fredag den 25. april 2014

Was I dreaming?

From 7. April 2014 a group of people from around the world were fortunate to participate in Fjällräven Polar. I was one of them. 
This is my record of the trip, which by all standards was amazing. 

Finally! Finally we arrive in Stockholm to meet the people, we are going to spend the coming  much anticipated week with.  Also we are to spend a day and night here to have lectures on clothing and winter camping. Our plane was cancelled in the very last minute and more than 10 excruciating hours of rerouting and delays later  than planned, my Danish team mate Søren and I have arrived at a party already started.  We’ll have to catch up along the way as for the small talk, but we have missed the almost ceremonial unveiling of gear.  

Before our arrival
Photo: Peter Holly

While we try clothes on for sizes, people one at a time drop by the gear-room with questions and remarks to their gear.  Lots of smiles and happy faces are exchanged. We have already gotten quite familiar through our common web-forum, but nevertheless everybody seems to be thinking ”Oh, that’s how you look for real”. The atmosphere is slightly electric.

Johan Skullman  is Fjällrävens outdoor expert and a guy who has had a long military career. He is ”The Man in the Fjällräven Shirt”, promoting outdoor skills in general and Fjällräven gear in particular in infomercial-webcasts. And: He is the guy I’ve tried to antagonize in my run for a spot on the team by being ”The Dude With Fjällräven Polar Dreams”.
He is a guy who could bend you backwards if he so pleased. Maybe thats why he - among us - seems (almost) mild and with a smile stuck on his face.  It’s clear, that not only we participants have looked forward to this.

Johan does some additional walkthroughs with the whole team before dinner; The multiple layers of wollen underwear with strategically  placed zippers for every need are truly integrated  with functions of the outer layers, including the gigantic Parka. The key message, though, isn’t to dress warm, but to dress smart. To work with the layers in order to feel comfortable at all times, be it ”when you’re on the sledge kicking uphill…” or ”when you’re in minus 20, resting after a hard day”. Every time he reminds us that we are actually on our way, somebody moves uneasily on their chair. Like a horse in its booth before a race.

All of us in our UN blue ”uniforms” are heading via Oslo to Tromsø. We know we don’t have much time, so no need to beat around the bush socially. The talk is vivid and faces are stretched from smiling. Especially  after landing in Tromsø in crisp clear conditions with the most spectacular mountain view. Paul from Germany is a foot taller than the rest of us and his watery eyes shine like a lighttower with excitement. From then on I can only think of him as ”Happy Man”.

Team USA/Sweden in transit
Photo: Peter Holly

By bus we are taken to Tamok Valley to get the rest of our gear: Sleeping bags, tents, food, cutlery, snowsaw, stoves, axes, knives etc. Our own clothes and belongings are stowed. We’ll see them again in 4  days at the finish line.

Tom Frode is a guy, whos face has taken the shape of his mind. Tough, mild, smiling. He owns a dogsledding company in Tamok Valley and this is where our adventure starts off. It’s incredibly beautiful, surrounded by the snowclad mountains and with warm wood fired lavvus (teepee like tents) scattered around.

But we are not here to get warm by sitting indoors. It’s time to get to work.  At first by being taught by Johan how to pitch a tent in deep snow in a winterstorm; Always securing loose ends, with two poles per pole-pocket instead of just one and everywhere secured by knee-deep snowanchors. To increase the indoor comfort we are shown how to dig out ditches in the vestibule and make leeward protection for the entrance by building snowwalls.  Some have never slept in a tent before, so the span of expertise is big. I feel confident, that this is not so much a challenge as it is an adventure. I’m in decent shape and have been around. And still…why am I freezing now? Should I be? The others seem comfortable. I am wearing most of my clothes and the sun is shining.  It can easily get much colder than it is now. Brrrr.  Relief: I’m not alone. After 45 minutes of standing at Johans’ masterclass, most of us are shivering from the cold and pople run around swinging their arms to rewarm. This sure is different than sitting at a nice hotel in Stockholm. Senses sharpen.
We are divided into teams and each presented to our professional musher, who will guide us through the next days. Denmark teams up with Finland and we walk off with our guide Kent Göran to learn what’s up and down on a dogsledge.  The other teams are USA/ Sweden, Germany/ Benelux, Chech Repuplic/ Slovakia/Estonia and Norway/ UK. Moreover 2 teams a made up of journalists or otherwise specially invited.  35 people all together, counting the guides in.

We pitch our tents best we can in the last sunlight from behind the mountain-horizon and then the biggest of the lavvus welcomes us for soup, teamtalks with the mushers and a Johan-nightlecture on handling multifuel stoves. Before bedtime I need to take a leak. Afterwards I dissolve a small ball of snow in my hands to wash them. The snow melts alright but how on earth is the water going to evaporate in -15 C.? My fingers are immediately icy cold and I have  to seek refuge in the lavvu to dry them there bacause I didn’t bring a towel. Every move has consequences in the cold, even trivial ones as this.

Welcome to the lobby
Photo: Fjällräven

Seemingly trivial is also getting out of your clothes an into the sleeping bag. But in the cold, for the inexperinced this requires some planning. Some clothes could go down in the bag with me. And what should cover me and be under my mattress? What should be in the drybag? How do I get hold of it in the morning without freezing too much? At midnight, finally, after half an hour of back-and-forth , I crawl into my sleeping bag in my long underwear + wollen hooded ”ninja suit” + 2 pairs of socks and wollen gloves. And I feel fine.
The fact that we are left somewhat perplex in small issues as this makes me realize, that I’d better listen, when the experts talk of the how-to’s. There are so many little tricks in making life easier here, and 2 days later Johan does actually give a lecture on ”how to get into the sleeping bag”.

Nighttime at Tamok Valley                                         
Photo: Søren Hauris Larsen

A thin layer of ice lines the inside of the tent. Small pearls of condensed moist covers me.  It’s 5 AM and we have to get up and pack to be ready for starting at approximately 10.  As quickly as possible we get dressed and start packing. Everything wet is put out to dry. The cold freezes the droplets, which then more or less  can be wiped off. Dryfreezing is an old housewife trick. Here it works in an instant.
After breakfast in the lavvu, we head for the starting line, the bus packed with people,  gear and expectations.

We meet the dogs. In a little group of trees they are all chained to their lines, awaiting someone to come and harness them. The noise is infernal and heavenly at the same time. It’s silence before the storm, put in reverse.
Kent Göran has his very distinct view on dog handling.  ”Dogs don’t need to bark to be happy”, he says and judging by his patiently waiting and not particularly sad looking dogs, maybe there’s something to it. ”How do you make them not bark?”, I ask him. Puzzled. ”I don’t leave them any other option” is his short answer, end of story! I’d better do what he says then, I think…

Kent Göran  
Photo: Søren Hauris Larsen                                                                                                        

We harness the dogs and pack the sledges and balance the loads instructed by Kent Göran. He knows the powers of his dogs and has put together the dog-teams from his impressions of us as for weight, strength and so on.  The lead dog goes first. That way the line will be tight while the others are attached. Any other dog first and it’s all confusion and tangling. When it’s time to get them off again later today, it’s the reverse order. Lead dog last. I cuddle the lead dog, just to make sure we have an understanding: You and I are friends, right?!
Done! I’m at the edge of the starting area, but still there seems to be delays. Everywhere people harness and pack frantically, so I take to the luxury of walking to the center of all the fuzz, enjoying all the activity and the vibrant atmosphere.  I feel like a baseballplayer between the moment the ball has been thrown and the moment, he hits the ball.

We’ve learned that the most important  thing is the brake.  The  dogs want one thing and one thing only: To run! On their leashes in front of the sledge, they stand tails in the air. Alert.  I have to put all my weight on the brake to keep them from running away. The first team in the other end take off. We are to go last.”It’s now!” I shout to Søren in front of me and WHAM! My sledge takes off, knocking me to the ground in a split second, my dogs pursuing the leaders. In the deep snow with size 12 boots I’m a fool to even try to catch up, but anyway I make a run shouting ”STOOOOP!” as loud as I can,  certain that the whole ceremonial take-off will be ruined by me now. Luckily one of the mushers makes a heroic tackle and gets hold of my sledge, leaving me in front of everybody, breathing like a locomotive. I feel like an idiot and I promise myself that I will at all times be 100% ready to put both feet on the brake if necessary. 

We are moving! The trail zigzagges through the forest, up and down. The dogs all take a dump within the first 15 minutes, but as long as its not the lead dog, they have to keep on running while their at it, making way for some  pretty silly walks, even from a dogs perspective.
And a smell, that is unmistakably doggy.
The brake has become my new best friend. It’s important not to be to close to the musher in front and going downhill, the centerline has to be tight at all times to prevent the sledge from running into the dogs. They are powerfull! Constantly I have to use the brake not to be close to Søren, who on the other hand has to pushkick and run to help his dogs uphill.  ”I believe these dogs will pull me to the end of the world if I let them”, I shout to Johan, one of the camera-guys, who ride alongside us.
At noon, we arrive at Checkpoint Pältse right at the tree-line to eat our dry-food lunch, with clear view of the characteristic pyramidic mountain and a halo-like rim around its  southwestern side.  Blue sky, not a cloud in sight.

Lunchbreak, Checkpoint Pältse
Photo: Tuija Pellika

We are exhilarated. The talk goes and Kent Göran makes some adjustements. I get the chain and the dogfood from Sørens sledge to balance the loads, but it soon turns out that this is too much. After lunch I fall behind at once and though kicking and running like a maniac, I can’t close the gap to the others.  The chain goes back and soon after the dogfood. I still fall behind. Kent Göran changes dogs, so I get one of his stronger leaddogs. But something is wrong. I still have to push the dogs and myself to the max. I run marathons. But this is tough! At one of our brief haults, I tell my video-diary camera that I am exhausted. Kent Göran gets back to me with calming words: ”Only 35 to go!”. I’m hoping he means ”minutes”...He doesn’t…
A bit desperate I try to cheer the dogs ”Kom igjen”- Norwegian for ”come on”.  ”Yip, Yip”. ”Yehaa”. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. Finally the two lead dogs just sit down, refusing to run any further. They are burned out for today. Kent Göran rides back to me and manages to get them going and just barely we make it to the campsite . I’m riding behind him. He is standing backwards shouting his more professional commands to my dogs.
I feel like my legs are about to fall off and I’m dizzy from not drinking enough, but first things first: We have to get the dogs out of their harnesses and feed them, so they can tug in and rehabilitate.  Then we pitch our tent and dig out shelters for the kitchen, set up the stoves for melting snow. At 9.30 PM dinner is ready and after melting snow for next days first meal, the phrase ”fall asleep” gets a whole new meaning. I don’t remember anything after leaning back into my sleeping bag.
Has it been a good day? Yes it has!

Kitchen duty, Råstujaure
Photo: Søren Hauris Larsen

Råstujaure is very  open to the wind and the tents are covered from the snowdrifts when we get out. It’s the second morning and already I can feel the comfort of some kind of routine.  Not in any way matching Jostein and Madeleine from the Norwegian team, though. They both have solid experience in winther-camping and everything the rest of us do, they do in double speed. After breakfast we pack everything, harness up and start off. We could wander around and enjoy the majestic moonlike landscape, but we are working as if we had a plane to catch. Nobody wants to be the one keeping the group waiting and the sooner we get going, the more time we will have in the other end. Today is expected to be more easy going than yesterday, so we are quite eager to get on the sledges again and make use of our experiences. To my pleasant surprise, I feel absolutely fine. My legs are still attached. No aches and I have a good nights sleep in the bank. I’m ready.
We talk about how to best avoid pushing the dogs too much. Kent Göran believes my breaking uphill drained them and that I have to keep a bigger distance to the sledge in front of me. Also my cheering and way of riding may have made the dogs uncertain of my intentions. Uncertain dogs can’t run. Maybe I should let the dogs run when they can and stop them when they can’t, he suggests.  My kickstarted relation to the brake is give and take, I guess.
The trail today really is nothing like yesterday as for climbing. We are well above the tree line most of the day and everything is white and blue, but the driving is much more straight-forward and actually relaxing. Still I feel focused. I’m here, nowhere else. This is what I’m doing. It’s very present tense.
And  today, luckily the dogs pull as if yesterday didn’t exist. I try to get a feel of each dog. Sense if they actually pull or just run along, but a real feel is not earned that easily. I guess it takes years. Sometimes though I see the dog next to the lead dog try to run off to the side to investigate something, but the leader pulls the line as if to say ”Come on – do that later!”
Also on todays ride, we have to work quite a bit with our clothing, while driving. Parka on, Parka off. Hat change. Mittens on top of our wool-lined gloves and off again. The strong gusts of cold winds and the less kicking makes it freezing. But in lee of the wind, the sun gets the upper hand.

Above the tree line
Photo: Søren Hauris Larsen

At lunch everybody meets up at the checkpoint. We speak all at once about the last 24 hours, nobody has had the time or energy to socialize at all until now.  The enthusiasm about being on the go and feeling some kind of competence is widespread.

The campsite for the night, Lake Kattujärvi, is  a downhill drive through scarce birch trees. Some technical downhill driving makes us look back at each other applauding each others’ successes. Nobody is falling. Not much entertainement in team Denmark/ Finland in that respect (apart from my contribution. But that was before the start, so that doesn’t really count, does it?).
Every now and then we are passed by by the photographers, who lie randomly along the trail to take pictures and video.  At one point I’m stopped to bring along still-photographer Håkan on the sledge so he can take pictures of the dogs and a some of me. It’s bit akward. I’m no good at posing, my lips always stiffen in something that is neither smile, nor any other deliberate expression. So I try not to think about it and my face goes into some kind of default mode. In the end I know I’m not in focus. I’m carrying a product. And happily so.

Kodak Moment yourselves!
Photo: Peter Blom Jensen

We arrive mid-aftenoon. In a jiffy the dogs are in the chain, fed and the tent is up.  We get a chance to catch up on conversations. We camp at the brim of the frozen lake and as we dig out the vestibule, we hit the icy surface. Tuomo, who is from Finland starts fantasizing about ice-fishing right out of bed. But for now he will have to do with getting water from a hole in the center of the lake. The dogs need hot water to acompany their dry food and different types of processed meat.  I myself keep at it with one field ration per meal. In each there is some dryfreezed food, which is indeed edible. Just add hot water and 5 minutes later,  a stew of ”something” appears.  Tonight it’s  pasta with basil sauce. In each bag there is also energy drink, chocolate powder, instant coffee, different bars and an occasional beef jerky. More than enough to keep me going. But oh, wouldn’t it be good to be Mira from Czech Republic? His team mate Petra is vegetarian. He gets to keep all meat dishes to himself.
As the sun sets and it gets colder we circle round Johan to learn about the sleeping bag tricks and treats and have a lesson in making fire with birch bark and firesteel. People have learned by now that Johan doesn’t do shortcuts, so everyone is dressed to the ocasion in their giant Parkas.

Masterclass, Lake Kattujärvi
Photo: Søren Hauris Larsen

I couldn’t be better. But not everybody feels well. Bieke from Benelux has caught a fever and is exhausted after the last two days and will be leaving the group. I have been told to ”sit back and enjoy the ride” and not take on any medical responsibilities  on the trip. Still I’m curious.  But Bieke has already been transported to a hut to get some sleep, she will be driven to the finish line to stay there, while we  make our way.  Manon and Melanie’s team is one girl down.


Morning Glory, Lake Kattujärvi
Photo: Søren Hauris Larsen

The photographers complain. The weather is too good. No blizzards making way for photogenic dramas. It’s actually quite warm. We all dress with a minimum of underwear under our shell-jackets and pants. Nobody  wants to sweat all day.
We ride the lowlands, over dozens of frozen lakes. The snow is still deep and the tempereature around zero, but the sun that got me up as the first on the lake this morning is soon followed by strong cold winds and those who don’t pull out their Parkas crouch on the back of their sledges, at the same time reducing the windchill factor and improving aerodynamics.

Spirits are high. Tonight we will be sleeping outside and who knows? Maybe we’ll see Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights.  Not having to sleep in the tent is actually a bit of a relief, as long as the winds are not too strong.  The moist from warm sleeping bags and our breaths makes everything wet or iceclad in the morning and thats a factor we can happily live without.

The lakes are straightforward riding without much interference. At one point I get all frisky and start dancing on my sledge while driving. Søren tops it by making a handstand and Tuomo sits on top of his sledge as if he was riding a Greenland type of sledge. All while Tuija, the other Finish team member, shoots it all on her action camera. My sledge gets out of balance, just enough for me to tumble. At the same time falling sideways and grabbing the sledge, I hit the ground, but the dogs just keep on going so I pull myself and the sledge up and in two seconds I have both crashed and returned to normal again. Tuija is fighting with laughter. She claims it’s on film and I can tell from a mile away, that the footage will have to be pretty bad for her not to share it later.

Sledding on the lakes
Photo: Søren Hauris Larsen

We take a lunch brake at the bank of a river just the 5 of us and Kent Görans eyes shine, while he explains:  The next 15 km will be bumpy and with some quite demanding curves and downhill rides. So we have to look out and not fool around. I can’t tell whether he looks as if he’s hoping for us to fall or not. Still, we all know, that his mind more than anything is on the well being of the dogs and the safest thing for the them is if we keep the sledge under control.

After twisting our way through the woods, every time surfing  on the outer edges of the sledge, we finally grasp what he has been talking about: THE hill, that every year swallows a big part of participants raw. It comes out of nowhere and is of course flanked by phographers waiting for the most epic crash. They will have to wait. We all make it down in one piece.  Yeaaaha! We want to go back! But we can’t.  Team Germany/ Benelux is right behind us. We get the best of everything, being allowed to watch while 2 out of 3 plunge into the sides of the hill, one of them Paul Happy Man who simultaneously turnes the moment into the photo oppotunity of the whole trip. His 2 meters plowing through the snow, face down. When his dogs stop, only Pauls feet are visible!

Happy Man Paul
Photo: Fjällräven

The camp is spread over a large forrest area. Before we start digging out shelters, Johan has a final lecture on the subject.
It’s been evident all along, that this trip is of course not just an adventure planned solely for us. This afternoon, a group of marketing and media people have arrived to do interviews and watch us make shelters and do our routines. Our team is struggling a bit with finding the right spot and the ground underneath the snow is quite bumpy - not the way we anticipated. Having a chinese camera crew shooting the whole scene with comments and directions on how to stand doesn’t help. I feel a bit like an animal in a zoo, but that’s the name of this game.  Right now, I’m just glad I’m not Alex or Greg from the US. They represent a country with big market potential for Fjällräven and they both do well on camera. Their  US/ Swedish team-camp is a natural point of interest.

The snow is waist deep. After the journalists have gone, we wiggle around in snowshoes to each others camps to chat. The atmosphere is loose and laughter comes easy.  People in parkas are natural huggers, here anyway.

At 9.30 PM event manager Andreas tells us all to meet up in a group of trees a short walking distance away. They have a surprise for us; A big  bonfire, it’s sides clad with reindeer-skin. The moon is full, looking out between the clouds over the tree tops. Traditional Sami food is served and the air is thick with smoke and appreciation of the fact, that we are a very fortunate bunch to be spoiled this way. Two guys, carrying guitar and harmonica show up and start singing. It doesn’t take a PhD in music to hear, that they’ve done it before. It’s stunningly beautiful and the dogs howling in the background make a perfect choir. They are ”Mando Diao”, one of Swedens top internationally renowned rock-bands, who in recent years have succefully turned to folkmusic. Hana, one of the Swedish participants, has to take a series of deep breaths just to dare walk up to them to say thanks.  ”Snigelns Visa” and ” Strövtag I Hembygden” are from that moment the soundtrack of this fairytale.

Bonfire, Mando Diao playing      
Photo: Fjällräven

Tonight should be the night for Northern Lights, but it’s cloudy all over. Hopes are low to say the least. When I zip my sleeping bag at midnight, I’m dead-tired and I have no illusions,  but I appreciate the fresh air from the 10 cm hole in the top nonetheless. This is the last night out camping. I wish it wasn’t.

I’m a fool! Why didn’t I set an alarm or arrange some human alarm system, as would be the case if I was on a ship and dolphins or whales had been spotted? I have been sound asleep all night, but several in camp have actually at around 2.30 seen Northern Lights. Not in all it’s glory, but enough to be breathtaken. Pictures can tell, but I take some kind of consolation in telling myself, that shutter speed manipulation may have enhanced the sight.

When we head out for the last day on the sledges, the dogs sink in the deep snow with every footsstep and we have to be careful not to run into them with our sledges, at the same time it’s an absolute no-go to fall off. Running is out of the question. 
Today is just a 40 km easy ride in the Birch forrest lowlands.  People are excited and a bit sad, that we are coming to a close. We all pull up in one long line before heading out on the final stretch on the lake. The finish line is flanked with cheering, clapping people and it really does feel like an accomplishement. 
The finish line is right at Kent Fjellborgs kennel/ lodges. Here too a big lavvu is hosting a hot meal. After unharnessing the dogs and unpacking the sledges plus the ceremonial group photo we go to a big cabin reserved for us 20 participants. There are cold beers and a sauna waiting. And a bassin cut out in the lake. Not going in is just not an option.

The finsh Line
Photo: Peter Holly

Alex and I do a remake of a Youtube Johan Skullman cover-video I did a year ago, presenting a new line of fur-lined bathing suits. The Slovakian camera crew, who have been following Slovakian participant Peter Holly(-wood) closely are kind to help us shoot it in high quality.

Dinner is served! A 3 course meal of local produce presented by the chef. I pinch my arm. There is just no end to how fantastic this trip is!
Or… Actually there is. Tomorrow, we split up.  Some of us will stay in Stockholm a couple of days, but many will be going home.  Good thing we have Phil a.k.a. Foxy, one of the 2 UK-team Phils. He is - as Katrina from Estonia puts it – the glue that keeps the group together with initiatives such as countless (joinable) trecks in Scotland, outdoorblogging and a high level of activity on social media. And…a love of the Fjällräven brand, no one can match.

But tomorrow is still far away. Speaches are held by Andreas, Johan Skullmann and Fjällräven CEO Martin Axelhed. Diplomas are handed out. Johan Saari, the other Swedish participant, speaks the mind of us all, as he thanks the people involved in making this happen.
In another cabin a live band sets the place on fire and a guest star performance by Mando Diao singer Björn Dixgård blends in like the most natural thing.  Everybody is happy, dancing. Clapping along. As if they feel like a room without a roof.

The following days, I pay the price for not having brought sunscreen. My lips crack and my nose feels and looks like its about to fall off.
It’s quite symbolic. Thinking of all the beautiful landscapes I have passed, the things I’ve learned and the wonderful people I’ve met and now again have said goodbye to: I can’t stop smiling. At the same time it hurts a bit. 

Peter Blom Jensen, Denmark

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