Fjallraven

4-Season Uniform

May 13, 2014 | Alex

I had to laugh when I stumbled upon a post by blogger Cup of Jo What Everyone in NYC is Wearing. I tried to guess before clicking the link. Black skinny jeans + an infinitesimally hip leather jacket? Flower-spangled chiffon numbers, in homage to spring? Nope.  According to Cup of Jo, every woman in NYC is wearing jeans + striped tee + army green jacket + white converse. Hmm. A quick glance down from the computer monitor confirms that, yes, that is precisely what I am wearing at that very moment. (Minus a green jacket, but I've been acutely pining for this Fjällräven No. 68 Jacket, technical enough to wear trekking but cute enough for bouncing around Brooklyn. You can bet I'd be wearing it right now if I had $600 burning a hole in my pocket.)

  What everyone in NYC is wearing, as observed by Cup of Jo (right), and interpreted for this week's hotter temps (left). Images via  Wool and the Gang . Right image via  Pinterest .

What everyone in NYC is wearing, as observed by Cup of Jo (right), and interpreted for this week's hotter temps (left). Images via Wool and the Gang. Right image via Pinterest.

After years of a complicated, unnecessarily angst-filled relationship with clothing, I've recently synthesized my look into a formula that eliminates all icky feelings from the equation. (It may seem silly to have such a fraught relationship with clothes, but actually, I think it's quite common. Fashion is, after all, mired in questions of social identity, body consciousness and financial decision-making.) So even though it's a bit off-theme for an interior design blog, I'm so content with my strategy for sartorial nirvana that I can't resist sharing it. I think my stress-free approach to clothing has made me a happier person, period. Seeing a sparse, well-organized closet filled exclusively with items I like and wear often (as in, tri-weekly), makes me feel like a more confident, controlled and self-aware woman. I've removed buyers' remorse from my life, and I have more time to dedicate to creative outlets that energize, not vex, me.

  My uniform for spring and fall. Scroll to bottom of post for complete list of sources.

My uniform for spring and fall. Scroll to bottom of post for complete list of sources.

I'm hardly the first person to discover the freedom that comes from relying on fewer articles of clothing. In July 2010, the New York Times penned an article called, "Shoppers on a 'Diet' Tame the Urge to Buy," about a handful of people who went 1 month wearing only 6 articles of clothing. My wardrobe is bigger than that, but could I slim down to 6 items/month? Absolutely. Minnesota-based fashion stylist Madelynn Hackwith Furlong has documented a her journey to create a more tightly edited and personal wardrobe on her Wide Eyed Legless. I think the success of Madelynn's blog speaks to a real social trend. Her readers, who may not have the time, discipline or financial resources to rebuild their own wardrobes from scratch, experience the delights of a minimalist wardrobe by following along with her journey.

Admittedly, it's not a strategy for everyone. Many women I know find great joy in shopping and the infinite variety of their wardrobes. I don't. I feel no great calling to be a fashion plate or step out in an original look. I just want to look attractive and presentable, but be comfortable. I imagine my attitude towards fashion is comparable to people who appreciate an excellent meal, but find grocery shopping and cooking to be onerous chores. And I want as little stuff as possible. Clutter makes my brain itchy.

  My uniform for summer.   Scroll to bottom of post for complete list of sources.

My uniform for summer. Scroll to bottom of post for complete list of sources.

So here's the formula I've landed on: I have a collection of virtually indistinguishable striped and solid tee shirts, plus a chambray shirt. I have two pairs of jeans (white + blue), a pair of army green chinos, a pair of black cords, and two pairs of denim shorts (white + blue). I have sneakers, rain/snow boots, ankle boots (black + tan) and sandals (black + tan), both low and chunky-heeled enough for walking long distances. In the summer, I wear espadrilles around the pool or beach. I have a few sweaters: one turtleneck, three cardigans (black + navy + ivory) and a couple slouchy pullovers. I have three dresses, that can be worn during the day with sneakers or at night with heels. I have a kånken, in which I schlep the contents of my office on my back. I also have a limited number of seasonal accessories, like gloves, scarves and hats.

  My uniform for winter. Scroll to bottom of post for complete list of sources.

My uniform for winter. Scroll to bottom of post for complete list of sources.

There are guiding principles too. All new purchases must be highly durable and well-fitting, no alterations required. With the exception of something seasonal, like a bikini, items should be multi-purpose. For example, jackets must be designed to stand up to outdoor adventures, but flattering enough to wear around town. (This is where my devotion to Fjällräven began, long before Polar.) Anything with an irreparable sign of wear-and-tear must be instantaneously thrown away. There is no room for stained, torn, or otherwise unwearable things in my tiny closet. Likewise, anything I don't find myself wearing must be donated or passed on to a friend without delay and without allowing nagging second thoughts.

My basic seasonal uniform is casual. I spend the majority of my days sitting in a WiFi-enabled coffee shop working on my laptop, or running around NYC doing product research, collecting or returning samples and making purchases for clients. (If you see someone carrying a chair on the subway, there's a pretty good chance it's me.) On rare occasions, however, I do have to dress like a professional creature. So as a work supplement to my wardrobe, I have two pairs of trousers (one slouchy + one skinny fit) and two blazers (one traditional + one collarless) and a small selection of silk blouses. My sweaters and shoes do double-duty for work and recreation, although I have one pair of flat mildly weird loafers that are designated work shoes.

The only possible hole in my work wardrobe is a tote bag. Right now, I bring my Kånken to client meetings because it has a laptop pocket, a boxy shape that can accommodate larger format drawings, and it distributes the (typically substantial) weight of what I'm carrying on my shoulders more evenly than a tote. But I begrudgingly recognize that there are situations in which a backpack is not appropriate. I think a more sophisticated, but still large and square, leather tote by Love-Dart would do nicely for such situations!

  A supplement to my SSFW wardrobe, when work requires it.   Scroll to bottom of post for complete list of sources.

A supplement to my SSFW wardrobe, when work requires it. Scroll to bottom of post for complete list of sources.

The achilles heel to this strategy is that my clothing wears out quickly. If you're considering adopting a similarly minimalist approach, I recommend you first track down an ace shoe-repair man and dry-cleaner that offers repair services. (Another of the reasons I'm a big fan of buying Fjällräven is that they have an in-store tailor at the SoHo flagship for technical repairs, especially useful when your repair requires spare parts.) I've also had to swear off the dryer for everything but work-out clothes, to ensure a longer lifespan. Once a week on laundry day, my bathroom converts into a 1-room drying rack. And occasionally spills into the living room...

The other issue to contend with is sticker shock. When you insist on high quality, long-lasting goods, you have to screw up the courage (and cash flow) to drop large sums at a time. I've run the numbers. And I know that I ultimately spend less money on clothing when I employ this strategy. Particularly on an amortized basis, but even net. That doesn't, however, make it any easier to get my credit card bill on a month when I've had to replace a staple item. I also have to budget for semi-annual visits to "the miracle man", my beloved shoe repairman, and semi-frequent trips to the dry cleaner. 

It may seem like a small thing, but this uniform has brought me a great deal of serenity lately. And, interestingly, I think it's quite closely related to my philosophical approach to design. It's minimalist and it's utility-driven. Aesthetically, it's in a restrained and consistent palette, with impact stemming from structural elements and the quality of the materials. I guess that's why it feels so right. So, tell me, would you ever adopt a similarly draconian strategy?

Sources

spring/fall

  1. The Legging Jean, AG Jeans - $168-220
  2. Ovik Melange Beanie, Fjällräven* - $30
  3. Judithe Dress - Cobalt Multi, Steven Alan (mine is actually the Red Multi, same style + print.)*
  4. Tonasa Striped Cotton Terry Tee, Calypso St. Barth - $129
  5. Classic Kånken - Forest Green, Fjällräven - $75
  6. Votan Leather Wooden Heel Sandal, Coclico - $146*
  7. Rachel Comey Mars Boot, via Piperlime - $395 (I wait to purchase mine out of season, on sale.)
  8. Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star Sneakers, via JC Penney - $45
  9. No. 68 Jacket, Fjällräven - $600

summer

  1. The Premiere Jean - White, AG Jeans - $165
  2. Steven Alan Dagney Sweatshirt, via La Garconne - $198
  3. Jean Tank Top, Fjällräven - $45 (I don't own this yet, but since it's on sale at the SoHo store for $30, I think I'll pick one up this week. Because it's a tencel/wool blend, I can wear it for trekking but it's also flattering enough to wear with jean shorts at the beach. Multi-purpose is key!)
  4. Isabel Marant Etoile Daryl Dress, via Barneys*
  5. Chambray Cargo Shirt, Madwell - $75
  6. Classic Kånken - Forest Green, Fjällräven - $75
  7. Votan Leather Wooden Heel Sandal, Coclico - $146*
  8. Low Cut Raffia Espadrilles, Soludos*
  9. Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star Sneakers, via JC Penney - $45
  10. Denim Short, J. Crew - $79.50

winter

  1. Stilt Cord, AG Jeans - $172
  2. Ovik Melange Beanie, Fjällräven* - $30
  3. Ovik Roll Neck Sweater, Fjällräven - $180
  4. Nuuk Parka, Fjällräven - $500 (Pricey, yes, but absolutely worth the investment. My Nuuk got me comfortably through NYC's miserable winter, and three of my friends were so envious of my coat that they bought a Nuuk for themselves.)
  5. 10" Sherling-Lined Bean Boots, LL Bean - $179
  6. Classic Kånken - Forest Green, Fjällräven - $75
  7. Rachel Comey Mars Boot, via Piperlime - $395
  8. HeatTeach Touchscreen Gloves, Uniqlo and Cashmere Infinity Scarf, J. Crew*
  9. Striped Swing Tee, Demylee*

work

  1. Drapey Drawstring Pant, J. Crew - $98
  2. Cashmere Infinity Scarf, J. Crew*
  3. Rag & Bone Adrienne Sweater, via La Garconne - $203
  4. Lanai Blazer, Theory - $375
  5. Blue Pointed Slipper, Zara*
  6. Rachel Comey Mars Boot, via Piperlime - $395
  7. Silk Bloussana Tunic, J. Crew*

* Because I aim to reflect the contents of my wardrobe accurately, many of these items are no longer available. In a few cases, I've presented an article of clothing in a colorway other than the one I own-- here's hoping my friends reading this will allow me a little artistic license.

Fjällräven Polar | Day 6

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.

  Our final campsite, at Sevvovouma (Photo by Peter Holly. All rights reserved.)

Our final campsite, at Sevvovouma (Photo by Peter Holly. All rights reserved.)

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.

  UK participant Phil Raisbeck awakens in his snow shelter in Sevvovouma, on the final morning of Fjällräven Polar. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

UK participant Phil Raisbeck awakens in his snow shelter in Sevvovouma, on the final morning of Fjällräven Polar. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

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.

  My fire! Started successfully with knife and fire steel for the first time, with the aid of Fjällräven's outdoor expert Johan Skullman. (Photo by Jun-Hee Cho. All rights reserved.)

My fire! Started successfully with knife and fire steel for the first time, with the aid of Fjällräven's outdoor expert Johan Skullman. (Photo by Jun-Hee Cho. All rights reserved.)

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.

  The final day of Fjällräven Polar, Day 6, consists of a light 3 hours of dog sledding through woods and over flat frozen lakes. Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

The final day of Fjällräven Polar, Day 6, consists of a light 3 hours of dog sledding through woods and over flat frozen lakes. Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

 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.

  Fjällräven participant Tuomo Lampela waves the Finnish flag as he crosses the finish line at Lake Väkkeräjärvi. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

Fjällräven participant Tuomo Lampela waves the Finnish flag as he crosses the finish line at Lake Väkkeräjärvi. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

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.

  Fjällräven Polar participants say goodbye to our dog teams, after crossing the finish line at Lake Väkkeräjärvi. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

Fjällräven Polar participants say goodbye to our dog teams, after crossing the finish line at Lake Väkkeräjärvi. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

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.

  The adventure of Fjällräven Polar 2014 comes to a close. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

The adventure of Fjällräven Polar 2014 comes to a close. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

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! 

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.

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.

 

 

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.