Run across the top of Norway and Sweden, the event allows those with no previous experience of arctic travel and survival the opportunity to challenge a dozen or so of their peers, but mainly the elements and themselves. Yes, this is a bit like being thrown into the deep end, but strict selection procedures, tight rules and a highly experienced event management team keeps safety first.

With safety in mind, I had come prepared for what was my first visit north of the Arctic Circle. From silk underwear to goggles and mittens, everything had been checked twice. Bivvi bag, flashlight, storm-proof matches, Kendal mint cake and dark chocolate with almonds - it all disappeared into the rucksack along with a miniature of Becherovka. My wife confiscated the strobe light, muttering darkly about weight - or was it light pollution? Overnighting on a sailing vessel which now serves as Stockholm's city centre youth hostel, I made my way to the domestic terminal at Arlanda.

About two hours and a coach journey after we had landed I was bouncing around in an army surplus Hagglund for the first time, experiencing a mixture of diesel fumes and claustrophobia. Discovering, too, the downside to reading accounts of polar exploration at too early an age: I found myself expecting to plunge down a crevasse at any moment, even though we were miles from a glacier. Had this not been the fate of so many Weasels in the ripping yarns of my boyhood? My host sensed the discomfort, but not the reason. "It will be less bumpy when we reach the lake," he chuckled, offering me a pinch of snuff. Such comfort measures only made me more nauseous and less reassured: I was now to crash through the frozen surface into a cold and watery tomb - give me the crevasse any day! Being at the back of the vehicle, it was not possible to seize the controls, and out onto the lake we went.

After the smoothest of rides ever northwards we arrived at our destination, a small group of wooden shacks and a large teepee with smoke curling out of the top. I was informed that mine was not the large bed of straw out on the ice, but a bunk in the cabin. As my most recent near-Arctic bivvying experience was of forcible eviction from the Cairngorm Plateau by a blizzard (with a lucky steer from Cassiopeia through a gap in the clouds) this news was not wholly unwelcome. The straw, it transpired, was for the dogs.

It was midday, beautifully clear and cold. The competitors were out there somewhere in the low hills beyond the lake. As part of the competition involved scores for dog care, the teams were expected in the early afternoon, giving time for proper food and grooming. We onlookers of the Rat Pack, mainly from the equipment and PR world, mingled by a birch log fire, drinking coffee from a blacked pot and stamping our feet to keep warm. Remembering that there was coffee at home, too, I supped up, zipped up and slipped away.

Further from the settlement, it was easier to see, and get a feel for, the land. The height of the trees, their orientation, the space between them, the quiet in the snow filled hollows. So too, deadwood poking through the snow cover, the lichen and moss on the steeper surfaces with only small amount of snow. The darting of a bird and an occasional burst of birdsong. From the top of a small rise the view of similar country extended far in all directions, relieved only by a hint of smoke here and there and, in the distance, the steam banks rising from the mining area around Kiruna. Resting out of the wind against a convenient tree to take in the early afternoon sun, one began to get a faint idea of what this landscape was about, how it might be without man. It was good, it was good to move around in, it was catching. Dangerous thoughts for one with a family and small business - it was time for more strong coffee and more sober thoughts.

Back at the fire the buzz was going around that the first dog team was on the way in. We heard them before we saw them. "The dogs have our scent," said one old hand, presumably referring to the smoke billowing from the fire, as it was going up a little then drifting off downwind in their direction. "They'll know they're nearly home and start pulling for the line." Our eyes scanned the tree line on the far side of the lake. Suddenly a sledge burst out onto the ice, soon followed by a second. They strained towards the flag marking the finish, egged on by a welcoming chorus from the dog teams that, unbeknown to us, were in kennels nearby.

Camera at the ready, I prepared mentally for my first encounter with a working husky. It turned out to be disturbing, because . . . well, basically it wasn't a husky. This lead dog had long flat floppy ears, an oblong nose at one end, a short tail at the other. Sparse curls covered a body that was pure muscle. It was, a kind of . . . um . . . Short Haired Pink Setter seemed an accurate description. Other dogs showed similar traits of broadly-based part-husky ancestry, though there were enough pure-breds to ensure my daughter would not be disappointed.

This one greeted me as would all the 'huskies' I was to meet over those three days - quietly, as an equal, giving my hand detailed sniff then ignoring me completely, a bit like a sportsman reacting to the congratulations of a fan, which pretty much described the situation. Acknowledgement over, the champ was back to his post-race snow-roll and wanting his food.

The dogs were chained in lines by teams, each near an armful of straw from the pile. A large wood-burning stove was lit to heat water, and while it boiled the teams did a paw inspection. Some of the dogs had a little boot covering cracks or nicks in the pads obtained during the day. These were treated and if not improved by the following morning the dog would be retired and replaced. Food for the huskies was prepared using an axe, not because there were also points for dressing reindeer carcasses but because the salami-sized rolls of reindeer tripe on which the dogs subsisted were frozen solid. Unfortunately, axes were no match for these monster chitterlings, which either cold-welded themselves to the blade or simply shed a few slivers. (Like the tripe itself, preparing these dogs' dinners was a long and drawn out affair.) Eventually each pooch had his hooch, and as evening began to fall, they curled up on their straw to sleep.

In the dimly lit and smoky teepee, the teams and the Rat Pack ate reindeer steak with cranberry sauce. Those not racing were allowed a glass of wine. The cold mist inside and the starry might outside soon had most of us back by the fire, which was stoked up and kept us warm till we finally drifted off to bed. Time enough before turning in, though, to study the night sky and get an Arctic perspective of the constellations, not to mention the Aurora Becherovka . . .

Next morning saw the teams getting ready for the dash back to civilization, filling thermoses and packing away tents. The dogs could not wait to be off and their chorus of encouragement added to the sense of urgency. There was little we in the Rat Pack could do to make ourselves useful, so after a few unimpressive attempts to help we retreated guiltily to the fire and coffee pot. Not for long, though. No sooner were the teams away than we were split into groups by the event managers and sent around a circuit of activities. These included 4-man team skiing on a pair of extra long skis, fishing through the ice (lying in very civilized fashion on reindeer skins), and putting up a tent in the snow (pity I hadn't had some of those extra large tent pegs on the Cairngorms). Last but not least, we were to do our own sledge trip.

I was under two sets of strict instructions from home. One was from a very impressive Canadian friend who had been there, done that and WON the T-shirt. His injunction was: "Leave first so you don't get your runners fouled." Stepping carefully through the harnessing area I at last realized what he meant and headed for the front sledge. The second injunction was from the wife and kids: "Don't come back without evidence you have actually driven a dog-sledge." I made sure my camera had film and warm batteries, and that it could be extracted and operated without a thumb getting in front of the lens.

There followed a crash course on the key commands, how to use the foot break and the purpose of the hook-like object hanging on the cross bar (it was a tree anchor). Finally, two local injunctions: "Don't run onto the back of the dogs," and "Don't fall off - the dogs won't stop for you." As for where to go, it was a case of follow your nose, or rather yours and the six others in front of you.

From the moment the brake came off the dogs were away and I was fully absorbed trying to stay with my feet on the right place of the runners. Faster than I could run, we shot off along a path by the lake shore where, more by luck than judgement, I did not go a different side of the trees than the dogs and managed to stay the right distance behind them. This requires concentration, at least on the part of the rookie driver, as you can only too easily catch a run on a stump or clip a paw by admiring the view for a second too long.

On the less bumpy surface of the lake, I managed to obtain enough photographic evidence to get me home. Thereafter it was a question of falling in with the other sledges and enjoying the sheer exhilaration. The dogs were clearly enjoying themselves, which only added to the sense of energy and exhilaration. As we plunged back on through forest paths I had the experience - rare in middle age - of recapturing the same sense of awe I had had as a child. If yesterday's tracked transportation had evoked "High Arctic" and "Antarctic Adventure", then today had me back under the sheets with a torch and C.S. Lewis. This was Narnia and I was conditioned for the White Witch to appear at any moment.

Relaxing just a little as we eventually came back into camp, the question going through my head was not if I was ever going to do this again, longer, properly, but where? And when? When the children could take the long nights camping out. I was already preparing mental lists of what to take - with all that pulling power perhaps the strobe light might stand a chance next time . . .

© John Howell 2004. John Howell (jh@compliance.u-net.com) is a management consultant based in Surrey. In his spare time he is researching the history of the Primus Stove.

 

 

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