Saturday, January 9, 2010

Day 30 - 33: The Arctic Circle

And so we woke up... very early in the morning.

A travel day begins.

From Bergen to Oslo. Oslo to Kirkenes. Kirkenes to Lakselv.

The far north of Norway. Not all that far from the Russian border. (In the Kirkenes airport, even the ads were in Norwegian and Russian.) Really kind of the end of the world. Certainly the farthest north either of us had ever been.

Beth & the plane in Kirkenes

From the airport in Lakselv, we had a choice... We could either wait six hours for a bus or we could take a cab. Waiting didn't seem like much fun, so we took the cab instead. Chalk it up as my most expensive cab ride ever.

It was snowing. The roads were white. The scenery was white. It was beautiful.

The cab driver didn't say a word to us... I assume he didn't speak English, and I didn't really feel like breaking out the Norsk. It was enough to just sit silently in the cab, watching this world go by. We kept our eyes open for reindeer. Beth actually did see two on the drive. We arrived in Karasjøk early in the afternoon.

For reference...

Vancouver is at 49˚ latitude.
Bergen is at 60.39˚ latitude.
Karasjøk is 69.47˚ latitude.

The Arctic circle is at 66.33˚. We were officially in the Arctic Circle.

We wandered the grounds of the lodge. A team of dogs had just pulled in, so we stopped briefly to watch that. We were shown our cabin. Very cool log cabins handmade by the owner. Very natural.

We were introduced to our guide over dinner. Christel, a young woman from Bergen who was now spending her seventh year in Karasjøk.

It was just going to be the three of us. Well, fifteen dogs and us... heading off into the wild. (We each had four dogs, and Christel had seven because she carried all the gear.) We were outfitted with extra clothing. We already had four layers, and they gave us many more, including a second pair of snow pants, three layers of mittens, and a leather jacket with a fur-trimmed hood.

The next morning, we were off.

It was quite intense from the get go. We did two dog sledding trips last year, and compared to this, those were cheesy tourist things. This was hardcore. I fell off twice in the first ten minutes... We were flying down hills at high speed, hitting corners we didn't see coming.

We were told to lock our arm through the top of the sled in the event of a fall. We were also told that we would most definitely fall. And I did.

The arm locking was next to impossible at first. I held on as hard as I could, but the dogs don't slow down. When (if) you do manage to get them stopped, if you ease up the line even slightly, they start running again... pulling you down harder before you can get back up.

Twice I watched the dogs run away with the sled... Off into the distance. Twice I cursed to myself as I walked to catch up with Beth and Christel who had caught my dogs.

But once we were past those first hills, it wasn't so bad. We had this amazing sense of freedom, lost in our instincts and our own thoughts. Although we could see each other, we weren't close enough to talk. All you could do was watch the amazing scenery fly by and react to the terrain and your dogs.

We were glad to find out that there was more light in the day than the one hour we had been told to expect... There was actually a little over four. Not real sunlight or anything... just twilight. The sky gets bright for a little bit... and then it dims. It's quite an experience.

We were led over frozen rivers, frozen lakes, frozen paths... Well, let's face it, "warm" in these parts is considered -15˚C. Everything was frozen. Frozen, vast and beautiful. It felt like another planet.

We stopped on the way in and gathered wood to make a fire so we could eat lunch. There were reindeer skin pelts to sit on.

Us, eating lunch

Before long, we were off again. We had to take advantage of the light.

After about four hours of mushing 26 kilometres, we made it in to the mountain cabin.

The cabin is owned by the government. We were told that cabins without road access are generally owned by the government in Norway. There is a caretaker that works on the property year round, though he lives down in town with his family. He's the third generation of his family to care for this particular cabin. We saw him speeding around on his snowmobile on our last day.

It was very cold at first. The cabin is wood-fired, and no one had been there for days, so it was the same temperature inside as out. We loaded up on wood from the shed and Christel started up the two stoves. It didn't take too long to start to heat up and for us to thaw out. In the meantime we kept warm by carrying the wood from the shed and big jugs of water from the house, since the cabin has no plumbing. The toilets are unheated, uninsulated outhouses attached to the outside of the cabin. Brrr.

The second day was a journey up to the Finnmark plateau (Finnmarksvidda). We were above the tree line, so there was very little blocking the view. It was pretty amazing. Nothing but white snow as far as the eye can see, and maybe the occasional rock or shrub. It was incredibly peaceful.

For the record, I fell down five times on the second day. If you're trying to slow down your sled, stepping on the brake, it can be very easy to lose balance on uneven terrain... If your sled hits a hill at the wrong angle or any number of other things happens, suddenly you're hanging on to the sled for all you're worth, hoping that you can stop the dogs and regain your placement. Unlike the first day, I didn't let go of the sled this time round. At one point, this meant the dogs pulled me halfway across a lake face first. I used every bit of strength I had just to hold on and regain control.

Of course, for the record as well... Beth didn't fall once. She's a natural.

Each day was thoroughly exhausting and incredibly enjoyable. We were very glad to get back to the warmth of the cabin each afternoon. There was a lot of time to kill each day when the darkness came. Beth was very envious of Christel and her knitting, she'd left her own back at the lodge.

The farm at night

Each night we'd go outside to check, every hour or so, if the Northern Lights were in the sky. We had been hoping to see them since the beginning of the trip back in Iceland. The first night, there was no luck at all. The sky was clear and full of stars... but no lights. The second night, we got much luckier. As Beth and Christel walked back across the property from feeding the dogs, Christel spotted a green glow behind the cabin. Beth ran as fast as she could through the snow and ice in her 23948796 layers of clothing to get me from the cabin.

It was pretty amazing watching the green lights dancing across the sky. They only got brighter from when Christel and Beth first spotted them. The photos I got were well worth carrying my tripod the entire trip. It's not easy taking pictures when the temperature is -40˚C. My fingers were numb, my face was red... but I spent almost an hour out there taking pictures of the lights. It was really quite incredible.

Northern Lights

Day three was to be our trip back to the lodge. We cleaned up the cabin, gathered all the gear and prepared for the trek back.

Us & the dog teams

What a trek it was. Christel wanted to test Beth as she hadn't fallen off her sled at any point. We were asked before the midpoint of the trip if we wanted to take the easy way back (the way we had come in on the first day) or if we wanted to take a more challenging path (a trail used by reindeer herders on their snowmobiles that likely would be all fresh powder). I had my reservations against taking the harder path, but in the end it seemed like the bigger adventure and so we went for it. It was extremely intense. We were flying all out down hills with little or no chance of stopping since the icy ground left nothing for the brake to grip. We headed across lakes and suddenly found ourselves in the very middle in a half foot of slush. I'll admit, I did freak out a little the first time I felt my sled sinking into the slush... It is just overflow water from the lake, covering over the ice (which is likely several feet thick) but I didn't know that at the time. This day was easily the coldest of the three as well, our faces were taking quite the beating. Beth's boots hadn't properly dried the night before, so this became an issue for her as well.

The twilight was coming down on us. We stopped very quickly for lunch and some hot sugary juice to get our energy boosted up. We had only about 45 minutes of light left and likely an hour of mushing to make it back to the lodge. We were very tired, very sore... and very ready for the promise of a nice hot sauna when we did make it back.

The last 45 minutes of the run were the most intense and crazy of them all. There were times when all I could do was think to myself over and over "Ohh... This is going to hurt!" I fully expected to fall off at very high speeds on glare ice... yet somehow I managed not to. I think I prayed to every Norse god I could think of to get me through the runs.

The first signs of civilization were definitely a buoy to our spirits: lights and power lines through the trees. Finally, we found ourselves crossing the main road. The end was in sight. By this time, it was getting pretty dark and we were exhausted. It was nearly impossible to see the branches on the trail coming towards us, so I took a few good smacks across the face. I escaped with a bruised cheek and a few scratches. Beth was short enough and quick enough to be luckier than me. No damage.

Near the very end, we had to cross one more road. Unfortunately there had been snow plows coming through so each side of the road had a snow barrier close to four feet tall. We jumped down the first hill and up the second, only to find a steep tree lined hill challenging us again. There was very little time to react and brake... It was pretty much a miracle that I stayed on my sled for this as well. Beth put her foot through the inside of the brake, rather than on it. She came down the whole thing at full speed, but managed to keep control and not run over her dogs. It was one heck of a rush.

Then we heard the dogs barking from the dog yard... and a huge splash of relief came over us. We were back, the journey complete... and somehow, we were still whole.

I was definitely proud of Beth. She had done an excellent job the entire trek. I was proud of myself as well for surviving the last day without a single fall (well, ok, there was one... but it wasn't my fault).

Frozen Beth

We pulled into the dog yard, thanked our dogs and released them so they could play in the yard. Then we headed back to our cabin to prepare for our trip to the sauna. It felt so good to actually be able to have a shower after three days on the trail in the same clothes with no running water.

At dinner we found that there would be a bus the following morning to the airport. We were very glad not to have to take a taxi all the way there again. This would be a much easier hit on our wallets. As we were exhausted and it was to be an early morning again the next day... We said our farewells and retired for the night. Our alarms were set for 4 AM and our last big travel day before our trip home would be upon us before we knew it.

It was really an amazing experience. We're both very glad we did it. It was challenging, intense, and definitely an unforgettable adventure. Christel was awesome and we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Finnmark.

Now, with it complete, the trip was really winding down. Just a week in Copenhagen and we'll find ourselves on the way back home. As much as I love traveling, there is definitely a sense that it is time to get back to normal life.

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