Dog Sledding

Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015. Tromso, Norway

A tourist-filled bus picks me up at a downtown hotel, and drives to the Villmarkssenter base camp, about 30 minutes away. Most tourists are there for a quick tour, possibly a sled ride, some coffee, and then a return to their hotel or cruise ship. But I get ushered aside, and am introduced to three other people: a German couple and a Swiss woman. We are all booked to spend two days and one night dog sledding, and sleeping in a tent.

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Our guide is Rob the Swede. He trains race huskies, owns eight of his own, is also a photographer, director, and general wilderness badass. We are taken into a room and given boots and outer clothing. As my experience in Norway so far has taught me that there is no accomodation for fat people (nothing even approaching my size is in the stores), I have dressed well enough to be able to keep my own clothes, not wanting to risk being without proper equipment. I have a wool tank camisole and long sleeved shirt, then an arctic fleece, and then a light waterproof hooded jacket. I also have a quilted down coat to throw over that if indeed it gets colder; I tend to overheat when I’m moving, and need light clothes. On the bottom, I have non-cotton underwear, thermal long Johns, light jersey trousers, then thin waterproof ski-pants. They predict -5 to 3 degrees Celsius over the next two days. As long as it doesn’t dip much below that, I will be warm enough. I do, however, take their boots. They are astronaut looking things, wide and round and warm. When I slip my wool socks into them, I am immediately cozy, even of they are awkward for walking.

They recommend to wear wool underwear, as it dries faster. If you sweat in cotton it sticks to you, and then you get chilled. Canadian winters do prepare you for this sort of thing.

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The fellowship of the dog harness.

We are then shown the sleds and dogs. Rob demonstrates how to properly harness the dogs, and we get to work setting up our team and sled.

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An employee bringing a dog to be harnessed.

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These three females below are the front of my sled team. The first two are the leaders, calm and patient, while the third is a little skittish, making low stress noises. No one is exhibiting threatening behaviour. I pet them all after harnessing them, hoping to ease the concerns of little miss cryer. She licks my hand and rubs against me.

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These two goofballs are brothers. They play and roll around, constantly seek pets, and nip at Rob the Swede’s beard.

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The preparations complete, we are finally off.
“Ok, Up!” Commands Rob. He leads the single-file caravan. I am immediately behind Rob. The dogs follow eagerly, and we do not “drive” the sled so much as control the enthusiasm of the dogs by slowing them down with dragging breaks, and squatting and swaying side to side, balancing our weight so as not to fall off. It is far more rigourous than I imagined.

But we get to see things like this (click on images for larger view):

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After a few hours of climbing higher, we stop for lunch: a sandwich and hot tea, brought in a thermos by Rob.

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The dogs rest while we eat, as they will be running for the next several hours.

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We head up the mountain, climbing higher ridge by ridge. On the hills we have to help the dogs by pushing the sled up. I am grateful for not over-dressing, as I am sweating and breathing heavy.

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Rob occasionally parks his sled and walks ahead to check out the terrain. There are small swamps and streams he makes certain to avoid.

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It’s getting dark, but we keep sledding until almost dusk. When we park, we take care of the dogs first. We remove the harnesses, and then each team gets attached to a string of wire, tied between the sled and a tree. They are fed—a nice raw steak—and then settle down into a little pocket in the snow. They will sleep outside all night.

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With the dogs settled, we set up camp. Rob instructs up to stamp down an area for the tents. It has snowed just yesterday, and we get our hearts pumping again, stomping through three feet of fresh powder. With an area sufficiently cleared, we erect the tents. One small one for the German couple and a larger one for myself, the Swiss woman, and Rob the Swede.

The tents done, it is supper time. Again, we stomp a hole in the snow to build the fire. I retrieve the firewood from my sled, marveling at how strong the dogs are to lug this wood and my fat ass up a mountain. Rob is cook. He melts snow in a pot, then immerses sealed bags of soup into it. Once heated, he opens each bag with his knife, pours it into a tin bowl, and passes them around to everyone, along with a plastic knife/fork/spoon. It is a dish of reindeer meat in a cream sauce, with potatoes, onions, and longberries.

I have never eaten anything so good.

It is hot and meaty and creamy and delicious. We have been climbing a mountain for six hours, setting up camp for two, and beginning to feel a small chill now that we are sedentary around the fire. Hot food is the marvel of the civilized world.

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I have no idea why the photos here are blurry. I blame exhaustion.

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After chatting and eating and desert—a pineapple. Rob brought a whole damn pineapple for desert—we crawl into the tent.

Well, first I ventured down the hill a bit to relieve myself. I held it until I was bursting, not wanting to have to drop my pants in the cold anymore than I have to. It is not the first time I have peed outside in the wintertime, but it is the first time I did it sober. It takes some coordination to get all my layers back up in their proper order.

Once the boots came off and I was in the tent, I tried to straighten out my sleeping bag. It is resting on an air mattress, on top of a thermal mat. I cannot seem to get my head inside the hood of it, as it has a built-in pillow and flap to pull over your face. Rob notices me struggling, and I ask for help, wondering how I have managed to screw up the basic instructions of “unclasp and unroll.”
“It’s too short.” He says finally, after examining it. It should have been adult sized, but it is not long enough.
Rob offers to swap sleeping bags, so I take his and he curls up into mine. He is not significantly shorter than I am, but he is accustomed to sleeping out in winter. He also has a companion to keep him warm.

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No, not us human females, but this lovely lady that is one of Rob’s Siberian huskies. She is apparently eight or nine years old, and does not compete anymore. She also is put in the middle of the team when harnessed, and Rob tells us that she runs just fast enough to keep up, but not actually pull the sled. He laughs and kisses her. Clearly, she has a privileged position to come sleep with the humans.

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Saucy minx.

Rob’s sleeping bag fits me just fine, and after removing all but my wool long underwear, I crawl in and try to settle for a comfortable position. Just before bed, I snap this with my iPhone.

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I have eschewed vanity to show you all that winter camping is not glamourous.

I am warm. The sleeping bag is thermal. Once my body heat warms it, I am cozy inside, even too warm, and have to periodically open the zipper to vent a bit. I sleep deep, though I wake often from a cold nose. Finally, I drag my down coat over my face and turn my head just enough to get air but keep my face warm. A few times in the night I wake to howling wind and snowy rain that pushes at the walls of the tent, and I wonder if there are bears on this island. The dogs would certainly let us know if there was a prowler. But the cocoon is warm, the air in my lungs is cool and refreshing, and I drift back to sleep without a second-thought.

In the morning, Rob makes breakfast. First, he feeds the dogs—raw hamburger meat this time.

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Then he uses his gas stove for the humans. The meal is another pre-packaged bag of food, this time a cod and potato stew. It hits the spot. He also makes coffee. It is freeze-dried without sugar, but damned delicious.

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From inside the tent.

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Our camp in the morning.

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The campsite, Rob making breakfast sheltered from the wind.

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Always fashionable, Rob the Swede likes to coordinate his beard with the equipment.

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Our snowy conditions on day two.

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It takes several hours to eat, pack up, harness the dogs, and then depart. Once we do, we are in a wet storm of sideways falling snow.

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Nothing affects the mood of these two happy boys.

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Rob consults with us on whether we want to keep going or return early. All systems go, Rob. We’ll take as much as we can get.

Another three or four hours (thankfully, mostly downhill), and we get to the base camp. Dogs first: they get unharnessed and chained to their respective sleds. We all give them plenty of kisses and pets.

Once changed back into our regular winter clothing, I head to the bathroom. A  real one, with a toilet, and a floor. I wash my hands and face with warm water and soap—twice—feeling a little grimy after two days exerting myself. We are then directed to a round building, to have a meal and coffee before being taken back to the town center.

The heat hits me. When I walk into the wooden structure and feel the warmth of the fire (aided by heat lamps) it’s like a sudden, powerful sedative has entered my bloodstream. We crawl into our booth, while Rob serves us some hot reindeer soup—a traditional Sami dish, we are told—and it’s perfect.

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Thoroughly exhausted, we begin talking about hot showers and beer and mattresses and blankets. Rob claims that his plans are to get drunk. Good plan, Rob. I had similar thoughts, but when I returned to my hotel room, I was so tired after bathing that I drank half a beer from the mini bar, ate some peanuts, and then fell into a deep sleep.

I’d do it again.

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