Fjällräven Polar | Day 1 - 2

April 28, 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.

A drizzly day at Stockholm's International Airport. (Photo by Alex Kalita. All rights reserved.)

A drizzly day at Stockholm's International Airport. (Photo by Alex Kalita. All rights reserved.)

DAY 1 | APRIL 7, 2014

 7:15 am | Stockholm Arlanda Airport – Terminal 5

As we begin our approach into Arlanda, I’m running on approximately 30 minutes of sleep and 3 cups of instant airplane coffee, courtesy of Scandinavian Airlines. I normally sleep well on overnight flights, but this time I’m too anxious and excited to turn my brain off.

When I touch down, Andreas Karlsson from Fjällräven is waiting at baggage claim with Estonian participant Katrina Sokk, who arrived moments before me. 

7:45 am | Sigtuna - 32 Rum & Kök

After a short van ride, we arrive at a beautiful hotel on a lake in Sigtuna. Sigtuna, we learn, is the oldest city in Sweden, founded in 980. It is also the birthplace of Sweden's first coin. The hotel and adjacent tiny village would be postcard perfect if it wasn’t shrouded in a thick damp mist. Is this a portent of more bad weather to come?

32 Rum & Kök, the hotel in Sigtuna that will serve as a rendezvous point for Fjällräven Polar participants. I'm among the first to arrive. (Photo by Peter Holly. All rights reserved.)

32 Rum & Kök, the hotel in Sigtuna that will serve as a rendezvous point for Fjällräven Polar participants. I'm among the first to arrive. (Photo by Peter Holly. All rights reserved.)

Phil Raisbeck from the UK is already in residence at 32 Rum & Kök. I've been in nearly daily contact with my fellow Polarists for months via Facebook and Whats App, but you never quite know what people will be like face-to-face. Phil, I’m pleased to discover, is exactly like his online persona.

We three early-comers take up residence in the hotel's lounge while we wait for the other participants to trickle in. I briefly consider sneaking a nap in my room downstairs, but opt to mainline coffee instead.

12:00 pm | Sigtuna - 32 Rum & Kök

The gang's all here, except for the Danes, who are delayed due to a small fire on their plane. Discovered, thankfully, before it was in the air. In order to arrive in time for our theoretical training (scheduled for 4:00pm), they must take a bus to a different airport a couple hours away. Their trip is off to a good start....

Meanwhile, back at the hotel, I'm feeling overstimulated and slightly queasy, thanks to a daily coffee tally that's about to break double digits.

Although we've been in virtual communication for months, this is our first opportunity to get to know our fellow Fjällräven participants in person. (Photo by Peter Holly. All rights reserved.)

Although we've been in virtual communication for months, this is our first opportunity to get to know our fellow Fjällräven participants in person. (Photo by Peter Holly. All rights reserved.)

4:30 pm | Sigtuna - 32 Rum & Kök

After a very satisfying lunch of filet of trout on a bed of creamy white puree (potato and/or cauliflower?), we welcome the Danes like conquering heroes and stream into the hotel's seminar room. We're about to meet Fjällräven's legendary outdoor survival expert, Johan Skullman, of "The Man in the Fjällräven Shirt" fame. We are slightly behind schedule.

Fjällräven Polar's twenty participants gather in a seminar space to undergo theoretical training with Fjällräven's outdoor expert Johan Skullman. (Photo by Peter Holly. All rights reserved.)

Fjällräven Polar's twenty participants gather in a seminar space to undergo theoretical training with Fjällräven's outdoor expert Johan Skullman. (Photo by Peter Holly. All rights reserved.)

We're all a bit fidgety to see and touch our gear, but Johan Skullman (a.k.a. Captain Sweden: The Winter Soldier) is a man who commands attention. We learn about the wind chill index, the comparative conductivity of air and water, the environmental comfort zone for homo sapiens (hint: you won't find it in subarctic Norway or Sweden) and what factors must be optimized for survival in adverse conditions. We also learn how long a human can survive without food, water, and sleep respectively. Not, I hope, statistics we will have the opportunity to test in the coming days, although I'm relieved to know that I can stay awake for roughly 228 more hours before my life is in peril.

6:30 pm | Sigtuna - 32 Rum & Kök

Finally. The moment we've all been eagerly (and somewhat impatiently) waiting for. Gear time. We are advised to proceed calmly into the room, where each of our kits are laid out in meticulously organized fashion, collect our things, and return to our rooms to test apparel for size and fit. 

We lay eyes, for the first time, on the gear Fjällräven has assembled for our adventure. (Photo by Jun-Hee Cho. All rights reserved.)

We lay eyes, for the first time, on the gear Fjällräven has assembled for our adventure. (Photo by Jun-Hee Cho. All rights reserved.)

Most other participants have been assigned roommates, but through luck of the draw, I have my own room. Or unluck, in this case, since I have no one to widen my eyes at when I reach into the Abisko 75L Backpack and pull out a wool ninja suit and what I can only describe as some kind of nightclub attire from Madonna's heyday. The latter is clearly intended to be a base layer-- it's wool. But it's also mesh. Fishnet, to be exact.

Since no one else is around, I test each of my layers in the most bizarre combination I can think of (wool fishnet + bib trousers + executioners' hood), snap iPhone photos and take advantage of the hotel's wireless to share them with my friends back home. 

But more to the point, everything fits. Now, presumably, it's time to learn what it's all for.

7:30 pm | Sigtuna - 32 Rum & Kök

We gather in the lounge where Johan Skullman has talked Fjällräven's country manager for Germany, Thomas Gröger, into donning his full kit. He must be swelteringly hot. But, like a good sport, he acts the part of human mannequin while Johan Skullman walks us deliberately through the design and function of each component. They pause briefly to explain how one might take a bathroom break in the tundra without disrobing completely. I am happy they chose to tackle that question head on, as it had been weighing heavily on my mind for 5 months.

Fjällräven outdoor expert Johan Skullman walks us through the design, function and proper use of each component of our kit. (Photo by Peter Holly. All rights reserved.)

Fjällräven outdoor expert Johan Skullman walks us through the design, function and proper use of each component of our kit. (Photo by Peter Holly. All rights reserved.)

10:00 pm | Sigtuna - 32 Rum & Kök

After another spectacular meal (perhaps our last for 5 days, I reflect wistfully), everyone heads back to their room to get a solid night's sleep. I am relieved. If the other participants had stayed up to socialize, I would have felt compelled to join (I believe the term for this disorder is FOMA, fear of missing anything.) After a sleepless night on the plane and a day crammed with new information and new people, I am utterly wiped out. I climb into my comfortable bed-- again, the last for 5 days-- and conk out.


The lake in Sigtuna, Sweden, at dawn. (Photo by Peter Holly. All rights reserved.)

The lake in Sigtuna, Sweden, at dawn. (Photo by Peter Holly. All rights reserved.)

DAY 2 | APRIL 8, 2014

6:00 am | Sigtuna - 32 Rum & Kök

We wake early, pack our bags, fortify ourselves with breakfast and head for the airport to fly from Arlanda to Tromsö, Norway. While we eat, Event Manager Andreas Cederlund of Fjällräven announces our teams of four. The US is paired with Sweden! I'm delighted. Swedish participant, Hana Chatila, have already connected in the brief time that we've spent together in Sigtuna. Her countrymate, Johan Saari, seems equally lovely, and as a marketing manager for a tile company, is in my industry to boot!

1:30 pm | Tromsö, Norway

Our landing in Tromsö is breathtaking. Although the flight was short, we are now planets away from the greater Stockholm area. This planet is all snow-capped mountain and bright sapphire sky. I can see why this part of Norway in often referred to as the "Gateway to the Arctic."

Descending into Tromsö, Norway, the "Gateway to the Arctic." (Photo by Jun-Hee Cho. All rights reserved.)

Descending into Tromsö, Norway, the "Gateway to the Arctic." (Photo by Jun-Hee Cho. All rights reserved.)

3:00 pm | Tamok Lodge

After a scenic drive, on which I can't help but notice the abundant avalanche warning signs that flank the main road, our bus comes to a halt under some sagging telephone wires. We pop into a lodge, where there is tea, cookies and a whole mess of gear. More gear. 

We collect our camping equipment from a lodge in the Tamok Valley, not far from Signaldalen where we will begin our dog sled adventure in the morning. (Photo by Fjällräven. All rights reserved.)

We collect our camping equipment from a lodge in the Tamok Valley, not far from Signaldalen where we will begin our dog sled adventure in the morning. (Photo by Fjällräven. All rights reserved.)

This is where we'll collect the equipment that will be on loan to us for the duration of the trip. These include sleeping bags, tents, wind sacks, hatchets, polar bib trousers, special edition heavy-duty Hestra mittens, cooking pots and camping stoves, etc. We're also instructed to change into our full winter-weight layers-- leading me to surmise that the cold component of our adventure is about to begin.

At this point, we also pack away for safe keeping the trappings of civilization (wallet, passport, converse all-stars). We won't see them again until we cross the finish line.

5:00 pm | Camp Tamok

Our journey by airplane and bus reaches its terminus. We travel by dog sled from here on out-- but not quite yet. First, we'll stay the night at Camp Tamok, a cluster of tepees and log cabins encircled by dog kennels.

Here, Johan Skullman will teach us how to make camp in the snow. The goal is to practice our camp routine and test our equipment in a relatively protected environment. A cardinal rule of camping. It's actually quite cold in the Tamok Valley, but we're protected by imposing mountains on all sides.

I'm all-ears during the tent demo because, unlike most of the other participants, I have never before pitched a tent. When I camped for 6 days in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (my only experience with camping to date), we slept under tarps. In these winter conditions, not only will we use a tunnel-style tent, we'll also dig out a pit in the vestibule for enhanced ergonomic comfort and to create a ledge for organizing our equipment.

In the relatively protected environment of the Tamok Valley, Fjällraven outdoor expert Johan Skullman instructs Polar participants on the mechanics of pitching a tent in winter conditions. (Photo by Peter Holly. All rights reserved.)

In the relatively protected environment of the Tamok Valley, Fjällraven outdoor expert Johan Skullman instructs Polar participants on the mechanics of pitching a tent in winter conditions. (Photo by Peter Holly. All rights reserved.)

Along with the basic mechanics of pitching a tent and shoveling out the vestibule, Johan Skullman underscores three important rules: 1) orient the tent facing the wind, so that the vestibule serves as an insulating barrier between the wind and your sleeping body; 2) keep the tension on the storm strings high to avoid condensation on the surface of the tent; and 3) never let go of the tent until it's securely pegged. This last point is conveniently illustrated when one of the participants' tents puffs up like a sail and flies away from our campsite. 

Team Norway, consisting of Tromsö area native Madeleine Hanssen and former military man Jostein Sirevåg, has their tent up in about 10 seconds flat. Greg and I take considerably longer with Tent USA. But eventually, our tent goes up. Woo hoo! I am officially a woman who knows how to pitch a tent. I feel quite capable.

I pose with my first (somewhat) successfully erected tent at our practice campsite in the Tamok Valley on Day 2 of Fjällräven Polar. (Photo by Alex Kalita. All rights reserved.)

I pose with my first (somewhat) successfully erected tent at our practice campsite in the Tamok Valley on Day 2 of Fjällräven Polar. (Photo by Alex Kalita. All rights reserved.)

The feeling lasts roughly 10 seconds. Andreas is making the rounds to check on our progress, and lingers disapprovingly in front of Tent USA. When he tests the tension on one of our storm strings, it sags pathetically in his hand. Ok. So this whole tent thing is a work-in-progress.

6:30 pm | Camp Tamok

Team Sweden-USA reunites to meet our musher, Tom Frode. I like him instantly. As he teaches us dog-sledding 101 (the basic vocabulary, the parts of the sled, how and when to brake), I get the impression that in addition to being an extremely knowledgable and accomplished musher, Tom Frode is likely among the world's top 5 most kind and gentle humans. A quick confab with teammates confirms this to be general consensus. 

The salient information is to a) use your brake (to avoid plowing into the team ahead of you, yes, but also to ensure that the line stays taut, or the dogs may injure themselves); and b) never ever let go the sled. Even if you fall off, the dogs will keep running, and your sled will soon be out of sight. I imagine that hanging on to a birch frame, while your body is dragged through the snow and ice by six powerful huskies, may be easier said than done.

8:00 pm | Camp Tamok

We gather for hearty lamb stew in a warming tepee called a Lavvon. I eat about 3 servings of stew, plus 4 pieces of sweet round bread. Once we are sated (and blood is beginning to flow to our fingers again), Johan Skullman takes center stage to demonstrate how to use the Primus camping stoves we will use to boil water for our ready-to-eat military rations. I am feeling a sense of déjà vu, when my Swedish teammate Johan Saari mentions that he's seen Johan Skullman perform this same demonstration on YouTube. Yep, that's where I've seen this before. But I am happy for the refresher now that my health and wellness depends on knowing how to operate one.

Fjällräven outdoor expert Johan Skullman explains how to operate a Primus petrol-fueled camp stove, starting with the critical preheating stage. (Photo by Peter Holly. All rights reserved.)

Fjällräven outdoor expert Johan Skullman explains how to operate a Primus petrol-fueled camp stove, starting with the critical preheating stage. (Photo by Peter Holly. All rights reserved.)

10:00 pm | Camp Tamok

Although most teams have chosen to bunk according to country, Hana and I have continued to bond. The boys, Greg and Johan, are hitting it off nicely too. We decide to shake things up by sleeping the girls in one tent and the boys in the other. 

Our wake-up call tomorrow is at 5:00 am. Sharp. There had been discussion of an early night, but considering we have yet to begin the lengthy process of laying out our mattress pads and sleeping bags, organizing our gear inside the tent, disrobing down to essential sleeping layers, and mummifying ourselves in down, it seems like we're already well past the point of an early night. This, I suspect, may become a trend.

Before I begin the embalming process, I brush my teeth outside our tent and take in the mountains. This is by far the most beautiful setting in which I've ever brushed my teeth. As I crawl into my sleeping bag next to Hana's, I'm slightly apprehensive about whether my body will keep warm during the night. I also feel a bit mentally drained, my brain densely packed with 2 days worth of training. But mainly, I'm excited to meet my team of dogs and begin the great adventure together in the morning.

A starry sky over our campsite, at Camp Tamok, on Day 2 of Fjällräven Polar-- the first night we participants will spend in tents.

A starry sky over our campsite, at Camp Tamok, on Day 2 of Fjällräven Polar-- the first night we participants will spend in tents.


This post is the first in a series of five. Stay tuned for future installments.

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.