Before I found myself flying across a polar valley at a horrifying top speed of 8.8mph, I’d always thought dogsledding would be nice and sedate and pleasant. But here I am, at about 4pm, on a dark November afternoon on Svalbard. And when I say dark, I mean the sun set three and a half weeks ago, there is no daylight and there are no streetlights in this valley which means all I can see – no further ahead than the feet of Sarah, my partner, on the sled – is lit by a tiny headtorch rapidly sliding down towards my nose and illuminating more downwards than forwards.
Although it feels like a winter wonderland to me, by Svalbard standards the snow has hardly started and there are still rocks not quite buried deeply enough. The runners of our sled bump horrendously across them and the brake can’t bite into solid stone the way it can into solid snow, which means I have no way of stopping or even slowing the six overexcited Greenland dogs, because they’re not listening to my attempts at making the “woooo…” – stop – noise any more than they’re listening to the banshee shrieks and screams that ensue when I lose both my partner and any vestige of control over my vehicle.
You see, the sled got caught on the rocks. The dogs pulled as hard as they could but we weren’t moving so Sarah hopped off to try and loosen it. Of course, the second it came loose, the dogs were off, leaving Sarah stranded. The brake’s not working, the dogs aren’t paying any attention to me, I’m going far too fast and I’m scared out of my wits. You can probably hear the shrieking and swearing at Longyearbyen, nearly ten miles away. The moral of the story? Never get off the sled.
No, this is no sedate gentle pleasant excursion. It’s two to a sled and our third sledder, Gaia, has already bagged the instructor, so Sarah and I are left with our own sled to manage with no professional. “Are you feeling brave?” Sarah asks as we stand by the kennels, looking apprehensively at our string of tugging dogs. “No,” I say, because I absolutely do not want to drive. “Braver than me?” and I realise I have no choice here. I’ve already demonstrated “braver than me” by coming to help Jakob harness the dogs. The dogs are all yapping and barking and howling, all desperate to go out for a run, all pulling at their chains and snapping at each other and I’ve got a particular eye on a huge fluffy monster named Fenris who’s going to strangle himself with his own chain if he doesn’t stop leaping. Jakob, having picked an assortment of the calmer dogs, patiently shows me again and again how to fold the harness correctly but ends up having to do it for me every time anyway. But I can manage to greet and calm the dog, slip the harness over its head and then put its paws through the straps, all while holding the very excited beastie with nothing more than my knees. Nuna is particularly good – there’s no need to lift her paws because she knows the drill and lifts each foot herself before I can get near to touching them.
But now we’ve got six of them harnessed to our sled and Sarah’s determined not to have the first drive so I’m on the back of the thing. I have to keep a foot on the brake at all times (fat lot of good it does!) and I prefer to have my right foot on it and my left on the sled’s runner but I need to haul up the anchor and that’s on the right side, which means I can’t reach it unless I swap my feet, and then I really don’t feel steady enough when the dog-rocket goes off.
Five minutes in is the incident where I lose Sarah but she survives the trek back to the sled and I calm down enough to only swear a little bit onto the top of her head as we continue. I can’t let my foot off the brake because the dogs just go too fast and I’m not experienced enough or brave enough to let them go, and it’s not comfortable on my legs to stand like that. But I also can’t stand up straight and hold the bar the way I think I’m meant to because it feels very unstable, so I spend the entire ride hunched over with my arms wrapped around it, hanging on for dear life, which means my eyes are pointing downwards – not that it matters, because hat and headtorch both slide down until one of my eyes is completely covered and I can’t push it up because I don’t dare let go of the sled with even one hand. I may be controlling the brake but I’m entirely dependent on Sarah to tell me what’s coming up.
It gets easier, I guess. The dogs calm down a little, we get onto snowier snow where the brake bites a little bit (and it is only a little bit; Sarah and I both spend a disproportionate amount of our driving time with both feet on the brake, swearing in terror and apologising for swearing), the going is smoother and flatter and I gain a little in confidence when I start to feel a bit less like I’m going to be flung off any second. I even find the room somewhere in the back of my brain to wonder about the possibility of encountering a polar bear. But it’s still scary, it’s still more stressful than fun and Sarah and I start to mutter together about how much further we have to go, because we’ve had enough of the sledding now and I for one would be quite happy to just go back to the yard and spend an hour or so playing with all the dogs.
We’re unbelievably relieved when Gaia asks Jakob if we can turn back. Well, I am particularly. I finally get my chance to sit on the sled for a bit but Sarah has had a few miles to dwell on what the driving is like and she knows there’s a bad rocky bit to get over and she’s quite scared. We only manage a couple of minutes before stopping and Jakob suggests that maybe I can drive again. I say quite firmly that I’d like to sit on the sled for at least five minutes but I’m willing to concede that if Sarah really is that terrified, I’ll take the helm again after that. Jakob also suggests calling out his colleague with a snow scooter but we put paid to that idea – apart from anything else, what happens to the snow scooter when the colleague drives our sled home?
But Sarah gets through it like a champ. Although she claims as we whizz along that she has both feet on the brake, she later confides in me that she actually only had one foot on it for a while and although the rocky bit is pretty uncomfortable, she’s at least had a couple of miles to get used to the sled before we hit it, a luxury I didn’t have on the way out.
All the same, we’re glad to get back. We take it in turns to hold the lead pair while Jakob puts away his dogs and sled and then we take it in turns to hold the lead pair while we take photos of each other with the sled – believe me, there wasn’t the time to do it while we were out – and then I help take the dogs back and while Jakob finishes tidying up, I indulge in playing with Fenris, who is apparently a bit bitey (well, of course he is!), so be careful with him but he’s also a huge softie who rolls onto his back and waves his feet in the air if you try to touch him.
The last delight of the trip is to go up to the upper kennels where we’re introduced to a litter of snow-white puppies who look so much like polar bear cubs that for a moment, I’m genuinely not sure if I’m playing with canines or ursids. They live in a big caged enclosure but they’re let out during the day to just play in the yard and they’re quite happy to leap all over visitors and try to eat their gorgeous yellow hi-viz vests.