Fjällräven Polar | Day 5

May 1, 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.

As part of our morning routine, condensation-dampened sleeping bags are hung out to dry at our campsite at Lake Kattujärvi (Photo by Søren Hauris Larsen. All rights reserved.)

As part of our morning routine, condensation-dampened sleeping bags are hung out to dry at our campsite at Lake Kattujärvi (Photo by Søren Hauris Larsen. All rights reserved.)

DAY 5 | APRIL 11, 2014

7:00 am | Lake Kattujärvi 

Greg was right. It was not wise to skip dinner the previous night. I wake up with stomach pangs and immediately head for the box of rations, to dig for something resembling a breakfast food. Porridge with Berries. It's my lucky day— my Primus Thermos still contains enough hot water from the previous evening to rehydrate the porridge. After 5 minutes (not the recommended 8), I wolf down the still-quite-crunchy porridge. Then I descend upon the extras that come with every box of rations. First, I eat frozen tuna fish with lime and red pepper (surprisingly tasty— like a spicy, fish popsicle. For breakfast.) Then, a peach energy drink. Finally, a so-called "energy chocolate bar." That does the trick. I stuff a hot chocolate in my pocket for good measure.

The flat frozen lakes, although windy, provide an opportunity for dogs and sledders both to relax a bit. It's the forests that require full concentration. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

The flat frozen lakes, although windy, provide an opportunity for dogs and sledders both to relax a bit. It's the forests that require full concentration. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

10:30am | Somewhere between Lake Kattujärvi and Sevvovouma

So far, it's smooth sledding over frozen lakes, but I am nervous. From studying the YouTube videos of Fjällräven Polar 2013, I’ve discerned that today is the day we encounter a very tricky hill. I’ve harangued everyone and anyone with knowledge of the course for intel on this hill. What ratio of people fell last year? (“About ¼.”) What makes it so challenging to stay upright? (“There’s a sharp turn, then a steep drop.”) What time will we reach it? (“You’ll see.”) I sense that I’m starting to wear on Tom Frode’s seemingly abundant reserves of patience, so I zip it.

 Instead, I keep an eye out for photographers. They’ll no doubt be camped out at the bottom of the hill, waiting to capture this year’s spills on camera.

12:00 pm | Somewhere between Lake Kattujärvi and Sevvovouma

Tom Frode takes pity on me. He brings us our team of sleds to a stop at the edge of a wooded thicket—“Alex, the hill is soon. Just through these woods.” Advanced warning! I can’t quite discern whether my anxiety level is alleviated or heightened by the notice.

Before I can consider it further, my attention is monopolized by the dogs. The trail is narrow, with jagged bare branches darting out on either side. The turns are sharp. If I don’t monitor my brake closely, my dogs try to overtake Tom Frode in front of me—veering to the side to avoid a collision with his sled, but in doing so, swinging my sled (and my head with it) right into the trees. If I break too much, I simply pass the risk on to Hana, directly behind me.

The view from our sleds on Day 5 of Fjällräven Polar (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

The view from our sleds on Day 5 of Fjällräven Polar (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

The landscape is quite beautiful, with a picturesque creek beside us, but I'm so absorbed in avoiding decapitation by tree branch that I hardly notice. Suddenly, I’m made painfully aware of this creek when an unusually sharp turn on sloped ground tilts my sled at a 45 degree angle. I balance on one runner, trying to right my sled before it tumbles into the creek, when WHOOSH—we descend at breakdown speed down a very steep hill. A very steep hill swarming with photographers.

Well, I guess that was it. Did I fall? Technically, no. Although it’s a less than satisfying victory, considering I was barely upright on my sled before we even reached the descent. Let's call it a draw, Hill. Some of my fellow participants are not so lucky.

German Fjällräven Polar participant Paul Chmielewski's sled tips on the crest of the hill. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

German Fjällräven Polar participant Paul Chmielewski's sled tips on the crest of the hill. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

 6:00 pm | Sevvovouma

This is the earliest we’ve ever arrived at camp. It feels like time is on our side. For one brief, blissful moment, I imagine unharnessing and feeding the dogs, and pitching camp at a leisurely pace. Maybe I’ll even have time to drink the instant hot chocolate I’ve been optimistically toting around in my pocket since morning.

Ha. We’re instructed to gather at the far side of the camp where Johan Skullman is standing in a giant hole in the ground. Above his head are three spruce trees leaning in towards to center to for a sort of tepee. I’ve never seen trees with their heads bowed together, as if they eager to hear Johan's presentation. Did they grow inward naturally? Or were they nudged into position by accumulated snow weight? It's unclear.

Fjällräven's outdoor survival expert Johan Skullman demonstrates the proper way to construct a snow shelter. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

Fjällräven's outdoor survival expert Johan Skullman demonstrates the proper way to construct a snow shelter. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

What is, however, now abundantly clear is that a) we too will be spending the night in a giant hole in the ground; and b) I really should have paid more attention to the fire starting tutorial last night and less to the wafting smell of smoked reindeer meat.  Each of us will be expected to light a fire in front of Johan Skullman tomorrow morning. Compulsary.

After yesterday’s tent troubles, Hana and I are thrilled that we get a free pass from tent assembly tonight. Tom Frode gently points out that we may feel a sudden change of heart if it begins to rain. Ever the voice of wisdom, Tom Frode.

 7:15 pm | Sevvovouma

Sweden-USA gets to work. As a team, we four:

  • shovel out a sleeping surface at the base of the trees, with a fire pit 2 meters away from our sleeping bags for safety;
  • build up a protective snow wall for a windbreak;
  • pack snow into shelving units for organizing our gear and setting up our Primus gas burner; and,
  • construct a gently-sloping walkway that wraps around the shelter to enable easy access from the snow-surface level,  without opening a direct channel for wind to whip in.

I am in my element. The fundamentals of space planning are the same for any kind of shelter—whether it’s an urban environment or…well, this. Greg and I agree that the intellectual challenge of designing a snow shelter is far more enjoyable than the mechanical challenge of pitching a tent.

Me, showing off Camp Sweden-USA's snow shelter at Sevvovouma. (Photo by Hana Chatila. All rights reserved.)

Me, showing off Camp Sweden-USA's snow shelter at Sevvovouma. (Photo by Hana Chatila. All rights reserved.)

I remember that tomorrow morning will bring a fire-starting exam and feel intense panic.  Johan Skullman is not a man you want to disappoint. I grab my knife and fire steel and set to work trying to ignite a pile of birch bark. Official Fjällräven cameraman, Anders, happens to walk by and decides this will be a perfect moment to capture on film—the triumph of woman over fire!

 7:30 pm | Sevvovouma

No luck yet…the sparks are flying off the fire steel, but I can’t get the flame to take to the birch bark. After 15 minutes of encouragement, Anders loses faith in me and goes off in search of a more digital-memory efficient subject. Hana offers much needed assistance by blocking the wind with her hands, and moral support with her characteristic optimism.

My Swedish teammate, Hana Chatila, creates a wind block while I try (in vain) to ignite birch bark with a knife and fire steel. (Photo by Jun-Hee Cho. All rights reserved.)

My Swedish teammate, Hana Chatila, creates a wind block while I try (in vain) to ignite birch bark with a knife and fire steel. (Photo by Jun-Hee Cho. All rights reserved.)

 8:00 pm | Sevvovouma

Still unsuccessful, I decide to take a break from cramming for my fire-starting exam. For what feels like the first time in 5 days, we have some time to kill. I’m desperate to show off our snow shelter (Look what I built! LOOK!), so we host an impromptu international fête at camp Sweden-USA. Bulky snowshoes make for tight real estate, but I was raised that even in a ‘shoes-off’ household, you make exceptions for parties. We have nothing to serve but freeze-dried peanuts dusted in powdered BBQ sauce. This is not my finest hostessing moment. Everyone is too giddy about the promise of a bonfire to care that sitting on snow is damp, cold and unpleasant.

Snowshoe party at Camp Sweden-USA (Photo by Hana Chatila. All rights reserved.)

Snowshoe party at Camp Sweden-USA (Photo by Hana Chatila. All rights reserved.)

9:15 pm | Sevvovouma

Hana and I are so eager to reach the warmth of the bonfire, that I lose a snowshoe somewhere between our camp and the beacon of smoke we can see emerging through the trees. “Ah, whatever, I’ll find it later,” I tell myself. (Wait until after dark to find it? This is not exemplary decision making.) I plop down on the reindeer hide in front of a large, crackling fire, and slowly reacquaint my body with the sensation of heat.

 9:30 pm | Sevvovouma

Ready for a big surprise? Björn Dixgård and Gustaf Norén of Swedish-rock band Mando Diao emerges from the forest to serenade us with an acoustic guitar performance. As if huddling with friends around a crackling fire, gazing up at the tree tops and stars, feasting on coffee and cake, wasn’t enough. Yet again, my hardened urban heart is finding it increasingly challenging not to melt into a puddle of sentimental slush.

Björn Dixgård and Gustaf Norén of Mando Diao give Fjällräven Polar participants a surprise performance around the bonfire. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

Björn Dixgård and Gustaf Norén of Mando Diao give Fjällräven Polar participants a surprise performance around the bonfire. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

 12:00 am | Sevvovouma

Around midnight, Team Sweden-USA begrudgingly leaves the dwindling fire to get some sleep before crossing the finish line tomorrow. I fumble around in the dark forest for my missing snowshoe and, somewhat miraculously, find it.

I wonder for a second if I might be drunk, but remember I haven’t touched alcohol in over a week. I feel genuinely intoxicated. My cheeks are flushed from the residual heat of the fire. Add to that the smell of the forest and the smoky campfire (now embedded in the fibers of my Eco-Tour jacket) and the bubbling energy of my fellow participants on the eve of the final day of Fjällräven Polar.

 12:15 am | Sevvovouma

We brush our teeth, light a small fire in our camp (again, 2 meters from our sleeping bags, for safety), and lay out our clothes above, below and all around our sleeping bags in the style taught to us by Johan Skullman. In light of the very wet snow, I’m grateful for the extra insulation my Polar Bib Trousers provide between mattress bad and sleeping bag.

Between a post-bonfire high and jitters about tomorrow, I’m finding it difficult to switch my brain to sleep mode. My teammates agree. Johan offers to sing us the lullaby he lulls his son to sleep with—a very sweet and mournful song about a sailing ship in distress. The captain puts a Swedish skipper at the helm, tied to the wheel, as was the custom in stormy conditions, to navigate them out of the treacherous water. The skipper, a native of the area, realizes that the ship is lost but assures his crewmates that his father is coming to rescue them. The father arrives just in time, saving the sailors. When they’re safely spirited away from the rocks on the father’s boat, he asks, “where is my son?” The skipper, tied to the helm, was forgotten and lost with the ship.

Johan’s song comes to an end and we four are all tucked into our sleeping bags, quietly reflective and gazing up at the stars. And frankly, slightly bummed out by the lullaby’s dark turn. We’re all hoping to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, but the visible cloud cover does not inspire confidence. The North Star is almost directly above our heads.

Bedtime at Sevvovoumo (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

Bedtime at Sevvovoumo (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

My mind wanders (as it often does) in these situations to Neil Degrasse-Tyson. I wonder if there will be any humans around to witness the anticipated merger of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies approximately 7 billion years from now. In the astronomically unlikely (no pun intended) scenario that I myself am around in 7 billion years, I think a sleeping bag in Sevvovouma would be the perfect venue for watching the cosmic lights show.  Somewhere amidst this Neil Degrasse-Tyson-inspired reverie, I drift into sleep.

1:00 am | Sevvovouma

“NORTHERN LIGHTS. NORTHERN LIGHTS.” I wake up to Hana shouting for us to get up. Sure enough, a green glow is dancing in the sky above our heads. It’s my first time seeing aurora borealis, and even though it’s faint by the phenomena’s standards, I’m awestruck. The day feels complete in every possible sense. All there is left to do is cross the finish line.

Aurora Borealis dances over our heads on Day 5 of Fjällräven Polar. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

Aurora Borealis dances over our heads on Day 5 of Fjällräven Polar. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)


This post is the fourth 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.