Finnmark is a region high up inside the Arctic Circle in northern Norway. On the Finnmark Plateau you can find nature at its purest. It is wild, rugged, pristine, beautiful, and dangerous. The area is home to the Sami and their reindeer herds, trying to coexist with those of us mad enough, from a different culture, who chose to explore this area as our adventure. I am addicted to the Arctic area and have now been lucky enough to have had adventures up there in the Autumn and the very early Spring/late Winter. However, I am particularly addicted to this part of the world during its winter months, so I decided to head back up there for a new adventure in early March doing something I had never done before…..pulling a pulk. I was going to join 7 other lovely people, a volunteer guide, and the official guide, to cross country ski our way across the Finnmark plateau whilst pulling a pulk, and staying in basic mountain cabins or camping in a tent. We would leave from Alta and finish in Karasjok (where the Sami parliament is based). I was so excited for this trip, although I also had a lot of anxiety about whether I was tough enough physically. The pulk would be heavy, some of the days very long and the camping very cold. I can now tell you, not only did I survive, but I honestly had the time of my life. It was tough and exhausting, but at the same time exhilarating and nothing short of a fantastic opportunity to experience this. It has taken me a while to tackle this blog post since returning, as it does really mean it is over. It has taken a few weeks for my head to come to terms with missing the simplicity of the life, the isolation of the area (especially in light of what chaos the world went into, during my time away, with the corona virus), and the unspoilt nature there.
Day one was all about the travel to get up to Finnmark. For me this means a train from Sweden to Copenhagen (my nearest airport), then a flight to Oslo in Norway, before a second one onto Alta in northern Norway, inside the Arctic Circle. I said goodbye to the trio (lots of hugs) and Dadda (lots of lists and a freezer full of vegan food I had pre made) and I was off.
I was met in Alta by the Turgleder guide that was to accompany us on this adventure. He already had some of the others with him that were on this Finnmark adventure, so we headed to his van and got to know each other a little on the drive to our first night’s accommodation. We were being broken in gently. Tonight was a cabin complete with loo and shower, the second night would be a mountain cabin without flushing loo or shower, and then we would be in the tents.
The group was 4 Germans (the male volunteer guide and three females), 3 Americans (a father in his 70’s and his 2 sons), 2 English ladies (one being myself who lives in Sweden, but both being in our forties and mothers), and the guide who was Danish. I had thought we would be straight into much more basic accommodation so I was pleasantly surprised to find I had a loo for another 12 hours and the chance for one final shower the next day! We spent the evening getting to know each other over a lovely meal, before heading back to our rooms for a kit inspection. On a trip like this it is very important your kit and equipment is really up to scratch and you have not made any short cuts. Not only will it enhance your performance and comfort, but it could be as simple as saving your life. Kit done, we were then fitted with our expedition style ski boots for the trip. Another important piece of kit to get right as you wanted enough room for socks to keep you warm, but not so much you’d get blisters. These also had an integrated gaiter for the lower leg as well. Then it was into bed for a good sleep.
Day 2 kick started with a leisurely breakfast before we got down to the business of packing our pulks and then packing the transport with our pulks. We had a quick demonstration and practice with the tents before packing them how we would pull them, i.e. you insert the poles into the tent and bend the last third over. You then roll the poles and tent up together before packing it into a ski bag. This makes the whole job of erecting the tent at the end of the day a lot faster as your poles are already inserted. A fiddly exercise with cold hands and big gloves! Once we were done with all the admin of the morning to prepare us, we boarded the transport which took us to our starting location out on the Finnmark Plateau. It was to be an easy first day of only 4km to ease us into the habit of pulling pulks, sorting our clothing layers out, and of course getting to grips with the skis. It was a flat start too, until we got to a shocker of a climb right by the cabin. It was at this point I realised that my pulk and I would be disagreeing over many climbs in the coming days…me wanting to go up, the pulk pulling me back down! Our home for the night was a Sami cabin and we were cooked a welcoming meal of reindeer from their herd. Those that know me, know I eat vegetarian/vegan, but I hadn’t wanted to be awkward on this trip so I had not specified any dietary requirements! I have learnt my lesson now and I will hopefully not have to eat Rudolph again on any future trips!!! However, our Sami hosts had gone to great lengths making this meal so I did my best while watching the meat eaters around me enjoy it significantly more….although I think the tongue challenged them! The Finnmark adventure was finally off properly.
Day 3 saw us waking up to dog mushers and their dogs coming past us through the huts. The cabin where we were staying was also a checkpoint for the Finnmarksløpet. Finnmarkløpet is Europe’s longest dog sled race and it takes place in Finnmark. There are two distances, 1200km and 600km. It was very interesting to see and watch the goings on. We were in no rush to get underway this morning as there was a storm with high winds (the story of our week). So rather than battling our way against it into the winds, we were going to let it pass, which it should do by late morning. We spent the time looking at maps, packing up, and discussing routes. The wind was calming down, the sun was making a reluctant appearance, and the temperature was hovering around -10. I had been nervous about being able to keep up with people before I left for this trip, or being the one that would hold everyone back. I found I was doing ok with the flat speed, but when they climbed the going got really tough with that pulk!! I am not all that big or heavy myself, so the weight of my pulk was easily trying to drag me backwards. A lot of sweat (yes even in -10), grit, and screeching every time I slipped, and I would eventually win the battle. It was definitely going to be a guilt free week eating all the chocolate and Kendall mint cake I had packed. After a couple of hours we stopped for lunch (we had mini breaks every hour too for a snack). Our lunches were dehydrated outdoor meals which we made up with water we were carrying in thermos flasks which had been heated in the morning before we left. This made the whole thing a lot quicker (important in the cold) not needing to set up stoves etc.
During the afternoon, we hit a rather big obstacle in the form of many different reindeer herds that were currently being herded across the Finnmark Plateau. The balancing of two different cultures (Sami and non Sami) is a very delicate job up here. We all have the right to be here, but as people without the reindeers, we have to be respectful and mindful of the reindeers, keeping a good distance away from them, and not behaving in a way that would spook them. This is very difficult when you bump into a few herds (each numbering a good few hundred animals) in the same area. We were also limited in how much of a detour we could take being on foot and not with dogs or a skidoo. Our guide spent many hours that afternoon leading us around the herds at good distances, but once we were in sight of the Sami they belonged to, it didn’t take long for one to spot us and come over to voice his unhappiness at our presence. The main aim of any such confrontation in these parts is to avoid escalation, negotiating a good compromise for both parties. However, this winter the Sami are under a lot of stress with their herds. It has been the worst winter in a long time for them with the huge amounts of snow they have experienced, thus leaving it hard for the reindeer to find food, and they are watching their livelihood dwindle. Having said this, the 50km detour the Sami herder suggested (very late in the afternoon with light fading) that we take was not really a viable option. There was a heated discussion for a while between the two men before some sort of compromise was reached. The Sami herder was still not a happy chappy though and we knew he was keeping tabs on us despite all our efforts.
We skied a little further before setting up our camp for the night. Our first wild camp on the Finnmark Plateau. We erected our tents, dug out the porches, and threw our kit in, before collapsing exhausted and shivering into sleeping bags to try and gain some sanity. Meanwhile our guide was very busy cooking up the perfect answer in the form of a hot meal which really did make all the difference to us. We were no longer shivering, my sled was 3kg lighter having eaten all the frozen cod, and we were all ready for bed. The group is really gelling well together and getting on fine. We are a little haphazard in our organisation sometimes, but it will improve as the week goes on and we get used to this way of living. Out of everyone though, myself and my tent pal (the other English lady) were perhaps the most organised. Suddenly, no longer were we having to do things for 5 (me) or 4 (her) people, but just looking after ourselves and that was so easy in comparison…even camping in the artic winter! I do not know how far we skied today….it felt long though!
Day 4 and morning came after our first night of wild camping on the Finnmark Plateau. It had been a little stormy, but I had slept ok really. I was most definitely warm enough, although it did appear to be snowing on my face in the tent (lack of leaving the inner door open to let our hot air escape), and I had only woken up when I’d got a bit stiff and needed to turn over. Because we were only 2 in our tent, it was red, whereas the other tents were all green. We were also both English. So, our tent was given the nickname Buckingham Palace by the other people, and it stuck for the rest of the trip….it was rather lovely!
It is from this point onwards that my journal of my Finnmark Plateau adventure went from writing a full text, to jotting down a few bullet points, before I either froze my fingers or fell asleep! The day progressed with bad weather/storms all day. We were skiing in a total white out and still detouring around reindeer herds. It wasn’t long before another Sami herder came up to us on his skidoo. We held our breath, but he was a lot chirpier and happier than yesterday’s, and more than pleased with what we were doing to try and work around his herd trying to find food across Finnmark. So off we set again, only to see the original Sami herder from yesterday approaching!! However, he was happy with us today and off we set again, content in the knowledge our guide had skilfully navigated his way around any confrontation with the Sami. After a long and exhausting day doing 16km it was time to set up camp again. The toilet facilities in this weather are nothing short of brutal! A shell scrape type thing is dug for a little privacy/protection. You climb in do your business in a pre dug hole, then pop fresh snow on top so it is hidden, ready for the next person. You then burn your loo paper in another pre dug hole. But both bums and hands really suffer in this scenario with the biting cold and winds.
Day 5 did not see any improvement in the weather as the white out and storms continued to batter us. We pushed on to do an exhausting 18km in really disgusting weather before setting up our camp, and lying in tents listening to the storm batter us and shake the tent around. One thing I have discovered along this trip too, is that the Finnmark Plateau is far from flat, as its name otherwise suggests!
We awoke on day 6 though to finally see clear skies, no winds, and the Finnmark Plateau showing off her beauty. It was nothing short of stunning…and a relief.
Just as we were heading out of camp I received a random bit of phone reception only to discover a message from my airline saying one of my flights home (I had three) was cancelled for 4 days time. Unbeknownst to all of us on the trip, the world was starting to go crazy with this corona virus. I wrote Dadda a message saying I needed a new flight and pressed send….now I just needed to hope my phone picked up a random bit of reception en route for the day so it would send, that he would find a flight, and that his message back to me would be picked up by my phone at some point. It was all a little unsettling. However, our guide had a real treat for us today…..a small jaunt of 9 km in the sunshine to a Sami hut which we could use for the night. He felt we could all do with a break from the elements and a better night’s sleep!! It also provided an opportunity to warm up and dry out some kit a bit. We got to the hut just as the sun was being covered by incoming clouds and we gratefully settled in. I had indeed also managed to get a message from Dadda telling me he had managed to get me a new flight home (I was flying Alta to Oslo, Oslo to Stockholm (cancelled) then Stockholm to southern Sweden).
Before we headed to bed we were treated to something I had hoped we would see on this trip….the northern lights!! It was only a weak showing, but a showing nonetheless and I was one very happy bunny :-). I had been dragging my proper camera round in my pulk across the Finnmark Plateau in the hope I’d get a chance to use it.
The night proved to be rather interesting with our 2 guides not getting as much sleep and rest as they had hoped for. Around 3am there was a man banging on our door. Being a room full of exhausted girls, we were completely useless. One thought it was time to get up and started packing, I thought someone was knocking to tell us the northern lights were out, and my English tent pal did a very good impression of being, well, English, and said very politely “yes?” from the depths of her sleeping bag. He moved onto knocking on our guide’s door….and it turns out it was a Sami herder who had gone through the ice on his skidoo and needed immediate help warming up (he was quite hypothermic) and had a very frozen foot that had got wet and that led to some sudden concerted effort to get this guy out of his pickle. They worked on him for a few hours, and then he fell asleep in the guide’s sleeping bag. So when we got up in the morning they were both shattered. It was a stark reminder of how dangerous this beautiful place could be and how fast it could put your safety at risk.
The sun was shining and we were all feeling very positive about the day ahead as we were treated to spectacular and stunning views of the Finnmark Plateau, showing itself off at its best. Our guide thought the temperature was hovering around the -18/-20 mark, but with the sun shining the world was a totally different place! We had 25km left to do in 2 days, so we were aiming to do around 12km before setting up camp. However, with the wonderful weather conditions and a rather fast pace set (that left me panting!) we were nailing it at around 5km/hour!! When we came to our lunch stop, it became very clear that instead of coming near to the end of our adventure with a sense of euphoria, more anxiety and uncertainty was creeping in as more guests got information that travel plans were being cancelled and the world was falling apart outside of our Finnmark Plateau bubble due to the corona virus. During lunch the guide gave us 2 options. The first one was the original plan of doing our original distance and making camp, the last one on the Finnmark Plateau. The second one was to push on and cover the whole 25km (which in his words would make it a “monster day”….no kidding!), so that we reached civilisation that night allowing people internet access to rebook flights, and get themselves back to their respective countries before borders were closed, and planes stopped flying. We sat and discussed it between us and the decision was made to try and get back to civilisation. This was important for everyone’s sanity, but it didn’t mean the abrupt end to the isolation, the simplicity of life in nature, and living in such beautiful surroundings was easy to handle. I was totally gutted, as well as very apprehensive about making the distance.
We carried on and I was trying to savour every last minute of what had certainly been an epic trip. We could not have asked for better weather for what was now to be our last day either. In 8 hours we covered the 25km pulling our pulks. No mean feat, and we were finishing as we were losing the daylight and the biting winds were beginning to pick up again. We were totally exhausted as we climbed aboard our transport and headed back to a bed for the night. We spent the evening together getting hot food inside us, with some at the same time trying to re book flights, whilst trying to enjoy a small tipple together to celebrate the end of our trip. As the travel arrangements fell into place and people could relax more, stories started to be swapped and tales of the adventure were regaled to each other. The plan the next morning was to take those that needed to leave earlier than anticipated to Alta airport, whilst the rest of us would move into Engholm Husky Lodge,as was originally planned, for our final night and a goodbye meal. As we started packing and prepping for the move (and joy of joys having a shower for the first time in a week), a weather report came in that was predicting high winds and snowfall for the next morning that would more than likely close the mountain road that ran between Karasjok (where we were) and Alta (where the airport was). I, and some of the others, then had to make a split decision whether to book a new flight out of Alta that evening while the mountain pass was still open, or risk waiting and not being able to make it back the next day. Suddenly the exhaustion of the last few days hit me and I started mildly panicking about not being able to get back home to my husband and children. It was a rather teary over tired phone call back to Dadda, and within minutes he’d got me a flight out that evening making sure I was safe in Oslo that night in preparation for the following day, so I could then connect to my last 2 flights that day. It was the second of my original three flights home now that had to be rearranged, and I was beginning to get very nervous about getting home at all. So, instead of spending one more night with what was left of the gang at the Husky Lodge, being able to process the adventure and what we had all achieved, it was instead a very fast decision to extract and do the couple of hours road trip to the airport in Alta that afternoon….four of us would be on the transport, including my tent pal. Needless to say, once through security, my tent pal and I determinedly purchased a bottle of red wine (staunchly ignoring the cost…remember we were in Norway!) that we had been dreaming about in our tent 🙂 It was bloody well deserved, and we celebrated our trip whilst putting the world to rights with 2 of the Americans who had also had to return early.
This Finnmark Plateau trip was a really big test of both mental and physical stamina, and I cannot thank our guides enough. Turgleder’s own guide (K) had endless amounts of enthusiasm, knowledge (about EVERYTHING), and made sure we were all safe and happy at all times. Whilst we were tucked up in our sleeping bags trying to ignore a storm, he was outside digging our tents further in with snow, or making hot drinks for those who were more worse for wear, or making up hot food to make sure we were all fuelled up appropriately. Our volunteer guide (S) was always bright and perky, especially first thing in the morning when he’d appear at our tents with ready boiled hot water in thermos flasks so we could take a hot drink and breakfast without getting out of our sleeping bags! Then we’d feel a lot better to face the challenge of emerging from our warm cocoons to get on with the day. My last thanks go to my amazing tent pal (A), who was always smiling, had a great sense of humour (when she wasn’t throwing tea over my sleeping bag (don’t worry it froze almost instantly so we just picked it off), trying to insert frozen contact lenses, or obsessing over my ziplock bags 😉 ), and made the whole trip a lot more enjoyable for me. We would climb inside our tent, and whilst everyone was still doing their admin, we’d sit with a remaining thermos from the day, making a hot drink and a sweet treat to bolster our mood before tackling the inside of the tent and kit….just regaining our composure after a long hard day, whilst listening to everyone else faffing outside. We would also dream about that red wine drink! Last year when I did my dog sledding adventure I was travelling solo, as I was now, but I had been given my own tent. This was not only a chillier experience, but a harder one too as you had no one to share the tent admin with. When you travel solo you never know who you will meet or who you will have to share a tent space with, and you just cross your fingers. This time I came out very lucky!
The arctic winter did not fail to entice me once again, and I would do it all over again at the drop of a hat. My obsession with this part of the world in this season continues and I have fallen in love with the region of Finnmark…..time to research my next challenge????!!!!!! If you have enjoyed reading about this trip, I have put a little montage of the trip up on my instagram account under the highlight tab “adventures” so feel free to hop over and take a peek 🙂