When Susanne Edwards casually mentioned on our facebook wall that she’d been dogsledding in the Arctic with a pack of 50 dogs I was more than impressed. And I had to hear the story! I knew you’d love it too. I asked her if she’d like to contribute to the All Things Dog Blog and what follows is her fabulous contribution. Thanks so much Susanne for sharing this amazing story with us!
There I was, after some 8 months of fitness training, sat in a wooden cabin in the Arctic Circle being briefed on what we were about to undertake and what we needed to know to be safe. Was I worried at this point? You bet I was worried! I was about to sled over 200 kilometres from our base camp into the Arctic wilds of the most northern European country of Norway.
We ate a hearty supper before being kitted out with a survival suit, boots and gloves. Under the provided kit, we had our own sub zero layers, wind proof fleeces and seriously thick socks.
Our first lesson, and the most important, was in caring for the fifty dogs that we would be depending on over the six days of our adventure.
The pack consisted of a variety of Siberian Husky crosses, all bred with speed and endurance in mind. These dogs work hard, they like it that way. They sleep outside tethered to a line. When you go to them in the morning they are curled in a ball under a layer of snow, and yes, they like it that way.
The dogs are very cuddly and sweet with humans, But, as a large pack, their instincts are strong and fighting often broke out. A stapler was an essential part of the expedition leader’s kit, these creatures could put nasty wounds in each other faces. I also saw that there was no room for a softly, softly approach in this environment. The expedition leader, the owner of the dogs, ruled his pack with a firm hand and two heavy boots!
Feeding that many dogs is a challenge in the best circumstances, but when the temperature is -28°C it becomes a major feat. The dogs were always fed before us humans, twice a day, 6 to 6.30am and before supper in the evening.
To get the dogs fed, we had “the mix team”, and “the bowl runners”. As the food was made ready by the mix team, the bowl runners lined up stainless steel bowls for the brown sludge to be slopped into, they then dashed at the best speed possible, considering the snow was up to our knees at times. With bowls placed in front of dogs, the runners collected empties on the way back and the cycle continued until all the dogs had full bellies.
Now if feeding them sounds like a tough job, imagine the poop scooping. You scoop one and six more appear!
Speed in preparing the dogs was critical, firstly, the days are short in the winters of Norway, so an early departure was essential for safety. Secondly, Huskies don’t like to stand still, they just want to get running, so the slower you are, the more noise they make!
Dogs and humans fed, we worked on mastering the quick attachment of dog from tether to sled line. The dogs are strong and handling them is not easy, and letting go is not an option, even when you have fallen face first in deep snow.
The sled is held by a snow anchor, a two pronged hook that is dug into the snow, not always reliable, and often a struggle to release when you have four dogs jumping forward on the lines in their eagerness. The brake is operated by a foot plate that digs spikes into the snow beneath it, but even with my full weight, I never once managed a controlled stop, I had wished I had eaten more donuts prior to my trip!
The feeling of gliding over the snow and the sound of the sled runners swishing through the snow is something special. When everything is running smoothly it is bliss, the isolation, the sparkling air, the vast whiteness and the lack of any other noises.
However, when the dogs decide to slow up and you must jog for long stints to aid them, it is hot, tiring work. Running in so many layers of clothing, in large snow boots in deep, soft snow is exhausting. Add to this, the terrain would turn from flat to mountainous. A long struggle up, followed by a panic to get on the sled to control the fast descent.
I was terrified of falling. We had seen one head injury on day two, which fed my fear further. My first fall was comical. I had taken a downhill turn badly and literally flew through the air and landed in a snow drift. Up I jumped. I had let go of my sled! As predicted my team were racing to the front of the train. I am up and running as quick as a flash, shouting “Dogs loose!” Loose sleds are very dangerous. I caught up with my sled and took a huge leap and landed, somehow, with my feet on the runners. I had got away with it, and entertained my fellow sledders too!
Each day presented it’s own challenges. Factors included the weather, from white outs, to biting winds that reduced the temperatures to -34°C. The terrain, changing from frozen lakes and rivers to beautiful forests with hard to navigate tracks. The dogs, they had good days and terrible days, my team managed to win me the award for the most “off-piste” sledding.
We would stop briefly to eat and drink. Hot drinks would be cold by lunchtime and the only way to keep your food thawed was to put it inside your suit. All food was high carb and drinks high calorie.
At the end of each day we stayed in cabins. They were very basic, but perfectly cosy and comfortable. We would fetch water from icy streams, on one occasion we drilled a hole in the ice of a frozen lake and used a small bucket on a line to draw water. Wet wipes became my best friend as did my woolly hat that hid my grotty hair.
Toilet facilities were outside and either of the “long-drop” or the “find a private spot” variety. Both gave me a good chance to marvel at the Northern Lights in the depths of the night.
I think back to my adventure in 2006 and recall some magical moments. But the most notable was the morning we had just finished feeding the dogs and the sun began to rise above the hill turning the blue tinted snow pink, as we stood in awe, the dogs lifted their heads and howled, fifty dogs howling at the break of dawn put a tear in the eyes of us all.
So why did I undertake such a challenge? As a member of a team of 10 women, we raised just over 50,000 UK pounds for our local cancer hospice. Plus, I came home with a new perspective on what I am capable of, and a much fitter mind and body.
If you ever get the chance to try dog sledding…. do! It is, as you guys say here in Australia “AWESOME”
Susanne Edwards, I live in the Hills of Melbourne with my patient husband, my Brittany Merlin and my English Cocker Spaniel Budleigh. http://about.me/SusanneEdwards