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Chilling out for charity

In February 2006 vet Pete van Dongen, went to the north of Norway, Finnmark, part of Norwegian Lapland, for a week's long Husky sledding trip, to raise money for The Blue Cross. He was to sled more than 220km, in five days, over frozen wastelands and through old and dark forests, caring for his own team of four Siberian Huskies. Altogether there were 13 volunteers and 73 dogs as well as three leaders on this trip, organised by Across the Divide, all raising money for various charities. Pete was the only one doing it for The Blue Cross though. Here's his chilling account of the adventure of a lifetime.

It all started in April 2005, when I saw an advert from The Blue Cross, asking for volunteers to help raise much needed money for this great charity. There were several foreign trips but the one which caught my eye was the Husky sledding trip to Norway, the Land of the Midnight Sun.

As a vet I have been involved with animals professionally for many years now, and I've always supported several animal charities during this time. I also work with animals in my free time - in agility, of course - and the thought of raising money for a well known and worthy animal charity, together with doing something totally out of this world, involving dogs, was something I simply couldn't resist.

I registered straight away and started my exercise program, as the information I was sent by Across the Divide made it very clear that a good basic exercise tolerance was of the utmost importance. I did regular cycling, swimming and running and weekly sessions in the gym to get fit. I also started to raise sponsorship money in various ways: I advertised in dog agility media, I put up posters in the veterinary practice I work in (in all four branches!), I distributed flyers, I set up a fundraising web site, I e-mailed friends and family, I did several presentations / talks for 'husky money' and put aside every penny I could to raise as much as possible. In February 2006 I was ready for my big adventure, feeling fit and excited. By this time, I had raised over £6,000 for The Blue Cross!

Frozen snot!
We flew to Alta, Finnmark, Lapland, Norway, and took a short bus ride to Gargia, arriving on a Saturday evening. There was snow everywhere in a hilly landscape all round the hotel where we stayed at for the first and last night that week. The temperature was about –20*C! You could feel ice crystals inside your nose as soon as you inhaled, that's how cold that is! We met the Norwegian trek leader (ex-Norwegian Special Forces!) as well as the dogs and were shown how to feed them. They were fed a mixture of raw (reindeer) meat and dog biscuits with water, twice daily. A very smelly affair I can tell you!

The dogs were all attached with short metal chains to long metal chains between trees or poles and stayed outside the entire time, in all weather conditions. Most of the dogs were not 'proper' Huskies, but Husky crossbreds. Still, they were all gorgeous. That evening we saw the Northern Lights for the first time that week, a sight never to be forgotten! We saw mainly green out of a possible three different colours, dancing across the clear skies. We didn't stay out too long though, as it was so cold!

Getting Going
The next morning we learned how to harness the dogs and subsequently set off for our first full day sledding. We were to do about 35 km, with a steep hill to climb just after starting off.

After a few mishaps at the start we got going. It was so cold - and we were working so hard - that the inside of my snow goggles filled up with condensation, which then immediately froze! We were wearing very heavy but excellent arctic suits, made for withstanding temperatures of -60*C, over several layers of fleece with good thermals underneath that! I also wore a fleece balaclava, as well as a fleece hat, a fleece neck guard and two layers of gloves/mitts. I felt like a proper Michelin man!

Breaks were few and far between and lasted for only ten minutes or so. We had all taken hot drinks with us in thermos flasks. Some had coffee or tea, others hot Ribena, and I had hot chocolate. When we came to use our drinks, we would first fill up our cups with some fresh snow - we were advised not to use 'yellow snow' - then pour the hot drink, so that we could drink warm drinks and make the flask last twice as long! Amazingly, one of the big risks on trips like this is dehydration, as it's really hard work, causing lots of sweating! Food consisted of sandwiches we made each morning. What we hadn't realized is that by the time we would actually eat them, they would be rock solid frozen! I also had cereal bars and chocolate bars with me, which were, you guessed it, all frozen as well!

We all carried all our gear with us in our own sled, zipped up to protect it. We also had our own arctic sleeping bag in our sleds. A smaller compartment in the sled kept our most needed supplies to hand, like food, drink, lip balm, hand warmers etc. The leader had a much bigger sled, with ten dogs pulling it, as he also carried all the food for the whole group, as well as for all the dogs, for the whole week. The three leaders were spread out between the participants, having radio contact all the time. The whole group was so large, that, at times, we were spread out over half a mile! The trails we used for sledding were all properly set out trails, marked with thin branches, stuck into the ground. These trails were also used by the occasional snow mobile rider we came across.

We're off
On the first day we sledded through woods, over mountain plateaus, and over frozen plains. Finally we arrived at our first overnight point, some cabins in Soluvobmi. First we had to put out the lines for the dogs to be tied to and put all the dogs 'on the line'. We all had to un-harness our dogs, remember which dog was which and where on the team they were positioned, which dog had which harness and park our sleds near the cabins. There were separate cabins for 'boys' and 'girls', all with wood burning stoves, a 'café' where we could sit and have a drink and dinner and, as is usual for this region, an outside toilet of the long drop variety. 

We were all tired; in fact personally I was truly exhausted. The reason for that was that I had a team of four dogs who were not 'pulling together', literally. They were not putting in the effort which most of the other teams were putting in, leading me to trail the person in front of me, even with lots of pushing and running behind the sled, and the person behind me having to stand on the brake most of the time. A lack of food and drinks during the day made all of this even harder and I was not looking forward to four more days of this. I asked if the next day we could make some changes to my team, which was agreed.

Some of the group were appointed to make dinner that night, while the others relaxed with a drink or two. Dinner was had with the whole group and afterwards we once again saw the Northern Lights. By 9 o'clock we were all exhausted and went to bed.

At last, some speed!
The second day started with an early morning dog feeding session for half the group, as the dogs were normally fed at 6.30am! For the others there would be a lovely 'wet wipe wash' and the inevitable visit to the freezing cold toilet, after which we all had breakfast. This consisted of bread and porridge and even though normally I'm not a porridge fan, under these circumstances a hot breakfast sounded very appealing! We once again made sandwiches, from by now slightly stale bread, which had already been frozen and thawed once. This would only get worse as the week went on.

We then went out to get our dogs, harness them and place them in front of our sleds. As the dogs got ready for the day's sledding, they got very excited and the noise they make at that moment has to be heard to be believed! I rang my wife on the mobile, just to let her listen to this. As they waited for everyone to be ready for the off, two of them got into a little fight, leading to one of the dogs having a deep gash on its face. Per-Thore, the leader, sorted this out by stapling the dog's face, without any form of anaesthetic, of course, and putting some skin ointment onto the wound, which had to be defrosted in his hand first. After this excitement, we finally got going for  35km of sledding. Today the temperature was about -10*C, just about 'nice'!

When we had completed the first few kilometers and had crossed two roads, we stopped and I got two new dogs on my team, swopped for two of Per-Thore's dogs. This made such a difference! They worked together and I could relax a bit more. After several hours of sledding over some amazing mountain passes and down steep slopes - there was lots of falling - we arrived at the most beautiful frozen lake, at Maze, covered with powdered snow.

At the edge of this lake stood a wooden cabin, which, we were told, was a sauna. Slightly further on the hill, about 50 yards or so higher, was a bigger cabin. This was to be our stay for the night. When we had put the dogs out and parked our sleds, we all had to climb a very slippery snowy slope, carrying all our gear as well as all the evening's food and supplies.

When we arrived at the cabin we found out that there was no water supply, as in all the cabins, but also there was no electricity! There were candles and gas lamps only! But more importantly, there were plenty of wood burning stoves again, so at least we could dry our clothes and get warm. Some of the group were volunteered to go and get water, for drinking, washing up, and cooking, and this was not as easy as you might imagine. We were sent down to the lake to drill a hole through five feet of solid ice after which we had to scoop water, using a little pan, into a bucket. We had three buckets, and the biggest trick was to get the buckets back into the cabin, without spilling it on the way. As we 'drilled and filled', the sun was starting to set over the horizon, shining an eerie reddish light over the frozen world we were in. The sight of this was just magical!

Later that evening a few guys and I decided that we would like to experience a sauna as it was intended: in the freezing cold in the Arctic and using the snow outside for cooling down afterwards. As we sat there sweating, in the 92*C hot cabin, we anticipated our run onto the lake to do a 'group belly-flop' onto the snow in –10*C, whilst other members of our group stood there waiting in their arctic suits, holding their cameras. The thought of it alone made us shiver, but in the end we all did it! It wasn't as bad as anticipated and it was an experience never to be forgotten.

The longest day
The next day was to be our longest day on the sled with 60km to cover. After breakfast - yes, you got it, stale bread and porridge - we set off to Molissjokk. It started with a big climb, which was tiring for both dogs and people, but was rewarded with fantastic views, once we were on the mountain plateau. The snow underfoot was quite loose and soft, as today the temperature was only just below freezing.

Sometimes the dogs would nearly fall into deep snowy holes, with people following suit when they were using their feet off the runners of the sleds. My dogs were once again working fine today and I was really enjoying the whole thing now. Lunch was had in the full cold wind on a plain and consisted, once again, of frozen sandwiches and chocolate.

We also saw the only wildlife we encountered on the whole trip, which was in the form of Tarmagons, white birds, which we subsequently called 'Arctic pigeons'. I was quite disappointed that we never saw any reindeer or moose anywhere on the trip.

When we arrived at the next overnight stop, we were treated to some real luxury: the cabins were a few hundred yards away from where we stopped with the dogs, and the children of the people running the cabins at this point took our bags from the sleds to the cabins, using snow mobiles! For once, we didn't have to lug our bags around at the end of a very long day. Then it got better when we found out that the large room where we were to have dinner had a table with coffee, tea, hot chocolate and waffles waiting for us. We couldn't believe our luck! Even better than that, we were told that there was a shower, the first and only one on the trek. However, we did have to share the hot water with all 16 of us, which didn't' quite work out. Poor last guy!

Dinner was also a bit special this evening: Reindeer Stew! And very nice it was too. That evening once again the northern lights were out. By now not everyone even got up to watch them, after all, they were green again, and we'd seen that one before! Amazing how soon you get used to things.

Easy Rider
Today was to be an easy ride, with only about 40km to cover, and most of it over a flat surface. We would go to Jotka, and sled over a frozen river and a huge frozen lake called Jiesavri. The temperature had dropped to about –10*C again and the sun was out, just beautiful.

As soon as we had harnessed the dogs and got ready for the off, we had to take a sharp left corner onto the river. Yes, you guessed it, I fell! This was probably about number 8 or so, but in all those cases I never had let go of the sled. This is what they had told us at the onset, as the dogs would without a doubt run off with your sled if you did. They would then run all the way to the front of the sometimes very long caravan of dog sleds and it would be a long walk back to your sled! Anyway, I managed to hold on to the sled again and dragged myself up into standing position.

However, one of the other guys was less lucky and fell in the same first corner, hitting his head on the frozen river's ice! He was a bit concussed and was subsequently checked over by the doctor who was on our trip to safeguard our health and safety during the entire trek. He seemed okay and continued to sled. However, some time later he was seen slumped over his sled and he was a bit more confused than he should be. He was then taken to Per-Thore's sled and zipped into his baggage 'bag', while his dogs were added to the leader's team and the sled towed behind him. He spent the rest of the morning horizontally.

Today was again a day of hard work for me and my team of dogs. One of them was a bit lame and I had to do a lot of running and pushing to keep up with the other teams. This was the story for several people on different days, as there was always at least somebody whose dogs were not pulling their weight on any given day. We crossed the huge Jiesavri lake which took a couple of hours and seemed even longer to me, as there was no change in scenery or view for quite some time. At least the sun was shining for most of the day and I got the opportunity to take lots of photos and some video.

We finally arrived at Jotka for our overnight stay. There was a main house/cabin which was the permanent home for a Norwegian family. They had two horses outside, loads of wood for burning, a teepee which was being used, some snow mobiles and lots of dogs running amok outside amongst which were Border Collies! One of the little girls living there was wearing typical Lapland style clothing, with colourful knitted trousers and reindeer skin shoes etc. Cute! We stayed in two separate cabins. This time we had to get any water we needed from the stream just outside the cabins. It wasn't frozen as the water was running quite quickly. Toilets were of the by now usual outside long drop variety again. We all enjoyed dinner together and had another early night.

White out!
Today was our last day sledding. We would have about 50km to cover, all the way back to Gargia, from where we set off four days previously. The temperature was about -10*C again and we would have a reasonably straight forward day, with only a big climb at the very end to worry us. Wrong!

We woke up to a proper blizzard! I was part of the dog feeding team this morning and we had to wrap up properly just to get out there for this task. We were nearly blown away! The dogs were all covered in a very thick layer of snow, with most of them hardly recognizable as dogs. Most of them had their faces stuck away under the snow and sometimes only the odd ear sticking up gave the game away! It made for nice photo opportunities though. We fed the dogs, which took a bit longer than normal due to the circumstances, and went back inside for breakfast. By now hardly anyone ate bread anymore as it was a bit like concrete now. Porridge would do.

We got the sleds ready for today's trip when the leader decided that we would wait a while to see if the wind would die down a bit. The wind was coming from the exact direction in which we were to set off, so it would be very hard work whilst the blizzard was blowing. After an hour or so we decided that the wind wasn't dying down at all and we decided to take off anyway. The dogs were uncovered and harnessed and we all set off on a journey never to be forgotten! We went over hills and frozen lakes whilst trying to hold on to our sleds with the wind blowing into our well protected faces.

A while later the wind was blowing from the side and many of the sleds and dogs were blown off the track, unless we were hanging outside the sled, leaning all the way over and trying to keep things under control. There was no way to communicate with the others, as the wind made so much noise, and at times we could only just see one person in front and behind, wearing the normally highly visible blue arctic suits. Everything around us was white, the ground, the air, the sky and everything in between. We couldn't tell which was bottom or top, which was left or right, what went up or down, all was just white! I found it very disorientating and a bit scary really. The worst thing was that none of us had any idea how long this was going to last for. It could be half an hour, or many hours to come still.

After a while the person behind me, the doctor, had a problem. Her dogs were tangled up and she had to get off her sled to try and untangle them. The leaders at the front and the back of the long queue of sleds were unaware of this and, therefore, couldn't help, even if they wanted to. I saw the problem and put my sled on the brake and anchor to help her out. Together we tried and eventually managed to untangle the dogs and literally put them into their place again.

Unfortunately we both suffered a great loss whilst doing so, as we both managed to lose a mitten! We had to take these off to help the dogs, wearing only our gloves underneath. We put the mittens between our legs, but when one of the dogs pulled a bit too hard, one of our mittens just flew away in a nano-second. Within a second they were totally out of sight. There was no point at all trying to retrieve it, so we both just went on, wearing only a pair of skiing gloves and one mitten.

I must admit I got a bit scared for my fingers, as the skiing gloves were simply not warm enough; it was far too cold for them to give any decent protection at all. Worried I might get frostbite, I put a chemical hand warmer, which I had kept handy in one of the many pockets of my arctic suit, in my glove at the first opportunity I got and made my hand into a fist to try and retain some warmth. This worked well and I never got into serious problems after that.

After two hours of struggling through the blizzard, the winds finally died down. We were all relieved that we made it safely through a difficult start. We stopped for a bit to eat and a drink and went on into a beautiful and very snowy forest for a spectacularly twisty and sometimes steep downhill section of the day's trail. I started to really enjoy the day's sledding now. The sledding through the woods was quite 'technical' but rewarding if you got it right. Afterwards we called these woods 'Narnia', as it was so fairytale-like.

In the end we arrived back at the hotel we started from a few days before and we were all tired but elated, even the dogs I believe. Some people were congratulating each other, others were just sitting on the ground, tired, stroking their dogs. We put the dogs on the lines again and many of us had a little cuddle with the beautiful animals which had helped us through the last five days. It was quite an emotional time.

Ice Ice Baby
After we had had a chance to freshen up, in a proper shower (bliss!), had a drink or two and sat down for a while, we went to the spectacular Alta Igloo Hotel, a Norwegian version of the famous Ice Hotel in Swedish Lapland. Like its bigger brother in Sweden, this Igloo Hotel had a large 'frozen' section which was built anew, each year, totally out of ice. It had a chapel, an ice bar, a gallery, and two long hallways with rooms on either side. It also had two suites, one of them was the bridal suite. All the beds were blocks of ice, covered in a thin mattress and a reindeer skin. Doors were curtains, lights were candles.

We had a drink in the bar, out of ice glasses. This drink was some sort of Vodka, they had blue and red. There were also many ice sculptures and the theme changes each year. This year the theme was 'arctic wildlife' and there were a wolf, a polar bear, a moose and many other great icy art pieces.

We all had to wear gloves and a hat, as the temperature was a constant -5*C. It gave us all a perfect photo opportunity. When back at the hotel, we sat down for a 'reindeer buffet', which consisted of reindeer stew, braised reindeer, reindeer bones from which we had to pick the bone marrow with long thin wooden skewers, stewed reindeer tongues, vegetables and cloudberry sauce. I thought it was very tasty, although it was not to everybody's liking. That night we all stayed in the bar till late for drinks whilst reminiscing about the past week. We had all done something very special and exchanged stories about all we had gone through.

Saturday was our last day in the arctic and we had just one more small adventure waiting for us: snow-mobiling! We were supposed to have done this on the Friday afternoon, but as we had been delayed in the blizzard we hadn't come home in time to do this before dark that day.

Most of us got ready for a last blast in the snow. We were paired up for each powerful snow mobile and after a short safety talk followed the leader into the woods and up on the mountain plains once again, this time a little bit faster than we had gotten used to during the past week. Unfortunately it was snowing again, so vision was not as good as it could have been and, again, it was a little bit scary at times. However, it was also a great adventure and quite exciting!

An hour or so later we were back at the hotel. Some of us went to see the dogs just one more time. I was one of them and I don't mind admitting it brought a tear to my eyes! After that we soon got ready for our bus ride back to the airport in Alta and the flight back home.

Since coming back from Norway there hasn't been a single day that I haven't thought back to my big adventure in the cold. I have been sorting all the photos - about 320 of them - and video clips I took, I have regularly been in touch with the other people on the trip, I have done a TV interview for Meridian (ITV) TV, I've written an article for Blueprint, the quarterly magazine of The Blue Cross, I have organised a Post Husky Trek Evening Presentation & Photo-show for all my sponsors, I've written a short piece for the Veterinary Times, and I've written this story for you to read. Oh, and I've been boring people with all my tales of course!

I've also decided that I'll nearly certainly be doing another challenge trip again, probably in a couple of years time, most likely to Namibia. I thought, I've done cold, I'll do hot next time! I'll choose another charity, like

 Dogs Trust for instance, and I'll certainly be travelling with the group Across the Divide again, as the organisation of this trip has been great.

For now I can look back at a challenging, exciting, exhilarating and exhausting but ultimately also an amazingly beautiful and rewarding 'once in a lifetime' experience. No-one can take that away from me!

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About the author...
Peter van Dongen
qualified as a vet at the Utrecht Veterinary school, The Netherlands, in March 1990. He worked in a mixed practice in Louth, Lincolnshire (UK) for three years, before moving to Borough Green, Kent (UK.) At the same time he limited himself to small animals only.

Since December 1996 he has run his own branch practice in Allington, Maidstone (UK.) Currently he is a Director at Pennard Veterinary Practice, based in Sevenoaks, a 14 vet, four branch, mixed veterinary practice.

In May 1995 Peter started agility - after years of just thinking about it - with his Jack Russell X 'Basil' (a bitch!), then five years old. Since then they qualified for many finals, including Crufts and Olympia. Basil won the coveted Crufts 2001 title in the Individual Mini Agility.

Peter passed the British Agility Club Instructors' exam in October 1999 (first class) and has since done the British Agility Club Judging Workshop.

He regularly writes for various agility magazines and web sites and has been the official British Team Vet for the Agility World Championships for the last five years.

Peter and his wife Carry still live in Borough Green with their two dogs and two cats. His little Jack Russell Cross, Sky, has started to compete in agility last year and will hopefully follow in Basil’s footsteps!


This page was last edited on: 27 February 2017 15:07 [Back to top of page ]


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