Fjällräven Polar | Day 4

April 30, 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.

Morning breaks over our campsite at Råstu (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

Morning breaks over our campsite at Råstu (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

DAY 4 | APRIL 10, 2014

3:00 am | Råstu

Jolt awake to the sound of 200 dogs howling at the moon. Note that my body is surprisingly warm (even my usually troublesome fingers.) Start to wonder if circulation is flowing to my toes too, but fall back into a dead sleep before I have time to register the answer to the question.

A 3:00 a.m. canine wake-up call. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

A 3:00 a.m. canine wake-up call. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

5:45 am | Råstu

I wake up early. Before our official wake-up time, but not before Hana, who again struggled to keep warm during the night. At first, it sounds like snow is pelting the roof of the tent, but a quick peek outside confirms that it’s just Råstu's ornery wind gods tossing ground snow at us. I’m not feeling particularly compelled to go out into it, so Hana and I agree to both brush our teeth inside the tent, spitting discretely into a hole in the snow pit we dug out. A little gross, sure, but we’ll be moving camp shortly anyway.

6:00 am | Råstu

When we do finally emerge from the tent, I feel like an actor on a white screen. Everywhere I look is a solid white blur. No delineation between snow and sky. I can faintly detect the dogs starting to stir through the mist, so Hana and I join Tom-Frode in beginning the lengthy prep work for our canine companions’ breakfast service.

After doggie breakfast is served, we start shoveling the staggering amount of dog poop that’s accumulated overnight into heavy-duty garbage bags. (‘Leave no trace’ at its most alluring—although I’m grateful that the snow is doing an excellent job of keeping detectable smell to a minimum.)

Breaking down camp at Råstu on Day 4 of Fjällräven Polar, including the less savory elements of LNT (Photo by Madeleine Hanssen. All rights reserved.)

Breaking down camp at Råstu on Day 4 of Fjällräven Polar, including the less savory elements of LNT (Photo by Madeleine Hanssen. All rights reserved.)

10:00 am | Somewhere between Råstu and Kamas

Greg's dogs are struggling to keep up with the rest of the team. Johan's are bickering— when a second or third line dog slows for a bathroom-break-on-the-run, the young lead dog snarls and snaps with impatience. Tom Frode brings us to a halt to make a few changes on the fly. It's remarkable how well he knows each of his dogs, and how well they work with each other and in what position. He has only to pause for a second to decide what changes he will make, then quickly swaps a dog or two from Greg's team to Johan's, like a mathematician handling a Rubik's cube. 

Our mushers, experts in each husky's temperament and capabilities, make adjustments to our dog teams on the fly when necessary. Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

Our mushers, experts in each husky's temperament and capabilities, make adjustments to our dog teams on the fly when necessary. Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

11:30 am | Somewhere between Råstu and Kamas

The sky has cleared to blue and Team Sweden-USA is synched up on sled speed. Tom Frode's adjustments worked like magic. We maintain a steady tempo, but come to a halt when the team ahead of us runs into some difficulty with their dogs. Tom-Frode peels off the trail and heads for open snowy hills to the right. We follow him because, well, our dogs are following his. (I’ve mastered braking, and feel comfortable with shifting my balance on the runners, but telepathic communication with the dogs continues to elude me.)

11:45 am | Somewhere between Råstu and Kamas

We’re charging hard after our fearless leader, Tom-Frode, over gently sloping, but not insignificant, mountains. The other teams are visible on the trail to our left and we’re gaining on many of them, but still veering wide to the right. Something about not being able to anticipate the terrain ahead has my heart pounding. I strain to hear Tom-Frode shouting commands (“Gi,” “Ha”) to his lead dog to try to anticipate where we’re headed.

Team Sweden-USA diverges from the marked trail. (Photo by Alex Kalita. All rights reserved.)

Team Sweden-USA diverges from the marked trail. (Photo by Alex Kalita. All rights reserved.)

12:00 pm | Somewhere between Råstu and Kamas

At some point, we swoop back around to the official trail and come to a stop ahead of three teams we’d trailed in the morning. Tom-Frode looks back at us with a big smile, “so how was it?” My hands are shaking and the adrenaline is still coursing. “A little scary…but AWESOME.”  It was awesome! Tom-Frode explains that he’s working on training a new lead dog to take verbal commands, but also that he wanted us to experience what dog mushing is like in a competitive scenario. I can suddenly understand why many people devote their lives to the sport— the rush is habit forming.

2:30 pm | Kamas

Out of the snow and nothingness, we see a small wooden structure. We stop beside it and tie our dogs together. The structure turns out to be an outhouse. An outhouse in the middle of nowhere. I’m a little perplexed, but too happy to care. I join the line of girls (all of us delighted, after the privacy challenges of yesterday’s wide open tundra) waiting to visit this miraculous outhouse.

On Day 4 of Fjällräven Polar, we stumble upon a mysterious collection of buildings amidst the subarctic tundra. (Photo by Madeleine Hanssen. All rights reserved.)

On Day 4 of Fjällräven Polar, we stumble upon a mysterious collection of buildings amidst the subarctic tundra. (Photo by Madeleine Hanssen. All rights reserved.)

 2:45 pm | Kamas

The photographers in our contingent are bent out of shape because the weather isn't "dramatic" enough. In fact, it's turned into quite a lovely day. After Råstu's severity (and, by the way, I am given to understand that what we experience was good weather by Råstu standards),  I am not overly sympathetic to the photographers' plight, nor I think, are the dogs.

The dogs bask in the rays of sun that reflect, magnified, off the snow. (Photo by Madeleine Hanssen. All rights reserved.)

The dogs bask in the rays of sun that reflect, magnified, off the snow. (Photo by Madeleine Hanssen. All rights reserved.)

I feel a bit like a desert wanderer that’s suddenly stumbled upon an oasis. The sun is beaming down on us while we eat lunch. It's also one of our first opportunities to socialize with other teams. A man on a sled is an island. And last night's camp demands left little time for chit-chat with other teams. (At our 11:45 p.m. dinner hour, we barely scraped together the energy to chit-chat within our own team. What scraps of conversation we could offer were muffled, as each of us burrowed deep into the hoods of our Polar parkas for warmth.)

Now, everyone is shedding layers left and right, but we’re under strict instructions from Johan Skullman to test our wind sacks during lunch. Greg and I dutifully crawl into ours to eat our lunch (Chicken Tikka Masala) to discover that, oh man, do they work. It is blistering hot inside the wind sack. Uncomfortably hot. Once we’ve commissioned a photo to prove to Johan that we tested it out, we opt to use it as a beach blanket instead. I am tired, but blissfully happy to be warm and at rest—even if it’s just for 5 minutes.

I soak up some sun during a brief lunch break with teammates Hana Chatila (Sweden) and Greg Lindstrom (USA). (Photo by Madeleine Hanssen. All rights reserved.)

I soak up some sun during a brief lunch break with teammates Hana Chatila (Sweden) and Greg Lindstrom (USA). (Photo by Madeleine Hanssen. All rights reserved.)

3:30 pm | Somewhere between Kamas and Lake Kattujärvi

At first, charcoal smudges appear like Rorschach blots in our field of view. But as we descend further, the shapes resolve themselves into leafless trees. We've reached the tree line.

On Day 4, we descend past the tree line. Even leafless, the branches are welcome signs of life. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

On Day 4, we descend past the tree line. Even leafless, the branches are welcome signs of life. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

7:00 pm | Lake Kattujärvi

We’re the last team into camp— a frozen lake encircled in birch. I’d heard murmurings that we would stay the night on a frozen lake. I have a lot of questions. Is it frozen solid? Or just surface frozen? I suspect the latter, which leads to a lot of new questions. Well, one mainly. How certain are we that the ice can hold the weight of 30+ people, 210 dogs and a kit that, in the words of one of our embedded photographers, could “sink a ship”?

By the time Team-Sweden USA arrives at our Day 4 campsite on the frozen Lake Kattujärvi, most of the other teams have already pitched their tents and started to prepare dinner for the dogs.  (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

By the time Team-Sweden USA arrives at our Day 4 campsite on the frozen Lake Kattujärvi, most of the other teams have already pitched their tents and started to prepare dinner for the dogs.  (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

7:15 pm | Lake Kattujärvi

One of my questions is answered when I’m dispatched to collect (liquid) water from a hole drilled into the ice. The ice looks to be about a meter thick. The rational side of my brain understands that’s fairly thick, but the more dominant irrational side of my brain is silently screaming. Something about being able to see and touch the freezing cold water beneath us is very unnerving.

Fjällräven Polar from Slovakia Peter Holly gathers water at Lake Kattujärvi. (Photo by Peter Holly. All rights reserved.)

Fjällräven Polar from Slovakia Peter Holly gathers water at Lake Kattujärvi. (Photo by Peter Holly. All rights reserved.)

8:00 pm | Lake Kattujärvi

Our tent is up, after some difficult maneuvering. (The snow is so loose that we struggled to keep the T-anchors in place.) We have 15 minutes before we’re due to meet Johan Skullman for a sleeping bag demonstration at the other side of the lake.

8:35 pm | Lake Kattujärvi

Before we go to the demonstration, Hana and I face perhaps the greatest physical challenge of Fjällräven Polar yet—dragging two 30 kilo bags of dog food the approximately 35 meters from the center of the lake to our camp. I am hungry, tired and dangerously grouchy. At that moment, Hana and I (and 60 kilos of dog food) fall straight through the loosely packed snow and hit very hard, very solid ice. The situation becomes too comical to do anything but laugh. Evidently, it's time to dig out of our packs the snowshoes we were issued on Day 2.

Fjällräven Polar participants Petra Obrovská (Czech Republic) and Katrina Sokk (Estonia) fulfill their camp duties— in this case, fetching water to boil— more successfully with the aid of snowshoes.  (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

Fjällräven Polar participants Petra Obrovská (Czech Republic) and Katrina Sokk (Estonia) fulfill their camp duties in this case, fetching water to boil more successfully with the aid of snowshoes.  (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

8:45 pm | Lake Kattujärvi

Before Johan Skullman begins tonight's training session, he suggests we generate some thermo reserves, as we'll be standing still for approximately 25 minutes. We take off our snow shoes and plod through the loose snow, dancing, diving and tackling each other until we're sufficiently warmed.

Now that we're quite toasty, Johan demonstrates the proper way to sleep in a sleeping bag during winter camping. The emphasis is on insulating your sleeping bag from the ground using extra layers (like your Polar Parka and Polar Bib Trousers), while keeping them within reach for morning dressing. He also demonstrates how to build a fire using birch bark and fire steel. Johan drops some ominous mention of our requiring this information tomorrow, but I can smell reindeer meat cooking over the dog mushers’ nearby campfire, and my attention is frankly divided at best.

Fjällräven outdoor expert Johan Skullman demonstrates how to optimize winter sleeping conditions in a Fjällräven Polar -30 Sleeping Bag. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

Fjällräven outdoor expert Johan Skullman demonstrates how to optimize winter sleeping conditions in a Fjällräven Polar -30 Sleeping Bag. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

9:15 pm | Lake Kattujärvi

The boys of Team Sweden-USA, Johan and Greg, gather around the Primus stove to boil water for dinner. I'm infinitely more tired than I am hungry. Like a good teammate, Greg advises me against going to bed without eating. I recognize the logic, but can barely keep my eyes open.

 9:30 pm | Lake Kattujärvi

Warmed from the dog mushers’ fire with nothing but a few bites of smoked reindeer meat in my stomach, I crawl into my sleeping bag. My bad mood is ancient history. The fire was a lovely surprise, and besides, it feels like we’ve put the hardest part of Polar behind us. This campsite is significantly less windy than Råstu, with greater (although still sparing) tree cover. Hana is in high spirits too, so in spite of our fatigue, we stay up for 30 minutes chatting about our reflections on the day’s sledding and wondering aloud what tomorrow will bring.

Night falls on our campsite at Lake Kattujärvi, on Day 4 of Fjällräven Polar. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

Night falls on our campsite at Lake Kattujärvi, on Day 4 of Fjällräven Polar. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)


This post is the third 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! 

Manon Kloosterman (Netherlands)* Madeleine Hanssen (Norway)* | Peter Blom Jensen (Denmark) Tuija Pellikka (Finland)* Phil Raisbeck (UK)Greg Lindstrom (USA)

*Posts not authored in English have been translated via Google Translate.