“It is the cleanest air I have ever breathed in my life.” The worries of day-to-day life evaporate during the Fjällräven Polar. What remains is a sense of peace in the face of nature in one of its most challenging forms. Follow past participant Manuel Grebe – and his lovable team of sled dogs – as he describes his experience.
Puffs of misty breath escape from panting mouths into the clear winter air. More than 200 Alaskan and Siberian huskies are set up in teams of six, bursting with pent-up energy as they await the go signal. Behind them, 28 novice mushers from around the world stand on sleds, both nervous and excited and as they wait for the flags to wave.
They are in Signaldalen, Norway at the start of the Fjällräven Polar, a dog-sledding event over more than 300 kilometres traversing the Arctic wilderness. Twenty-eight-year-old Manuel from the Sauerland region in Germany is one of the lucky participants. He received the most votes from Germany in the online vote to take part in the event. Now, he is standing behind his fully-loaded sled bundled up in his Polar Parka. Together with his team partner Anna Brauns, he has just finished loading up the sled with all the equipment and food they and the dogs will need in the coming four days and three nights.
Manuel made the trip to Stockholm two days earlier, where he met the Fjällräven team and his co-participants, checked out his equipment and learned a lot about survival in this unique environment. Since 2012, the Fjällräven Polar has provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of a dog sledding expedition inside the Arctic circle – without any previous experience or special skills. To prepare, the participants spend the first two days with experts, learning the how to survive in the wilderness. Including, among other things, how to pitch a tent in the snow and how to use the layering system to keep your body warm and dry for a comfortable day and comfortable night’s sleep. “The way they prepared us was amazing. One example of what we learned was never to forget to eat and drink. Better to polish off one bar of chocolate too many, rather than one too few,” recalls Manuel.
Every year, arrival at the starting point in Signaldalen is truly a special moment. It is when the participants meet their dogs for the first time. “When we got off the bus, we were met by a deafening chorus of barking. It was just crazy. The dogs were so full of energy it felt like they were about to jump all over you!” Manuel, a big fan of dogs, is the proud owner of two Shibas and they spend a lot of time together, outdoors and in training sessions. He makes friends with his lead dog Ceres in no time at all. Ceres and her team will be close by when he goes to sleep, greet him affectionately in the morning and then take him through the Arctic wilderness. In return, the dogs will rely on him to provide food, general care and plenty of petting.
It is the cleanest air I have ever breathed in my life.
When the dogs are good to go, Fjällräven Event Manager Carl Hård af Segerstad waves the starting flags. “The Fjällräven Polar is officially open!” he hollers and the huskies pull away powerfully. One sled after another heads off into the white wilderness.
“The first day was physically the most demanding,” admits Manuel. “It was uphill the whole way and because of the fresh snow, which was waist deep in places, we had to get off the sled and help the dogs. Doing all of that in heavy boots and a bulky down parka was something I certainly wasn’t used to.”
For participants, the first day is all about getting used to handling the sleds, so the occasional minor accident is always going to happen. Manuel was no exception:
“I totally underestimated the speed. We were approaching a left-hand bend, there was a bush, and I didn’t brake in time. The dogs went into the bend and the sled was going far too fast. I went head over heels with the sled. It’s not a problem with all the layers we wear, plus you don’t really hurt yourself in the snow.”
Before long however, participants get in the groove. At this point they can really enjoy the journey as they traverse through the breath-taking scenery to Camp Råstujaure.
Dogs come first.
Now it is time for some hard work. “When you arrive at the camp, the dogs are the number one priority. The sled harnesses need to be removed. The dogs that don’t have a thick undercoat are wrapped up in a warm blanket. Then it’s time to prepare their food.” The preparation involves chopping up a kind of deep-frozen meat sausage with an axe and then soaking it in hot water. “That really takes a while”, Manuel explains. Only after the dogs have been cared for can the participants focus on preparing their own food and setting up camp. After that, they can finally snuggle up in their warm sleeping bags.
No matter the situation, stay calm.
Manuel learned this the first evening. His stove won’t work, even though he tested it the day before and made sure no water got inside. “That was a bizarre feeling,” Manuel muses. “When you are absolutely depending on the equipment, and it doesn’t work, you feel a little stupid.” The Fjällräven team however have seen it all and offer their assistance. Working together, they manage to get the stove operating. Approaching the situation in such a calm and methodical way impresses Manuel. “When a problem arises, they take a step-by-step approach until they find a solution, without the situation becoming stressful in any way. That is truly a great learning experience to take home with me for the future.”
The Fjällräven Polar is an adventure. In some cases, it has life-changing results. The journey from Signaldalen, Norway to Jukkasjärvi, Sweden takes the participants to a number of spectacular locations and, together with the mushers, they are left pretty much to fend for themselves. Since this is an adventure for complete beginners, sharing knowledge is a key element. Manuel learned a lot, much of which he took home. For instance, he knows that the bark that peels off birch trees is the perfect fuel to start a fire. He knows how to protect himself from the cold – avoiding overheating and sweating – by dressing properly with a layering system. He also learns the trick of filling a plastic or metal bottle with warm water to use as a hot water bottle in your sleeping bag. “It’s perfect for camping trips back home.”
Perhaps the most important lesson he learns however, is to respect our natural environment. As he says, “Now, my aspiration is no longer leaving a place just as I found it. But, to leave it in better condition.”
Camp life and the Northern Lights.
After the first day and night spent in the wilderness, a certain routine is already set in the daily activities. First, feeding and harnessing the dogs, and then packing up the equipment. Then handling the sled and the multi-tasking involved while on the sled, such as adjusting the number of clothing layers, regular snacking, taking photos while remembering to enjoy the scenery at the same time. As such, setting up second camp on a massive frozen lake in Kattuvuoma, Sweden is completed much more quickly, leaving enough time to chat with the other participants and sit around the campfire, enjoying grilled reindeer meat.
For Manuel however, the last night’s camp is “an absolute highlight”. It is when the participants face a special challenge: sleeping under the stars in temperatures as low as minus 25 Celsius. The idea of spending the night in this untamed wilderness without the protection of a tent generates a serious amount of respect amongst the participants. Though it can be daunting, Manuel is pretty relaxed: “After the first two days I didn’t give any further thought to the idea that I might not wake up the next morning. I just felt really comfortable with our equipment.” For added protection against the wind, the participants build a snow wall around their sleeping area, and enjoy coffee, tea, cake, drinks and the comforting warmth of the campfire after dinner.
There are some concerns that the moon will shine too brightly and deny participants the chance to experience a unique event – the aurora borealis – but, then nature kicks in and the show begins. Manuel still gets goose bumps thinking about it: “A once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was even lucky enough to take a couple of decent photos. That was truly amazing! And we managed to get some of the brightest Northern Lights shining down on us.”
Daily life in the Arctic.
The Fjällräven Polar tests your limits. Even the seemingly mundane aspects of our daily lives are put to the test. “You have no running water, no toilets, not to mention a baker’s shop where you can drop in and pick up a coffee to go,” explains Manuel. “You are totally left to fend for yourself. That’s what makes this kind of event so energising.”
There is nothing that Manuel misses from everyday life. “Except my own dogs,” he admits with a laugh. “When you are there, you really learn to get by with minimal resources and to survive.” Yet you still have the time to connect with your inner self and enjoy the natural beauty. Day-to-day worries evaporate in the clear winter air, you can find peace and let your thoughts run free. Manuel explains how he felt: “You get back to basics, immerse yourself in your natural surroundings and focus 100% on that. It’s great. I start off at Point A and have to get to Point B, that is the only thing that interests me.”
Point B, the final destination of the race, is head musher Kenth Fjellborg’s Väkkära Lodge on Väkkäräjärvi Lake, Sweden. Here, a sauna and a group dinner await – after the dogs are taken care of one last time. Tears of joy flow together with those of a fond farewell. The happiness of the shared experiences of the past few days is clearly visible on the faces of Manuel and his fellow participants.
Breathing the polar air.
Many participants tell us that before embarking on the Polar they had a lot of respect for the cold temperatures. Manuel expands: “I would like to reassure everyone, that there is really nothing to worry about! I felt safe and warm the whole time.” That is why participants also receive a complete package of warm gear. “So that means you are wearing several layers. From the long underwear to a whole body suit, then the windproof and waterproof garments, and finally a well-insulated parka.” The iconic blue Fjällräven Polar Parka is as much a symbol of the event as the huskies and the Arctic wilderness. It was developed for extreme conditions and originates from the Expedition Down Jacket designed by Fjällräven founder Åke Nordin himself.
Overall, however, Manuel has positive memories of the low temperatures in the Arctic wilderness. “It is cold, but it feels different from the cold you experience at home. I think that’s because it is such a dry cold. It is really pleasant. It just makes you feel energised and healthier. I would go as far as to say it is the cleanest air I have ever breathed in my life.”