Text by Steve Vickers
A loud bark echoes across the forest. Then, as the bone-white moon breaks through blackened clouds, the howling begins. A few dogs at first, then hundreds at once, tilting their snouts towards the sky. It’s a sound that swirls through the trees like a snowstorm and sends shivers through anyone listening.
“They’ll do this another three or four times before we go to sleep,” shouts Phil Parkes, checking the lines on his dogsled as night begins to fall. The British helicopter pilot has spent the past three days learning to be a musher, and is getting used to life in the wild.
As part of Fjällräven Polar, a grueling four-day challenge deep inside the Arctic Circle, he and 19 other adventurers have been riding dogsleds from Norway’s mountainous north and into Swedish Lapland, covering hundreds of kilometers in the process and camping wild as temperatures drop as low as –20°C.
Tonight, as they approach the end of their journey, the participants are preparing for another test: sleeping in the snow without even a tent for shelter. Dotted around the snowy forest floor are hastily dug trenches just big enough to hold their sleeping bags.
“We want to show that with the right equipment and knowledge, anyone can enjoy the wilderness,” says Martin Axelhed, CEO of the Swedish clothing brand Fjällräven, which organizes the challenge once a year and invites applications from around the world.
Armed with specially designed parkas, thermal sleeping bags and reinforced camping gear, the participants are expected not just to survive in the harsh sub-Arctic conditions, but actually enjoy them too.
Some of those taking part in this year’s challenge have experienced extreme weather before, and a few have worked with sled dogs. But until now many have never even been camping in snowy conditions – and certainly not in the far north of Scandinavia.
Apart from the cold, other challenges facing participants include the blinding brightness of the midday sun, which bounces off the frozen lakes and rivers; biting winds, which hammer at the lips and cheeks for hours on end; and some very temperamental canines.
“All of the dogs have different names and personalities,” says Amanda, one of the Norwegian participants, chopping up fat sausages of frozen dog food for the huskies’ dinner.
Her teammate Madeleine says some of the dogs are friendly and easy-going, but others are more troublesome. “Just like people,” she jokes.
For most of the 300km journey, which follows traditional reindeer-herding routes over mountain passes and sheets of frigid permafrost, the 210 huskies set the pace. Snaking between the trees on narrow trails they show that they’re well adapted to the climate, but it’s on the ceramic flatness of the frozen lakes that they really hit their stride, pushing forward with only the tiniest pitter-patter of paws.
When it’s time to stop, they cool down by rolling their faces in the snow. And as soon as they get the chance, they eat. On a four-day trip like Fjällräven Polar, the dogs can chow their way through more than 2,500kg of meat.
To make all of this possible, a huge support operation is pushed into action. Snowmobiles follow alongside the dogs, helping any that get tangled in their lines. One of Sweden’s most successful-ever mushers, Kenth Fjellborg, is on hand to give the participants tips. And Johan Skullman, an outdoors expert who spent years develop gear for the Swedish military, gives advice on keeping warm, dry and alive.
This year, 900 people applied to join the challenge, attracted by the idea of an adventure in one of Europe’s last great wilderness areas. But it’s not an experience that suits everyone. “There are a lot of emotions going on,” says Martin Axelhed. “There’s so much to take in and so much that takes place during these few days.”
Add in long, cold days on the sled, back-to-basics accommodation (or simply a hole in the snow) and plenty of physical work, and the effect can be overwhelming. Before reaching the finish line, one of the twenty people chosen to take part in this year’s challenge was forced to drop out, suffering from exhaustion.
But for those who make it to the finish line, the experience is often life changing.
“I could quite easily live here,” says 42-year-old IT consultant Phil Raisbeck, the other Brit chosen to take part. In 2012 he took a life-changing holiday – a 250km walk through the Pyrenees, staying in tiny French villages along the way. “I’ve decided that all of my holidays from now on have to involve an activity of some kind,” he says. “My ultimate goal now is to ascend Mont Blanc.”
By surviving four days as a musher inside the Arctic Circle, you could say he’s just moved one step closer.
Find out more about Fjällräven Polar at fjallraven.com/polar