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Charity Challenge Dog Sledding Journal 2011

To go Dog Sledding in the Arctic is to go on an adventure very few other people do. Charity Challenge’s Head of Operations accompanied by a trusted friend and guinea pig for the trip, Phil Booker conducted a reconnaissance trip to assess our new Dog Sledding Challenge. For both, this was a whole new experience with no pre-conceptions at all about what would be involved. The following is what Phil had to say about it all:

January 2011; I am preparing to go on the proverbial “trip of a lifetime” of which strangely, I’ve had several.

The most obvious, but not the only challenge in the Arctic, is the environment, and the imagination was working overtime. Miles and miles of snow and ice, blizzard conditions, piercing cold, polar bears and penguins, I was expecting it all. A little bit of homework soon revealed we were not likely to come across the latter two but the others were all probable.

Charity Challenge provided a list of essential and potential clothing and equipment needs. At this point, we had no idea how many dogs we would have on each sled and how far and in what conditions we would have to carry our luggage. That said, it was critical to prepare for the worst (read coldest!).

Perhaps the most difficult balance to make was to avoid overspending on items of clothing and equipment that would never be used again. For this, I soon discovered Army Surplus stores were perfect.

One of the stipulations made by local guides and official sledding operators, Kent and Jordana, was that cotton is pretty much a no-go area and you might be surprised at how much we rely on cotton in the UK. Thick wool it was then. So looking like pre-sheared sheep, off we trundled to Kiruna, the northern most city in Sweden.

Flying into Kiruna Airport at the dead of night (being the last two people to leave the airport that night, we literally turned the lights out) we first met Kent and Jordana the next morning after a comfortable night’s stay at a local hotel.

The previous night’s temperature, recorded at the airport, had been -19c, so we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by early morning sun and a balmy -13c. Packed into a car that resembled a tank we soon discovered that special driving skills were required to negotiate this snow-covered landscape effectively and Kent showed us the full range.

A couple of hours later at Kent and Jordana’s base camp and kennels, also called home, we had our first meeting with their veritable menagerie of Alaskan Huskies. If the snow wasn’t melting, our hearts soon were.

After a formal introduction to the animals and resisting the temptation to smuggle a couple of puppies into our luggage, we were back in the car (dogs in a tow truck) and off to the village of the indigenous Sami people, where we were to meet the local Elder. The welcome and the hospitality was equally warm as we plotted our first trip, which we discovered to our surprise, was to be later that afternoon, in the dark! In January when we were, there are only about 4 or 5 hours of sunlight per day whereas by March, it is the other way around – only a few hours of darkness per day.

Kent and Jordana carefully and thoroughly talked through our clothing and equipment needs. Any gaps in our armoury were soon filled by extras available from our Guides and in particular by the provision of a thick all-over body suit (think garage mechanic come space suit come Michelin Man) and boots that looked like they had fallen off an Apollo moon mission.

The Safety Talk followed by verbal training was thorough, concise and informative with plenty of time to ask questions, of which there were many. It was clear at this point that the challenge of looking after the dogs and becoming a proficient team leader, whilst controlling a sled with a mind of its own wasn’t going to be simple. However, why come all this way to the Arctic to travel in comfort like a poor person’s Joanna Lumley? Not us!

Within hours, soon after darkness fell, we found ourselves bewildered by a cocophony of yelping and expectant and excited barking, blindly chasing after dogs we had inevitably let slip from our grasp and were then attaching them to the lead that stretched out to the front of our sleds.   Four huskies per team, earplugs essential! In no time at all we were following our guide Kent, into the tree-filled darkness, sticking strictly to the path he led, each sled pulled by the most enthusiastic animals since those that trotted gratefully onto Noah’s Ark.

It is almost impossible to adequately describe what we experienced next. Apart from the sound of the dogs and our own over-excited hearts, the stillness and silence of the terrain enveloped us and held us enthralled. Above us, the sky slowly lit up on the horizon like an effervescent mirror-ball as we had our first sighting of Aurora Borealis (The Northern Lights) which made Blackpool look like a dull afternoon in the airing cupboard!

After a few hours reluctantly, we returned to base camp, the cold forgotten and any apprehension dissolved, to a warm place by the fire and our first taste of Reindeer. From then on, it was Reindeer morning noon and night, although it helped to discover the multi-talented Kent was also a former Chef and other options were available.

Over the next four days we took almost total charge of our own dog teams, feeding them, looking after them and they us. We covered almost 200k in surprisingly pleasant conditions, passing through heavily wooded terrain and across large, expansive frozen lakes that seemed never ending.

Once you have confidently commanded the skill of driving your team you have hour upon hour in almost total solitude to soak in the surroundings and to ponder the universe. One tip however, don’t EVER let go of your dog-team if the brakes are not applied or if they are not harnessed or the next thing you may see is four overly energetic Huskies disappearing into the wilderness and it will be your job to run after them up to your hips in snow to catch them again!

Overnight, once we had settled the dogs down for the night and fed them the best dog food I’ve ever seen (yes, you guessed it, Reindeer) it was our turn. Accommodation in wooden cabins was basic but comfortable, although a good sleeping bag is absolutely essential. We helped prepare the food and fetch water from the only thermal water source in the area – so participation is the order of the day. Hot Lingenberry juice is to die for of an evening!

One bonus not to be missed was a visit to the now world famous Ice Hotel just a few kilometres from Kiruna. Imagine settling down for a night’s kip in a giant sculpted freezer and you only just begin to get a flavour of this magnificent building. Each hotel room is carved according to a different theme (I finally got to see some Polar bears) and only lasts a season before the hotel melts back into ground, only to be resurrected the following winter with completely new designs.

By the end of the trip we were satisfyingly exhausted and perhaps looking forward to some home comforts. Kent, our guide on the trek, was simply amazing. Pleasant but firm, serious yet fun, he was a demanding task-master where he needed to be (especially when it comes to the washing up!) but also never forgot this was supposed to be fun as well as a challenge. Both he and Jordana clearly care passionately about their dogs often, it appeared, sacrificing their own comfort.

The world is full of amazing, magnificent places, most of which we never get to experience in person. If the chance to go dog sledding in the Arctic comes along, grab it with at least both hands (and don’t forget not to let go of that sled once you do!). Ten months later, I still miss the silence, I still miss the dogs and I still miss the thrill of sweeping across that majestic terrain. It will live long in the memory.

Philip Booker – October 2011

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