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.

Tromso–continued.

I am currently back in Trondheim, but the past week in Tromso has been truly wonderful. I will post about my two-day dog-sledding expedition later on (it deserves its own stand-alone post) but in the meantime, here are some pictures that I took in and around Tromso.

Like Montreal (and Manhattan), Tromso center is an island. The city extends beyond the island to surrounding islands, in small, sparsely inhabited areas. At the top of the island is a lake surrounded by a park (also like Montreal, though Tromso is much, much smaller). I needed to get to the shopping mall on the other side of the hill to purchase some winter snow pants (I curse myself for not buying them before I came here–there are no people fat people in Norway, and I cannot find anything my size), hoping something in the Men’s section will fit. It’s about a 4.3 km hike, one way. So I don my winter gear and water bottle, and head up the hill.

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This is the view behind me as I leave the Tromso city center.

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And this is the view in front of me. Every Norwegian must have some wicked-tight leg muscles.

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Just an idyllic house on top of a hill. The bastards.

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At the top, here is the first view of the lake. I am not as brave as this man and his dog; even thick ice might break under my fat ass.

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The lifeguard station.

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The dog pee makes it look like the Snowman is smiling because he just relieved himself after holding it in all day.

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As I exit the lake via a path, I walk down a hill again, but this time on the other side of Tromso, nearer the airport.

By the time I got back, I’d been walking for three and a half hours. I took a hot shower and relaxed, apologizing to my legs for not wearing my Long Johns.

Tromso and the Viking Feminists

Friday Feb. 20.

I fly from Trondheim into the Arctic Circle, to the city of Tromso. This trip is somewhat of a present to myself: I turn thirty-eight next Monday, and I cannot pass up the chance the see the Northern Lights.

I arrive and check into my lodgings, at which I’ll be staying for part of the week. I’ve divided my trip into budget travel activities (long wilderness walks, free/cheap museums and sites, grocery-store food), with a few higher priced adventures (dog-sledding, restaurants, beer). I’m staying at the Smart Hotel–hip and efficient, with micro everything, it is approximately the same size as my dorm room.

On the first night, I meet a colleague for a meal at Casa Inferno, a brick-oven pizzeria, with undertones of a Steampunk aesthetic. We discuss dissertations and magic, yoga and our parents. We lament the Norwegian male, who is a little unsure of his place in an egalitarian society, fumbling at flirtation, cautious not to offend.

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What is it about Norway’s obsession with pizza? It’s EVERYWHERE.

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House wine and Frutti di Mare.

Afterwards, she takes me to a bar. It is in the basement of the old police station, which used to be the jail. It’s cramped, made of stone, warm, and full of university students. I make conversation about chasing the Northern Lights, hoping to see them at least once. The bartender suggests I drink them instead. They are delicious.

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Nordlys Pilsner (Northern Lights beer)

Near the end of the night, there is a Norwegian male standing next to me; he is bearded and blond, drinking and cool. I try to squeeze past him, as it is time to go.
“Oh, now I have to suck in my stomach!” He smirks, exaggerating with a sharp intake of breath.
“And here I thought Norwegians dispensed with chivalry, because you are all Viking Feminists.” He threw his head back, with a laughing roar, and in my mind’s eye I see him with an ax slung in a holster on his waist, drinking mead out of an animal horn.
“You just made my night.” He winks, and allows me to pass.

A little drunk and hoarse from conversation, I scramble back to my hotel in the cold and flop on the bed, already anticipating tomorrow’s hangover. As I close my eyes I notice the graffiti on the wall.

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Thank you for validating my life choices.

Saturday

I sleep until three in the afternoon.

Groggy, but with plans to hike across the bridge to take a cable car atop a mountain overlooking Tromso, I lug myself out of bed, don my wool underwear, and head out.

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The small black dot is actually a duck. You can see the Arctic cathedral on the far right.

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Crossing the Fjord.

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Finally, I arrive at the base of the cable car (getting lost along the way–my thighs are cold under my jeans). As we wait for the car, the operator lets me peak inside his booth, showing me the controls and pointing out how it works. Later, on the way down, I spot another young woman in the booth, smiling and laughing at his attentions. The sly dog.

On the way up I am among a group of middle-aged Scottish women. As the car lurches up with a start, one of them holds on tight to the bar, gives a little yelp (Oh Laird!), and tells her friend, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I am really, really scared right now.”
“Look at the floor and talk to me about something else,” her friend responds.
I am a head taller than all the ladies, and can easily look out the window as we ascend. The wind picks up, and it rocks the car a little.

At the top there’s a fenced overlook, and when you step outside the wind howls and rips at your clothes. I hold my camera tight, the sharpness nipping at my knuckles.

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The view from up top.

After a few minutes among a throng of freezing picture-takers, I go back inside the cafe for a hot drink, a waffle, and to warm up after my long walk here. The Scottish ladies have a full meal with laughter. The Germans drink beer. The Asians play on their iPhones. I look out the window and write postcards.

When I’ve warmed up enough, I amble towards the descending car, but notice a back door. It’s unlocked, and I step out.

It’s dark. The sole light is behind me from the windows, and I’m staring at a snow bank six feet high. A trodden path is to my right and I hop up the bank and walk away from the cabin. In the daytime there must be people that venture outside, as the snow is trampled down enough to support me. But now I am totally alone. In the night. With the ground reflecting white, and the sky above angry, threatening to storm. I turn away from the wind, as it wants to push me along, edging me deeper into the night. It takes just a moment before I realize I am staring at a massive rising peak across a deep crevasse.
What did I ever do to you, Wind? That you’d want me to fall down the mountain?
Intruder, it tells me, why don’t you see if you can fly? 
I do. For a few moments, at least, I picture myself lifting with the wind, up and over the Fjord to the next mountain peak.

As I wait for the return car I look out at the city. It is rather small, as cities go, but its lights are enough to obstruct any glimpse of the Northern Lights. It’s cloudy anyway, even if they were active tonight.

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Sunday

I wake up to large softly falling snowflakes outside my window. All afternoon the snow falls, and I wonder if they’ll cancel my Northern Lights adventure. I head out early to take a stroll before meeting my guide at the Tourist Center.

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At six pm sharp my guide arrives. His name is Henrik, a Norwegian about sixty years old. He ushers me into a van with four other tourists. We drive to Vågen, in the Ersfjord, which is still part of the Tromso area. He owns a cabin on the coast, and hosts Northern Lights evenings for tourists. On the way, I have my doubts about visibility, and it’s still windy and snowing.

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But Henrik assures us the weather will pass. Predict Aurora activity begins around nine. We arrive at his cabin, and all head out to have a look around.
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All the other tourists are professional photographers, and they drag their tripods out around the property, to the water’s edge and down the path, hoping the sky clears up. For the next several hours we chat, have food and hot drinks, alternating between standing out in the cold, and being in the cabin, looking at aurora forecasts. By ten pm everyone was inside, beginning to feel a little disheartened, discussing booking another night. I decide to go outside alone.

I am invigorated by winter. It is harsh and beautiful and isolating. Bundled in your clothes you know the creep of its cruelty; to enjoy it is to take all the necessary precautions.

Strolling out of reach of the street light, I round a bend by the water’s edge. The plowed path ends here, but there’s an untrodden path leading to a small unlit cabin. I wade through the snow, grateful for my high boots and wool socks. The sky is clearing, and the deep midnight blue sparkles with bright stars. More than I’ve ever seen. Orion’s Belt and the Big Dipper, but also hundreds (thousands?) more.

I am alone at the edge of the world in the deep night, the water gently lapping on the rocks.

A Norwegian friend recounted to me that his grandfather told him that if he waved a white flag, the northern lights would come take him away. I pull out my white handkerchief, and signal to the sky. Come on then, I tell the lights, I’m waiting. 

Keeping my head back, looking up and north, I watch as the last of the clouds slowly clears away, moving east across the stars, over the mountain top.

Oh. That’s not a cloud. It’s greenish. 

Oh, so you’ve come for me! I’m delighted. 

The others can now be heard making their way down the path. Within a moment they are within eyesight, trudging with their camera equipment towards my isolated spot, which is free from electric lighting interference.

For the next couple of hours we stand in the snow bank, taking, taking pictures, marvelling at the ever-shifting green wisps of light streak across the sky. I am told later that this was a four on a scale of ten in terms of activity. They are still spectacular, even at forty percent.

My own little camera captures nothing but black. I will have to rely on organic, not digital, memory. But here’s a photo of my hot jasmine tea sitting in a snowbank.

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If you’re wondering what to get me for my birthday, why not make a donation to my Norwegian adventures via GoFundMe? It’ll buy me more woolen underwear.