Thursday, 28 April 2011


I did finally get up, having the dogs on my mind. I know that they are working dogs and their coats are used to being snowed upon but they make a pitiful sight, especially those who had clearly been ousted from their snow holes by their teammate. One of the first jobs was to dig them out again and Steve made a head start. As I joined him I realised it was quite a job; first you have the heartbreaking task of getting the dogs out from under their layer of snow so that you can remove the straw and dig a deeper hole, whilst making a higher wall around the side. The wind was coming in from the lake and the snow was falling into the hole because the walls were not high enough. Digging into the snow was easy but making cube shaped bricks and lifting them out to build up the wall proved harder. Within an hour they were all back in their cosy holes, relined with straw and seemingly happy to stay there, whilst the wind blew.

Once they were all protected and newly bedded down the team set about their day. Ice fishing was the priority as we were looking forward to the chance of some fresh fish for supper.
 Andy's a veteran fisherman and Miloš has clearly got it taped so they lead the guard down to the lake and soon Laura, Steve, Andy and Mark were settled on the ice with their reindeer skins.
Our very own gnome

Having spent time together in Norway when we were at college, Rob and I decided to walk there, Rob had been plotting the route on his GPS and it claimed we weren't that far from the border so we set off into the wind, in sight of the fishing team, which was reassuring bearing in mind that our journey was across a lake and the temperatures are rising. It had also been reassuring to watch Miloš drilling through the ice with a meter long drill and only just reaching the water.

Off to Norway
The Norwegian shore, being much the same as the Swedish one, held our attention for a while but as we hadn't thought about taking any celebratory food or drink, we returned, finding the route back warmer with the wind behind us but still hazardous as we kept breaking through the top crust of ice into the snow beneath. 

Mark had found his special snow when we got back and was well on the way to completing a double ice hole. It's very impressive, even my claustrophobia couldn't stop me trying it out. He'd built them before in the RAF, over the border, but we were all very impressed. 
Snow hole expert
Anyone there?

Somehow Rob had conjured up a reindeer stew from the leftovers of last night's feast which was warming and so tender. Andy was still guarding his fishing hole so I took a bowl down to him, trying to keep it warm by covering it with bread. He said he was fine and not really hungry but I've never seen stew disappear so fast! He'd had no luck and had been there for about 5 hours, he's done  a72 hour wait before so I wasn't expecting him to go back to the cabin with me.

As well the ridiculous photo Mark had to take of himself in his Speedos as part of a fundraising bet, he decided (in his wisdom...NOT) that we should take a series of 'Arctic Madness' photos to make into a charity calendar on our return and somehow he managed to persuade Laura, Andy and I to put our beachwear on and cavort about in the snow... fortunately most of the photos are quite dark as we were in the middle of a snowstorm, so I'm not sure that they are quite print quality.

I really don't know where the the day has gone, I went to my tent for a rest and before before long the dark was looming and the wind was getting more and more powerful. We've all taken refuge in the cabin now and I am seriously thinking about making the scuzzy sofa my bed for the night. I've been to look at my tent and it's got snow half way up the outside and it's bouncing up and down like  jack in the box. No doubt the boys will tough it out and I'll feel like a wuss.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

And rest...

The cabin is tiny, enough room for a stove, cooking shelf, a table with 6 chairs and two wonderfully scuzzy sofas in 1970's browns and oranges. One even has a fake fur Bambi cushion on it. There is a ledge above for sleeping on but Rob decided he'd rather sleep in his tent, Mark and I exchanged glances, realising we'd be jealous and it was soon agreed that we'd pitch 3 tents for us and the others would sleep inside, unless Mark could find the right snow to dig a snow hole.

We sit on the eastern edge of a vast lake, with shores in Sweden and Norway, surrounded by hills. The sun sets over the western shore and as we unpacked the sleds, secure in the knowledge that we'd be camped here for more that 24 hours, we were treated to a spectacular sky.

Mark and I began to pitch the tents whilst Laura, Steve and Andy set up and helped Gaynor and Miloš with the dogs. Although the weather was calm they sensed a change and as we are to be here for a while it was important to dig out holes for the dogs to sleep in and line them with straw that it kept in the long-drop shed for that purpose. 

Cosy now

Rob took over the kitchen and was in his element. Once the fire was lit in the wood burner he could start on the culinary highlight: reindeer steaks and 'brown sauce' with Gjetost/Brunos and Aquavit, potatoes, peas and spinach. Quite how he managed to cater for us all with such an ambitious meal using a wood burner and a tiny camp stove is a mystery to us, must be the Norwegian ancestry. It's certainly a step up from the hot dogs from a can and now we're keen to keep him tied to the kitchen during our stay at Kamaz, in fact Gaynor and Miloš are thinking of offering him a job as expedition chef.

Miloš got the sauna lit and we brought water up from a hole, which had been left in the ice, close to the sauna hut. The hut is not the most efficient of saunas, being uninsulated and full of holes, but any opportunity to get clean was most welcome and once camp was set the girls took first crack. When you haven't undressed for a few days and your hair has been under a hat and hood, we discovered that even the sound of someone else washing their hair can be a joy as we took turns to pour the cold water over our hot, sweating bodies. We toasted Elsie, our companion of last year, who always screamed "it's divine" at the top of her voice when dousing in the sauna.

The boys were desperate to get in and hurried us out by stamping on the doorstep as we all tried to get dressed in a space no bigger that a cubicle. We made our way up to the cabin determined to have a 'girlie chat' before they returned, we talked shoes, shoes and shoes. Gaynor got a shock about an hour later when she thought she saw the boys retuning through the window but realised it was time for a their naked snow roll.

 By the time we all retired to our various sleeping areas the wind had really got up. I've lined my tent with skins and have all my kit inside but once I was in my sleeping bag I discovered that my tent, being the most westerly, was acting a both sail and windbreak for the others and felt as if it might take off at any moment, I felt like Dorothy. By morning it was snowing and so I've grabbed my warmest clothing and am back in my sleeping bag, after all there is no schedule for today and this is an interesting way to have a lie in, in a blizzard, in fact I might just stay here...

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Friday - the northernmost point

Despite the good rest last night everyone is showing signs of tiredness, and where my team of dogs are concerned this is a relief. Having Rune and Refat again has been reassuring and yet challenging as they are so strong and have such stamina. Uno, my single dog just keeps and going and the wheel dogs, Zero and Brenda appear to be looking for promotion, always pulling as if they want to overtake the rest of the team. Today they slowed slightly, which meant I wasn't standing on the soft brake all day.

Zero and Brenda
Brenda is so endearing that I am afraid she has rather stolen my heart from Rune and Refat, this and the fact that the boys will not kick their bad habits. They have one particularly disgusting trait, which seems to be paying them back today as they eat that which has already been eaten and are both now suffering with bad guts. Brenda is perfectly behaved at all times however and runs so tidily, tucking her feet up beneath her and her ears back against her head. She is built like a tiny wolf, big strong shoulders and a wonderful thick coat. She and Zero have a great relationship and constantly look out for each other, helping each other out of the thick snow. She's affectionate without being clingy, independent yet supportive, sensitive to those around her, strong, fit and gorgeous to look at, what's not to love.
Rune and Refat
Gaynor ran into trouble as we set off this morning as she and Steve became entangled and she battled to free the dogs. Babe was badly caught up and was in pain, whimpering and nipping at Gaynor as she finally managed to free them. Laura's team also struggled today, they found the long climbs, as we headed north, difficult and Rob had to battle to hold back as his team gained speed behind her. The climbing was constant all day, and even though we stopped for quite break at a fishing camp it is clear that we will need our rest day.

Fishing camp

The fishing camp was intriguing, snowmobiles came and went as we arrived, some of them stopping to take photos of us and it appeared to be well used. Gaynor told us they'd stopped there before to try to buy milk but had no luck, this time Miloš had a better idea and he disappeared, returning with 2 carrier bags full, apparently the only thing they sell is beer - that'll be interesting on our breakfast cereal...
Andy's team really began to struggle in the afternoon and as he was behind me I was very aware of his frustration as he tried to encourage them onward with whistles and calls. Those of us in front of him stopped occasionally to allow the second part of the line to catch up. Andy found that he was doing lots of scooting and running to support the dogs and as a result he needed to drink a lot of water, and as a result he needed to pee. Being behind us by some distance, and feeling confident, he decided to keep going and risk sideways relief off the runners, this coincided with a post and some indecision by his dogs, should they go to the left or the right? Whichever way they ended up going didn't really matter, Andy had to turn suddenly, with disappointing results.

Gaynor sporting the arctic fox trimmed coat

In the final stage of today's run the team separated into 2 with Miloš leading us onwards and upwards until eventually Laura, Rob and I lost sight of him and the group behind, making it seem as if we were on our own adventure. Then suddenly there he was, waiting for us at a lonely fingerpost, pointing off the trail. Here we pulled off the track and into deep snow, holding back till we could see the others coming over the brow of the hill. This was to be our last journey for a couple of days and we are now at our rest place - Kamaz, Per Nils's cabin, where we will stay for a day.

Thursday night

Gordon and Heston
It's time to set off again after a great night's sleep. We reached the camp area by 6 last night and this time it all went much more smoothly. No runners. Andy built a dining table from snow and we warmed up the Gulaš that Miloš had prepared at home. Laura and I dug a really deep hole for our tent and the combination of the soundless depths of our camp and exhaustion saw is all retiring by 9.30. We woke to silence, no dogs howling for their breakfast, and so we assumed it was early but when Laura checked her phone we realised everyone had slept in. It was 8.55am! We must have all needed it.

I felt as if I'd been run over by train though and the bruises are already coming through (note: copying this from my diary a week later I am still black and blue). Before we leave I am going to make sure that I have a good breakfast, that was my mistake yesterday - forgot to eat...


A quick update:

Thanks to the Anchor for raising £58.20 in our absence and thank to Marie Ayers for paying £100 for this single photo of Arctic madness by Mark Nussey.

He is quite mad...

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Thursday lunchtime

This morning's drive ended with two memorable quotes: Laura to Gaynor - "I didn't realise we'd signed up for Dog Sledding Extreme!" and Miloš to Rob - "Challenging enough for you...?" So you'll get the gist.

We started early this morning as Miloš gave us two options last night, we either travel for a few km by road, which would have meant a bit of man handling of sleds and a lot of slush or we risked a short cut across a region not normally used as a trail by sleds or snowmobiles. Gaynor and Miloš had tried this route the previous year and had found the snow so soft that it had taken them 2 and a half hours to cross as they'd had to push the sleds through. This year there is a thin, crispy crust of ice over the snow, which only yields if the dogs' paws pierce it and there are only 8 sleds, so we voted to leave before the sun's warmth had thawed the upper layer. It was the right decision. This was the most exhilarating route I'd taken. 

Short cut
The dogs rose to the challenge and when their feet pierced the ice and they plunged into the soft fluff beneath they forged on, even though they must have felt as if the ground was disappearing below them. It felt amazing to be crossing virgin snow, following Miloš as he chose our route. We had to go slowly for the majority of the journey as it's necessary to brake whenever the dogs hit a soft patch so that we don't run into them, then we have to release the brake immediately as they pull themselves out and onwards. It was an exhilarating drive, which lasted for about 45 minutes.

Then it all went a bit Pete Tong. We stopped for water at a stream and Rob and Gaynor filled the containers and we also had to go onto the road for a very short run. At the top of a ridge Miloš dug through a drift to get us back into the snow and the dogs had to climb through whilst we pushed. Those in front of me managed, with some effort, to jump back onto their runners as the dogs gained speed but I just couldn't. My team is so strong and they took off downhill at a pace with me dragging behind, hanging on with the words "never let go of your dogs" ringing in my ears and snow covering me (apparently) as I tried to get up but just kept falling between the runners. Eventually we ran into the back of the team in front of us and I managed to get my sled almost upright, but exactly the same thing happened again as I saw them all disappear over the horizon. At the bottom of the hill my dogs stopped. Not because they were ready for me to get on at last, but because by now the leaders had disappeared altogether. We couldn't see a track at all, other than and old one going vertically up the hill to our right. Andy weighed anchor to help me pull me team around and get them going up the hill but within 100 yards Zero lay down and refused to go any further. It took me at least 3 minutes to realise he'd slipped his collar and this was why he wouldn't move, thank goodness for Andy, he saved me. Sadly I was so jiggered that I fell off the edge of the top drift, landing on the road and covering the sled, my coat, boots and trousers with sludge. I felt terribly guilty, their beautiful new kit was filthy.


When we stopped for lunch I realised I was still shaking and necked half a bottle of rescue remedy, before settling down to hot dogs round the fire. Having got through 'the worst', according to Miloš, we relaxed and recouped for about 2 hours. Actually it was the best as well as the worst, the short cut had given me a notion of how it would be without human evidence in the snow and it had sent my mind into dreamland, or that could have been the rescue remedy...

Friday, 22 April 2011


The sky is full of squiggles, I'm sure that's not a technical term but they're not technically clouds but strings of white that twist all over the sky and have followed us from Soppero for most of the day.

Setting up for camp for the first time was an education. Once Miloš finds a site he's happy with - sheltered, deep snow, enough room for 41 dogs, 4 tents and 8 sleds - he pulls off the hard, compacted snow and we trudge into the soft deeper stuff. The idea is to make a coral, much like the old western camps, so the all the dogs can be secured to the one in front and behind and this is done be making a huge circle. Once Miloš begins to close on the last team he stops and anchors his team. On this occasion the team were anchored to a birch tree, the birch tree was rotten and his team were over excited. As
he left them to secure Laura behind him the team broke loose and took off alone. He was so confident that they would stop, the anchor being loose and the team being his prize dogs that he didn't seem too concerned at first but Cute was on a mission and off she went, leading her team towards the horizon. We realised things were serious when Miloš set off after them at speed. It was important that none of us moved and the natural instinct of all the others is to 'follow the leader' so we dug in our heels and hung on.

After what seemed like an eternity he appeared at speed with the team looking under control and yet rather pleased with themselves.

Girlie latrine
The snow that is drifted up against the rise in the land, by which we are camped, is deep with a crisp layer on top. We dug out our tent spaces to a depth of around 2 feet and erected the tent in no time, in fact we cheated by stamping the snow down rather than digging as the "shuffles" (as Miloš calls them) aren't really man enough. The tents are very simple and when pitched in a hole they don't even need to be pegged. There was much discussion about where the communal latrine should be dug but Laura and I felt that we had time to dig our own personal one. It is a work of art, with a twig arrangement and a loo roll holder made from a stump. There's even a little hand cleaning area with soft powdery snow.
Night night

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Tuesday morning - from my iPhone

Regardless of the verycoldclaire tag it was a delight to be able to feel the sun on my face and the joy of warm toes and fingers made me realise that there is a possibility that we could actually be comfortable en route. Of course the temperatures will be much lower further north and they will drop at night, but it was a blissfully different experience from last year (we are not allowed to say 'last year' today, it's been vetoed)

We've just had the expedition food meeting and shopping trip. Very exciting. We have 5 camp days once we leave Soppero, tomorrow, where we will be using Per Nils and Britt Marie's facilities and I think the plan so far is the following:
Day 1 Lunch - niste which is Rob's term for take with you food and we will have pålegg (on bread things) as we will be tight for time. Supper - Miloš burgers (as in made by Miloš not of Miloš) and cooked on the new camp stove with potato in white sauce, this comes ready made and in a bag.
Day 2 Lunch - BBQ pork cutlets.
Supper - Gulaš (already made by Miloš)
Day 3 Lunch - hot dogs cooked in the tin. We tried these yesterday, quick and tasty, not sure about the nutritional value but needs must etc...
Supper - reindeer steaks on a BBQ grill type thing with something frozen and frozen mixed vegetables.
Day 4- today we are dependent upon our success with the fishing rods, so there is a plan B of pytt ypanne. We all got our fishing licences this morning, which came with a brilliant map of the area we will be covering. The hope is that we will get to the cabin in time for our rest day and catch enough fish to feed us all.
Gaynor and I are keen to have some fruit but Miloš say bananas are sensitive to the cold and go black too easily, so we bought pineapple chunks in tins and dried fruit as neither of us would naturally chose a menu of meat but we know we're going to need it. We bought the meat and fish from a huge truck, parked in Kiruna this morning.

Reindeer steaks

Then we went to the hypermarket for all the other supplies.

Now Miloš is packing up and once we've had Andy's delicious looking kebabs we are off to Soppero. Food sorted.

Hanging about

I can think of worse places to hang about but it's still not my favourite occupation. Rob, Andy and Milos are sharing responsibility for food for the camp and over breakfast there was a discussion about meals and a long shopping list was written. I posted a blog by iPhone this day, explaining what had been decided upon and showing the images of the butchers and supermarket so I'll skip over that. Steve came back to the lodge and then set off on his snowmobiling session with Jan, returning exhausted and grinning from ear to ear just in time for a chicken kebab.

Once everything was sorted into boxes for the sleds and loaded, along with the equipment and clothing we'd need we set off for Soppero at about 4.30pm. The rest of us are a bit jaded today, not having any activity other than shopping made us all a bit grouchy and sleepy. Jan will bring the dogs and the rest of the sleds in the morning so that they can sleep at home in their huts tonight.

We arrived to a warm welcome from Per Nils and Brit Marie, and the familiar attic space with bed slots. No fire this time, just a little electric stove, a sign of how much warmer everywhere is. There are some gorgeous puppies here at the homestead, Per Nils said he wouldn't miss the one with the patch over his eye...

We settled in to a lazy Soppero evening of sauna, sunsets, salmon and songs with Gaynor valiantly attempting to get a tune out of a squeeze box that per Nils magicked out of thin air. Andy played the guitar and blew everyone away with his ability to listen to a track on an iPod and play it straight back at us.

This is our last day of communication with home and we will not have any signal until our return. In case of emergency we call 112 and this will connect us to the satellite, Gaynor said that we don't really need it as the most efficient back up is for the Sami people to be aware of your trip. Apparently they appear from nowhere when you need them. Let's hope we don't.