On Two Runners Behind 32 Paws
SINCE time immemorial, the Far North has been called Ultima Thule - the uttermost ends of the earth. In the 16th century, a Roman Catholic cardinal who disdained geographical vagueness ascertained that hell lay in the polar regions of Europe - to be precise, in Finnmark, Norway's northernmost county.
But remote and sparsely populated Finnmark is a year-round paradise for those who love virgin wilderness, especially in the winter season. February finds snow swirling down mountainsides to sweep across tundra where herds of reindeer search for food under the rippled expanse, and the sun winks briefly from the horizon to celebrate the end of the long Arctic night.
I arrived in Kirkenes on an indigo-shadowed February day. The decision to begin my winter interlude with dog sledging took less time than changing into corduroys and a warm woolen sweater. By the time Kirkenes turned up its lights for the evening, my friend Eric and I were on our way toward the highway turnoff into the Pasvik Valley where dogs and sledges waited.
Much of the Pasvik Valley, which lies farther north than Siberia, is a national park, part of whose eastern edge forms the 126-mile border between Norway and Russia. Clumps of birch, larch, and spruce, thickly iced lakes and frozen streams cover the wide valley. Flat terrain makes it an ideal spot for dog sledging.
When we reached our destination, I stepped out of the car amid a choir of high-pitched barks and squeals: It seemed dozens of dogs leaped about, all overgrown puppies who tried to look into my eyes, paw-on-shoulder style. I bravely kootchy-cooed the most benign-looking of the lot, who misunderstood the gesture as an invitation to lick my face.
While Kjell, who would be musher for Eric's sledge, rounded up his stalwarts, "my" musher, Dagfinn, looked at the two of us critically. "You won't be warm enough," he announced. "I brought a few things." Digging into his van, he held up, in turn, heavy felt boots of the type worn across the Russian border, a tunic-type jacket made from fox pelts, a couple of fur caps, and a very large down-filled snowsuit. I appropriated a pair of boots, and Eric took the fox jacket, barking appropriately as he dropped i t over his head. I proudly confessed I'd had the foresight to layer myself with two sets of underwear, which for some reason made Dagfinn laugh, though the intimate revelation ended his concern.
Singly and in chorus, the dogs continued their unholy racket. Dagfinn busied himself with ropes and thongs. "They'll quiet down when we start," he assured me. "They love to run."
I watched the harnessing, impressed with Dagfinn's skill. "Are all the dogs huskies?" I asked, eyeing a gentle-eyed canine who looked suspiciously like an Irish setter.
"They're a mixed breed - mostly Alaskan husky. Dog sledging really was started in Alaska. Until recently, Norwegian mushers were pulled on skis behind their dogs." He followed my gaze to the rust-colored beauty. "An Irish setter. They're great for sledging, especially as lead dogs."
"Then why use huskies at all?" I asked.
"Setters can't sleep in snow. Too cold. I'd have to carry sleeping bags for all of them." He laughed, continuing to buckle and loop until all eight dogs were harnessed in pairs. Yelping and leaping, they gave no hint that they could function as a team.
Before I had time to question exactly how safe this foray into the wilderness would be, Dagfinn helped me into the deerskin-padded wooden sledge, zipped a thick bunting up over my hips, and topped it with several additional reindeer skins. Then he dropped into my lap an 8-inch-long metal object tied to the end of a rope.
"Hang on to this," he said tersely, bounding forward one last time to secure a loosened strap.
We were off at full speed. By the time I'd finished examining the vaguely anchor-shaped piece of iron Dagfinn had entrusted me with (it was, I learned, the brake used to make a complete stop), I realized that the only sound in the just-below-freezing air was the susurration of sledge runners gliding over snow.
Birch trees to the right of us, birch trees to the left of us. Sledges, I observed, are not constructed with springs, and after a particularly hard thwack! as we flew across a dip I got instruction from Dagfinn in how to prevent splintered bones. "Loosen your muscles!" he yelled from his standing position on the runners behind the sledge. "Relax!"
I relaxed. The remaining distance to our destination was pure pleasure. When Dagfinn said, "I was hoping we'd see a little moonshine tonight," a gilded moon peered between blue-tinged clouds as if on order. The aurora borealis flung a silky fringe across the sky. Ahead, eight pairs of ears were outlined in gold from the light of Dagfinn's dancing lantern.
We sailed like wind over packed and glittering snow. Ensconced on soft layers of deerskin, my legs encased in the borrowed felt boots, I had only one niggling problem in my earthly paradise: sliding down in the sledge to an almost supine position - hardly an elegant posture for someone beginning to fancy herself the Snow Queen.
EACH time I became too deluded, however, a face-full of snow plopped down from a hanging branch. Occasionally a current of wind licked the crest of a snowdrift and scattered flakes over my reindeer-skinned lap, where they sparkled in the lantern's glow. In a small clearing, mounds of snow were islands of moonlight.
The team maintained its pace, following Dagfinn's every sharp command: "Right!" "Left now!" whenever the route, marked earlier in the day by a snowscooter, was not clear.
I might have drifted into a state of suspended consciousness if it hadn't been for the occasional thwack and a premonition of hunger settling in. A branch above me snapped, divesting itself of snow, and as I shook it off I glanced upward.
Sweeping across the sky, first tentative, then in soaring leaps, the aurora borealis performed an intricate dance with veils. I watched, transfixed. Shimmering wings of translucent green appeared, replaced by amethyst edged with hues of red. The colors teased, rearranging themselves half a sky away - purple, emerald, white.
"Listen!" Dagfinn said quietly, and I heard faint crackling from the light above.
I turned to see if Eric was aware of the heavenly performance. He sat erect in his mountain of fox fur, the earflaps of his cap straight out, his rapt face upraised. Settling back, I slid down in the sledge another inch or two, grabbing at my deerskin covering ineffectually.
On we went, skimming over the snow. Between clumps of birch I glimpsed fiery layers of cloud. "More moonshine!" I yelled to Dagfinn.
Dagfinn's response was a request for the brake, and the moment I handed it over we pulled into a clearing. Near the center of the clearing, flames crackled from juniper-scented logs, and a tent hid in the shadows.
The tent was no sporting goods model. Dried saplings, covered with deerskin, rose to a peak, reminiscent of Native American teepees. Dagfinn explained that this was a Lapp (Sami) lavvu, different from a teepee because of an encircling sapling placed halfway up the "ribs," making a larger ground circumference possible.
A young man who turned out to be Dagfinn's assistant emerged from the tent to say hello. He carried a sack of dry commercial dog food, which the dogs eyed hungrily. Hungry myself, I unzipped my bunting and stepped awkwardly out of the sledge.
The high felt boots rose above my knees, making me stiff-legged as a doll. A single step up the snowbank overlooking the fire brought a face-down tumble, as graceless as it was sudden.
Before I had time to brush the snow from my red face, two strong arms were under each of my elbows, propelling me smoothly upward. Eric, in his own well-fitting boots, had already arranged himself on the soft deerskins, and was studying the fire intently.
The logs sparked and blazed. No one nattered. I floated on a stream of endless time. From far away I heard a wolf baying.
"It's only one of the dogs," Dagfinn, who had seen me start, said. "And it's time for something to eat." A pair of hands deposited me, upright, on level ground, and I stooped, stiff-legged, to enter the tent.
A cauldron of reindeer meat, cut in strips, bubbled in spicy broth. I accepted a mugful, with a slice of crusty bread proffered from the end of a fork.
It tasted like manna. In heaven.