What can the Arctic weather, wilderness and dogs teach you about yourself and others?
The answer is a great deal and last month I was very fortunate to enjoy a lifetime experience of a five-day dog sledding expedition in the arctic.
Dog sledding or mushing is something that I have wanted to do all my life. Not a one hour tourist excursion or a few days trip travelling from one hut in the mountains to another but a trip that would be challenging, unique and free of worldly luxuries such as a bed, bath, loo, table, chairs and electricity!
You may well ask why? In short, the mountains (wilderness) and animals, especially dogs, are something that I enjoy the company of as well as people! I also believe that it is all too easy to take the least challenging road rather than the one that you might fear thinking that you might fail or that it will take you out of your comfort zone. With greater recognition and awareness of mental health in the workplace and this week being Mental Health Awareness Week I thought that I would share how huskies, humans and the arctic tundra revitalised me mentally and physically. It is the principles I want to share as I am not expecting everyone to jump on a plane and go dog sledding!!
Finding the kind of trip that I had visualised in my mind was not easy as most operators do short trips and finding the right company was key. Entirely due to my wife’s research we found UK tour operator Summit and Blue who then put together an itinerary with Tove and Torkil who run the Villmarkssenter outside Tromso in northern Norway. There was a moment,however, during the research phase where Richard at Summit and Blue asked my wife about the proposed group, she replied a group of men in and around the 50 years of age bracket. There was a pregnant pause on the phone and then he said ‘would you like to look at options where they travel short distances to smart huts with saunas and jacuzzis?’ My wife rightly replied that this sounded very sensible but that was not what I was looking for. Another pregnant pause and then ‘Well I feel I should just put this in context that dog sledding is very physically and mentally demanding and I am somewhat younger than the group age and run marathons and all I will say is that two hours dog sledding nearly killed me’. Sadly I was not around to see my wife’s face to see her smile or frown but I am here writing about it so it must have been the latter!
So we find a five day expedition pick a date (there is a relatively small window of opportunity when these expeditions run (Feb-April) and now I just need to find seven other folk to buy into my ‘mad’ idea! Having the right sales pitch was going to be key and I had to focus on the benefits rather than the features which were – physically challenging, cold, camping, cooking your own food, looking after a team of mad dogs, spending 6-8 hours standing up on a sled and doing your ablutions out in the open! Not everyone’s cup of tea as it would require most of us to have some regime change in our lives before going – I stopped drinking alcohol, joined a gym and ramped up my exercise regime and focussed on healthy eating.
So I set about my sales pitch and decided that I will gather a group of individuals who did not know each other. High risk you might say. So I set about the task and over a pint lots of male and female friends say ‘that’s a great idea, I will do it’ but then they sober up, ask a few more questions and back out or never get round to paying the deposit 9 months in advance. But as I often say in my work environment it is just as important to qualify OUT opportunities rather than convince yourself that they are qualified in. After my roadshow I ended up with seven other men. The potential ladies decided that 5 days with no washing and public ablutions was too much. The team consisted of friends from all aspects of my life – school, Sandhurst, my regiment, London and Leicestershire. A barrister, a builder, a surgeon, a mining engineer, a banker, an entrepreneur and a property landlord. To double check on personality cohesion I did arrange a group gathering in London in November in case my character judgement of the selected people was wrong. Everyone got on fine but again alcohol might have helped!
The extraordinary thing is that having been seriously worried at finding seven other people to join my mad adventure I ended up with a waiting list of people want to come. So perhaps another expedition awaits!
We left the UK and flew to Tromso via Oslo. The flight from Oslo to Tromso is longer than Gatwick to Oslo! The views from the plane of northern Norway were incredible as we approached Tromso.
On arrival at Tromso, having waited sometime in the luggage hall, one person’s bag had not made it!! As I am sure you can appreciate that this was not a good start – well for him anyway! They would try and get the bag to us by tomorrow but tomorrow would be too late as we would be some where and we had no idea where but not near human habitation. So this was #challenge 1! A random group of men who do not know each other particularly and we already have one down with no clothes for the expedition. I should not have worried as everyone offered kit from their bags without being asked and the team at Villmarkssenter provided most of the required kit and our mining engineer was back to being a willing participant. His chilled and reasoned approach to the whole affair was most impressive.
We met our two main guides who own the centre Tove and Torkil (mother and son). At this point, having read and dreamed so much about dog sledding, here I was in the arctic circle about to embark on living my dream and not only that we were going to be led by two of the most capable and experienced mushers in Norway. Tove, before I even met her, was a legend as she has completed the Iditarod race across Alaska – 1,000 miles across the world’s toughest terrain and to enter it, finish it and do this as a woman on your own (it is a solo event and Tove did it some years ago) event is incredible. #Respect Torkil is planning to follow in his mother’s footsteps. Both Torkil and Tove regularly race and do the Finnmarkslopet which is a 1200km race and they came 10th and 11th respectively this year (March).
The night before departure we had to learn how to put up our tents, prime and use our petrol stoves and how to handle and harness the dogs. We were also issued with an outer layer of clothing, arctic boots and our food boxes to keep our calorie count up for the next five days.
Departure day and we watched in amazement as 14 sleds (two other guides from the centre were joining us) and 80 dogs were loaded onto one trailer. We then drove for a couple of hours into the mountains to our start point where we had to quickly learn how to pack and distribute our kit and food as well as the dogs’ food and other expedition items such as an ice hole grinder (a giant corkscrew). #Challenge 2 was not only the allocation of expedition kit but also confirmation of tent partners as we had two three-man tents and one two man. Hanging out with a stranger is one thing but sleeping, working and cooking together takes it to a new level! The tent partnerships determined the ‘order of march’ of the sleds as tents and dogs would be kept together and with 80 dogs on 12 lines our camp was about 50 meters long.
Before we set off we had one final briefing by Tove and Torkil. Tove had only one thing to say and that was “on this expedition there are only two rules – no fuc…g and no fighting” to which we all look somewhat thrown until she then smiled riley and said “and I am talking about the dogs”. With 80 dogs and bitches, some on heat, as well as normal dog behaviour then this would be key and so maintaining control of the dogs came first and that meant never letting go of them when moving them from their harnesses to night lines as well as untangling them on occasions when on the sled. We were given our dogs, had a label on our sled with their names and it was key that the dogs were on the back, bitches at the front and that you positioned your lead dog at the front. The lead dog as we all learnt was critical, so much so that all the guides allowed their lead dogs to sleep in their tents and not outside!
The first day was quite a lot of uphill to get onto the top of the plateau and this was a challenging start as ‘mushing virgins’ with a narrow sled weighing up to 200kgs, big arctic boots which were like astronaut boots so wide and slow as well as a team of six dogs who were not only mad but on fire to get up the hill as quickly as they can and ideally overtaking or fighting other teams that came too close. Fortunately two hours heading up hill reduced their over exuberance to a level that we could get to grips with staying on the sled, stopping it and trying to get the dogs to do as they were asked! The most important rule is that you never get off your sled without applying the big metal anchor into the snow to act as a handbrake as otherwise you have the walk of shame when your dogs take off without you. I have to confess that I broke this rule on day 3 trying to retrieve my hat and thinking I could get away with a short dash but ending up up to my waist in snow, my hat blowing away and my sled disappearing off into the distance. #Challenge 3 – no matter what you think you are capable of keep to the rules of the road or procedures be it handling your dogs, putting up your tent or packing your sled.
We continued our journey camping along the way (see map) and the technical nature of the mushing increased from running along the side of a hill to heading through along a narrow track in a wood with tight corners and steep hills. Mushing is exhilarating not only as it is one of the purest forms of travel in such conditions but for the fact that you rely on your dogs to get you from a to b with ‘some’ guidance and ‘control’ from the musher. The need and ability to break depends on your team of dogs, the snow conditions, the type of terrain and the balance of you and the sled. Brake at the wrong time, lose your balance or nerve and you will find yourself in a potentially very dangerous situation not only for you but your dogs. The sled can land on you, you can hit a tree or rock, the anchor can hit you or the dogs or you can watch as your sled overtakes your dogs’ wiping them out with sometimes fatal consequences. On the expedition a number of us did either come off our sleds, get dragged along by them or in one case a decision to tactically dismount before disaster struck was made.
How not to do it by the blog author!
On one challenging section one of the guides (a young and very fit man) came off his sled and was badly hit by his snow anchor in the area of his eye. After a stop and check we continued on until we were out of the woods but it was clear that Victor was not good and he eventually slumped over his sled and we had to do an emergency stop. The surgeon in the group did a quick analysis but his line of business is prostates not head injuries but he did a great job talking to the emergency services and fortunately a Sami (local indigenous reindeer herders) passed shortly afterwards on a snowmobile with a trailer so Victor was taken 1.5 hours by snow mobile to a waiting ambulance and to hospital where he remained for two days. He has since made a full recovery.
#Challenge 4 will be clear to you now in that we have 12 teams of dogs, 12 sleds and a casualty who requires attention be it getting ground matts from everyone for him to lie on or additional warm clothing to reduce the chances of hypothermia. This requires everyone to work together and not panic. Having not been trained to do this or being an established team this could have been a big challenge. Fortunately it wasn’t as everyone remained calm, Tove and Torkil spoke to the Norwegian Red Cross and an evacuation plan was hatched. When something like this happens in the middle of nowhere everyone from miles around stops what they are doing and prepares themselves to support which is very reassuring. Once Victor and the other guide were safely despatched by snow mobile we then had 16 dogs and two sleds to spread amongst us which is not as easy as you think as remember these are teams of dogs who need to work together and not all dogs work well with each other. The silver lining in the cloud was that my team went from a team of 6 to a team of 10 which was like having a super charged car and the power of this team was incredible but also increased the challenge for my breaking and balance!
The average speed we achieved with the dogs was 14-16kmh and top speeds achieved were 28-30kmh which means you can cover lots of ground quickly where this is possible. The type of terrain determines you physical engagement from standing up with a wind chill of -10 degrees to -20 degrees to helping the team get up a hill by running alongside or pushing the sled as well. #Challenge 5 is that you learn that you can go from being very hot to very cold very quickly and that having the right layers on and the ability to out on a jacket whilst on the move is key. Not as easy as it sounds!
The distances that the dogs run can be as much as 120-150km in a day but on our trip on the main days we did up to 60kms in the day.
There are seven breeds of husky all designed for different things be it speed, load bearing, hardiness or stamina. Our dogs were racing dogs and a mix of a number of these as well as the odd greyhound gene. Without doubt the dogs were the most amazing animals and to work and look after them for five days was an amazing experience and honour. When not sleeping they are singing, trying to ‘f and f’, pull the sled on their own or chew whatever they can reach. They do everything on the run, drink, pee and poo and contrary to popular belief the latter two do not end up on you as wind faeces! No need for a fencing mask as one person suggested to me.
Norwegian Husky Choir practicing for Eurovision!
They eat two meals a day. Dry food at night along with frozen pigs guts and then more pig guts in the morning. All the water they need they get from the snow. You get to know your team well and they get to know you and all of the guides know all of the dogs’ names and by all I mean the 300+ that they have in total. The dogs start work at 18 months and can run until they are 10 when they retire and are adopted by locals and live out a couple more years in luxury. The truth is that they want to run and run and run so retirement is not looked forward to. The most striking thing about them for me was that the harsher the conditions, the tougher the climb, the more enthusiastic and vocal they became. I think this is a great lesson for us all and I still think of them when it was blizzarding driving forward and singing as they went. A lesson for all of us to reflect on.
A sleeping dog! Ours got coats!
Sadly, the five days flew by and whilst we were all nervous and unsure as to what it would be like, how we would manage and for me would everyone get on and have a magical time I cannot believe how positive the expedition was in every respect. Every single person says it has changed them in some way with a couple saying it is up there with the birth of their children. We learnt so much about ourselves, each other and the dogs but ultimately that without this great team of humans and animals we would have gone nowhere. History tells of many great adventures mushing be it the diptheria epidemic in Alaska in 1925 where a series of dog team saved lives by getting the serum to Nome in Alaska or the Iditarod race that followed in 1973. In my experience travelling from place to place by dog, camping out, catching our supper by ice fishing and being away from modern comforts can teach you a lot about what matters in life and sometimes I think it is good to get off the mad fast train we are all on and do something different.
Mushing and managing to hang on!
Returning to Mental Health Week I would urge everyone to look at ways physically and mentally to take yourself out of your comfort zone but it must challenge you and be something you should build and prepare for. Visualisation in all of this is key and as the famous saying goes
DREAM. BELIEVE. DO.
No matter how big or how small set a goal for yourself and you will be amazed how it can help you and those you work and live with.
Matthew is giving presentations about the history of mushing and his experience in the arctic in return for a donation to charity. If your company wants to be inspired and benefit a charity at the same time then get in touch.
I would like to acknowledge and thank my wife, Nicola, for giving me this present and finding the guides and to those who took up the challenge to join Expedition Arctic Dog counter to what their minds and families might have been telling them. Thank you Tove and Torkil and to Ollie, Dom, Will, James, Declan, Danny and Luke for joining me and allowing me to live a life long dream.
Takk skal du ha
“Jobs fill your pocket. Adventures fill your soul.”
Jaime Lyn Beatty
To those who this appeals to and those who wanted to come – anyone for Expedition Arctic Dog 2?