Flying into Kiruna, a city located high in the Arctic Circle of Sweden, the sun was already setting over a pristine white landscape. Despite it only being early afternoon, the winter’s sun had transported us into a twilight zone of orange, pinks and deep blues as we landed on a runway thick with snow and ice.
I was travelling with a group of other adventurers, who were all there to take part in a Dog Sledding Charity Challenge. I had signed up last summer on behalf of the charity I work for – Spinal Injuries Association. As we took our first steps off the plane, the air was bitterly cold and our breath cast foggy clouds around us as we made our way into arrivals to be greeted by our guides for the next five days: Daniella and Eric. I stood shivering, trying not to panic about how I would survive temperatures this cold, without succumbing to hypothermia. Before I could make a hasty retreat back onto the warm plane, however, we were led to trucks that would deliver us to our home for the night: the Mushers’ Lodge.
Pulling up to the lodge, Christmas lights still twinkled on the trees (the Swedes keep these up throughout the winter period) and the chimneys softly puffed out clouds of smoke. It looked magical, until the doors opened. What greeted me was the complete pandemonium of over fifty huskies barking and howling in excitement as we unloaded our bags. These were wild dogs, bred to run and they were getting impatient whilst they waited for their bumbling guests to release them. I was, quite frankly, terrified.
Fortunately, our first afternoon was going to be gentle, and after a warming lunch of chunky soup and plenty of hot drinks, we made our way to the famous Ice Hotel. This beautifully created hotel is made anew each year, where for a hefty sum, you can spend the night amongst ice and snow, even enjoying a few cocktails in the ice bar. We toured the hotel in complete awe, weaving our way in and out of the individually designed bedrooms, before settling into the ice bar for a strong drink to warm our now numb hands and feet. The novelty of having a drink in this particular bar is that you also pay for your glass, which is carved from a block of ice.
Before we left to make our way back to the Mushers’ Lodge, we said goodbye to all mobile signal and communication with friends and family. The next few days would truly be wild. The evening was spent over candle light, getting to know one another before an incredibly early night (when the sun sets before 3pm, your body clock goes haywire). As I snuggled down into my sleeping bag, I could hear the huskies howling outside under the Arctic sky and I said a small prayer that they would be kind to me over the coming days.
Saturday morning was a shock to the system. After each being allocated our team of four dogs (Bono, Eva, Jamey and Jake), we were casually told to collect them from their kennels and harness them to the sled. What ensued was complete mayhem. Attempting to hold onto a husky who is bouncing like a pogo stick whilst navigating thick snow and ice is incredibly hard. I fell, my shoulders were yanked from their sockets, my fingers burned and my ears were ringing from the incessant barking of the dogs. By the time I had all four of my dogs harnessed, I was exhausted. Gripping onto my sled, waiting for Daniella to give us the OK to start easing our foot off the brake, I felt sick. My dogs were so fired up that I seemed to be moving despite the fact I was manically using all my body weight to press on the brake. Thankfully, another adventurer, Pete could see I was nervous and ran over for a quick hug before we set off.
The first 500m of sledding was eventful, with two of my team members falling off before we had really made it out of camp. I think all of us at that point were wondering what on earth we had let ourselves in for. Eventually, however, the dogs started to calm down and the morning was spent winding through trails of alpine trees; their branches bending under the weight of the snow. The more I relaxed, the more I began to enjoy myself and realised how very lucky I was to be exploring this beautiful landscape whilst my dogs gently panted ahead of me.
Wrists aching, fingers and toes numb and my hair now literally frozen, we stopped for lunch in a tipi, with the welcome sight of a crackling fire and some more warming soup. Huddled together, we shared stories of our first morning, all of us a little overwhelmed but invigorated by the experience. After we had managed to dry our gloves and hats a little by the fire, and braved the long-drop, we were off again, following a trail that would take us to our home for the next two nights: the Wilderness Camp.
The lodge, located past a giant frozen lake, lacked running water or electricity. I wasn’t expecting the most comfortable accommodation as I walked up its steps, aching from yet another round of unharnessing the dogs and settling them into their kennels for the night. What greeted me, however, was beautiful. A wood stove was burning, candles flickered and oil lamps lined the walls of the lounge and kitchen area. Slumping onto the sofa, smelling of wet dog, I could feel my eyelids starting to droop but before I could succumb to sleep, we were called again to begin the chores for the evening. This bit, I wasn’t expecting to be so tough.
Barely having time to de-ice my hair by the fire, I was on my feet again, tasked with the job of collecting water from the creek, which lay down a hill behind the lodge. Dragging the sledge along behind me, my little group of three set off down an icy path to where a bucket and funnel was waiting for us. By this point, it was absolutely freezing, and so standing precariously on a few stones whilst dunking a bucket into the icy water was hard work. By the time we had lugged the sledge back up the hill, I was ready for bed. Unfortunately, however, bed was still a distant dream. The rest of the evening entailed helping to feed the dogs, cutting wood, foraging for bark to light the sauna fires, and scooping dog poo. It was exhausting but working as a team was unexpectedly fun and satisfying!
Before we could treat ourselves to dinner, we were led by Eric down a snowy path to an empty patch where we were going to begin the first stage of building an igloo. This, essentially, required us to shovel snow into a huge pile so that it would freeze over night, before we began the second stage the following evening. By this point, I think I was as helpful as a chocolate tea pot, but at least the shovelling was stopping my fingers from dropping off. Finally, tired, smelly, and starving hungry, we settled round the tables for our evening dinner, sharing more stories and generally enjoying each others’ company.
Without any access to the digital world, all attention was focused on the conversation. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had a dinner like that and it was truly refreshing. Eventually, the yawning got too much and after gently blowing out the candles, I made my way up to my top bunk and into my sleeping bag, falling into a deep, deep sleep.
I woke in the dark on Sunday morning, partly excited for the day ahead, partly dreading having to face the harnessing debacle all over again. Without the luxury of the bathroom, I put on every pair of thermals I owned, grabbed my head torch and trudged off to the long-drop toilet. I’ve never been very good in situations relating to bad hygiene and trying to use a long-drop, in -20 degrees, was a particularly tense experience for me. Without the opportunity to shower either and with the definite smell of dog still lingering on me, it was time to embrace my wild, cave man self, and prepare for the day! After the dogs were fed, water was collected, and we’d all had a very hearty breakfast, it was time to prepare our team for another day of sledding. Cue another round of complete mayhem.
Our second day of sledding was on a harder route and there were more casualties, including myself. As we were picking up speed down a steep hill, one of my team members behind me fell off her sled, leaving her dogs to carry on running. Unfortunately, dogs bred to run, will just run regardless of what’s in their way and I could do nothing but watch in increasing distress as the dogs and sled hurtled towards me, before the sled crashed into the back of my leg, pinning it between the runaway sled and my own. Even my dogs seemed a little concerned as I let out a round of expletives and stood grasping my knee. My group were very kind and ignored my swearing as they helped me recover. Fortunately, being in freezing conditions meant my knee was permanently on ice and caused me little trouble for the rest of the day as we sled across frozen lakes, against a baby pink sky.
Our second night was spent back at the wilderness camp and unfortunately by this point my knee had swollen to the size of a golf ball. My team looked after me so well that despite this, I remained in high spirits and with the help of a broom as a walking stick, I hobbled down to the igloo to see it in all it’s glory. My team had ordered me to stay inside whilst they finished the igloo and it was perfect – complete with a bench outside, a fire pit and candle holders inside. After being dragged head first into the igloo (no crawling on my knee) we sat in the quiet, listening to Eric impart his wisdom about this part of the world that we knew very little about. I will now forever carry two facts with me: that the inside temperature of an igloo is always -5 degrees and that a wolverine will kill for fun.
Before bed, I could take the unwashed feeling no more and decided to brave the sauna. I had never imagined having to wash my hair under a bucket of water whilst stood outside in -25 degrees, but there I found myself at 10.30pm, screaming as my team mate Lucy hurled buckets of water over my head, before we both scrambled back into the warmth of the sauna. Experiencing a true Swedish sauna? Tick.
We rose on Monday, our final day of sledding, with clear skies and as I made my way to the long-drop the moon still shone brightly in the sky. The clear skies had brought with them a whole new level of cold and I put on every layer I owned before I began my chores for the morning. Now a dab hand at harnessing the dogs, I had my team ready in my quickest time yet and with the sun now bright in the sky, we set off for a trail that would lead us back to the Mushers’ Lodge for our final night.
Monday was tough. The cold penetrated every layer and across the lakes, the wind whipped our faces. It’s fortunate we had such spectacular views to distract us, with the snow sparkling like little crystals under the sunshine. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen nature so beautiful. By lunch, we were all suffering from completely numb feet, hands and noses. It’s not a cold I’ve ever experienced before and we all huddled together around the fire, eating sausages and sharing small treats to keep us going. Without a doubt, being part of a team and knowing we were all feeling the same helped me to keep going that afternoon. I was torn, as we prepared our dogs for our last afternoon of sledding, between wanting to be warm and not wanting the experience to end.
The final afternoon was magic, with the sun setting to create pastel coloured skies. Watching my dogs bumble along ahead, it was with a heavy heart that I knew it was coming to and end. As I’ve mentioned previously, this is the first trip I’ve ever done alone and as cliche as it may sound, it was a once in a lifetime experience. It gave me the opportunity to be myself and enjoy the simple acts of being part of a team, sharing stories over candle light and simply living in the moment.
Our final night at the Mushers’ Lodge was truly memorable, and not just because we were reunited with a flushing toilet and hot running shower. After a delicious dinner and plenty of wine, the universe finally responded to my increasingly incessant requests and put on quite a show: the Northern Lights. Running like a woman possessed after being told the big event was finally unfolding, I launched outside into -30 degrees, armed with my tripod and camera. Above the sleeping dogs, the sky was perfectly clear, and amongst the twinkling stars a deep green wave was gently moving across the landscape. I was completely transfixed and decided that rather than rushing to look through a lens of a camera, I would simply stand and enjoy the lights for myself. I managed to capture a few images, but I mostly kept that moment to myself.
Our final morning in Kiruna took us to a traditional Sami Village, where we learned the history of the indigenous tribe and much to my delight, had the opportunity to meet some reindeer and feed them! It was a fascinating morning, and gave me a glimpse into a culture I know little about but would love to explore more. Scandinavia has stolen my heart. My last few hours were spent saying goodbyes to my dogs, which I found unexpectedly emotional. Although I don’t think they had formed any bond with me whatsoever, I definitely had with them.
My five days in the dog sledding in the Arctic were beyond anything I could ever have hoped for. Despite the cold, the basic living conditions, the physically tough and relentless chores, I could have stayed on for longer. The landscape, the dogs, the ability to switch off from the rest of the world and focus on the brilliant humans around me were all highlights for me. I left Kiruna with treasured memories, new friends and the knowledge that we had all positively contributed to charities close to our hearts. I could not recommend this type of experience enough and I’m certain this won’t be my last charity challenge!
If you’re interested in doing a charity challenge yourself, take a look at Classic Challenge for more information.