3 flights, 1 night layover in Olso, a 4 hour bus ride, travel totaling over 24 hours of travel and a lot of jet lag… Finally gets us to the small town we will call home for the next two weeks, Karasjok, Norway.
On the final flight of the trip, we look out the plane window and see a desert of white scattered with mountains and fjords in the distance. We brace ourselves for the cold weeks ahead and hope our layers of gear will actually be able to keep us warm.
Our first “adventure” begins with taking the dogs for a walk. I say “adventure” because this is just day to day life for those in Karasjok. We quickly found out that taking the dogs for a walk means putting your cross country skis on, strapping into a harness to clip on to some of the dogs, and heading down to the frozen river for a high speed ski/run. As soon as we get down to the river we run into two dogsled teams out for a “walk”: as well. Kasper chats for a few minutes, as those teams move on, we see and hear our friends from Engholm huskie kennel in the distance. Before we know it we are surrounded by almost 15 yearling puppies with endless energy. On the river, the dogs can run free to let out their pent up energy from the kennel. Three older dogs come along to pull us on skis, so that we can keep up with the youngsters, and that was our first glimpse into the power these dogs have. By the time we had gotten back home the dogs had effortlessly ran and pulled us at least 10 km and still looked fresh.
The next day we had the opportunity to go with a local reindeer herder into the mountains to check on the herd. Some use modern technology like GPS tracking and snowmobiles to find the herd each day and make sure all the animals are healthy. The trend for warmer winters is making life more challenging for the reindeer. We learned that warmer temperatures correlate with more precipitation which means the reindeer have to use lots of energy digging down through the snow to get food. One herder told us that this winter he is having to drop feed twice a day which he has never had to do before. Reindeer are also a necessity for human survival in the harsh environment. They are a primary source of meat, and their skins are commonly used for warm clothing or seats in the snow. Even though we had excellent technical gear, we soon realized that no matter how hard modern technology tries, nothing matches a reindeer hide for insulating warmth or comfort in the cold.
After a few days to acclimatize to the temperatures, we were ready to truly dive in to the cold and go on some overnight camping trips. Our first was a snowshoe hike out to a Gamme. This traditional building made of sticks and peat was built by a local high school class following native Sami building techniques. Snow collects around the building in the winter and forms an insulating cone that is very effective at retaining heat on the inside. As the sun went down and the temperatures dropped to negative 10 outside, we were comfortable in our base layers inside.
Our second overnight trip was a true test for Max and I. We set out with our friends Kasper, Ingrid, their two dogs, skis and pullka (the sled that you pull behind you as you ski). We had 18km between us and a mountain hut. The temperatures up until this point had remained fairly mild not dropping below negative 10. A cold front had come the night before and we were now faced with temperatures dipping to -30 and below. When the temperatures are this cold, simply walking outside for a brief moment will shock your body and penetrate everything you’re wearing. In the 5 minutes it took us to unload the van, get skis on, and get moving, my hands and feet were already going numb. Kasper and Ingrid are used to this. As I’m second guessing everything, I look at them and they’re smiling, ready to go. I remember a common phrase that Max and I had heard from everyone we came across the last couple of days – ‘The only way to warm up is to work.’ And so, we set off, determined to not only survive but thrive like they do.
Before I know it I am actually sweating. Sophia, a younger dog at just over a year old, is attached to my waste harness and we glide through the sparkling snow together. Every once in awhile she’ll look back at me or the group, or get distracted by a little stick she wants to chew on, otherwise she’s all business. A few times I stop to adjust something or grab a drink of water and she looks at me like “What are you doing??? Let’s goooo!!!” and literally yanks me to the ground trying to run. Eventually I learned that the only way to slow little Sophia down was to sit on the ground with her in my lap. She was either snuggling or running, there was no standing around for her. After 18 hard earned kilometers on our skis, we arrived to the huts just as the sun was setting. Max brought the tent just in case we wanted to sleep outside and keep an eye out for Northern Lights, but after we started the fire in the cabin and the temperature rose to a comfortable 60 degrees inside it seemed like lunacy to try and sleep outside in the negative 30 degree weather. We enjoyed a cozy night in the hut before waking up the next morning to hike the 18km back out to the car.
On our last day we were finally able to go out on a sled with a whole team of dogs. After visiting the kennel on the first day we realized that all the dogs try to act tough and macho, but once you’re within arm’s reach they only want snuggles. The have a big bark, endless energy, and so much love. At first they all blend together, but we quickly realize they all have their own personalities and mannerisms. One of our favorites we named Side Winder because as soon as you were close enough to pet him, he would tilt his head to the side and reach out is paw in an effort to hook you in for a longer pet.
Max and I would be in charge of 2 sleds and 8 dogs for the day. As we helped harness each of them we could feel the energy build. The dogs begin barking and yanking at their harness, signaling they are ready to go. Between the dogs and all of the layers over our ears, we almost have to yell to hear each other. Our guide Sven gives us a two minute tutorial on how to drive the sled, as this is a new experience for both of us. As soon as we lift the sleds anchor, the dogs charge forward at full speed pulling us about 10 miles per hour through the forest. Behind us we hear the dogs that were left at the kennel howling as their friends leave. The dogs pull full speed ahead over anything a everything. We can see every muscle in their body working as they pull us while they manage to make it look effortless. These dogs are so determined that they will not stop for anything except the brake. We learned they won’t even stop if you fall off the sled, they will literally run until they can’t any longer or the sled happens to get caught by something strong enough to hold them back. These dogs were made for this. The feeling of being pulled by that much power and enthusiasm is something we will never forget. It is a rush and appreciation that is hard to describe.
Part of what made a trip like this so special is the fact that we truly have to work together to survive in these conditions. Humans, nature, animals all coming relying on each other. Again, a special thanks to those who welcomed us with open arms Kasper, Ingird, Sven, Krystal and the dogs. And a special thanks to the beautiful outdoors that continues to inspire us, push us, and humble us.