May 2, 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 6 | APRIL 12, 2014
3:00 am | Sevvovouma
A spasm in my calf muscle pulls me out of sleep. The consequences of favoring one leg when clearing wet snow from the soft brake. I’m wearing my boot liners inside my Polar -30 sleeping bag, so I throw on my boots to stretch out my calf with a short walk. The moon is still out, but morning light is beginning to seep into the sky.
As I round a nearby corner and our campsite fades from view, it occurs to me that this is the first time I’ve been alone in 6 days. (Even when you wander off to use “the facilities”, you can usually hear the nearby crunch of others’ snowshoes and see UN blue jackets through the trees.) An only child accustomed to ample alone time, this is a fairly extraordinary realization for me.
I’m excited to cross the finish line— and practically delirious at the notion of a sauna and non-freeze dried food. But I’m reminded that once Polar is over, the people will disperse. The people who have been my constant (and I mean, constant) companions will return to their daily lives across the globe. This our last time plodding through our morning camp routine together.
7:00 am | Sevvovouma
We are lined up in front of Johan Skullman. Not unlike a firing squad. Each clinging to a knife, fire steel and a small pile of tree bark. A few teams have forgotten to collect bark and have no kindling with which to start a fire. Jokes are exchanged about what these teams might be willing to trade for bark, but eventually excess bark is distributed in a socially equitable manner. We are in Sweden, after all.
Fires are popping up all around me— although not, irritatingly, in front of me. I’m pleased to see that the boys from our team, Greg and Johan, have managed to get their fires going. Once Hana succeeds, she starts jumping up and down, shouting, “I did it! I did it!” We pause for a commemorative photo.
That leaves me. In fact, when I look around, I realize that I’m perhaps the only participant who hasn’t yet started a fire. I’m crouched on the ground, furiously trying to keep the sparks from dying out before the bark ignites. A cluster of well-wishers has gathered above my head, raining advice down on me:
- “Try flipping over the knife.”
- “You’re choking the sparks. Stop halfway down the steel.”
- “Block the wind with your left hand.”
- “Did you remember to scratch the surface of the bark to release the fibers?”
Everyone’s a critic. Well, friends, I am not proud to say that this is the closest I’ve come in 6 days to losing my cool. I am one well-intentioned suggestion away from a very unbecoming, only-child temper tantrum.
Johan Skullman, perhaps sensing my distress, materializes through the frey. He watches me take half a stroke of the fire steel and instantly diagnoses the problem—I’m not grasping the knife high enough up to exert maximum downward force. Once I course correct, my fire starts. I wonder if I have ever felt so proud in my life.
10:00 am | Sevvovouma
We leave camp late, after a fairly leisurely breakfast in our snow shelter. I’m sorry to leave it. Even though we slept three nights in our tents, I developed an attachment to our snow shelter in only one. Tom Frode tells us that we’ll sled straight through a series of woods before we reach the finish line—about 3 hours. A light day.
1:00 pm | Somewhere between Sevvovouma and Lake Väkkeräjärvi
We are stopped behind sled traffic ahead. I glance over my shoulder to Hana—we are both antsy to cross the finish line, country flags at the ready. What’s the hold up?
3:00 pm | Lake Väkkeräjärvi
When we do finally cross the finish line, flags waving, I expect to feel a burst of emotion. But actually, I just feel tired. Building anticipation to this moment has kept me running on high energy for the past 24 hours. But the second I cross the finish line, my physical and mental fatigue catches up to me.
The other participants are gathered behind the finish line, hugging and high-fiving each other. After exchanging brief hugs with my teammates Johan, Hana and Greg, I hang back by the sled. This is goodbye to the dogs. I scratch behind each of their ears, lingering a moment on Hermione in the second line, and lead dog Ashley.
It feels strange to forge a connection in so short a time and then sever it suddenly. But before I have time to dwell too much, Hana calls me away for the group photo. The finish photo. The great adventure is really over.
How do I sum up an experience like this one? I can narrate our daily activities, inject insight into my thoughts at the time, but there's a limit to what can be communicated. In fact, I don't think the impact of the experience was even clear to me in the finish photo above. Out in the wilderness, I would swing between intense focus on a chore list or particular task at hand ("must chop sausage without chopping fingers") and contemplating the cosmos ("what do I find more plausible? abiogenesis or panspermia?" panspermia, FYI).
Only after 5 days in Stockholm, slowly digesting the events of the past week in a mild daze, did I understand that I had left Brooklyn 11 days earlier with not much more than a change of clothes and a toothbrush. And a foggy memory of once camping under a tarp in the Blue Ridge Mountains in college.
Now, only 6 days later, I felt physically and mentally stronger. I knew how to make camp in the tundra, handle an ice saw and hatchet, start fire from knife and steel (albeit, with a 25% average success rate), build a snow shelter, and mush a team of dogs over a range of snow conditions (icy, dense, powdery, wet). Skills that, like the friendships acquired, will certainly need to maintained— but if properly maintained, will last my lifetime.
This post is the fifth 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.