Svalbard 2015: Dogsledding

After I wrote yesterday’s blog, I ate lots of bread and cheese because it had been a long day with very little food (breakfast at 6.30am and then nothing until I arrived in Longyearbyen at nearly 3pm) and when I was all full, I knew I really had to go back out into the cold and have a look at the town (the city? The village).

I know from photos and Google maps and the like that it’s a small town situated in quite a narrow valley between the mountains. I can see the mountains – white snow glows even in the dark. I assume either it’s reflecting the light pollution from Longyearbyen (it generates a surprising amount of light pollution for such a small place but as it spends nearly four months in total darkness, of course it should be allowed as many lights as it wants) – either that or astronomical twilight is slightly lighter than I thought.

No, it isn’t as dark as I expected. Well, it is but – it’s hard to explain. You can’t deny the great black sky overhead and yet it’s lighter than I anticipated. Town lighting, reflective snow, the fact that you could probably see a hint of pink or orange or baby blue in the sky at noon if it wasn’t cloudy, I don’t know. I know it’s not as oppressively, miserably dark as it’s made out to be, not in town.

It appears to be laid out with all the tourist stuff straight down the middle, with a mostly-pedestrianised street. My hotel, evidently the newest in town, is at the top of the “high street”, there are a few pubs and bars, a couple more hotels and an astonishing amount of shops. Perhaps understandably, it has an extremely high ratio of outdoors shops, higher even than Kendal. I suppose people come unprepared. At the moment I feel like I’m ok for warm stuff but I haven’t been out of the shelter of town yet so we’ll see.

I’ve also found the supermarket (it’s not a supermarket! It’s a department store/junk shop/warehouse with a supermarket attached), the post office, the pharmacy and the bookshop. I saw a large white furry animal which turned out to be a largish dog but it seems my reaction to spotting ursus maritimus is to go “… is that a polar bear? It can’t be” rather than “RUN IT’S A POLAR BEAR! RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!”

Having more or less reached the end of the high street, I slithered down the hill towards the next set of shops and the “sports centre” which didn’t look so much like a sports centre as a gun shop. There’s something quite American about this place – gun shops, requirements to carry and use rifles, shops declaring they sell ammo and all the other shops with big signs on the doors that say NO GUNS IN HERE. I’ve never been anywhere where I’ve had to worry about whether there are rifles being carried around the supermarket.

That next set of shops is on the vehicle road, more or less parallel to the high street and at this time of year, it’s impossible to tell where the road ends and the pavement starts, so I tend to leap back into the thicker snow when I see a car coming, just to make sure I’m out of its way. And on the subject of how dark or not it is here, I saw one car that hadn’t noticed it didn’t have its lights on. Other cars noticed and enlightened it but that’s what it’s like here. You don’t actually need your lights on to be able to drive around.

I spotted a car park and a path that would lead me back to the high street so I attempted it, slipped on the ice and fell in the most awkward and ridiculous way. I knew it was going to happen but first I had no control whatsoever over mad flailing. Gravity was going to have me in the end but first it was going to play with me for a bit.

When I got back, armed with apple & mango juice, chocolate and a carton of chocolate milk (the windowsill makes a good fridge or if you open the window, a good freezer), I thought I would have a bath. Because it’s there. The trouble is that the light in the bathroom doesn’t have a switch, it has a motion sensor and if you fall asleep in the bath, the light goes out.

The only problem I have so far with the perpetual darkness is not having a clue what the time is. I woke up in the middle of the night, convinced it was morning and discovered it wasn’t yet 3am. The trouble is that 3am doesn’t look any different to real morning. Other than that, I’m still enjoying the novelty of the dark and the teeny-tiny nuances of darkness, like the slight sheen of lighter blue in the sky at noon.

This afternoon was the dogsledding. I’ve never done it before and I really liked the idea of it. We were taken to the lower kennels, about 12km from Longyearbyen, sent into the changing rooms to put on some specially padded boots and a huge overall (so huge because it has to go over your clothes, which are already huge. I was already wearing four layers, the outer two of which are enormous and then this tent-thing over the top) and then we were introduced to the sled, told all about the brake – everything is about the brake – and then we could either stand and wait or we could help Jakob harness the dogs. Guess which option I chose?

The dogs were all very excited, all yapping and howling and playfighting and all desperate to get out and since we were beginners and all a little nervous, he chose the quietest dogs, showed me how to fold the harness (I just couldn’t get the hang of this) and then how to put it over the dog’s head and put its legs through the straps. He supervised dog one, I managed dog two more or less on my own and dog three clearly knew exactly how this worked and lifted her own paws before I even tried to put her legs through the straps.

Gaia had specially requested to ride with the guide, so that left me with Sarah and apparently I was marginally less nervous about driving first than Sarah was. There are two problems with driving first. 1) The dogs are very excited and they go extra-fast at first and 2) there’s a big patch of very rocky ground where the brake won’t do anything. It was terrifying! I knew which bit of the sled I had to hold onto but it was awkward trying to hold it, keep one foot on the sled and the other on the brake and eventually I just wrapped my arms around the entire back of the sled with both feet on the brake. It didn’t make any noticeable difference. Also, you have an anchor and that was on the right side of the sled. But I wanted my left foot on the sled and my right foot on the brake and that meant I couldn’t reach it.

We ran a little and then we paused, after only about thirty seconds for Jakob to distribute headtorches, which he’d forgotten to do before we left. For some reason, we put the anchor down but I couldn’t get it up and stowed before we took off again, so there it was trailing along behind us. Sarah, afraid of getting her hands cut off by the sled, managed to pull it up by the rope and hang it safely on its hook and for a second, we celebrated having weighed anchor while running. But then we hit the rocks.

The sled got caught. The dogs were pulling and pulling and it just wasn’t moving so Sarah hopped off to try and free it. You see where this is going. We didn’t. The second it was free, the dogs took off, leaving her behind and there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop them. We rattled and bumped over the rocks, I was nearly jolted off and I was screaming and shrieking like a mad person – the dogs were out of control, the ground was terrible and I’d lost my passenger! Fortunately, Jakob stopped eventually and my dogs knew that meant it was time for them to stop and poor Sarah came trudging along in the snow.

Once we were past the rocks it got better. Not comfortable, exactly, never comfortable. It was never entirely flat and smooth and I was certain I was going to fall off, I was making scared noises and swearing occasionally and Sarah was making terrified noises. At one point we crossed some large footprints – maybe a human in big padded boots like ours, maybe on snowshoes… maybe a bear. But there wasn’t time to think about the possibility of meeting a polar bear, I was too busy hanging on for dear life. Forget steering, there was no steering. No need to steer, our dogs just followed Jakob’s dogs, although I think they would have liked to overtake.

Gradually, as I got used to it, I let the brake out a little. Or at least, I put one foot back on the sled and controlled the brake with the other. It was a bit like driving a car except that there wasn’t necessarily much response from our canine engine if I put the brake down. I don’t say I got any more comfortable with it – it was still stressful and scary and my hat was sliding down over my eyes and for a lot of it, I couldn’t see any further ahead than Sarah’s feet, and my headtorch kept slipping down to illuminate nothing more than the top of Sarah’s head. It would have been nice to see where we were going but it wasn’t really necessary because I wasn’t guiding or controlling the dogs at all.

Finally Gaia begged to turn back. Sarah and I didn’t mind in the least. We’d already been muttering for five or ten minutes “how much further are we going? When are we going back?” and were most relieved, especially when we learnt that Jakob had planned to take us another three miles.

We swapped places. It was a lot more comfortable on the sled but Sarah had had the entire journey to realise that driving was a bit scary and she knew the rocks were coming and was a bit terrified of that – so much so that Jakob offered to call a colleague with a snow scooter to come and drive for us. I think if it had got that far, I’d have taken the wheel again but it didn’t. Sarah got on fine – the swearing came out when we hit the rocks but actually, the rocky patch is much shorter than we’d realised at first. Because the sled sometimes leans when it gets uneven, I leaned in the other direction – it didn’t tell the dogs to turn, it just stopped us overturning (it probably didn’t. We probably weren’t in any danger of that) and then the lights of home were upon us.

I held the lead dogs while Jakob put his dogs away and then we took it in turns to stand on the brake while the others took photos and of course, I also played with the dogs. I put the fiendish lead dog away (we had one beautiful blue-eyed sweetheart and one little fiend who was forever pulling and biting the chain and trying to jump on me) and then we opted to stay out while Jakob put the sleds away and I got to play with Fenris, the hugest fluffiest dog there, who likes to much on arms and things when he’s upright but fortunately rolls over onto his back for tummy rubs the moment anyone touches him. Jakob said he can be bitey – of course he can! His name’s Fenris. (If you don’t know your Norse myths, Fenrir or the Fenris-wolf was one of Loki’s monstrous children, an enormous wolf who was prophesied to kill Odin at Ragnarok. The other gods, seeing that Fenrir would be trouble, tried to contain him and in the end, he bit off the right hand of Tyr, god of war. This dog is named after the original hand-biting-off hellhound.) But he was a lovely fluffy soppy dog and I did enjoy playing with him while the sled was put away.

The next stop was at the upper kennels. We were done with sledding and now we were to meet some of the puppies. There are around twenty-five of them. Most of them now are big enough to put on a chain – this was new to them today and they cried and howled but they’ll get used to it and then they’ll go in with the bigger puppies and get used to that and when they’re around six months old, they’ll go to the main kennels and learn to run with the more experienced dogs.

But there were two small litters up there – a family of black and white Greenlandic dogs in their cage, who climbed up the wire and looked at us and a family of pure white baby polar bear puppies who were loose. They’re allowed out during the day to play and then put away in the evening and play they did. They jump over your legs and if you sit down to play with them, they all pile onto you and then they scrap with each other and roll around in the snow and I could quite happily have stolen the lot.

We went into the Russian cabin, which is a traditionally built log cabin full of interesting bits and pieces, to have hot chocolate. I was already toasty – my warm layers on their own were warm enough, I had a huge overall over it, I’d been out sledding and now there were puppies! – but I dran my hot chocolate and Jakob talked.

He’s from the Czech Republic, he’s lived all over the world, he learnt mushing at the Snow Hotel in Kirkenes (on the Norway-Russia border) and at the moment he’s in Svalbard because he likes the ice and snow and the dark. In fact, no one at Greendogs is Norwegian. Even at the Polar Institute back in Longyearbyen, 60% of the staff are not Norwegian and everything’s taught in English. No, he’s never actually seen a polar bear. They don’t come to this valley – except the one that raided another set of kennels two years ago, ate all their dogfood and had to airlifted to the other end of the archipelago because he wouldn’t take the hint that they didn’t want a polar bear there. This is apparently the way to deal with troublesome bears – there are planes and helicopters coming in all the time to deliver tourists and supplies and they keep an eye out for bears. Any that get too close to Longyearbyen get darted and then removed to another part of the island, which is good because I thought they just shot any marauding bears.

When we’d finished and said goodbye to the puppies, we came back down to the lower kennels and Jakob fed the dogs (and cuddled some particular favourites) while we got out of our enormous overalls and boots and then we were delivered back to town. I think a bath is in order.

One comment on “Svalbard 2015: Dogsledding

  1. […] 03/11/15 Rangers  & Guides campfire evening, 7.30 – 9.00, 1.5 hours, 9.5 hours 18/11/15 Dogsledding, Svalbard, 4.00 – 4.50, 0.75 hours, 10.25 hours 19/11/15 Snowmobiling, Svalbard, 11.45 […]

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