Fjallraven Polar

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.

 

Fjällräven Polar | Day 3

April 29, 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.

Early morning in Signaldalen, Norway, where Fjällräven Polar participants will meet our dog teams and start our 3-day dog sledding adventure (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

Early morning in Signaldalen, Norway, where Fjällräven Polar participants will meet our dog teams and start our 3-day dog sledding adventure (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

DAY 3 | APRIL 9, 2014

7:00 am | Signaldalen, Norway

Following a 5am wake-up call at Camp Tamok, we arrive at the Fjällräven Polar start line. Our mushers are already gathered. Also gathered are 210 dogs. 210 madly leaping, barking dogs.

It's only 7:00 a.m. on Day 3 of Fjällräven Polar, but the dogs are already raring to go. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

It's only 7:00 a.m. on Day 3 of Fjällräven Polar, but the dogs are already raring to go. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

First up, must pack sled. This proves stressful. The sled is narrow and our gear is wide. You would think, as an interior designer, spacial awareness would be easy for me. This is not easy. It takes a couple go’s before I realize the key is to take advantage of the vertical space at the back of the sled. At least for heavier items. Tom Frode has explained that placing heavy items— like food— towards the back, and lighter items— like a sleeping bag— towards the front, makes the sled easier to maneuver. If you’d like to hear the panic in my voice while attempting to pack my sled, please enjoy this video:

Now it's time to meet my lady-dominated dog team. 4 girls, 2 boys. The girls are in heat, so the boys on the team are neuters. I will have the extra challenge, Tom Frode explains, of keeping the girls away from the other teams’ virile males.

I meet lead dog Ashley. She greets me by raising onto her hind legs and resting her paws on my shoulders. Ok, so I guess she is the boss here. Ashley drives this point home when I unchain her. I intend to walk her to the sled. Instead, she drags me. One finger under her collar, I just barely stay on my feet. With Tom Frode's help, I slip the harness over her head (whilst securing her body between my knees) and hook her up to the sled. Oh, so that’s how a dog so small pulls a sled so heavy. With an astonishingly efficient and powerful body.

I struggle to harness my lead dog, Ashley, for the first time. She is eager to run  — with or without a sled behind her. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

I struggle to harness my lead dog, Ashley, for the first time. She is eager to run— with or without a sled behind her. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

8:30 am | Signaldalen, Norway

Our dogs are harnessed. Our sleds are packed. Team Sweden-USA is ready to go. We’ll be the first to cross the start line. Our team order will be Tom Frode, Hana, Johan, me and Greg, in a single file line.

I'm exhilarated— but also, a little confused? I can't quite remember when to use the hard brake or soft brake. (Ed. Note: "brake" not "break." Oops. Mixed that one up yesterday.) Before I have a chance to shout ahead for clarification, we're off to the races. On a dog sled, there is no gentle acceleration. The second you release the brake, you're flying through the forests.

There's no gentle acceleration on a dog sled. Once you release the hard brake, you pick up speed fast. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

There's no gentle acceleration on a dog sled. Once you release the hard brake, you pick up speed fast. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

9:00 am | Somewhere between Signaldalen and Pältsa

I’m struggling to maintain a consistent sled speed. I alternate between falling behind, bringing Greg to a standstill in the process, and struggling to keep my dogs from nipping at Johan’s heels. Tom Frode throws worried glances in my direction from his position at the head of our pack. I feel like the weakest link on Team Sweden-USA. Not my favorite feeling.

10:00 am | Somewhere between Signaldalen and Pältsa

Ok, I think I have the hang of this now. Hard brake = stop. Soft brake = slow. The soft brake is a perforated rubber mat that drags on the ground between the runners. As snow collects through the perforations, it accumulates snow weight and slows the sled with drag. When too much snow accumulates, you clear it quickly with your foot. Clearing the brake is essentially a weighted calf-raise, performed once every couple minutes indefinitely. I'm grateful at this particular moment that I followed a strength training program, developed by my friend and trainer Germain Phanord, in the months leading up to Polar. 

My dog team requires a lot of soft braking— even on the uphills when my teammates must run alongside their sleds. Not that I'm complaining. Happy to go along for the ride! These ladies are no slouches.

My dog team has seemingly endless reserves of energy. Even on uphills, I keep one foot lightly on the soft brake to avoid careening into the sled ahead of me. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

My dog team has seemingly endless reserves of energy. Even on uphills, I keep one foot lightly on the soft brake to avoid careening into the sled ahead of me. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

I'm surprised, actually, by how stable the sled is. Because of its design and heft, it's very grounded. I also notice how flexible it is. You can feel the birch frame bending in your grip, twisting ever so slightly to accommodate changes in terrain and weight distribution.

The dogs are fun to watch as they run. They are adept at meeting their basic needs without halting progress. When they get thirsty, they bow their heads and eagerly gobble whatever snow lands in their mouths. Like crocodiles waiting, with open maws, at the base of a waterfall. When nature calls, they slow slightly, crouch their hind legs (front legs still in furious motion) and just do their thing. On the back of the sled, you have to be wary in these moments to avoid any detritus that flies up when the perforated brake runs over the, uh, output. 

11:00 am | Somewhere between Signaldalen and Pältsa

At some point in the morning, we cross the border from Norway and Sweden. I know this only because Tom Frode alerts us, with Hana shouting the message back to Johan, who then shouts it back to me. (This is the best means of communication on dog sled.) The border is unmarked and unmanned. A bit different from my experience crossing the border between the US and Mexico or Canada. It's a lucky thing too, as my passport is tucked away in a duffel, its journey to meet me at the finish line already underway.

We cross the unmarked border from Norway into Sweden early on Day 3 of Fjällräven Polar. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

We cross the unmarked border from Norway into Sweden early on Day 3 of Fjällräven Polar. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

11:30 am | Somewhere between Signaldalen and Pältsa

As we climb out of the forests and into the mountainous tundra, we pick up speed. The soft brake is less effective now. Rather than accumulating powder, it glides easily over the densely packed snow.

I start to feel more confident. I try shifting weight onto one runner, as Tom Frode has advised us to do on uneven ground. Up ahead of me, former Swedish naval captain Johan Saari responds to changes in the terrain by pirouetting from runner to runner, as if under an invisible boom. I’m successful on the right runner. Much less so on the left, my weaker side.

Finnish Fjällräven Polar participant Tuomo Lampela masters the art of sledding on one runner. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

Finnish Fjällräven Polar participant Tuomo Lampela masters the art of sledding on one runner. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

1:30 pm | Somewhere between Signaldalen and Pältsa

It occurs me that we've been sledding close to 5 hours. Surely we'll stop for lunch soon?

My hands begin to feel sore from keeping a death grip on the sled. But I'm determined not to be the girl that wipes out and loses her sled. I keep an eye out for the "Checkpoint" signs (remembered in videos of Fjällräven Polars past), but we can see into what feels like the endless distance and there's not so much of a speck of red. Tom Frode did warn us that this day would be both the longest and the most grueling day of Fjällräven Polar.

Day 3 is the longest and most grueling of Fjällräven Polar. In the morning, we sled for 5 hours before breaking for lunch. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

Day 3 is the longest and most grueling of Fjällräven Polar. In the morning, we sled for 5 hours before breaking for lunch. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

2:15 pm | Pältsa

Sometime around 2:15-ish, those magnificent red-and-white beacons of rest peel into view. It's lunch time. I'm both hungry and in need of a bathroom break. The former is easily addressed. We get to bust open our box of DryTech freeze-dried military rations for lunch. I'm weirdly excited to try them. The latter issue is slightly more complicated. Hana and I consult, perplexed, on where privacy might be achieved in the tundra. There's a sort of downward slope that looks promising. Hana goes to check it out and I stand guard.

Meanwhile, the dogs collapse into a midday nap the second we come to a stop. Their boundless energy does, it turns out, have a limit. The dogs are even more heart-burstingly cute at rest.

After a long morning of running, the dogs are ready for a midday nap at the Påltsa checkpoint. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

After a long morning of running, the dogs are ready for a midday nap at the Påltsa checkpoint. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

2:30 pm | Pältsa

Once we've doled out snacks to the dogs (a half round of frozen sausage each), Team Sweden-USA convenes to explore our own lunch options. I pick out a Pasta Bolognese, thermos full of hot water at the ready. When I peel back the plastic top of the DryTech package, I'm surprised to see, instead of just pasta bolognese, a whole grab bag of treats!

Each of packet of DryTech food contains a grab bag of snacks, a spoon and a hand sanitizing wipe, in addition to the freeze-dried main course marked on the front. (Photo by Jun-Hee Cho. All rights reserved.)

Each of packet of DryTech food contains a grab bag of snacks, a spoon and a hand sanitizing wipe, in addition to the freeze-dried main course marked on the front. (Photo by Jun-Hee Cho. All rights reserved.)

The reason for all the goodies is soon apparent. Once you fill your entree with hot water to the "fill line" marked on the outside, you wait 8 minutes for the food to warm and rehydrate. 8 minutes is a long time to wait after 5 hours on a sled. (And nearly 7 hours since our last meal.)

Once it's ready, the pasta is really shockingly tasty. Or maybe I'm just starving? At any rate, it hits the spot. The second I swallow the last bite, it's time to rouse our dogs and return to our battle stations.

Until we descend into the tree line, the terrain around us is uniformly vast and white, with only the occasional rocky peak for visual contrast. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

Until we descend into the tree line, the terrain around us is uniformly vast and white, with only the occasional rocky peak for visual contrast. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

4:00 pm | Somewhere between Pältsa and Råstu

The sledding is on auto-pilot and my mind starts to wander. I will never fail to be amazed at nature's power to make us feel tiny and fleeting, and to take comfort in the knowledge that we are tiny and fleeting. It's funny. To be made to feel small by another person is one of the worst feelings I'm familiar with. But to be made to feel small by the vastness of the earth is one of the most liberating. (I would challenge even the most hardened cynic not to become reflective in an landscape like this one.) 

Out in the great white expanse of the subarctic tundra, it's hard not to reflect on how small and insignificant we are in the greater scheme of the universe. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

Out in the great white expanse of the subarctic tundra, it's hard not to reflect on how small and insignificant we are in the greater scheme of the universe. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

I also feel, at this moment, tremendously lucky. Specifically, lucky to be one of the 20 individuals selected to experience Fjällräven Polar. But also lucky that when I wrench myself away from this experience in 3 days, I'll return home to a loving family and pretty rad circle of friends (to which I've now added 19 new pretty rad friends), a city that inspires and challenges me, and a job that I am genuinely excited to tackle every morning. Ah, okay, enough sap for now. I'm a lucky girl. Let's just leave it at that.

7:00 pm | Råstu

Honestly, I'm not quite sure what time it was when we finally pull into our Råstu campsite. The sky is hazy, either because the sun is descending or because it's obscured by wind and snow. It's quickly apparent that Råstu is not an especially hospitable place. 

We arrive in Råstu, our campsite in the tundra, and quickly surmise that it is not a very human-friendly place. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

We arrive in Råstu, our campsite in the tundra, and quickly surmise that it is not a very human-friendly place. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

When I step off my sled, my obliques and right calf are aching. The calf muscle fatigue is from clearing the soft brake. The cause of the oblique strain is less clear. At any rate, I'm pleased to be off the sled and ready to park myself on my sled and call it a night. Alas, things don't quite work that way around here.

First, we lay out a cable to tie up the dogs. Then, the dogs must be individually unharnessed and moved to the cable (no easy feat. Although certainly easier than the reverse process in the mornings, when their legs are fresh and eager to run.)  Although Ashley is a lovable firecracker, it's second-line dog Hermione who's captured my heart by the time we reach Råstu. She is affectionate and strong, but not headstrong. Once the dogs are moved to the chains, we tide them over with another sausage snack while we begin the lengthy preparation of their evening meal.

On Day 3 of Fjällräven Polar, participants are instructed by their mushers in the care and feeding of the dogs. In the meantime, the dogs enjoy a sausage appetizer. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

On Day 3 of Fjällräven Polar, participants are instructed by their mushers in the care and feeding of the dogs. In the meantime, the dogs enjoy a sausage appetizer. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

7:30 pm | Råstu

Tom Frode, in his kind and patient way, directs us to collect water to boil for the dogs' dinner. Meanwhile, he fires up a gas stove. Greg pitches in by chopping frozen logs of meat with a hatchet. When he reaches the end of each block, he struggles with how to keep the slices thin— without thinly slicing his fingers.

The logs of meat that the dogs eat, consisting mainly of tripe, are frozen solid by the time we arrive at camp. Before they are mixed with boiling water, they must be chopped into pieces with a wood-handled hatchet. (Photo by Søren Hauris Larsen. All rights reserved.)

The logs of meat that the dogs eat, consisting mainly of tripe, are frozen solid by the time we arrive at camp. Before they are mixed with boiling water, they must be chopped into pieces with a wood-handled hatchet. (Photo by Søren Hauris Larsen. All rights reserved.)

8:15 pm | Råstu

Once the dogs are happily tucking into dinner, we scurry over to Johan Skullman's tent. We'll be expanding on the winter camping techniques we learned yesterday at Camp Tamok. Tonight we add a snow block wall to our reportoire. With Råstu's wind, we'll need to create a wind block behind which we can light our camp stoves and eat in relative shelter. (Cooking in your tent is a major no-no, due to fire risk.)

Johan demonstrates how to use an ice saw to carve out perfect rectangular blocks. I flash back to building an igloo with my childhood friend, Molly. Sure would have been easier, I think, with an ice saw.

Fjällräven's outdoor expert Johan Skullman teaches Polar participants how to create a sheltering wall, using blocks of snow cut out of the ground with an ice saw.

Fjällräven's outdoor expert Johan Skullman teaches Polar participants how to create a sheltering wall, using blocks of snow cut out of the ground with an ice saw.

Johan also indicates that we should use the orientation of his tent as a guide. "What if the wind changes in the middle of the night?," someone asks. (I admit, that question never even occurred to me.) The answer, when it comes, is unsettling: "well then, you get out of bed, take down the tent and put it back up in the new direction of the wind." In the middle of the night? Ok, Råstu. I've been a pretty good sport about you so far, in spite of my wind-chapped face and bone-deep chill. But if I have to hoist myself from my sleeping bag in the dead of night to take down and put back up a tent for the second time today, we will not be on positive terms. 

8:45 | Råstu

The sun is setting. And we have yet to unpack our sleds. Already, visibility is low, as is energy level on Team Sweden-USA. We came into camp hungry and fatigued, but that was almost two hours ago now. And now we begin the physical ordeal of pitching our tents in the wind, digging out the vestibule and building a snow wall behind which we can cook. Most of the dogs are already huddled under the snow, out for the night.

As the sun begnins to set of Råstu, German Fjällräven Polar participant Melanie Ward unpacks her sled and prepares to make camp. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

As the sun begnins to set of Råstu, German Fjällräven Polar participant Melanie Ward unpacks her sled and prepares to make camp. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

9:00 pm | Råstu

Hana and I select a site for our tent, taking care to orient it in exactly the same direction as Johan Skullman's tent. The boys' tent is just a couple feet away. We cluster our sites together for additional shelter from the wind, with our cooking site between the two tents. We make plans to dig out a pit behind the snow wall, so that we can sit down to eat— our first "sit" of the day, I think. I look forward to it.

In Råstu's high wind conditions, we use T-anchors to secure the snow pegs. Digging them out of the densely packed snow in the morning, while taking care not to damage the pegs with the aluminum shovel, is a special treat. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

In Råstu's high wind conditions, we use T-anchors to secure the snow pegs. Digging them out of the densely packed snow in the morning, while taking care not to damage the pegs with the aluminum shovel, is a special treat. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

Initially, I can't get the hang of the ice saw. I trace the outline of a perfect block in the snow, but can't remove the template from the ground in a solid piece. I peer over the tent to see what other teams are up to. The hyper-competent Team Norway has already constrcuted what looks like a high-rise development out of snow blocks and is about to tuck into dinner. Finally, I spot someone using their shovel to extract the cut snow block. Aha. So that's the secret. The tundra may not be ideal for bathroom breaks, but it sure is perfect for cribbing off other teams on the mechanics of making camp.

Finnish Fjällräven Polar participant Tuomo Lampela uses his shovel to level and pack a snow block, before adding another layer to his wall. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

Finnish Fjällräven Polar participant Tuomo Lampela uses his shovel to level and pack a snow block, before adding another layer to his wall. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

10:30 | Råstu

I get pretty into this wall building exercise. My snow blocks increase in uniformity with every go. Johan Saari, meanwhile, packs loose snow into the cracks like mortar. It's odd to think that so much work has gone into a wall we'll use for only 1 night. As I'm levering snow blocks out of the ground with an aluminum shovel (my obliques reminding me throughout that, "yes, we're still here and we're still in pain."), I think about my work and its relationship to camping.

Day 3 of Fjällräven Polar is long and grueling. There's much to be done to make camp and care for the dogs before we prepare our own dinner and crawl into our sleeping bags. (Photo by Jun-Hee Cho. All rights reserved.)

Day 3 of Fjällräven Polar is long and grueling. There's much to be done to make camp and care for the dogs before we prepare our own dinner and crawl into our sleeping bags. (Photo by Jun-Hee Cho. All rights reserved.)

There's so much thoughtfulness and care that goes into the construction of a single-serving shelter out here in the tundra. It surprises me when people react to my professional interest in interiors and my personal interest in the outdoors as polar opposites. Isn't interior design really just the evolutionary extension of camping? As society has moved from temporary shelters to permanent ones, we've acquired a bit of luxury to dabble in aesthetics, but the basic principle of designing a shelter is still to harness (not fight) its external environment and meets mans' basic needs in an efficient and ergonomic way.

On Fjällräven Polar, our kitchen supplies are limited to a small petrol-fueled camp burner, a thermos, a drinking bottle, a cooking pot and utensils. Minimalist philosophy at work.   (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

On Fjällräven Polar, our kitchen supplies are limited to a small petrol-fueled camp burner, a thermos, a drinking bottle, a cooking pot and utensils. Minimalist philosophy at work. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

In fact, I'd argue that aesthetic have a profound impact on our psychological well-being— the distinction is that in the great outdoors, mother nature brings the beauty. In an interior environment, beauty must be constructed. Although my mom and I are committed to a utilitarian approach to design, camping in this great nothingness is a practical refresher course in Shelter 101 and minimalist philosophy.

11:45 | Råstu

It's near midnight. Team Sweden-USA gathers behind our ice wall for dinner and whatever conversation we can muster at this late hour. Johan Saari, with his signature unflappable cheerfulness, has already boiled our water. I am deeply grateful. Only 8 minutes before chow time. Although now 6 hours since we arrived at camp, and 19 hours since we began our day. 

It's close to midnight by the time most Fjällräven Polar participants have an opportunity to boil water for dinner. To shelter us from Råstu's nasty wind, we construct walls out of blocks of snow. (Photo by Søren Hauris Larsen. All rights reserved.)

It's close to midnight by the time most Fjällräven Polar participants have an opportunity to boil water for dinner. To shelter us from Råstu's nasty wind, we construct walls out of blocks of snow. (Photo by Søren Hauris Larsen. All rights reserved.)

12:30 | Råstu

If I've learned one lesson today, well honestly, it might be to dodge when a dog uses the loo ahead of the sled. But if I've learned two lessons, the second is that had humans sustained a nomadic hunting-and-gathering society indefinitely, humanity wouldn't have so many of the things I cherish—  science, art, social bonds. Even the technological advances behind the gear that's keeping me (relatively) warm in an environment like Råstu would never have happened. There's no time for product R&D in nomadic life. Every second of daylight is consumed with the pressing task of survival. With that bleak, yet somehow inspiring, thought, I literally crawl from the cook site to my toasty warm sleeping bag and plummet into sleep.

Dogs and humans alike fall into a deep sleep after the challenges of Day 3 of Fjällräven Polar.   (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)

Dogs and humans alike fall into a deep sleep after the challenges of Day 3 of Fjällräven Polar. (Photo by Håkan Wike for Fjällräven International. All rights reserved.)


This post is the second 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.