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Once upon a time there were 20 Greenland Dogs, six "old boys" and one real boy who ventured into the mountains. In modern terms this four-day/38 km (24 mi) trip took place between January and February 2002. The participants, traveling to the starting point from as far away as 5.5 hours, were Jon Bjorshol with his four dogs, Harald Klaebo and Dag Vangby with Harald's two dogs, Terje Thomassen and his friend Odd Gabrielli with seven dogs, while my son Lars and I also had a team of seven in front of our sled.
The journey started on a cold clear day at Gronbakken on Dovrefjell, a mountain range in central Norway. Dovrefjell forms a barrier between Eastern Norway and Trondelag, the area around Trondheim, and historically there has been very much travel across it. As early as the 1100s several self-service lodges were established to provide housing for people crossing the mountain range. These were later replaced by mountain inns that offered lodging and food to travellers. A few of these are still run as inns today.
Norway's main South-North highway (E6) as well as the railway Dovrebanen cross over Dovrefjell. Most of the Dovrefjell range outside of the parallel highway and railroad is now protected by two national parks; Dovrefjell-Sundalsfjella NP on the western side of the E6 and Dovre NP on the south-eastern side. Dovre NP also lies adjacent with Rondane NP to the south.
goal of our journey was Amotsdalen and a base camp at
Amotsdalshytta. The dogs pulled heavy pulkas and sleds
while we skijored behind. In Norwegian Amotsdalen means
the valley where two rivers meet. Amotsdalshytta is a
cabin owned by The Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT), a
national organisation that has cabins and a network of
marked trails throughout Norway.
In temperatures well below -20°C/-4°F, it is nice to use the safety hut at Reinheim for lunch. The main cabin is closed from November 15th to February 15th, but the safety hut is great for both overnight trips and day stops.
From Reinheim we continued towards Amotsdalshytta. There were two routes to choose between, one straight ahead through Leirpullskaret, a steep and narrow mountain pass, the other, slightly longer, to the right through Vegskaret, a slightly less steep and more open pass. After very strong recommendations from Jon, who started a few hours ahead of us, we chose the latter alternative. The distance from Reinheim to Amotsdalshytta is about 11 km (6.8 mi).
Climbing the pass was hard on the dogs. At the top, my team of seven followed the tracks Jon and his team made. When their tracks turned sharply to the left, my lead dogs wanted to go straight ahead. At the last moment they followed my commands and we instantly found ourselves in a steep downhill. Before we knew what was happening, we were through the pass. When I turned around and looked back, I saw Harald on his stomach, with his two dogs and pulka ahead of him, lying over the crest of the hill. At the same time I also saw that had my dogs gone straight ahead, we would have gone straight off a large snow cornice. After a short struggle Harald got his dogs and pulka safely down to the rest of us. We all agreed that the brake on his pulka was not good enough.
The rest of the way to the cabin traversed through open terrain with a clear view of the Amotsdalen valley. We were now a long way from motorized transport or infrastructure such as power lines, reservoirs etc. It was a wonderful feeling, skiing behind the Nansen sled with seven eager dogs in front in this breathtakingly beautiful scenery. We reached the cabin just as it was getting dark. Jon was standing in the doorway to greet us. He had been here a few hours already.
It was easy to feel sorry for the dogs. After a day of hard work, they were simply staked out in the cold wind. At that moment it was about -20°C/-4°F and they had nothing to protect them from the icy wind. Their food was simply a few handsful of pellets dropped on the ground. We on the other hand entered a warm cabin, enjoyed a good meal before we went to sleep in a warm sleeping bag on a soft bed. Maybe we would be punished by being reincarnated as Greenland Dogs in our next life.
After a comfortable night, listening to the wind howling around the corners of the cabin, we were rewarded with a clear and sunny day. There was still a cold wind, but as long as we didn't stand still too long it was not a problem.
Jon was familiar with the area and lead us on a guided roundtrip along the valley. The month of January had been very windy and in places the snow was packed as hard as concrete, so dogsledding in the mountains was pure joy. We had the mountains Snohetta and Svanatindane to the south while Storskrymten showed itself from its best view when we turned our heads in the opposite direction.
We didn't see any wild reindeer, but their scats in the area were proof of their presence. This mountain area is also an important habitat for wolverine and arctic fox. We wanted to stop for a lunch break by an old boat shed, but it was too cold. We preferred eating back at the cabin instead.
Terje and Odd arrived later in the day. From Reinheim they had chosen the shortest route, going over the steeper pass, Leirpullskaret. In their sled they brought along four, two month-old puppies. When they finally arrived at the cabin they told of a challenging trip through the pass. Parts of the way there were just rocks and ice, with no snow to steer the sled. Terje was very eager to check if the puppies had made it alright. As he set his snow hook four eager and curious puppies crawled out of the sled. It obviously would take more than a bumpy ride for them to lose their spirit!
This turned into a very pleasant evening with reindeer on the menu and puppies peeing on the floor. On a boys' trip like this, after a few beers and, it being Saturday night, it would have been natural for the discussions to revolve around ladies. But this theme was ousted in favour of dogs, breeding, feeding, the consistency of faeces and other related subjects. Whether this should be interpreted as a good or bad sign, I'm probably not the right person to comment.
Trying to navigate during a blizzard and whiteout conditions.
Photo: Harald Klaebo
Sunday morning everyone left and started the return trip. We failed to notice the weather changing while we were clearing out the cabin, packing the sleds and harnessing the dogs. All of a sudden the wind picked up and the blowing snow in the air reduced visibility to a minimum. We kept going for three hours before admitting to ourselves we couldn't continue further. Fortunately we had plenty of safety gear in our sleds. There were plenty of hands to pitch two tents, secure the guy lines and shelter them from the wind using every trick in the book.
It was two o'clock in the afternoon when we stopped, and since the weather showed no signs of improving as the afternoon bore on, we decided to spend the night. The dogs were left in harness in front of the sleds until we could continue. Through the night the wind only grew stronger and we had more than enough of the outdoors whenever we rushed out to pee. One wouldn't last long unprotected in such conditions. Being inside a tent, sheltered from the weather, with warm sleeping bags and a stove to give heat, life was still relatively comfortable.
The contrast to the dogs waiting out the storm outside was big. It did however demonstrate what conditions they are adapted to handle without difficulty. The four puppies that stayed outside with their mother especially impressed us. Through the long history of the Greenland Dog many puppies have had to handle extreme weather conditions and the breed has adapted to this.
Hearing the wind pounding the nylon walls, I laid in the tent during the early morning hours thinking we might be stuck here for days. The situation was worst for those waiting at home who expected us back last night. I felt a great responsibility for Lars, my 10 year-old son, whom I brought along. But he was taking things with great ease and I heard him sleeping soundly next to me.
In a matter of minutes the wind suddenly dropped and we quickly got out to check the weather. Visibility was now good enough for us to keep going. We were terrified the wind would start blowing again before we could get through Vegskaret. We didn't take the time to eat anything. We just broke camp and got going. We made it through the pass without any problems and stopped at Reinheim for breakfast.
The last stretch from Reinheim to Gronbakken, where we had parked our cars, went at a steady pace almost without stopping. We felt the need to hurry in order to inform everyone at home that all was well.
I wanted to tell about this trip because looking back it felt like a very good experience. We were really put to the test and at the same time kept our spirits high. The dogs had the opportunity to show what they are made of, both from working in front of the sled, but also how easily they handle the mountains and harsh weather.
Arnar Lyche is
an agricultural consultant and enthusiastic
Greenland Dog owner living outside Molde,
Norway. He is a devoted family man, eternal
optimist and an everlasting source of energy.
Arnar has three children, now aged 16, 18 and
20, whom he has brought along on wilderness
trips since they were very young. Everyone who
has tried knows the challenge of being on top
of a situation involving 6-10 Greenland Dogs,
which at times can be enough for anybody. Add
some rough weather, three children and a
smiling and happy father to the mix, and you
just about have Arnar in a nutshell.
The Fan Hitch
thanks Gisle Uren for translating this story
and for collecting additional details,
images, captions and maps.