April 29, 2014 | Alex
Six months ago, I learned that Fjällräven selected me as their "jury pick" to join top-vote-getter Greg Lindstrom on Fjällräven Polar this April. Fjällräven Polar is a 300km dog sled adventure that begins in Signaldalen, Norway and ends in the forests near Jukkasjärvi, Sweden. Each year, outdoor apparel and equipment supplier Fjällräven (founded in Sweden, 1960) holds a contest to select twenty individuals from countries around the world to participate— regular people with regular jobs. Not outdoor experts.
The idea is to demonstrate that with the right training, clothing and equipment, anyone can enjoy a winter adventure— even a wildly inexperienced interior designer from the heart of the concrete jungles of NYC. Now that I've returned, with a full set of original digits to blog with, I'm so happy to share my adventures with you!
Note: this account of my experience on Fjällräven Polar 2014 is constructed from memory, and therefore somewhat clouded. I refused to wear a watch during the adventure, so time is included as a sequential reference only, and was loosely estimated based on the position of the sun (by which I mean "up vs. down") and vague recollections of being told to do something or be somewhere at a specific time.
DAY 3 | APRIL 9, 2014
7:00 am | Signaldalen, Norway
Following a 5am wake-up call at Camp Tamok, we arrive at the Fjällräven Polar start line. Our mushers are already gathered. Also gathered are 210 dogs. 210 madly leaping, barking dogs.
First up, must pack sled. This proves stressful. The sled is narrow and our gear is wide. You would think, as an interior designer, spacial awareness would be easy for me. This is not easy. It takes a couple go’s before I realize the key is to take advantage of the vertical space at the back of the sled. At least for heavier items. Tom Frode has explained that placing heavy items— like food— towards the back, and lighter items— like a sleeping bag— towards the front, makes the sled easier to maneuver. If you’d like to hear the panic in my voice while attempting to pack my sled, please enjoy this video:
Now it's time to meet my lady-dominated dog team. 4 girls, 2 boys. The girls are in heat, so the boys on the team are neuters. I will have the extra challenge, Tom Frode explains, of keeping the girls away from the other teams’ virile males.
I meet lead dog Ashley. She greets me by raising onto her hind legs and resting her paws on my shoulders. Ok, so I guess she is the boss here. Ashley drives this point home when I unchain her. I intend to walk her to the sled. Instead, she drags me. One finger under her collar, I just barely stay on my feet. With Tom Frode's help, I slip the harness over her head (whilst securing her body between my knees) and hook her up to the sled. Oh, so that’s how a dog so small pulls a sled so heavy. With an astonishingly efficient and powerful body.
8:30 am | Signaldalen, Norway
Our dogs are harnessed. Our sleds are packed. Team Sweden-USA is ready to go. We’ll be the first to cross the start line. Our team order will be Tom Frode, Hana, Johan, me and Greg, in a single file line.
I'm exhilarated— but also, a little confused? I can't quite remember when to use the hard brake or soft brake. (Ed. Note: "brake" not "break." Oops. Mixed that one up yesterday.) Before I have a chance to shout ahead for clarification, we're off to the races. On a dog sled, there is no gentle acceleration. The second you release the brake, you're flying through the forests.
9:00 am | Somewhere between Signaldalen and Pältsa
I’m struggling to maintain a consistent sled speed. I alternate between falling behind, bringing Greg to a standstill in the process, and struggling to keep my dogs from nipping at Johan’s heels. Tom Frode throws worried glances in my direction from his position at the head of our pack. I feel like the weakest link on Team Sweden-USA. Not my favorite feeling.
10:00 am | Somewhere between Signaldalen and Pältsa
Ok, I think I have the hang of this now. Hard brake = stop. Soft brake = slow. The soft brake is a perforated rubber mat that drags on the ground between the runners. As snow collects through the perforations, it accumulates snow weight and slows the sled with drag. When too much snow accumulates, you clear it quickly with your foot. Clearing the brake is essentially a weighted calf-raise, performed once every couple minutes indefinitely. I'm grateful at this particular moment that I followed a strength training program, developed by my friend and trainer Germain Phanord, in the months leading up to Polar.
My dog team requires a lot of soft braking— even on the uphills when my teammates must run alongside their sleds. Not that I'm complaining. Happy to go along for the ride! These ladies are no slouches.
I'm surprised, actually, by how stable the sled is. Because of its design and heft, it's very grounded. I also notice how flexible it is. You can feel the birch frame bending in your grip, twisting ever so slightly to accommodate changes in terrain and weight distribution.
The dogs are fun to watch as they run. They are adept at meeting their basic needs without halting progress. When they get thirsty, they bow their heads and eagerly gobble whatever snow lands in their mouths. Like crocodiles waiting, with open maws, at the base of a waterfall. When nature calls, they slow slightly, crouch their hind legs (front legs still in furious motion) and just do their thing. On the back of the sled, you have to be wary in these moments to avoid any detritus that flies up when the perforated brake runs over the, uh, output.
11:00 am | Somewhere between Signaldalen and Pältsa
At some point in the morning, we cross the border from Norway and Sweden. I know this only because Tom Frode alerts us, with Hana shouting the message back to Johan, who then shouts it back to me. (This is the best means of communication on dog sled.) The border is unmarked and unmanned. A bit different from my experience crossing the border between the US and Mexico or Canada. It's a lucky thing too, as my passport is tucked away in a duffel, its journey to meet me at the finish line already underway.
11:30 am | Somewhere between Signaldalen and Pältsa
As we climb out of the forests and into the mountainous tundra, we pick up speed. The soft brake is less effective now. Rather than accumulating powder, it glides easily over the densely packed snow.
I start to feel more confident. I try shifting weight onto one runner, as Tom Frode has advised us to do on uneven ground. Up ahead of me, former Swedish naval captain Johan Saari responds to changes in the terrain by pirouetting from runner to runner, as if under an invisible boom. I’m successful on the right runner. Much less so on the left, my weaker side.
1:30 pm | Somewhere between Signaldalen and Pältsa
It occurs me that we've been sledding close to 5 hours. Surely we'll stop for lunch soon?
My hands begin to feel sore from keeping a death grip on the sled. But I'm determined not to be the girl that wipes out and loses her sled. I keep an eye out for the "Checkpoint" signs (remembered in videos of Fjällräven Polars past), but we can see into what feels like the endless distance and there's not so much of a speck of red. Tom Frode did warn us that this day would be both the longest and the most grueling day of Fjällräven Polar.
2:15 pm | Pältsa
Sometime around 2:15-ish, those magnificent red-and-white beacons of rest peel into view. It's lunch time. I'm both hungry and in need of a bathroom break. The former is easily addressed. We get to bust open our box of DryTech freeze-dried military rations for lunch. I'm weirdly excited to try them. The latter issue is slightly more complicated. Hana and I consult, perplexed, on where privacy might be achieved in the tundra. There's a sort of downward slope that looks promising. Hana goes to check it out and I stand guard.
Meanwhile, the dogs collapse into a midday nap the second we come to a stop. Their boundless energy does, it turns out, have a limit. The dogs are even more heart-burstingly cute at rest.
2:30 pm | Pältsa
Once we've doled out snacks to the dogs (a half round of frozen sausage each), Team Sweden-USA convenes to explore our own lunch options. I pick out a Pasta Bolognese, thermos full of hot water at the ready. When I peel back the plastic top of the DryTech package, I'm surprised to see, instead of just pasta bolognese, a whole grab bag of treats!
The reason for all the goodies is soon apparent. Once you fill your entree with hot water to the "fill line" marked on the outside, you wait 8 minutes for the food to warm and rehydrate. 8 minutes is a long time to wait after 5 hours on a sled. (And nearly 7 hours since our last meal.)
Once it's ready, the pasta is really shockingly tasty. Or maybe I'm just starving? At any rate, it hits the spot. The second I swallow the last bite, it's time to rouse our dogs and return to our battle stations.
4:00 pm | Somewhere between Pältsa and Råstu
The sledding is on auto-pilot and my mind starts to wander. I will never fail to be amazed at nature's power to make us feel tiny and fleeting, and to take comfort in the knowledge that we are tiny and fleeting. It's funny. To be made to feel small by another person is one of the worst feelings I'm familiar with. But to be made to feel small by the vastness of the earth is one of the most liberating. (I would challenge even the most hardened cynic not to become reflective in an landscape like this one.)
I also feel, at this moment, tremendously lucky. Specifically, lucky to be one of the 20 individuals selected to experience Fjällräven Polar. But also lucky that when I wrench myself away from this experience in 3 days, I'll return home to a loving family and pretty rad circle of friends (to which I've now added 19 new pretty rad friends), a city that inspires and challenges me, and a job that I am genuinely excited to tackle every morning. Ah, okay, enough sap for now. I'm a lucky girl. Let's just leave it at that.
7:00 pm | Råstu
Honestly, I'm not quite sure what time it was when we finally pull into our Råstu campsite. The sky is hazy, either because the sun is descending or because it's obscured by wind and snow. It's quickly apparent that Råstu is not an especially hospitable place.
When I step off my sled, my obliques and right calf are aching. The calf muscle fatigue is from clearing the soft brake. The cause of the oblique strain is less clear. At any rate, I'm pleased to be off the sled and ready to park myself on my sled and call it a night. Alas, things don't quite work that way around here.
First, we lay out a cable to tie up the dogs. Then, the dogs must be individually unharnessed and moved to the cable (no easy feat. Although certainly easier than the reverse process in the mornings, when their legs are fresh and eager to run.) Although Ashley is a lovable firecracker, it's second-line dog Hermione who's captured my heart by the time we reach Råstu. She is affectionate and strong, but not headstrong. Once the dogs are moved to the chains, we tide them over with another sausage snack while we begin the lengthy preparation of their evening meal.
7:30 pm | Råstu
Tom Frode, in his kind and patient way, directs us to collect water to boil for the dogs' dinner. Meanwhile, he fires up a gas stove. Greg pitches in by chopping frozen logs of meat with a hatchet. When he reaches the end of each block, he struggles with how to keep the slices thin— without thinly slicing his fingers.
8:15 pm | Råstu
Once the dogs are happily tucking into dinner, we scurry over to Johan Skullman's tent. We'll be expanding on the winter camping techniques we learned yesterday at Camp Tamok. Tonight we add a snow block wall to our reportoire. With Råstu's wind, we'll need to create a wind block behind which we can light our camp stoves and eat in relative shelter. (Cooking in your tent is a major no-no, due to fire risk.)
Johan demonstrates how to use an ice saw to carve out perfect rectangular blocks. I flash back to building an igloo with my childhood friend, Molly. Sure would have been easier, I think, with an ice saw.
Johan also indicates that we should use the orientation of his tent as a guide. "What if the wind changes in the middle of the night?," someone asks. (I admit, that question never even occurred to me.) The answer, when it comes, is unsettling: "well then, you get out of bed, take down the tent and put it back up in the new direction of the wind." In the middle of the night? Ok, Råstu. I've been a pretty good sport about you so far, in spite of my wind-chapped face and bone-deep chill. But if I have to hoist myself from my sleeping bag in the dead of night to take down and put back up a tent for the second time today, we will not be on positive terms.
8:45 | Råstu
The sun is setting. And we have yet to unpack our sleds. Already, visibility is low, as is energy level on Team Sweden-USA. We came into camp hungry and fatigued, but that was almost two hours ago now. And now we begin the physical ordeal of pitching our tents in the wind, digging out the vestibule and building a snow wall behind which we can cook. Most of the dogs are already huddled under the snow, out for the night.
9:00 pm | Råstu
Hana and I select a site for our tent, taking care to orient it in exactly the same direction as Johan Skullman's tent. The boys' tent is just a couple feet away. We cluster our sites together for additional shelter from the wind, with our cooking site between the two tents. We make plans to dig out a pit behind the snow wall, so that we can sit down to eat— our first "sit" of the day, I think. I look forward to it.
Initially, I can't get the hang of the ice saw. I trace the outline of a perfect block in the snow, but can't remove the template from the ground in a solid piece. I peer over the tent to see what other teams are up to. The hyper-competent Team Norway has already constrcuted what looks like a high-rise development out of snow blocks and is about to tuck into dinner. Finally, I spot someone using their shovel to extract the cut snow block. Aha. So that's the secret. The tundra may not be ideal for bathroom breaks, but it sure is perfect for cribbing off other teams on the mechanics of making camp.
10:30 | Råstu
I get pretty into this wall building exercise. My snow blocks increase in uniformity with every go. Johan Saari, meanwhile, packs loose snow into the cracks like mortar. It's odd to think that so much work has gone into a wall we'll use for only 1 night. As I'm levering snow blocks out of the ground with an aluminum shovel (my obliques reminding me throughout that, "yes, we're still here and we're still in pain."), I think about my work and its relationship to camping.
There's so much thoughtfulness and care that goes into the construction of a single-serving shelter out here in the tundra. It surprises me when people react to my professional interest in interiors and my personal interest in the outdoors as polar opposites. Isn't interior design really just the evolutionary extension of camping? As society has moved from temporary shelters to permanent ones, we've acquired a bit of luxury to dabble in aesthetics, but the basic principle of designing a shelter is still to harness (not fight) its external environment and meets mans' basic needs in an efficient and ergonomic way.
In fact, I'd argue that aesthetic have a profound impact on our psychological well-being— the distinction is that in the great outdoors, mother nature brings the beauty. In an interior environment, beauty must be constructed. Although my mom and I are committed to a utilitarian approach to design, camping in this great nothingness is a practical refresher course in Shelter 101 and minimalist philosophy.
11:45 | Råstu
It's near midnight. Team Sweden-USA gathers behind our ice wall for dinner and whatever conversation we can muster at this late hour. Johan Saari, with his signature unflappable cheerfulness, has already boiled our water. I am deeply grateful. Only 8 minutes before chow time. Although now 6 hours since we arrived at camp, and 19 hours since we began our day.
12:30 | Råstu
If I've learned one lesson today, well honestly, it might be to dodge when a dog uses the loo ahead of the sled. But if I've learned two lessons, the second is that had humans sustained a nomadic hunting-and-gathering society indefinitely, humanity wouldn't have so many of the things I cherish— science, art, social bonds. Even the technological advances behind the gear that's keeping me (relatively) warm in an environment like Råstu would never have happened. There's no time for product R&D in nomadic life. Every second of daylight is consumed with the pressing task of survival. With that bleak, yet somehow inspiring, thought, I literally crawl from the cook site to my toasty warm sleeping bag and plummet into sleep.
This post is the second in a series of five. You can browse other installments in the series here.
To read about Fjällräven Polar 2014 from another perspective, check out the official Fjällräven Polar site or blog posts by participants from around the world!
*Posts not authored in English have been translated via Google Translate.