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Sune skiing through a bit of wind and snow. (Day 4)
Caught by the Conditions
by Gisle Uren
I am skiing behind my dog sled, though skiing is a relative word here. I am on skis, but I am standing hip deep in wet grainy snow. The dogs are practically swimming in front of the sled. The sled itself is bogged down in the snow. No amount of pushing on my part or pulling on the dogs’ part is moving us forward. To make matters worse, we are going down a fairly steep incline. I look behind me and can only confirm that my Danish friend Sune Westh is not doing much better with his team, and they are following in our tracks.
We are on day five of our trip, during the last week of March 2010. We are literally stuck, caught by the conditions as it were. Our planned seven-day joyride has come to an abrupt end.
The first four days had been wonderful. Sune and I started out from the lake Femund and entered Femundsmarka National Park, a medium sized Norwegian wilderness area, with a terrain heavily marked by the last ice age. We then crossed over into Rogens Natural Preserve in Sweden for a few days, before looping back over the Norwegian border a little further north.
We have been alternating between tenting and sleeping in old cabins. These cabins are remnants from hunting, fishing, summer pasturage and logging activity in the area over several hundred years. Most of them are well cared for and some have been rebuilt within the last 20 years or so. They are left unlocked as a service to wanderers in the area and are stocked with firewood to limit the wear on the local forest. The cabins give us ample opportunity to dry any wet gear, but we mainly use them because they are old and have a wonderful historic atmosphere.
At lunch less than an hour ago, we were talking about maybe going home already this evening. We are going on a new trip in four days, a week-long family trip to a rented cabin in Femundsmarka. The extra time to unpack, dry out and repack gear would be useful. We only have about 5 km (3 mi) left to the shore of Femund, but right now it might as well be 50 km (31 mi). I seriously doubt we will get home tonight.
When going on wilderness trips we prefer sledding Nordic style. This means the musher skis alongside or behind the sled instead of standing on or riding atop of it. This is a traditional sledding style that has evolved in Norway as a result of both our old skiing traditions and as a result of mushing being introduced to Scandinavia by explorers such as Nansen and Amundsen. We Norwegians are said to be born with skis on our feet and we tend to feel naked without them.
The main benefit of Nordic style is that you maximize the amount of supplies the dogs can haul, and it also means that the musher is much better equipped to move around than he would be without skis. Anyone who has tried to wade through deep snow without skis probably understands the benefit.
Taking a break on one of the well marked trails
that are typical for Sweden. (Day 3)
Our sleds are traditional Nansen sleds, designed by Fridtjof Nansen as freighting sleds for his expeditions. This sled combines the benefits of many traditional native sleds with the traditional Norwegian skis. The runners for instance are so broad and so thin that they resemble skis more than runners. They are also bent up at both ends of the sled, giving the sled softer movements through the snow, but leaving nothing for the musher to stand upon. This most likely comes from the fact that traditionally no Norwegian would consider moving around in the snow without skis, and would have no need to ride the sled.
Gisle on the Swedish lake Rogen. (Day 3)
Sledding Nordic style can be a little tricky, but it is not difficult if you have a bit of skiing experience. First of all it is important to attach yourself to the sled so you don’t get left behind. This is best done by a rope that leads from the sled, fastened either to the handlebars or at least passing through them. The rope then attaches with a carabineer to either a broad belt fastened around your waist or to a climbing harness.
A lot of the steering is done by using the handlebars. In addition there is also a rope that is attached to the front of the sled on either side by the brush bow and the length is looped through a ring fastened to the handlebars. This rope is used to pull the front of the sled in either direction if needed and to steer the sled while traversing. Last but not least, as operating a foot brake with skis on is near impossible, there is a hand operated brake fastened parallel to the handlebars.
All the dogs on this trip are my own and they are all Greenland Dogs, or perhaps the correct name should be Greenland Inuit Dogs. At the time of this trip we (my partner Anne and I) had seven adult dogs, three females and four males between two and eight years-old.
The dogs are all from Norwegian and Swedish breeders, two of whom have recently imported dogs from Greenland as sires. I am generally satisfied with my dogs and they are all hard working, used regularly in front of the sled in winter and a little less regularly in front of a cart in the spring, summer and fall.
When building our team we tried to have patience enough to not bring in many new dogs at the same time. We wanted a team that was spread out in age and that consisted of both males and females. We also wanted a team that grew in size along with our own experience and confidence. We are in this for the duration and our wish is to have a "living" team that will change in members over time, but will hopefully always consist of seasoned and experienced dogs that will help teach the younger recruits.
We only recruit by adding new puppies to the team, preferably one at a time, either from our own breeding or bought from others. We also try to alternate between male and female, so that we have an age difference of two years or more between dogs of the same sex. Both we and others have found that this gives a natural hierarchy in the team, and as a result much less rivalry and fighting than with two or more dogs of the same sex and age.
This winter has been very cold. The Roros area is known as one of Norway’s coldest, and this year the cold has held a firmer grip than usual on the area. We haven’t had any noticeably mild weather from the beginning of November through February. This means the snow hasn’t been packed between snowfalls, so there are no firmer layers in between. Now that the mild weather has finally come, the snow is wet and grainy from top to bottom, with no layer in between to support us.
The first thing we do is rearrange the dogs. We add extra sections of gang line so that we can string them out in single file to minimize the width as much as possible. We then have to start breaking trail, one man out front on skis, the other stays behind and looks after the teams. This gets us down the hill where we find it is a good opportunity to make camp. We find a level spot, stake out the dogs, pitch the tent, light the stoves and get a bite to eat. To make things even worse, it starts raining that evening and continues to rain and sleet through most of the night.
Gisle has just finished pitching the tent and looks
satisfied with the camp and surroundings. (Day 3)
After breakfast the morning of day 6, we put on our partially dried clothing, soaking wet ski boots and start breaking trail. We leave the tent, dogs and sleds behind and head for an open cabin a few kilometres from our campsite. If we are lucky there might be a snowmobile trail passing through the area. If not, it is at least a place to head for and dry out.
This is pretty rough country with steep ravines and an abundance of boulders, and it’s difficult to navigate. Fortunately the snow here is not as deep as it was the day before, but sinking in knee deep while on skis and breaking trail through wet snow is bad enough. Around midday we have broken a fairly decent trail and reached the river a little upstream of where the cabin is situated. We find an old snowmobile trail that heads in our general direction. It is only a faint distinction in the snow, but we should be able to follow it. Feeling lucky we head back and after a light lunch break camp, harness the dogs and get going as best we can. It is already early afternoon.
After a little under an hour we reach the snowmobile trail and start following it. I have my best lead dog in front and thanks to him we follow the faint trail quite a while before it starts going in a completely wrong direction and into a very densely forested and boulder strewn area. We decide to turn around and head back towards the cabin.
Late in the afternoon we reach the cabin, and decide to camp there. We are pretty much worn out and if the snow conditions the rest of the way are as bad as what we have been through, it will be dark several hours before we reach Femunden. We therefore stake out the dogs, unpack the sleds and get the wood burning stove going. We change into dry woollen underwear and hang the rest of our clothes to dry.
Drying wet gear is appreciated after a day of
breaking trail. (Day 6) Photo: Westh
The next day we again leave the dogs and sleds behind to break trail. We cross the river Mugga heading into more open terrain. On the treeless marshes the snow conditions are much better and we only sink in ankle deep. After a little over an hour we reach a well used trail heading out to the lake. Feeling satisfied we turn back to get the dogs. After a quick lunch we pack the sleds and head out. About an hour later we have reached the lake, crossed it and are pulling up to where we parked the car and trailer seven days ago.
Getting caught like this was an interesting and challenging experience. But with not even as much as a blister between the two of us, we were never in anything resembling danger. It was more a situation of discomfort. Regretfully no pictures were taken during our struggle with the deep snow. We never even thought of it at the time. A film from the first four and a half days of the trip, all done by my friend Sune, can be found here.
Gisle Uren, his partner Anne and their three children live outside Roros, Norway. One of his great passions is outdoor - especially winter - activities. For more than 20 years he has been going on trips of varying distances in the Norwegian mountains. He bought his first Greenland Dog in 1998 and now has a team of eight adult dogs. During the last 13 years most of his excursions have been with one or more of his dogs.
After having children, longer more physically challenging journeys have become less frequent. But Gisle notes that bringing his children along offers a different, yet no less rewarding aspect to the outings.