Sutikki’s Stephen Gould takes us behind the scenes of his ‘cool’ challenge for The Light Fund.
Unable through injury to cycle from Bristol to Dublin last June with The Light Fund, I transferred my deposit with tour operator Classic Challenge to an arctic wilderness dog sledding experience instead. This was challenge six of a series of seven that I had set myself. Again all for The Light Fund c/o Alzheimer’s Society.
This was undoubtedly a once in a lifetime adventure through the pristine landscape of Swedish Lapland in the Arctic Circle. In essence an action-packed charity challenge in what is often described as ‘Europe’s Last Wilderness’. It was a mix of survival techniques and learning how to live like the Saami people dog sledding. We traversed an exciting mixture of trails from tundra lowlands to high mountain areas and discovered an area of incredible natural beauty with dense forests and frozen lakes. Each night was spent in wilderness base camps and although we kept our eyes peeled, the infamous Northern Lights alluded us due to weather conditions. This Arctic Wilderness charity challenge was a real test of endurance and fortitude, where we were in charge of food, digs and feeding our dogs.
The challenge was rustically basic at best with self-sufficient lodgings, unpredictable weather conditions as well as looking after our team of dogs throughout. On the lakes we reached -34.3C or -52.0C with windchill – everything was frozen and/or froze instantly on exposure or contact. Simply incredible – like living in a giant freezer for five days and living proof that Narnia is most certainly real, alive and very very well indeed.
Day 1: January 25, 2019
London – Kiruna
We met as a group for the first time at Heathrow (T2) at 4.30am. This is never a good time to make a good first impression! We flew first to Stockholm (2hr 10mins) – which was itself snowbound – and then we had a second flight to Kiruna (1hr 20mins), the northernmost town in Sweden in the province of Lapland. We had a step departure from the plane onto a snow covered runway in a rather welcoming minus 19C and were bustled into what was a glorified shed of an airport. Incredibly, this place was rammed with all types of people from all walks of life and one could not help to ponder as to what they were all doing here.
We then exited the airport into what was essentially Narnia – a frozen world in every aspect – and met our guides (the female versions of Bear Grylls – Daniella from Germany and Evi from Belgium) for the minibus transfer to the homely Musher’s Lodge in nearby Kauppinen. Even the window condensation inside the minibus froze solid. This was a taste of what was to come. After a late lunch of local meats and cheeses we heard more about the challenge ahead and got kitted out in proper winter clothing (full 1980s style thermal overall, fur lined hat, polar mittens, polar winter boots etc).
There was now time to rest and acclimatise before visiting the world-famous Ice Hotel only 3km up the road. So back into the ice-box on wheels and off we went. It may come as no surprise to know that the ticket office for the ice hotel is slap bang in the middle of a rather high end gift shop selling all sorts of Scandinavian winter delights including woollen Saami blankets and for this region the ubiquitous reindeer pelt. The price tags were not for the feint hearted!
Having viewed incredible carved ice installations within the hotel’s accommodation suites, it was time to bond with our group in the ice bar over several locally grown loginberry cocktails in ice glasses chased down with a wonderful home brand Ice Hotel IPA. The bar itself was only minus 5C, however, we were in there for two hours wearing only civilian gear and it was utterly frigid.
This was to be the first and last dalliance with anything remotely luxurious or intoxicating. Then it was back to the lodge for an eclectic dinner of stew and potatoes and an early night… much to the pity as we were in rooms of four with bunk beds and I got the snoring from hell suite! The extreme cold apparently makes those prone to sleep apnoea somewhat more disturbing in volume. First lesson learnt – bring sleeping tablets!
Day 2: January 26, 2019
Kauppinen to Camp Väkkäräjärvi
After a traditional Swedish breakfast of Ryvita type snacks (Leksands Knäcke), Polarbröd (Swedish hearth baked flatbread), hams, salamis and cheeses we received more detailed instruction on how to drive or rather ‘mush’ a dog sled. We were then allocated four dogs each – I got Ganya, Boris, Bonny and wait for it… Bronco! He must have been a former ‘Sadolin’ dog as he did exactly what it said on the tin!
We helped harness the dogs – a one time only lesson – and then we had to try and keep our furry chums sedate while the whole group got ready. In short, an impossible task with 13 sledges and a total of 54 dogs being harnessed while being surrounded by another uber excited 72 dogs who would not join this trip – and all of this in minus 24.0C. It was at this point that most of us became acquainted with the sound, sight and smell of what was to become a very regular occurrence and especially so with over 50 dogs – the dreaded doggy doo! These dogs all eat the same thing at every meal and with their super fitness and high metabolic rate they are quite frankly log factories on speed.
Odiciferous unpleasantries aside, the start anticipation was utterly palpable – once the anchor brake was lifted and the foot brake was released, these dogs were going to sprint into the woods like a ‘Bat Out of Hell’ and none of us had ever been on a ruddy dog sled before. Then with an assertive wave from our guide and our hearts utterly pounding – we’re off! Hold on with all your strength and essentially follow the sledge in front.
The route on this our first day led from the Musher’s Lodge to the wilderness camp at Lake Väkkäräjärvi. Thick blankets of pristine snow and ice stretched out in every direction. We quickly got a feel for how the sled moves and how our weight on the sled affects its direction.
We also learnt when to keep our mouths shut as the dog poo flew. These little fluffy darlings are hard core and don’t stop to squat. Instead they do a sort of a concertina Wayne Sleep shimmy as they clench, squeeze and let the dirt fly while still running and pulling a fully laden sledge. An amazing skill! Fortunately on this trip it was so very cold that thankfully the little parcels of expulsive delight immediately froze on exit. The thought of constipation in these temperatures is a tad eye-watering.
Lunch was served halfway along the trail supposedly in a kåta (tipi tent), however, for reasons unknown to us at that time we were in open woodland beside a lake sitting on reindeer pelts beside a log fire. The food was beautifully simple and consisted of soup, breads and cheeses. As we are literally living in a super-charged freezer everything is frozen solid and is cooked or defrosted over an open fire which started immediately by lighting only dried birch bark with a match. The tinder dry atmosphere certainly had special powers. Lunch was finished off with Sweden’s favourite biscuit treat – the gorgeous Ballerina Original with chocolate nougat filling. A biscuit has never tasted so good. As for the reindeer pelts, this stuff is simply incredible when it comes to thermal insulation efficiency.
Our route continued along beautiful narrow and at times challenging forest trails. If you have ever mountain biked through close tree woodland, this is what it felt like with essentially two giant skis, a large storage bag and four dogs for horse power.
Many of us had a tumble in not better judging forward momentum with the change in direction of the dogs and when we did the absolutely golden rule was ‘Do Not Let Go’ of the sled – even if you topple over or fall off. Last year a sled did 34km on its own before the lead guide caught up with it. A definite not to be recommended scenario for sure.
We arrived late afternoon at the wilderness camp and everyone was immediately allocated chores including feeding the dogs, lighting fires in the cabins and fetching water from the brook. The camp had no electricity or running water, but had a gorgeous picturesque lakeside location and a wood heated sauna.
The latter was the only method of hygiene and it was worth the effort to start up each night when combined with ice bucket showers from the brook and near naked rolls in the snow outside. You had to be quick though as the soles of your feet froze instantly on the timber deck when exiting the heated cabin. Nothing is normal here and even simple tasks need careful thought and preparation. The rather basic toilet facilities consisted of a wooden shed with a middle divider for girls to the right and boys to the left. Inside there was a shared raised box with a lid built over a six foot deep trench. Trust me when I say that you would not want to drop your wallet down there. The entire winter season’s detritus was standing proud in what can only be described as a frozen totem pole. Incredible. Even the toilet paper was frozen and there was ice on the inside of the walls too. As for sound insulation, forget it and instead use the cover of darkness to disguise who you are when you break for freedom.
Once everyone was sort of unpacked and settled, we retreated to the frozen lake outside where we shovelled the covering layer of 18” of extra dry powder snow into three large piles of snow some 5 foot high and 10 foot in diameter. Nature will now do its work and this snow will compact overnight. Tomorrow evening we will dig these piles out as igloos where there will be the opportunity to sleep. Dinner was reindeer casserole with broccoli and the most delicious mashed potato and overnight at the camp was in simple bunk accommodation. The girls in ground floor rooms and the boys in an open plan attic dorm complete with a 1:40 gradient staircase… and I tackled this twice a day in flip flops! Apparently, the camp is a very good place to see the Northern Lights, however, the cloud cover was regrettably against us once again. Distance: 35 km / 7 hours.
Second lesson learnt – don’t drink anything after 6pm as the only toilet is in a wooden freezer across a frozen yard in pitch blackness. Life expectancy in there in pyjamas is circa. 25 minutes.