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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is
a management consultant based in Surrey. In his spare time he is researching
the history of the Primus Stove.