Fjallraven

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.

Fjällräven Polar | Day 1 - 2

April 28, 2014 | Alex

Six months ago, I learned that Fjällräven selected me as their "jury pick" to join top-vote-getter Greg Lindstrom on Fjällräven Polar this April. Fjällräven Polar is a 300km dog sled adventure that begins in Signaldalen, Norway and ends in the forests near Jukkasjärvi, Sweden. Each year, outdoor apparel and equipment supplier Fjällräven (founded in Sweden, 1960) holds a contest to select twenty individuals from countries around the world to participate-- regular people with regular jobs. Not outdoor experts.

The idea is to demonstrate that with the right training, clothing and equipment, anyone can enjoy a winter adventure-- even a wildly inexperienced interior designer from the heart of the concrete jungles of NYC. Now that I've returned, with a full set of original digits to blog with, I'm so happy to share my adventures with you!

Note: this account of my experience on Fjällräven Polar 2014 is constructed from memory, and therefore somewhat clouded. I refused to wear a watch during the adventure, so time is included as a sequential reference only, and was loosely estimated based on the position of the sun (by which I mean "up vs. down") and vague recollections of being told to do something or be somewhere at a specific time.

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

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

DAY 1 | APRIL 7, 2014

 7:15 am | Stockholm Arlanda Airport – Terminal 5

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

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

7:45 am | Sigtuna - 32 Rum & Kök

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

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

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

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

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

12:00 pm | Sigtuna - 32 Rum & Kök

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

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

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

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

4:30 pm | Sigtuna - 32 Rum & Kök

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

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

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

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

6:30 pm | Sigtuna - 32 Rum & Kök

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

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

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

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

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

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

7:30 pm | Sigtuna - 32 Rum & Kök

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

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

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

10:00 pm | Sigtuna - 32 Rum & Kök

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


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

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

DAY 2 | APRIL 8, 2014

6:00 am | Sigtuna - 32 Rum & Kök

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

1:30 pm | Tromsö, Norway

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

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

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

3:00 pm | Tamok Lodge

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

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

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

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

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

5:00 pm | Camp Tamok

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6:30 pm | Camp Tamok

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

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

8:00 pm | Camp Tamok

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

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

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

10:00 pm | Camp Tamok

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

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

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

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

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


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

To read about Fjällräven Polar 2014 from another perspective, check out the official Fjällräven Polar site or blog posts by participants from around the world! 

Manon Kloosterman (Netherlands)* Madeleine Hanssen (Norway)* | Peter Blom Jensen (Denmark) Tuija Pellikka (Finland)* | Phil Raisbeck (UK) | Greg Lindstrom (USA)

*Posts not authored in English have been translated via Google Translate.

Fjallraven Polar: Packing List

April 3, 2014 | Alex

Want to hear something wild? I leave for Sweden on Sunday! My head is spinning. Can you believe it's been 5 months since I submitted my entry video? And 4 months since I found out I was Fjallraven's Jury Pick? If you want to follow the adventure live, check out the official Fjallraven Polar 2014 site. They'll be posting photos and video along the way.

In the final days leading up to my flight, the #1 question from friends and family is "what are you bringing?" I haven't technically packed yet, but I've done a lot of pre-packing strategizing and cogitating. And a lot of consulting with my fellow Polar-ists.

If I felt any anxiety about the adventure that lies ahead (which, naturally, I did. because I am anxious about all things.), it dissipated completely in conversation with my Polar companions. We've been in near constant contact via What's App and Facebook. I am so lucky! How did Fjallraven manage to attract the 19 of the most hilarious, intrepid and kind-spirited people on the globe? If you think I'm exaggerating (ok, maybe I am a little), watch this video! Danish participant Peter created the video, inspired by a weird and wonderful thread about what to pack...which led to a joke about developing a new swimsuit line for Fjallraven.

Thanks, Peter! But back to the question at hand-- what will I bring? Fjallraven encourages us to pack light. Very light. They provide all the apparel, gear and supplies we need for the adventure itself. We only need to supplement with toiletries, camera equipment, passport, and mufti for the plane and party on the final night. Plus a swimsuit for our celebratory sauna on the final night! (Well, at least the Americans will be wearing swim suits. In the proud nudity-averse tradition of our puritan forebears.)

Here's my complete packing list:

Fjallraven_Polar_Packing_List.jpg

Fjallraven Polar 2014 | Packing List

1. Personal Hygiene

Neutrogena Face Sunblock | Featherweight Camping Mirror | 1-day Contact Lenses | Action Body Wipes | Burt's Bees Lip Balm | Hand Sanitizer | Dr. Bronner's 18-in-1 Castille Soap | Baby Powder | Toothbrush | Travel Pill Case (Ibuprofin, Tylenol, Decongestant) | Personal Pack Towel (Mini)

2. Socks + Undies

Icebreaker Merino Wool Hiking Socks (x2) | Icebreaker Merino Racerback Bra | Icebreaker Merino Undies | Uniqlo Undies

*Fjallraven is providing everything for the adventure-- down to our unmentionables. But if I'm going to wind up with extras of anything, I'd like it to be undies.

3. Mufti

Madewell Cotton T-Shirts (x2) | Uniqlo Long-Sleeve HeatTech Tee | Jeans | Fjallraven Ovik Roll-Neck Sweater | Converse Sneakers | Malia Mills Bikini | Uniqlo Ultra Light Down Jacket

* It may seem like a lot, but with my trusty packing pods (see "luggage" below), I can keep these items very compact. Also, we won't need much other than what Fjallraven provides, on the trail-- but I want to make sure I'm covered for an overnight flight, 2 days of orientation/travel to the North and the party at the end. 

4. Snacks

Luna Bars | Almonds

5. Personal Electronics + Passport

Canon Powershot S110 | Extra Camera Battery | iPhone 4s | iPhone charger | Passport

6. Luggage

Fjallraven Kanken Backpack | Fjallraven Duffel No.4 | eBags Packing Cubes | American Flag!

That's everything. Wish me luck! I'll be back stateside on April 20th-- a changed woman, no doubt. And at the very least, a woman with 19 new best friends.

Fjallraven Polar 2014's Team U.S.A

December 19, 2013 | Alex

BIG NEWS. Some of you may have heard via email, Facebook or Instagram, but...

Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 3.00.16 PM.png

...I was selected to participate in Fjallraven Polar 2014! Can you believe it? I honestly can't quite process it. At least once I day, I have to double-check the winner announcement to confirm that I didn't hallucinate. But when I do, yep, there's me. I feel luckier than the two mega-millions winners!

Come April, I'll be flown to Sweden with 19 other individuals from 10 different countries for training. Fjallraven generously arranges my travel and provides all the gear and technical skills training that I'll need. Then it's off to Norway where the 300km dog sled trekk begins. Here's a video from Fjallraven Polar 2012 that describes the event far better than I can:

My U.S. teammate is the country winner with the most votes, Greg Lindstrom. (Whereas I was a Fjallraven Jury selection. Which made me a laugh a little because growing up, my parents and I used to joke that any position that I was up for in school was typically a safe bet if appointed, but a long shot if elected. Hmm, wonder what that says about young Alex's interpersonal skills? I've come a long way since then.)

Greg lives with his wife and 3 rescue dogs high in the Berkshires on the NY-MA border, near Albany. Greg introduced himself in his winning Polar entry as a "NASA Computer Scientist, Mountaineer, IT Security Leader, Scuba Diver, Soldier, Author and Family Historian." One funny fact about the U.S. winners: Greg's paternal family heritage is Swedish and my maternal family heritage is Danish! So while we'll be proudly representing the USA, it's also a great opportunity to connect with our Scandinavian roots. To get a jump on the Polar fun, Greg and I are meeting for coffee and a trip to the Fjallraven SoHo Flagship during his annual holiday visit to NYC.

I don't have much information on the specifics yet, other than what I've gleaned from coverage of past years' Polar, but I'll keep you in the loop! And you can certainly expect a deluge of photos and anecdotes following my great adventure in April.

Thank you all for your support throughout the voting process! It's such an honor to be chosen from such a high-quality pool. Seriously, I was fascinated by the stories of all the individuals who applied. What a cool way to bring together outdoor-lovers from all over the world!

(PS You can watch my entry video and see a few of my favorite picks from the Swedish outdoor brand in my original Fjallraven Polar post.)