Raising the adventure bar in Norway
Story and Photos By Denise Dube
There are three important dog sledding rules:
1. Never let go of the sled’s rail; 2. Never let go of the sled’s rail;
3. Never forget rules one and two. —Instructor Michael Tiedemann of BIRK
Garbed in a one-piece snowsuit to stave off Norway’s below-freezing February weather, I head toward a black dog leashed to one of the dozens of small houses in the outdoor kennel. After unleashing the eager pup I grab his collar and walk him to one of the waiting sleds. With help from expert dog sledder Franziska Kraiczy, I harness him beside another dog and attach that harness to a wooden sled. Six dogs, two per row, will race us through the snow-covered Pasvikdalen Valley in Svanik, located along the Norwegian and Russian border.
The cacophony of barking dogs is deafening and our group must yell over the inharmonious symphony of yapping creatures just to be heard. Leashes taut, the dogs strain toward us and howl. If those yelps and barks were translated I’m sure we’d be hearing, “Pick me! Pick me!” Each yearns to spend the afternoon roaming through the valley. Trine Beddari, owner and manager of BIRK Dog sledding assures us this is an adventure for the dogs too.
Under Franziska’s watchful eye — and helpful hands — I help put a few dogs into harnesses. Although Michael Tiedemann has only been doing this for a few years, under Trine’s guidance he’s already an expert. It’s his mission to teach us the skills necessary for braking and sledding. We are taught how to use the small plastic brake held between the two wooden foot rails. Then we learn how to use the real deal metal stopper that halts everything with a push of the foot.
Finally we must decide who will mush — that’s dog sledding lingo for drive — and who will sit inside the sled. Having no previous problems pushing baby carriages, lawn mowers, riding bicycles or maneuvering my car, I am overly confident and only a little nervous. I volunteer. Franziska and I are the last to leave and head toward the sun, so bright it’s blinding. It belies the weather’s ferocity, a cold that can freeze exposed body parts and even seep through layers of clothing.
Though the dogs are flexible, the wood sled is not. If mushed properly it glides over the snow. The first few sleds, each carrying a musher and a passenger, leave the kennel and press lines into last night’s freshly fallen snow. After about 30 minutes of warm-up, our overly eager dogs start running. I am a few feet behind as I try to navigate the same dip and bump that every other driver before me has already managed. The dogs’ paws hit the ground and dip into the hole and then out again, but the sled doesn’t give and just bounces and thuds over the bump. The dogs’ enthusiasm and my inexperience get the best of me. Forgetting rules one, two and three, I lose my balance and am thrown off the wooden railing. I fly into the air, landing face down in the snow. My body is fine, but my ego is bruised and speckled with snow. Worse still, Franziska is zipped inside the still-moving dogsled, cozily wrapped in fur and headed toward Russia’s frozen tundra! I can do nothing but watch as the dogs run to catch the other sleds. I have mental images of these six dogs going rogue and heading to Russia — will I ever see Franziska again?
It’s all too Moe, Larry and Curly for me, and I start to laugh, a little at first and then I just can’t stop. My bent-over laughter is probably a bit of hysteria. This disaster is too much like an old black-and-white Charlie Chaplin movie. Those who have stayed behind yell, “Run! Run!” Now I laugh harder because a bit of panic has set in. Even an Olympic runner could not catch the fast-moving sled, now a few hundred feet away.
Franziska, warm and comfortable inside her cocoon, yelled back more than a few times. “Slow down, we don’t need to go that fast,” she told no one. When she finally turned around, I can only imagine what she felt when she saw she was on her own. An expert at dealing with this sort of idiocy, she unzipped the leather cover and threw out a red iron spike. She managed to make the sled stop just as it reached the other waiting teams.
Relieved, I ran toward her. Franziska was fine. My name wouldn’t be splashed across the newspaper as the American fool who forgot her lessons. Franziska was already out of the sled and standing behind the rail. “I will drive,” she told me. Ah, yes, I agreed. She wasn’t mad, she just wanted to live to teach the next group. I sat inside the cocoon buffeted by the Norwegian winds. After a few miles I felt the below-freezing chill; but the bare trees, last night’s untouched snow, blinding sun glistening off the icy flakes and miles of picture-perfect landscape kept the cold at bay.
A few miles later, when the other mushers traded places, Franziska offered me another chance — and she was serious. “Really,” she said, “try again.” Normally up for any adventure, I pass this time. As the mother of a woman her age, I cannot bear the thought of a repeat performance. A few minutes later I watch as a trained dog sledding Norwegian takes a flight and fall similar to the one I took earlier. Hmm, perhaps I should have tried. But, we are almost back to camp and it’s too late. Maybe next time.
We feed the dogs and take them back to their houses. Our own feeding takes place inside the wood-framed Viking Lodge, where we are warmed by a steel fire pit that runs through the middle of the long house. Tables line each side of the fire pit and we enjoy a cozy rest while we wait for our reindeer stew. The steaming meal, laden with meat and potatoes, is simple but delicious and fills our hungry stomachs. Trine (the dog sledding guru) reappears in her native red-and-blue Sami dress. While we eat she describes the colorful outfit, the symbolic jewelry that drapes her neck and her Sami heritage. The Sami, who have a distinct language, are indigenous to Norway, Sweden, Russia and Finland. Known to others as Laplanders or Laps, they are probably the oldest European inhabitants on earth. More than half live in Norway, which recognizes and protects anyone with Sami ancestry.
With evening falling fast, we head back to our home base of Kirkenes, 55 miles away. The historic mining town of only a few thousand people is so strategically situated that the Germans used it to keep the Russians at bay during World War II. Now it’s a base for oil exploration. Forgetting war and oil, this is a beautiful home base for exploring this part of Norway.
In Norway, a safari is very different from the African version, where the landscape is lush and the weather is hot and humid. In Norway it’s dry and cold with every inch of land frosted in snow. There will be no covered jeep in this safari. An even bigger surprise, we’re taking to the water — ice cold water. En route, we stop at the Russian border and take pictures proving we were only steps away. A few empty buildings, a fence and a Russian sign that most certainly says, “Don’t even think about it” are all that stand out on miles of land. Norwegian government ski mobiles ride along a frozen river that runs a few feet away from the border.
Lars Petter’s King Crab Safari sits right on the edge of the Barents Sea. We look across at Russia’s mountains and marvel at the proximity of these two countries. Petter, the owner, helps us with the clothing that will keep us warm and allow us into the unbelievably cold Barents Sea. What sticks with me most is the preparation. In my world, ten minutes is ample or even too much time for me to get ready for anything. In Norway, people allow at least one-half hour to walk out the door — and even that’s pushing it. For the underwater safari, it’s even longer. We must wear a snow suit. Then we put on special socks and boots. Hats go under hoods and white cotton gloves go under our mittens. Then we step into bright orange survival suits that are so thin it’s hard to imagine they are water- and weather-proof.
Looking like a collection of round pumpkins, we head toward the sea with a scuba diver. He’ll do the actual underwater crabbing while we float. A few of us slip — and I do mean slip — into the water. I lie on my back and float. I can feel a slight chill on my back, but it’s nothing that will force me out. My body relaxes as though I’m floating on a cloud. I do believe this is better than any spa treatment I’ve ever had. Three of us don’t want to leave this watery paradise. Without these suits we’d only be able to dip our finger into the below-freezing water, and even then, it would have frozen and fallen off within two seconds. With all this gear we’re able to breathe frozen air, while cuddled within our layers of clothing. The water is clear, but it’s dark and I’m only able to see a few feet below. Fish and crabs live here, but I can’t see any. After a few synchronized swimming attempts we finally push our way to the shore.
The scuba diver has already nabbed about six crabs, which is easy because there are thousands in this pocket of water. I ask to hold one and am told to watch the pinchers because one could easily take off a finger or two. I do it anyway and marvel at the size. (Note: this is much easier than driving a dogsled.)
After a ski mobile ride through the frozen tundra we head back to Petter’s hut and peel off our many layers of protective clothing. Then everyone heads to the oversized main house where our safari-gathered crab will become dinner. The house also serves as an inn for those who want to extend the safari a
few more days. We are told that celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsay visited a few months before and even dived for his crab.
We see the steam coming from the kitchen and smell the feast being prepared. Soon, platters emerge filled with red King Crab legs. It’s been less than an hour since our safari, so this really is as fresh as it gets. Petter shows us the proper way to eat the crustaceans and we follow his lead by cracking the legs and pulling out the meat. Empty bowls are filled with a clatter as the hollow shells hit the pile. Instead of butter, Petter serves a secret sauce. I slather it on a piece of bread, fill it with crab pieces and make a sandwich. No crab has ever tasted this good or fresh and I doubt I will ever buy it from the supermarket again.
One night, a friend and I decided to take a kick sledge back to our hotel. Although you won’t see them in Oslo, the steel-and-wood lightweight sledges are the common mode of transportation in Kirkenes and other snow-laden areas of Norway. Public sledges sit outside every shop and restaurant and end up at the supermarket or hotel for others to use. You may not find the same one you used the night before, but you will find one outside any shop. Just don’t touch the private sledges. Those are usually marked.
Kirkenes’ streets are paved with snow, so a sledge is the best way to get around. Sledges hold one person and are so light they can be carried. Most have a shelf and basket attached to hold groceries. While one foot is planted firmly on one steel rail, the other foot pushes backwards, moving the sledge forward. It’s pretty easy and there is a rhythm to it. Eventually momentum builds and you can put both feet on the rails, pushing only when the sledge slows down.
Unfortunately we were so good at sledging — and talking — we lost ourselves in conversation and then lost ourselves in Kirkenes. We finally found our way and ran into our worried hosts who were out searching for us. Embarrassed in Norway once again, I decided to keep my sledging talents within Kirkenes center.
Next Stop: The Fjords
In only a few days we saw as much of Kirkenes as possible.It was time to board the Hurtigruten Cruises’ MS Polarlys that would take us along the fjords. From a natural beauty perspective the fjords are considered one of the world’s premier tourist attractions — and rightly so. Fingers of craggy mountain peaks split the clouds. The rugged land works its way down into the watery fjords and the contrast is spectacular, especially when the land is crowned with fresh snow. People live, fish and farm along these long narrow finger inlets that were created by glaciers eons ago. During this journey we dock at 36 villages, towns and cities. We stayed onboard during the 20-minute stops, but we took advantage of any stops that lasted four hours or longer by hopping off to visit historic churches, museums and old war posts.
Hurtigruten, a fleet of black-and-white cruise and cargo ships, is now more than 100 years old. It started purely as cargo transport, so Norwegians could get their groceries, automobiles, mail, or anything else they needed. Without the Hurtigruten line, people would have to drive 18 hours or more just to stock the larder or get a new car. The MS Polarlys’s cargo hold, located well below the cruise decks, carries 50 cars and tons of food and other necessities. We cruise along Norway’s coast enjoying the painting-perfect landscape views. While we relax on the upper decks in a cruise-type atmosphere, one that includes original antique art, a restaurant, café and a theater, the locals use this same ship to transport goods — and themselves — to other ports.
Our six days on the MS Polarlys are relaxing. We can’t stop gazing out the windows at the looming snow-covered mountains or donning our coats and standing out on the freezing deck just to get a few pictures sans glare. At night we search for the elusive Northern Lights. One evening we see a pink-and-white pulsating light that streaks across the sky. But we don’t see the green or the blue that is more prominent in December and January.
We cross Varangerfjorden, Norway’s only east-facing fjord and a well-known bird-watching site. Vardo is next and it’s the easternmost point in Norway. The ship goes past the Varanger peninsula where archeologists found Stone Age settlements. During a 90-minute stop at Hammerfest, we go shopping through the snowy town. Hammerfest, we are told, had the
first power station and the country’s first street lights. A stop
in Tromso at 11:45 p.m. leads to a nightcap at a local bar for some, and a daytime break in Harstad allows us to take a Viking history tour.
Along the way I buy notebooks, a Norwegian sweater, a funny-looking but toasty warm Norwegian hat (complete with braided ties) and woolen mittens that provide amazing warmth. I enviously eyed and ignored the hand-blown and oh-so-expensive glassware the region is famous for. Our cabins are small, but they are efficient and comfortable and I sleep through the many stops we make during the night. I only wake when the purser comes over the loud speaker to tell us the Northern Lights are streaking across the sky.
When we disembark in Bergen it’s time for me to say farewell to Norway. There are a few hours to see the city, but it’s not enough. Meanwhile, this unique country has left its imprint on me and I long to return to eat more crab and see more layers of the Northern Lights. And maybe I’ll dogsled again… but I’ll plan to keep my face out of the snow next time.
Oslo is the capital city and was once called Christiania. It became Oslo in the early 1920s and is the third largest city in Norway. This city has a variety of restaurants, hotels, museums and The Nobel Peace Center, but make note: it’s also one of the most expensive cities in the world.
The Nobel Peace Center, right in Oslo’s center is worth a visit.
The Viking Ship Museum
Marvel at old Viking ships, tools and memorabilia.
Holmenkollen Ski Museum and Tower
Although not in use anymore, the Olympics were held here in 1952. There is a simulator pod to help you imagine a ride down the ski jump.
Vigeland Sculpture Park
Granite and bronze sculptures, carved by Gustave Vigeland in the 1920s and 30s, sit in the center of a park in Oslo. Vigeland created these 212 statues — surrounding a granite pole of intertwined faces and bodies —as timeless relics and didn’t want a century or date attached to his work. So, all the statues are unclothed.
One of the finest restaurants in Oslo.
Kirkenes, once a mining town, is now
famous for its Arctic adventures and draws many tourists.
King Crab Safari
Rica Arctic Hotel
Norway (Innovation Norway)
Visit this site for a great history lesson.
Read about this 100-year-old lifeline through Norway.
While in Trondheim visit this ancient
gray granite gem.