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!