Charity Challenge Director, Simon Albert, shares his latest experience on the Dog Sledding Challenge, Sweden.
In March I returned from the most incredible week of dog sledding in the Arctic, in minus 30 degrees Celsius. I was travelling with a great team of nine Geordies, who were raising money for a homeless charity, and who filled the week with humour and laughter.
We saw moose, reindeer and Arctic hares, and each had the task of working with a team of 3 or 4 powerful huskies to sled through the Arctic wilderness. We learnt about the indigenous people, the Sami, and stayed one night in a Sami tee pee sleeping in minus 15 degrees. Lunches were cooked on an open fire, and in the evenings, after a plate of moose stew, we lay on the frozen lake on reindeer skins, watching the stars above including the odd shooting star.
But to cap it all, we watched streaks of green in the sky one evening and out of nowhere, a light show began that left us in complete awe. It’s hard to put into words, and even the photos and videos don’t really do it justice, but the entire sky lit up and danced magically in an array of colours, back and forth. It was like something out of Avatar, created in someone’s imagination purely to blow your mind. I shall never forget that moment!
Each day, the dog sledding got a little more challenging, in distance and terrain, as we honed our mushing skills. The final day saw most of us struggle to stay upright on the sled, as we fell into four feet of snow to the side of the trail.
I’ve been privileged to have taken on many of our challenges over the years, and this really has to rank as one of the best! It’s totally different to anything I have done before, in so many ways, and I ticked a number of things off of my bucket list, but it was nothing like I had imagined. The truth is, I really didn’t know what to imagine.
It’s true that the dogs do most of the physical exercise on this challenge, pulling you along on your sled, through the snowy Lapland terrain, but don’t under-estimate the nature of the challenge for participants.
It’s an incredibly inhospitable environment. Firstly because the outside temperature is consistently between minus 15 and minus 30 degrees. It can drop 10 or 15 degrees in an hour. For the dogs, their comfort temperature is minus 15. For our entire group, we were well outside of our comfort zone! It’s so cold at times that with each intake of breath through my nose, I could feel the hairs in my nostrils freezing. The dogs would urinate against the trees, and it would freeze to an icicle before reaching the ground.
Then there’s living with minimal home comforts. You are staying overnight in a wilderness cabin in the woods, on an island, next to a frozen lake, 5kms from the nearest neighbours. It’s a stunning setting, but there is no electricity, no running water and the toilet is an outside long drop toilet in a hut. For water, you need to head to the lake and with an axe and a 4 foot drill, to get through 60cms of ice to reach the water below. The water then needs to be carried back to the cabin.
With the freezing temperatures, comes the needs to dress appropriately. From thermal underwear, to fleece lined trousers and a fleece and jumper and coat on top, with a thick snow suit over the top of everything from head to toe. Then thick woollen socks, heavy snow boots, gloves and mittens on your hands, a scarf, buff, and balaclava on your head. It makes moving around difficult and energy sapping. Just harnessing the dogs for 20mins leaves you sweating, and when sledding uphill, you have to jump off the sled and hold on whilst running alongside or behind, to support the dogs. The distances aren’t huge but the physicality for short bursts can be very demanding.
And finally, there’s the actual activity of dog sledding. Like most people, I didn’t know what to expect, but assumed my main challenge would be to hold on to the sled as the dogs manoeuvred through the Arctic wilderness. Well, that’s certainly one element to the challenge but there’s so much more.
Each day the terrain got slightly more challenging, taking bends and corners, or where the ground is either angled leaning to the left or the right, so a good sense of balance is required. The dogs are incredibly powerful and when they pull off from a starting position, you need to use your strength to hold on. There’s no first gear, second gear, they go from nothing to full power instantly! You need to break with your left foot, right foot, both feet, soft break, hard break, lean to keep upright when moving over uneven terrain, and keep the right speed. Too fast means you will run into the sled in front, or the dogs will try and run around the team in front, meaning they run off the path which could be 4 feet deep in snow! Breaking too late if you’re not paying attention could mean the sled runs in to the back of your dogs as when they stop, as the sled will keep going unless you control it.
You can’t switch off your focus for even a second and that’s particularly challenging.
It really was an incredible experience, one I will never forget, and one I would whole heartedly recommend to anyone with a sense of adventure, and full acceptance of the Arctic conditions, and all that it entails.
I have so much respect for Kent and Jordana who operate the challenge in Lapland, for living in such a hostile environment whilst bringing up their young family, for operating an incredible business, and all whilst caring passionately for 91 dogs!
For more information, go to https://www.charitychallenge.com/expedition/3736/Dog-Sledding-Challenge