‘Whatever you do, never let go of the sled!’
Iknew the knuckles of my hands beneath the thick gloves were white. As I gripped the birchwood handle in front of me, every muscle in my body tensed and I wondered if everyone else was feeling like me. I was terrified, but at the same time elated, delighted and, like the 200 or so dogs straining at their tethers and barking loudly in anticipation, eager to get going.
During our two days of training, we had familiarised ourselves with our kit, put up our tents and learnt how to mitigate for the worst of the weather. We had packed and repacked our rucksacks, loaded up with shovels and axes, stoves and knives, hunks of frozen meat and ration packs. And now we were here, in the Scandinavian Arctic, as the pale sun began to break through the cloud and light up a landscape swathed in snow.
It was April. Back in Britain, the first leaves were unfurling, bluebells were beginning to make an appearance among the celandines and wood anemones, and the dawn chorus was becoming riotous. But here, north of the Arctic circle, there were no signs of spring; winter held on with its frozen grip and for the next four days and nights we would be at its mercy.
I had been invited to be part of an expedition that is organised every year by the Swedish clothing company Fjallraven. The participants – 28 men and women from as far afield as South Korea, Vietnam and New Orleans, as well as Europe – had competed to be here by taking part in an online voting campaign. The successful candidates are flown, all expenses paid, to Sweden for a truly immersive experience of the Arctic wilderness.
Cynics might dismiss it as a clever marketing campaign, and the organisers admit that part of the aim is to have their kit tested by lots of people in the environment for which it is designed (each of us was clothed head to toe in everything we needed). The main hope, however, was that we would become ambassadors, not for the clothing range, but for the Arctic itself.
Our first day was spent largely in a classroom, listening to a lecture by the formidable Johan. “If you love nature,” he said, “you have to love it all, whatever the conditions. The Arctic is beautiful, but its dangers are very real – and it demands respect. You can’t rely on other people. You must take responsibility for yourself, your kit and ultimately for your environment. Do that, and you will learn what a truly special place the Arctic is and understand why it is so important that it’s protected.”
We had been organised into teams of four, each with a designated dog sled driver who would be our guide and teacher. Amanda was in charge of our team. A young Norwegian with flawless English, she was whippet-thin but strong as an ox, and had been working with sled dogs for the past 12 years. Each team member was then given a sled and a team of six huskies – not the big, fluffy grey dogs that the word husky conjures up, but mongrels: a tough, hardy mix of Siberian husky, Greenland dog and hunting dog. Bred for stamina, speed and strength, what they look like is neither here nor there, said Amanda. My six were indeed a rag-tag bunch of all shapes and sizes, but they proved to be not just strong and speedy, but infinitely patient too.
Suddenly the first team was off, streaming across the snow, up a bank and into the trees. My dogs leapt forward, those at the front straining so hard that my sled began to move, despite me standing on the brake and The definitive winter boot is back. Strap yourself into a pair of these iconic calf-length ones and head north. the snow anchor being jammed deep into the white stuff under foot. Amanda had to grab the dogs to stop them tearing off in hot pursuit.
They didn’t have long to wait. As Amanda gave the hand signal for “OK?” I gave a nervous nod and looked back at my team-mates who were giving the thumbs-up. I released the brake and, with a tremendous jolt that almost tipped me off backwards, my 186-mile (300km) journey began. I’d love to tell you that I was immediately captivated by the wonder of the landscape around me, but the truth is I barely noticed where I was for the first This Falke baselayer is designed with a moisturewicking fabric, which will keep you dry and warm regardless of how much it snows. The Fjallraven Polar takes place annually, giving ordinary people the chance to complete a 186-mile (300km) journey by dogsled through the Arctic wilderness. Run by the Swedish outdoor clothing company Fjallraven, the week-long expedition begins in Signaldalen, Norway, and ends in Vakkarajarvi, Sweden.
Participants (including two from the UK and Ireland) are chosen on the strength of an online application using video and photographs, Nikon’s freeze/water/shockproof KeyMission 170 camera is for adventure. A classy set of eye-protectors. voted on by the public and an expert panel. They must be fit, over 18 and comfortable in front of the camera. Travel costs are borne by Fjallraven, which also provides clothing and equipment – but competition is fierce. Last year, there were 1,468 entries for 28 places.
The next Fjallraven Polar takes place from April 9-15 2018, and the window for applications opens on Nov 16 and closes on Dec 14. For more information and to apply, see polar.fjallraven. com.
hour or so. Every part of my brain and body was focused on just staying on the sled.
We weren’t simply passengers, sitting snuggled beneath reindeer skins as we were whisked through a winter wonderland, but standing on the runners at the back of the sled. There was no direct contact with the dogs – no reins, as you would have with a horse – but we had to keep a sharp eye on the track ahead, looking out for hazards, ready to brake or shift our weight on the runners to enable the dogs to turn.
Amanda had told us before we set off that we could only really learn by doing it. “The main thing to remember,” she said, “is that once the dogs are running, they want to keep running. They get into a rhythm and it is much better for them if they don’t stop – so you have to get used to drinking, eating, putting on extra layers or taking them off while the sled is moving.
“When going uphill, you’ll need to help the dogs. Use one leg to help push the sled along, like a child’s scooter. On the really steep bits, you’ll need to get off and run, pushing the sled like a pram. Whatever you do, never let go of it because the dogs will just keep going and you’ll be left without a sled!”
At first, it seemed that this learning curve was just too steep. There was so much to take in that I felt overwhelmed, and more than once I fell off the sled, having misjudged a rut or a corner. Somehow, I always managed to hold on to it – and thanks to the snow and my padded layers of Arctic kit, the only thing that got bruised was my ego.
After three hours or so, we stopped for lunch. The dogs, panting and grinning, tongues lolling, were each given a lump of frozen meat for an energy boost. Meanwhile, we broke into our ration packs and sat down in the snow, comparing aching muscles. We had travelled fewer than half the 44 miles (70km) we had planned to cover that day. Somehow, I would have to find reserves of strength I wasn’t sure I had to carry on for another three or four hours.
We packed up, stowing our rubbish carefully in bags and taking all of it with us. The dogs were as eager as they had been at the start of the day.
That afternoon we
The teams of six huskies would travel 186 miles