Wednesday, 24 March 2010

February 24th - DIARY ENTRY from a month ago

This was our final drive and so we all woke with heavy hearts and there was a slightly gloomy start to the day. The temperature began to rise from the -41 which we had clocked on the thermometer by the window but it was seriously cold and I was suffering. I had been shaken awake early, thinking that it was another ice crack on the lake nearby reverberating through the cabin but I realised that it was my body shaking with cold in my sleeping bag on the top bunk. Those of us on dog duty wrapped up and went out to make a start, feeling so sorry for the dogs, some of whom were covered in a bloom of ice. It appeared that my team had been swapped round on their chain but on closer inspection I realised that Uno had been painted white by the frost and snow.

Within 10 minutes of starting dog duty Miloš sent me inside. My hands had stopped working and I couldn't lift the bowls. It was a devastating moment, and by the time I got to the cabin I was in tears. I felt angry that I had let the dogs down and I was in pain. Gaynor and Richard received me with such kindness, immediately understanding my distress and using their warmth to thaw me out both physically and mentally. 

This was the first time I'd seen the dogs drag their heels, they weren't keen on getting up out of their straw beds for breakfast or even to be harnessed, a low point for us all. Miloš even gave me coats for my lead dogs and Sara hadn't eaten all her breakfast. The dogs had lost weight over the last few days and I realised that Miloš was concerned when he said I should be prepared to carry any dogs who were too tired on the journey, as my team are so strong.

We all made it. The last few kilometers were touch and go for a few of us as the wind chill on the lake was high and feet went numb, hands went numb and any bits of face that were exposed went numb. As we finally pulled in to Musher's lodge only the dogs seemed happy, many of us had tears in our eyes at the thought of leaving our dogs, although their obvious delight at being home and snuggling down into their kennels was heartening, as was the thin whisp of fire smoke coming from the chimney.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

February 23rd

My journal from a month ago to the day - it hardly seems possible. Much was rekindled yesterday by meeting Gaynor in London and catching up, as well as making tentative steps towards a new challenge... yes, really.

Day 5 - a magical Dr Zuess type of a day today. Totally surreal, but in a good way.

We left Per Nils, after a few stories and being shown around his barn full of bits of reindeer and reindeer related artifacts. He loves being centre stage and had us in stitches at times with tales of bear hunting and assuring us that the best way to scare a bear was for 'the ladies to be dropping their trousers'. The next moment he had us in tears with stories of herdsmen losing their animals and their honour. He knows how to tell a tale, that much is certain.

After my day of braking yesterday Miloš and Gaynor  decided to give my dogs the other kind of break and moved me forward in line to travel behind Richard which gave me a totally different experience. Although I still had to brake, there were times when I was able to travel with both my feet on the runners for long periods of time. Bliss.

The landscape had developed too, there had been heavy snowfall overnight and the trees were droopy and Zuessy wherever we went in the wooded areas. The sun was entirely sliver too, we cast strange moon shadows on the snow as the low sun bleached all the colour from the sky. The angle of the sun also caused a twinkling phenominum, which we hadn't experienced before as we crossed a huge frozen lake, catching the little indentations in the snow.

Today we also met other people for the first time - most peculiar to see other humans in the wasteland. The leaders of both teams conferred and for some reason it was decided that we would circumnavigate them and a snowmobile, which was travelling with them, came forward to create an alternative, crescent shaped route (narrowly missing one of Miloš's dogs). Miloš led his dogs through and Richard's began to follow into the thigh deep snow, as if they were swimming through treacle, until one decided to go and investigate the other line of stationary sleds. This made it impossible for Richard to turn them and it was clear that he was not happy to lead them so I weighed anchor and jumped into the snow, which was even deeper that I had expected, to lead them back around. At this stage that I thanked the training sheet, with lists of squats, lunges and planks as all my strength was needed. Miloš had made it look deceptively easy. During this time the other team had been content to stand and watch our efforts as we did all the work, but when my team decided that they would follow me to the ends of the earth and Uno managed to pull out my insufficiently weighed anchor, one of them finally helped by stopping the Brothers Grimm and holding them till I was able to get back to them and pull them all the way around. I had not felt well at the beginning of the day and I felt even less so after this.

Having lost time over the shenanigans we made the decision, at the lunch stop, to thaw ourselves out and Miloš and Gaynor built a fire pit in the snow and cooked up some frozen salmon in a soupy liquid with some veg. I rather covet Miloš's tripod cooking stand and think I shall have to have one for cooking at the sheep shed in the summer. This decision also meant that we would be driving to the Basic lodge in the dark; a decision that had to be made in consultation with the whole team. Whilst there were concerns about the prospect of navigating what we knew was a twisting, turning route by the light of the moon, everyone felt confident enough and trusted the leaders enough by this stage to go for it and I was delighted as it would be our only chance. We all needed to get properly warm too.

It was an experience I will never forget. The visibility was pretty good as the moon was clear and we had head torches, but soon my eyelids froze as I had taken off my snow glasses, which have dark lenses. My lids stuck together at the corners which meant that I had to trust my dogs' judgement and look for movement of their heads, as Uno always turned back to tell me if the line was getting slack or they needed support. We reached the lodge with even more respect for our fearless dogs, who had ensured that we made it safely, and feeling pleased that Miloš had trusted us to make the decision, which none of us regretted. The familiar sight of the cabin we had stayed in 2 nights before was the icing on the cake. Knowing the layout in the dark meant we didn't have to fumble about whilst getting water and lighting fires and Alice was cajoled into cooking again as she had done such a good job in the cramped cooking space. I'm in the same bunk/shelf so I am also prepared to fall asleep in the fug of the upper level, only to wake freezing cold.

February 22nd

Diary entry from Soppero

I need to pinch myself. In my wildest dreams I didn't think that I would be enjoying this as much as I am. Sure there are challenges, both mental and physical, but the rewards continue to outweigh the hardship. I did get over cold yesterday, I didn't take enough care and the panic I felt when I lost the feeling in my little finger taught me to look for the signs of cold injuries.

I am totally alone for the first time since we left (apart from the 'long drop' visits, which are kept to a minimum) and whilst I have felt blissful solitude on the journey there have always been others in sight, but now I am sitting by the fire in a lodge belonging to a Sami herdsman and his family with not a soul around. It is pretty luxurious, running water and a flushing loo as well as electricity and we have been fed on lingon berries and reindeer meat from their herd, not even having to cook.  I even have a glass of wine in my hand - not challenging, but deserved!

Per Nils and his wife, Brit Marie, our hosts are pretty famous round here and Brit Marie is currently working on a survival course with Ray Mears' School not far from here and I have discovered that it was her they filmed joiking for the series. Per Nils has cooked for us and he has been very entertaining, oiled by some liquid firewater, which I understand may have come from Slovakia... is Milos to blame? The rest of the party are either drinking vodka, feeding dogs, having a sauna or rolling naked in the snow. As I am doing the morning feed shift and the other activities didn't appeal tonight I am making the most of letting my mind wander in the quiet space by the fire and warming my toes in my Father's socks. He'd have approved, I feel sure.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

February 21st

We travelled about 35k today, with a short break on an island in the middle of a frozen lake, where there is a permanent tee-pee there and a fire with a kettle hung above it.  Miloš (I found the accent) used this to make us all cup-a-soup. The journey there was magical, the sun was so bright and not very high in the sky, so the shadows in the sparse wooded areas were eerie, with the snow deep and thick and powdery. There were some great twisty-turny sections on the route, this morning which the dogs and I loved and then the frozen lake was upon us.

Everyone has started to gain confidence and from the back of the line I can see how people are developing their own style. Even Miloš is impressed. My team are working well together and in fact it appears that Uno is deeply in love with Sara, he cleans her and snuggles up to her once he has finished barking his head off. He is bright enough to know the regular break spots, so once we are at these recognised places he doesn't bother to bark and settles down to love Sara. The brothers Grimm  are so delightful and as soon as we stop they start their rolling ritual, trying to rub their harnesses off.

In the afternoon, not long after we left the island, the ice on the lake cracked, I heard a 'boom', like a plane breaking the sound barrier and assumed it was the nearby rocket testing area, but had come from beneath our group and had pretty disastrous consequences. The ice had cracked and freezing water came up through the ice and created an instant pond, into which Miloš and Steve's teams plummeted, Richard got through by the skin of his teeth and the rest of us stopped before the water. The dogs were soaked and the water had worked its way into the human's suits. Somehow our hero, Miloš, managed to drag them out but they were unhappy and cold. The wet humans had to stop there and then to change clothes as the frozen water could have caused severe cold injuries. The dogs needed to get moving quickly though, to warm them through. Paul couldn't get his boots off to check his feet and so there was some concern that he might suffer as Miloš came down the line checking if we had wet feet. Now that we are at the lodge we are pretty sure he is OK. We all then cautiously made our way through the icy water, making sure that we kept as dry as possible.

I was on Dog Duty this evening and we needed more straw than we could find for the dogs as it was so cold, about -35 when we started to boil the water. Miloš called his cousin and he will bring an emergency supply of straw and new boots for those who need them on a Snowmobile later tonight, I'm not sure how long it will take him to get here. I had a small panic this evening as I lost the feeling in my little finger for a while. Gaynor checked it and as it hurt quite considerably as she began to warm it she suggested that I should go into the cabin and hold it for a while as the fire was getting up. The feeling came back and as it did so it began to hurt like hell - apparently this is a good sign.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Team Quotes

I just found these at the back of my journal:
Richard: (having just banged his head on a light fitting) "I'm a bit light headed!"
Alice: "I'm a bit scared of these potatoes..."
Gaynor: (after it had been pointed out that Laura is rather skinny) "I'd like to be a stick with feet.)
Milos: "You can change one pair of underpants 3 times - the right way, inside out, and with your friend."

Sunday, 14 March 2010

February 20th

(This really is a direct transcription - and copying it out now makes me feel rather odd and slightly sad.)
Today was one of the best days of my life.
In the spirit of Steiner, who encouraged individuals to review their day each evening, going backwards through the day recalling its events, its sequential unfolding (experienced reversed in time):
I am sitting on my bunk listening to stories being told around the woodburner; snakes, adventures, accidents are all on the menu. Everyone is squeaky clean, having just got back from the sauna, it is currently - 35C and the sensation of feet freezing to the floor between the wet room and the changing area was unsettling, but it was 'simply divine', which was all Elsie could squeal as we poured cold well water over our sweating, aching bodies.

Richard, Elsie, Paul and I are on Human Duty whilst the others are on Dog Duty and I actually wondered if we were on hidden cameras at one point, thinking this whole trip was some kind of reality TV trick, as we tried to work out what the hell we were supposed to be cooking from the large box, which Milos unloaded. Pretty much everything was initially unidentifiable as it was either unlabeled or labeled Swedish, which none of us speak, and dried or frozen. We did have 3 fresh onions though, so that was a start. Eventually we managed to catch Milos between water bucket runs and ask what we should be cooking 'onions with wild meat, cream and spice' apparently, and then as an afterthought he added 'with berries and potato'. The wild meat turned out to be reindeer and moose mince in large frozen bricks and after searching for potatoes for some time we found some packets which looked like soup, with pictures of spuds on the outside - Smash! 

Richard was very concerned about his tasks and after lots of chatting through what we could all do we found that he is an excellent stirrer and pot watcher, adding pepper and spice throughout and we actually ended up with something which was quite palatable. The lodge is large and well equipped but there is no power so lighting was by candles and this made it hard to know where things were, let alone when they were cooked. 
The first lodge 

The drive was everything I expected and so much more. The vast snowy landscape is unimaginably beautiful, the most natural and unspoiled space I have seen in the flesh, with only the tracks of our predecessors to show human influence. It took a while for me to be able to see this through tears of happiness though. Being alone with your team of dogs allows a deep appreciation of the still air and silence. It's a strange combination of feeling safe and surrounded by your companions and leaders and yet completely independent and alone, especially as you travel in a long line, only seeing the team in front.

My dogs are excellent, two brothers lead - Rune and Refat, with Sara and Uno on wheel and they work well together. The brothers throw themselves in the snow whenever we stop, which we have to do a lot as we are near the back and poor old Steve is having a problem with his team. He says they cannot get motivated and he keeps having to get off and push. I also have to use the brake, especially on the more steep parts of the forest tracks, when my lot just want to go and whenever I do they turn to look at me accusingly. When we stop Uno just barks and jumps up and down, inching the sled further forward with each jump shouting 'Take your foot of the break! Take your foot off the break!' I really wish I could, I am used to traveling faster around bends but it is not nearly as safe in this thick snow, which is so deep either side of the compacted track. 

Getting clothing right is a challenge, tomorrow will be colder and I will need to wear more layers than even today, when I wore: 2 pairs wools socks, 2 pairs ski socks, Arctic boots with felt and foil linings, 1 pair long johns, long sleeved thermal top, short sleeved thermal top, thick fleece, cashmere neck warmer, fleece neck warmer, alpaca hat, thin gloves, mittens, Arctic suit.

When the day started I was shaking with cold and fear, not knowing what to expect, now that I do know I will be shaking with excitement. 

Friday, 12 March 2010

Transcript from journal - written en route

Posting in reverse order, a day at a time:
February 19th
This morning, very early, I arrived at Terminal 3 to join a team of 9 others who have committed to this week traveling across Northern Scandinavia on sleds. Having read Carolyn's blog over the last week (she was undertaking the same challenge) I was quite anxious about meeting my companions as there had been tension, tears and tantrums, as well as hunger strikes. I suspect that this group will pull together quite easily though, having just met them all. One member is missing, Pru has a hip injury and dropped out yesterday.

Gaynor is our Leader from Voyage Concepts, who run the trips and she certainly seems to have all the necessary qualities: vitality, humour, compassion and the ability to communicate in a direct yet sensitive way. Her Father David, is traveling with us and is in training to lead teams in the Arctic. They have a lovely gentle relationship. David is an experienced expedition leader, having done various journeys, including coast to coast in Guatemala and he also provides business advice to the company. The rest of us are really first timers, but most are either regular travelers or animal people.

In no particular order: Paul and Elsie are a delightful couple from South Africa and have been traveling for a couple of weeks around Europe ticking things off Paul's bucket list . They are flying back to Durban from Kiruna at the end. Richard arrived last (we all seemed to be very early for that time in the morning) he was understandably flustered and Elsie took him to her heart immediately. Gaynor asked us to make sure we all look after him during the trip. Laura is the baby of the group, she is animal mad and has (at the last count) 3 cats, 2 dogs, a horse and 'numerous rabbits and guinea pigs'. We have already traded photos of our hounds and she has an absolutely hysterical one of her dog Milo, with a pair of glasses on. She also has a gorgeous pair of boots, which I covet. Steve is a seasoned traveler and vodka expert, he has already scoured the airport for 'Russian Standard' vodka which is not 'standard' at all and he and Richard have a bottle each. Apparently it won't freeze... even when we do.

That just leaves Alice and me. I met Alice on our briefing day and we hit it off then, both falling in love with a little lurcher at the rehoming center, called Millie. She has expedition experience, having done Everest base camp and has been training seriously since we met - she's lost loads of weight! 


We are all on the plane now, and have adopted a very nice man, who is sitting next to me and is a snowmobile trip leader heading for Kiruna to see his son. He knows all the tricks of the trade and has offered to help us at the other end as the connection could be a bit bonkers due to the delayed departure of this flight.

Next flight: delays impacted right across the airport and so our flight to Kiruna was held up just long enough to allow us to make it with time for a beer stop for some. Our new friend helped us to find the gate, which was changed at the last minute, just to test us. The delay was due to heavy snowfall and whilst only one runway was open we watched as a 10 strong team of snow ploughs worked their magic like a bunch of yellow bulldogs, strutting along, taking no prisoners. The landscape is white and windy and now we go north.

Having arrived: So much seems to have happened today that I feel as if a week has passed. On arrival at Kirna airport we were met by Milos (there should be a little v over the s, but I can work out how to do it), our guide. Gaynor is absolutely delighted that he is with us as he is her favourite guide and she had requested him. Milos is Slovakian and appears to be very chilled out, bearing in  mind the prospect of leading us through the snowy wastes. We were settled into our dormitories, girls on one side of the corridor, boys on the other and Elsie and Paul had their own room, then it was tea time followed by our fittings. We had to find appropriate boots, mits, hats and arctic suits, which was an interesting activity with sartorial elegance being put aside for comfort and efficiency. The mits had to be large enough for us to be able to move our gloved fingers inside, but snug fitting so that we could hold on to the sleds, whilst the boots were meant to fit loosely  so that we could fit lots of socks inside and still move our toes, which is not as easy to gauge as you would imagine. Having large, skinny feet made it easy though as I had to have the length and that left about 2 inches all round the boot for sockage.

We went out into the pen area and met some of the dogs, who were being fed, they try to turn their bowls out so that they don't have to eat the liquid that the meat is mixed into and so some have their bowls clamped into little trays outside.  They are so affectionate, just like the Forstal dogs and just want to jump all over you, some look rather more like collies and labs than the huskies I am used to.

After this is all got a bit messy, with a bus going into town - to buy salmon I thought - but no, it was to find a bar... Laura, Alice, Richard and I had no money on us and had not been prepared but Paul, Elsie and Steve are generous pros and soon we found ourselves in a bar with glasses of Jagermiester and Aquavit being handed out. Laura was determined not to have any alcohol till the shots started to flow, then she looked forlornly at her glass of coke and said 'could I have a little something in that?' which quickly became her catchphrase, smartly followed by 'I am SO drunk right now!' On our return to the cabin it was obvious that some of the others in the party were also 'SO drunk right now' so Gaynor sat us all down for a briefing, which seemed to clear heads!

Saturday, 6 March 2010


By way of a thank you to all the wonderful people who sponsored me in the village we held a Smorgasbord thank you party last night and I had a slideshow prepared. It was so lovely to see everyone who had been supportive, not just in the sponsorship but by cheering me on in my training, whenever they bumped into me and my hounds pounding the beach in preparation. 

We had a table of Swedish style nibbles, along with some delicacies brought home from Kiruna, including smoked reindeer, caviar and glavadlax. Mertz bought some special vodka for the brave, which was taken on ice, but we didn't manage to carve ice glasses like these:

I also found a recipe for 'Love Cake' or Den Du Ved Nok Kage', which my Mother very kindly cooked for the event - it was delicious and rounded the evening off perfectly 

Den Du Ved Nok Kage
Enough to feed 20 people for afternoon tea – you can freeze whats left, but it keeps for a week in the fridge as well.

Stuff you need:

500 grams sugar
5 eggs
400 ml milk
400 grams plain flour
4 tsp vanilla sugar (or extract, if that is what you have)
3 tbsp cocoa powder
4 tsp baking powder
300 grams butter

200 grams butter
7 tbs strong coffee
2,5 tbs cocoa powder
3 tsp vanilla sugar (or extract)
150 grams of desiccated coconut
375 grams icing sugar

This is how you do it:

Whisk egg and sugar till light and fluffy.  Sift flour, vanilla, cocoa and baking powder into the mix, alternate with the milk.  Whisk well.  Add the slightly cooled, melted butter at the end and mix well.

Pop the batter into a large baking tin (minimum 20 x 30 cm) and bake on 180 degrees for about 20-25 minutes until just baked through (it’s done when a skewer comes out clean – this cakes goes very dry if over baked, so keep an eye on it)

Make the icing:  pop all ingredients into a saucepan and heat until melted through  (You can also do this bit in the microwave if you prefer).  When the cake has been out of the oven for a wee while (just cooled, does not have to be totally cold), spread over icing and chill until set. Drizzle with a bit of coconut before the icing set, if you wish.

This morning we had a lovely treat made with the leftovers:

Monday, 1 March 2010

The team

It's all about team work out there and the dogs all worked so hard for us. My team looked a motley bunch, but they have been bred to be tough and strong, and they made me proud: Rune and Refat - the Brothers Grimm - in lead and Uno and Sara on wheel. They worked really well together and Uno and Sara have a wonderful bond, cleaning and checking each other all the time. The brothers are like teenage siblings, either getting on like a house on fire or behaving like idiots, Rune regularly bites Refat on the head for no reason, just at a crucial bend or turn.

The human team were FAB too!