This article is also available in: Dutch
When I was standing on a dog sled for the very first time in northern Norway, I was completely overwhelmed by the experience and I said to myself: “This is happiness. This is it. I want to do this for the rest of my life”. And then this happened, I was about to start the journey of a lifetime. A journey of pure happiness. On day three we would finally get on the sled and go into the wild. Was I ready? Hell no. Did I think I could do it? Nope. But I did. Fjällräven Polar 2017 was going to start today. And I was there.
Packing like a pro
Because of the emotional evening the day before, I woke up with puffy eyes. It was an early morning that we started with lovely breakfast and preparations. We had to make sure our thermos bottles were filled with hot water and we had to pack ALL of our stuff. And then I mean ALL of our stuff. The picture underneath makes me laugh really hard now, because look at all the stuff I dragged around. Luckily I didn’t have to carry it all in my own sled! The organisation transported our suitcases and all the stuff we didn’t need to the finish line.
After a short bus ride we were dropped in Signaldalen, the place where it would all start. Before the bus stopped you could already hear the dogs bark. I was overtaken by a wave of goosebumps. You have NO idea how much noise 200 Alaskan huskies can make. Holy moly! The excitement of the dogs was clearly visible with the participants too. I almost forgot to take my backpack out of the bus because I was too eager to meet my team of dogs.
Meeting the dogs
Our leading musher Anna took us to the place our sleds were set up. This was also the moment we would meet our dogs! It was love at first sight with this one. Everytime I would walk past him, he would jump up to me and grab on to my hips with his front paws. SO CUTE!
I was dreading packing our sled, because of what I learned from previous participants. But it wasn’t that bad actually! My backpack, sleeping bag, our tent, meals, the dog kitchen, snow shovels, snow shoes, thermos bottles.. It all fitted into one sled!
Fjällräven Polar 2017
And there it was; the starting singal. We were one of the last teams to take off and it was a wonderful sight to see all our fellow mushers cross the start line. Some of them fell on their face within seconds (which was pretty funny, sorry), but most of them were real naturals and took off like rockets. That’s when I started to get a little bit nervous. I don’t want to fall!
And luckily I didn’t. I had the sled under control and slowly let go of the break. As soon as the dogs were allowed to start running, they stopped barking. The start line came closer and closer and there were Carl and Andreas. Personally wishing every one a safe journey. I high fived Carl (sorry Andreas, I needed my other hand to hold on to my sled!) and a tear welled up in my eye. There we went. Onwards into the wild.
It doesn’t get any better than this (or does it?)
I don’t have any pictures from the first bit of the journey, because I was too busy taking everything in, whiping tears from underneath my glasses and trying to find my snow goggles to not go snow blind without falling of my sled. The first bit was seriously hard work. Because we went up on the mountains, you had to run along the sled to help the dogs out A LOT. We had loads of sunshine too, so I was seriously sweating after the first hour and a half. What if you don’t run along with the sled, you ask? The dogs will turn around, look at you and give you stink eye.
My very favorite moment was when I was completely out of breath when reaching the top of a hill, looked around and thought “It doesn’t get any better than this”. (Later that week it turned out it did get better..)
After a couple of hours we reached the first checkpoint. And with checkpoint I mean a couple of flags and a BATHROOM! YES! Well, bathroom. A hole in the ground with a wooden shed over it to protect you from possible snow storms. But it was a BATHROOM! And we had lunch. I had fruit soup and kebab stew. My advice? Don’t be impatient! Let your Real Turmat sit for a bit, because I was eating medium warm powder and it was disgusting. (I ate a chocolate bar instead.) Before we took off again, we all made sure to put on sunscreen, because it was such a lovely day! Almost as if you were on a holiday in Spain.
Snow yoga and Polar fashion shows on the sled
An hour after we went on after lunch, my toes started to protest. They were cold. No wonder, we were located on a frozen planet of snowey.. snow. The landscape felt like a different world. And even though I couldn’t stop looking around, I had to find a way to get my toes warm again. So I started doing yoga on my sled. Stretching my legs, doing squats, dancing around, twerking.. The crazier, the better! Everything to stay warm, right? A sip of warm water and repeat!
The biggest concern you have during a 300 kilometer dog sledding journey is body temperature management. You’re constantly putting on and taking off clothes, changing snow goggles to sunglasses, switching gloves and so on. And all whilst sledding, because you don’t have time to stop and change. My biggest challenge was that one time that my head got stuck in my Polar Parka while sledding. All you can do then is trust your dogs and hope you won’t fall, haha!
Other than that you have a LOT of time to think and contemplate life when you’re standing on a sled for HOURS on end. I honestly think that mushers are champions at self reflection, because you’re stuck with yourself. And no one else. My mind was racing. “WOW, it’s so beautiful out here!” “I wish my mom could see me” “What’s my boyfriend doing right now?” “I never thought I would experience anything like this.” “This sled is pretty big actually.” “My dogs are so fast!” “Why are we such assholes to mother nature?” “I should have become a scientist.” “Or environmentalist.” “Or a veterinarian.” “I want to live here!” “I’m never going home again.” “Shit, I’m cold.” “AHHH, I HAVE TO BREAK NOW!!!”
Physically and mentally overwhelmed
After a really long day of sledding (I think it was 8 or 9 hours, but I wasn’t wearing a watch, so I’m not sure) we reached our camp for the night: Råstojaure. A giant frozen lake in the middle of nowhere in the northern area of Sweden. The first day of sledding left a mark on my body. My toes were freezing, my back was aching and my whole body was tired. But we didn’t have time to rest, because we had to take care of our dogs! We had to take of their harnasses, feed them and make sure they were comfortable for the night. Then we had to take care of putting up our tent, boiling water for dinner and prepare for breakfast. Quite the challenge in itself, but when you are physically and mentally drained it’s even harder.
This was the moment I realised I would have been fucked if it wasn’t for my team mates (And of course we were surrounded by professionals standing by to help). I knew it wasn’t going to be easy when I started this adventure, but I had no idea how stupid it was to start this without working out a little bit in advance. Without my team mates (team Netherlands & team Finland) this situation would have been life-threateninng to me, because I wouldn’t have been able to put my tent up by myself and make my dinner. My body was DONE. I was psysically and mentally overwhelmed. Polar was not a holiday!
And as if things weren’t hard enough on us, we had to cook water with four people on one burner instead of four, because all the burners were failing on us. Waiting on your food when all you want to do is sleep and get warm, was no fun. But looking back on it now it was the best place to be hangry and tired. While most of the participants were already in bed, we were still boiling water in the dark. (I have to admit that it made a seriously pretty picture though.)
Because of some serious team work and perseverance we went to bed with full stomaches and warm water bottles for breakfast. And I’m glad we did, because it turned out to be quite the night..