No, you cannot carp about my preparation. I knew it: man and dog have as many misunderstandings as man and woman. So I got the »dog-German/German-dog« dictionary by the TV-famous dog trainer Martin Rütter and completed the test »Are you a dog friend« very diligently. Result: patchy.
To the question »Can you sleep at night in positions that every yoga expert would be jealous of? And only, so that your dogs will not be disturbed in your bed?” I replied callously »No!«. Heavy setback. When I walked my neighbour’s Golden Retriever the other day, I felt really bad and to suck up to the dog I bought him a bag of dog chew bones. No, I was not quiet the dog whisperer. It would be difficult up there in the north.
Crash course for dog sled beginners
At the start it feels like being in a madhouse. 180 Alaska-huskies cannot wait to get going. They are tough and clever crossbreeds, rather small dogs weighing 20 kilos but bred for great strength, condition and speed. Amongst the ear-deafening barking and howling I can hardly understand what Chrioph Hentschel (45), forester from Soest, and Fabian Best (19), student from Potsdam, are saying. The three of us stand for Team Germany. All of us are musher-beginners who hope that the dogs will not notice.
Our guides René and Amanda give final instructions: Never let go of the sled! To stop, cast the snow anchor and flip the sled over it! In case of a crash, grasp whatever you can get your hands on: preferably the clevis, but at the very least the line dragged behind so that the sled will not power away with the pack of dogs. »Ehm, so just to make sure: Will we then get dragged behind on our stomach?«, asks Christoph doubtfully. »Exactly«, replies René. »Ah okay.«, says Christoph and fights against any ideas of escapism.
Finally, the starting shot: Now I just have to decide to take one hand off the clevis and loosen the rope that holds the sled to the trembling birch tree. And suddenly my six-pack of dogs shoots ahead and accelerates up to 30 kilometres per hour within seconds. The sled swerves and jumps like a motor boat above bumps. My arms grow taller, my fingers clench around the clevis. At the same time I try to pull the hood of my down jacket – which makes me look like a Michelin Man – over my head to protect myself against the pricking ice crystals. Minus 10 degrees plus 5 metre wind speed per second – which equates to a minus 20 degree wind chill.
After we managed the first 20 kilometres without a fall, we start to relax. For the first time, we move our eyes above the bushy tails, sharp ears and constantly working paws. Christoph looks over to me and shouts: »Isn’t this sheer madness? I feel like in the movie »The Last Trapper!«
We are above the tree line, only a snow-covered landscape stretches all the way to the horizon. There is no house. No power pole. No road. Nothing. It is a time for pleasure: Sliding along to the noise of six times four paws, the rushing of the dry snow underneath the runners. The shoulders gradually lower, the chin rises: the vast white country lies below the pale blue sky.
Toil and moil you lazy cow – barks the lead dog!
Still, there is time to breathe in the landscape: wave after wave, the Tundra rises, calm and majestic, bathed in an almost unnatural light. It’s like this the whole day. Around 6 pm, Christoph says that he would not mind reaching the camp soon. When we cast the snow anchor, Team Germany is close to collapsing. There is no time to lick our wounds though: »Dogs first!« is the supreme rule for a musher. The macramé of dragline and rope which holds the huskies in the right order on the steel rope for the night needs untangling and 24 paws have to be checked for injuries. Then, we unpack the axe, turn on the Primus cooker to melt the snow, chop the frozen dog food sausages into pieces and bring the yummy soup to boil. Then, going to each dog with a bowl and a scoop, we serve the steaming mash. That’s how you say »Thank you« for 70 kilometres, adding a few strokes while the huskies curl up into weatherproof fur balls.
Team Germany in a spin
On the next day our muscles ache in places we did not even know muscles existed. Still, there is already a bit of a routine. And the dogs have already grow on us. We realise they are the stars of the whole excursion. Without them, we would be lost. It is their horsepower-gene which keeps us going. Barely hidden wolf-like instincts and power ensure a constantly taut rope – it must be heaven on earth for an experienced and professional (!) musher.
We are still the absolute beginners. I mean, we did realise that a sled is not a mountain bike and has neither handlebars nor disc brakes, and that it wiggles like a cow’s tail. And that it likes to fall over when you do not absorb the movement with your knees while steering, or when you do not put your weight into the curve whilst staring at the tree that you were supposed to avoid. Worlds lay between theory and praxis. When I turn around after the downhill run, I can just see how Christoph rushes around the curve. He is pushing the brakes down, snow is flying everywhere. His dogs are too fast. One hand on the clevis, he tries to keep the balance. The sled flings around like an empty shoe box, tips and falls over. But Christoph does not let go and manages to pull himself up again. He recorded everything with the camera on his helmet. His kids back home will be so proud of their tough dad. Above the heads of the six huskies, imaginary bubbles appear filled with dog curses. Christoph can accept that.
Northern Lights and survival training
And besides, we turned into survival experts. Survival trainer Johan Skullman is responsible for that. The former army officer – author of a survival book and equipment developer for Fjällräven – showed us how to pitch tents storm-proof, make fire in the snow, work a spiritus cooker and how to dress correctly in the Arctic climate. He gives us a final test: He wants us to sleep in a self-build winter bivouac underneath the stars. We are not allowed to touch our tents, only sleeping bags and bivouac bags are part of the game.
Christoph and Fabian shrug their shoulders, meaning: We can do that! After work we sit together, drinking a strong cowboy coffee. A little fire flickers near our snow apartment. I can‘t help thinking about the Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen who used to say: »Give me dogs, give me snow – keep the rest.«
Now we just want to party
The rest is a piece of cake. On the fourth day and with splendid weather we are already at our destination in the afternoon. More than 300 kilometres are behind us. We have learnt how to work as a team and have gained friends from all over Europe. We pulled ourselves together when we were dog tired. Now, all we want to do is to celebrate. Matti from Team Finland heats up the sauna. Peter the pub owner from Staffordshire takes care of the beer. Maria and Beatrice have tears in their eyes and can hardly say goodbye to their dogs. Erik from Norway calls his children to confirm that he has survived. And Pedro from Portugal lurks doubtfully around the sauna cabin: »Should I really go in there? All naked as well?«
Fjällräven Polar 2013: Two 4-Seasons readers must be the next mushers!
Every year from 1996 to 2006, Fjällräven invited outdoor and adventure friends from all over Europe to a dog sled competition to North Sweden. And only people who had no experience of such a sport. It was Kenth Fjellborg’s idea, one of the most famous mushers in Sweden. In 2012, the idea experienced a revival, but not as a competition but as a tour. There was a huge run for the 20 places of the »Fjällräven Polar« - after all, Fjällräven covered all the costs (including travel expenses and the final party). More than 1,000 applicants uploaded a video onto the Fjällräven website trying to get the most Facebook likes. In the end, participants from twelve nations came together and were sent on the 300 kilometre long run. For four days and three nights. Each musher steered a sled with six dogs. They went in national teams, accompanied by a professional musher.
Apply for 2013
Fjällräven Polar will take place again in April 2013 — and 4-Seasons has two exclusive places of the worldwide 20 places to give away. You can apply with your own video from the 20th of November 2012 onwards. On the same day, we will publish all the application information online on www.4-seasons.de. Good luck!
25. Oktober 2012, Text: Günter Kast