Svalbard - Dogsled and Snowmobile, March 2011

While the first dog sled tour had been fairly basic (sleeping in an expedition tent and carrying all the gear needed), the second one was going to be a bit more comfortable.

The Noorderlicht is an old (it had turned 100 the previous year) two mast schooner, which is moved into Tempelfjorden and frozen into the fjord ice every winter and serves as a 'hotel in the ice'.

On the first day, the dog sled tour would go from the dog kennel to the ship. Then there would be a day tour in the Tempelfjorden area the next day and on the third day we would make our way back to the kennel.

Since we didn't need to bring tents, sleeping bags, dog food or our breakfast/dinner with us, the sleds would be lighter on this trip and the going easier. Though the disadvantage was that we needed to go all the way to the ship - we couldn't just call it a day somewhere and set up camp. But the distance between the kennel and the ship of about 50 km is easy going for the dogs.

We were to meet the guide at 10 am. (We, in this case, were a Scottish couple, a semi-Scottish couple (living in Norway) and me.)

When the guide arrived, he told us that we wouldn't be able to go dogsledding right now, due to the snow storm outside. (Overnight, the weather had changed significantly again.)

I had heard that before. About a week earlier.

And since there were no 'extra days' built into the schedule, the new plan was as follows: He would be back at noon and, depending on the wind force and direction, we would either try to get to the ship as planned or, if the wind still was blowing down Adventdalen, there would be the option to do a day trip down a side valley where there was an ice cave to visit...

That somehow sounded familiar.

The next two hours were passed in nervous anticipation, before the guide returned that we would try for the ship.

So we went to a storage room and got the necessary gear. As on the other tour, I asked whether I could wear my own stuff, provided I took the serious gear with me on the sled. (I am quite aware that light windbreaker trousers and a leather jacket aren't really sufficient if it gets seriously cold, but if it is just 'somewhat' cold, I prefer the comfort and familiarity of my own stuff to the warmth of the serious stuff. At least on a dog sled - I wouldn't want to try that on a snowmobile.)

The guide was a bit concerned about that (because the implied question is always "Does this stupid client know what he's doing or is he going to kill himself or whine all the time about the cold."), but agreed.

After everyone was fitted out, we drove to the kennel.

Their kennel is at a group of old trapper huts and they try to keep the ambience, so there's an old rack for seals nearby (once used for dog food) and the huts are somewhat small and old-fashioned looking.

Seal storage rack Trapper huts

And then it was again time to prepare the sleds and get the basic introduction about how to handle and harness the dogs.

Which I sort of knew, but, unlike the security instructions in airplanes, the specifics differ from outfit to outfit, so I paid attention.

There were two things different from other dog sledding tours, one clever and one only semi-clever.

The first concerned the clip for the neckline. Usually the dog collar just has a ring and then the neck line from the sled is clicked into it with some snap.

And when the dog is moved to the 'night line' or to the dog house, there is another snap on that line or chain as well. On this tour the 'snap' was at the collar, so that the gangline, nightline or chain just needed to have some sort of loop for the snap to be attached to, which probably reduces cost and also allows you to snap the dog in an emergence to something else. Just one of these ideas where you wonder why it never occurred to you that things could be done that way.

The other idea concerned the harnesses. Since the dogs have different sizes, they need different harnesses. They are not individually fitted harnesses, but they come in a number of fixed sizes.

And you don't want to run a dog with a wrong harness (the same way you wouldn't want to walk with shoes that are a size too small or large).

So how to get the right harness on the right dog?

In Canada, they had the dog names on the harnesses, so every dog had an individual harness. Makes it also easier to remember the dog's names. But until you know the dog's names, it's hard to figure out which harness belongs where. And another, minor, problem is that it's confusing when a harness needs to be replaced (for example if a dog has chewed through it), since the replacement harness isn't marked yet.

On the other Svalbard tour, the harnesses were just marked numerically with their size and you needed to remember which dog wore which size. So you need to remember the dogs and their sizes.

On this tour, the harnesses were colour coded and the dog names were printed accordingly.

The dog teams

So Oscar needed a green harness, Hobbit a black one, Thea a blue one, and so on.

So you didn't need to remember the sizes, just the colours.

Which, unfortunately, only gives you a minor advantage over putting the size as a number on the harness. While it's easier to spot the overall colour of the harness (and makes them also easier to sort) than to look for a number written on them somewhere, you still need to identify all your dogs and remember the proper colours.

But, since the dogs always wear their collars, it would be very easy if the dogs just had their collars in the same colour as the harness they need to wear - because then you could just look at any dog, see what the collar looks like and get the appropriate harness without needing to memorize anything.

Which would have been a clever idea, but for some reason not followed through.

On the list above, my team is (sort of) 'Spann 6'.

Only 'sort of', since Igor was somehow double-booked and out on some other tour, so Igor got replaced by Cato. And Kuling was in heat (which will cause problems on a tour), so I got Polka instead.

So the team I started out with had Zakk and Cato in lead, Putin and Polka in the middle and Timon and Miska as wheel dogs.

Note: Not sure about the spelling of the last name. On the list of dogs she was written 'Miscka', on her dog house she's 'Miska'. Since a spelling error is more likely to occur when typing than when painting, I'll go with Miska here. But Miska is a mysterious dog anyway - she used to belong to someone in Barentsburg, who gave her to the kennel when moving away (presumably back to Russia), so nobody knows much about her back story. Miska is quite shy, but a very good puller, given her size, as long she's on fairly solid ground, but tends to break her stride once she encounters deep snow, probably due to her relatively short legs.

Due to the weather, the dogs weren't that enthusiastic at first and most of them were still asleep in their houses.

Dog houses

But they got much more enthusiastic once we had put the sleds in position and came to them with their harnesses.

Harnesses hanging colour coded Preparing the sleds

Though there was probably some disappointment in Nanooq, who was by far the most excited of the dogs, but wasn't going on this trip.

After a (surprisingly short) while, all the sleds and their dogs were ready to go.

Sled almost ready Sled almost ready

The first bit of the track turned out the trickiest one, since it was going downhill in a curve and the dogs are hardest to control right at the start. But everyone managed that bit easily, so it was likely that there wouldn't be any significant problems.

The sky was still grey and overcast, but there wasn't much wind and the snowing had stopped, so it was easy going.

Dog sled on an overcast day, Svalbard Dog sled on an overcast day, Svalbard

It turned out that the only one having problems was me.

When we went along Adventdalen, my sled was increasingly trailing behind. So everyone had to stop every ten minutes or so until I caught up.

I had some trouble with a wheel dog. Timon was not pulling at all. And visibly so.

Sometimes a dog is hurt or tired and doesn't pull as much as it usually does, and it shows since the tugline is being not as taunt as usual. But Timon was just trotting along with the tugline hanging slack. And while Miska was pulling enthusiastically, she is a fairly small dog and couldn't pull the sled on her own. (I don't know the real 'power distribution on a dog sled, but I would assume that the wheel dogs do something like 60% of the pulling, with the middle dogs about 30% and the lead dogs about 10%. Which means, with one of your wheel dogs not pulling, you lose about 30% of the pulling power. With Timon being larger than Miska probably even closer to 35%.)

And Timon was obviously just walking. When a dog is pulling, it 'leans' into the rope (the same as if a human is pulling something heavy), while Timon was running with legs stretched out and head held high, as if he was some show dog going walkies.

Since my sled was increasingly dragging behind, Vermund, the guide, switched Timon with Milo, a dog from his team.

So at least I had some decent pulling power and could keep up.

Supposedly, a dog not running properly might not be a problem specifically with the dog or the driver, but sometimes just the combination. Some dogs may not like or respect an individual, but work well for someone else. So I asked the guide at the end of the tour whether Timon had been pulling in his team. Turned out that Timon hadn't been pulling there either and Vermund was quite fascinated on how accurately lazy the dog was. Usually, a lazy dog won't pull the tugline, but, being slow, gets pulled along by the neckline. But Timon matched the speed of the team, so that both lines were hanging lose, which Vermund hadn't seen in this form before.

Since we had started out two hours later than expected (and having to wait for me to catch up), the sun had already set when we were passing through Eskerdalen (the connection between Adventdalen and Sassendalen).

Adventdalen dog sledding at dusk Adventdalen dog sledding at dusk Adventdalen dog sledding at dusk

And by the time we entered Sassendalen, the 'blue hour' had set in and everything was tinted in a bluish-grey colour.

Blue hour, Sassendalen, Svalbard Blue hour, Sassendalen, Svalbard Blue hour, Sassendalen, Svalbard
Blue hour, Sassendalen, Svalbard Blue hour, Sassendalen, Svalbard

It was fun to drive through such a strange monochrome landscape.

Well, Svalbard usually is mostly monochrome, but this time it was a blue hue instead of a white one, so maybe it was just the bit of variety that made it interesting.

But we didn't have time for breaks, since there were still about 20 km to go and while the light was fading slowly, it was fading. So by the time we passed Fredheim (the Trapper hut that marks the corner from Sassendalen into Tempelfjorden), we were driving with the moon lighting up the terrain and were quite glad that the Noorderlicht had turned on the light on the mast to gives us some destination to aim for.

Arriving at Noorderlicht

It was around 9 pm when we reached the Noorderlicht.

But once we were there, everything happened quite quickly. The nightlines were already laid out and fixed next to the ship and the water for the dog food was already warmed up, so all that needed to be done was to move the dogs from the sleds to their nightlines, remove the harness, fill and distribute the food bowls and distribute some bits of straw for the dogs to sleep on.

While this sounds like a lot to do, it doesn't really take that much time (the time critical things are usually the gathering and melting of snow to produce some water). So it wasn't long before we went on board and to our cabins, had a quick shower and sat down for a three course dinner.

Quite a luxurious way to end a day of dogsledding, compared to the one four days earlier and six kilometers farther away...

When I woke up next morning, another snow storm was going on and I assumed that we would spend all day on board and wouldn't do any dogsledding.

Dogs near Noorderlicht Sleds and snow mobiles in snow

Also, some of the dogs didn't look like they were enthusiastic about getting up and running.

Grouchy dog

Actually most of them were still asleep.

Sleeping dogs Sleeping dogs

Although a couple of them seemed to be on 'guard duty', watching over the others.

Dogs guarding other dogs Dogs guarding other dogs Dogs guarding other dogs Dogs guarding other dogs

They probably needed a wake-up signal...

Noorderlicht bell

Though, admittedly, the wake up signal wasn't the ship's bell, but bringing out some breakfast for the dogs. That seemed to do the trick.

Dogs being alert Dogs being alert Dogs being alert Dogs being alert

Our morning routine (well, not much of a routine, since we only did that twice) was first grabbing a cup of coffee, then heading out to feed the dogs and then heading in for some leisurely breakfast before going dog sledding.

Feeding the dogs Feeding the dogs Feeding the dogs Feeding the dogs

While I wasn't very optimistic about being able to do some dogsledding when I first looked outside, the weather forecast predicted about two hours of sunshine before noon, followed by a lot of wind and snow in the afternoon.

And by the time we had finished feeding the dogs, some light patches started to appear through the clouds.

Light over hills

By the time we had our breakfast and headed out again, the skies had changed to 'mostly blue'.

Dogs at Tempelfjorden Snow blown over ice Blue skies over Tunabreen

So it was time to shoot some dog portraits.

Sled dogs at Tempelfjorden Sled dogs at Tempelfjorden Sled dogs at Tempelfjorden
Sled dog Sled dog Sled dog named Putin
Sled dog named Putin Sled dog named Putin Sled dog named Putin

Though the coolest looking dog of the whole bunch was Jinx:

Sled dog named Jinx, looking cool Sled dog named Jinx, looking cool Sled dog named Jinx, looking cool

Since the weather forecast had predicted only two hours of good weather, the plan was to go to the edge of the Tunabreen glacier first (since that is the 'main attraction' of Tempelfjorden) and then head back towards the ship. If the weather would hold, we would continue past the ship and visit Fredheim (the trapper hut) and then circle back across Tempelfjorden, taking a look at the west side of Templet, the oddly shaped mountain that gave the fjord its name.

Time to get the dog harnessed and in front of the sleds.

Dogs next to Noorderlicht

After a couple of false starts (we were too close to the ship and the dogs got too interested in the four 'local dogs' in their dog houses, the ship, the place where the food was dispensed that morning and about everything else), we were on our way to the glacier front.

Towards Tunabreen glacier

For the third time in as many weeks, I was standing in front of the glacier with blue skies and the sun shining.

Tunabreen glacier Dogs moving towards Tunabreen glacier Tunabreen glacier edge
Tunabreen glacier edge Dogs moving towards Tunabreen glacier Tunabreen glacier edge
Dogs moving towards Tunabreen glacier Tunabreen glacier edge

The dogs seemed to be quite glad about the weather.

Putin, Polka and Milo, sled dogs Sled dog named Milo Sled dog named Miska
Sled dog named Putin Sled dog named Polka Sled dog named Polka

And so was I.

Sled dogs and me

I was even nice to Zakk, one of my lead dogs, even though he didn't really deserve it (and pretty much tried my patience for three days).

This is Zakk:


And Zakk is annoying.

On the first tour, someone asked Reeta, the guide, what made a good lead dog. My assumption was always that a lead dog primarily needs to be smart (for a dog). But Reeta claimed that this, while it helped, was not the main point. A good lead dog needs to be "strong in the head". Being the lead dog can by (mentally) tiring and a smart dog that stops paying attention to the task (getting "soft in the head") isn't useful as a lead dog.

On the first dog sled trip I did in Canada, there was a problem in one team with the lead dogs (mainly one dog, Dino, the other one was just playing along). At that time I wrote Dino and Blue took it easy once on the trail. Sippi described them as a "couple on holiday", looking left and right at the scenery ("Look over there! A patch of snow! Impressive! And there's a piece of wood. I like pieces of wood. And there's another one! Look!") and not paying too much attention to the trail."

On this trip, the same thing happened to me with Zakk. (Except for the pieces of wood. There's not much wood lying around in Svalbard.) Zakk not only stopped for everything (especially including dog droppings, of which there were, since we were last in line, a lot to be seen), which would have been annoying enough, but often noticed something too late and then turned back to check it out. Which meant that he ran right into the second row (using the chance to check out whether Polka might be in heat - she wasn't but Zakk went to check anyway) or even back to the wheel dogs.

Which meant that I usually needed to anchor the sled, try to grab my lead dogs, and move them to the front of the line. Which usually didn't work, since the lines were tangled, so I needed to unclip most of the tuglines (except those on the lead dogs, obviously), lift or pull the lead dogs in front, make sure that no leg was getting caught in the gangline, tell Zakk to stay where he is, clip all the dogs back into their lines, tell Zakk not to run back to the other dogs or push him forward again, wonder how a dog can clip the end of his harness into his own neckline snap (which should be anatomically impossible and topologically questionable), go back to the sled, unhook the snow anchors, shout at Zakk again, try to figure out where the other dog sleds have gone, try to catch up with them and apologize.

Repeated about every half hour.

An the last day I was quite willing (and seriously suggesting to the guide) to do without Zakk (maybe have him running free or attached to the back of the sled or add him to some other sled), since I was fairly sure that I would be faster with five dogs (and just Cato in the lead) than with six dogs where one was, to put it mildly, not "strong in the head".

But my request got denied on the base that if the lead dog does not behave, it is not the problem of the lead dog. Which might be reasonably true, even though, as a small aside, Timon didn't work for the guide either (but admittedly Timon wasn't a lead dog), but since I don't know much about dogs, I had no idea how to handle Zakk properly, so the trouble continued.

But in the sunshine and good weather, even Zakk was forgiven. For a while. (Also, for once, the biggest tangle of the day wasn't on my team. Someone tried to shoot a short video clip of the dogs moving with his digicam and didn't notice that the sled in front had stopped. So when he stopped, both dog teams were standing side by side and started to check each other out. Which resulted in a tangle of twelve dogs on two ganglines, which took a while to sort out.)

When we turned round in front of the Tunabreen glacier, some dark skies could be seen at the other end of the fjord, so it seemed like the good weather phase was soon going to be over.

Dark clouds to the left

On the way back, the grey skies caught up with us, so we stopped at the ship and didn't continue the day tour any farther.

Overcast skies at Tempelfjorden Overcast skies at Tempelfjorden near Noorderlicht Overcast skies at Tempelfjorden near Noorderlicht

I don't think anyone minded much. It was supposed to be just a short day trip anyway and the dogs were supposed to have a day of easy running (and while I don't consider running 20 km an easy day, for the dogs that was pretty much a rest day).

And we had a great day out, so continuing that in mediocre weather would just have spoiled the mood.

So it was time for the dogs to get some more rest.

Dog resting

At least until it was time for their dinner...

Dogs having dinner

While we were feeding the dogs, a seal came out of its hole and took a look at us, but then decided that it didn't like either us or the weather and went down again.

Seal on fjord ice Seal on fjord ice

During the afternoon there was some time to work on filling this:

Polar Dog Mail

It's hard to read on the photograph, but the bottom of the box bears the text "Polar Dog Mail". It is an official (though slightly irregular) post box. During winter, the Noorderlicht acts as a certified post office and any mail is transported via dog sled to Longyearbyen before following the 'normal' post route.

So any mail posted at the Noorderlicht has the uncommon feature of being carried by dog sled as part of the mail route and the stamp on the envelope show that.

Polar Dog Mail Envelope

So having the chance to send some fairly unusual mail, I used most of the afternoon to sit down in the deckhouse and write to a couple of friends (even though I don't think any of them is a philatelist).

Noorderlicht deck house

Since the next dog sled group leaving the ship would be ours the next day, I might as well have carried the mail on my own and mailed it from Longyearbyen, but by posting it at the ship and having it transported on the guide's sled, it was official polar dog mail (as opposed to mail that just happened to be transported on a dog sled...)

When I got up next morning and had a coffee, the dogs we unusually alert, even though it wasn't feeding time yet.

Dogs being alert

The reason was another group of dogs emerging from the distant whiteness.

Dog sleds seen from the Noorderlicht Dog sleds seen from the Noorderlicht

These were the dogs with which I had been travelling a week earlier. The tour group, led by Reeta, had obviously spend the nights in tents a couple of kilometers down the fjord, on the same spot where I had spent the night less than a week ago and was now heading back.

Since they were carrying all their camping gear and food, they were moving slower, so they needed to get going earlier than we would. So I stood on deck of the Noorderlicht, coffee in hand, trying not to look too smug and waved at them passing by, before going below deck and refilling my coffee and being quite comfortable.

Breakfast for the dogs and then some breakfast for us followed, before getting out again, bringing the sleds into position, getting the dogs harnessed and in front of the sleds and being ready to go.

For the last stretch, Miska had been replaced with the larger Borneo, so only two dogs from the original "Spann 6" still remained on my team - Putin and Zakk.

Dog sleds parallel parking Moving the dogs Dogs and sleds
Dogs watching dog being handled Dogs excited about running

By the time we were ready to go, it had started to snow again, but at least there wasn't much wind and the temperatures were mild. Too mild, as it turned out.

A last look at the captain on deck and the Noorderlicht with only the resident dogs (and just some patches of straw showing where an hour before almost 40 dogs were lying) and we left for Longyearbyen.

Or, in my case, tried to leave.

First, the neckline between my two lead dogs broke - this happens some time and is not a problem, but it took a moment to get a new one. Then Zakk decided that the bucket into which all the dog droppings had been shovelled would be interesting to check out. Then he tried to visit the resident dogs. Then he tried to get back on track and follow the other dogs, but trying to walk around the back of the sled.

But after a while things got sorted out and we managed to follow the other teams (which, by then, had started a half-circle to turn around and see why I was missing). But finally everything was lined up properly and we were on our way.

The first hours were interestingly odd.

The snow was still falling, but in a fairytale kind of way with thick, slow falling flakes. And while there was good visibility (on the left side of the next picture you can see a dark splotch, which is the side of a mountain, a couple of kilometers away), with overcast skies all around the light was diffuse and there wasn't any contrasts, so for two hours there was a strong feeling of dogsledding in white nothingness.

Dog sledding in a white emptiness

So there was a strong feeling of being in a THX-1138 kind of world (or the "White Room" from the "Angel" TV series) or in a sensory deprivation experiment. It seemed like we could drive forever without arriving or any change in scenery, just us and the dogs moving in infinite space.

(Yes, in retrospect that is silly, but standing on the dog sled with little to do, the mind wanders a bit. At least until Zakk decided to screw up again and it was time to stop and untangle the dogs. Again.)

After about halfway to the kennel, it got even warmer (about +2°C) and the snow turned into rain.

This was pretty annoying.

While at first my leather jacket kept me reasonably dry, it got soaked after a while and let the rain through, so all my clothing got wet and I found that the disadvantage of the old rule that you should 'dress in layers' in cold climates, meant that I was now dog sledding in four layers of cold water, which isn't comfortable.

It wasn't dangerous since it was still quite warm and not windy, but standing around for hours in the pouring rain was as little fun on a dog sled as anywhere else.

At least I still got the snowmobile suit packed into my sled (where it might have been still mostly dry), so I could have changed into something dry if necessary). But it probably wouldn't helped much, since the uncomfortable bits were the boots and mittens. Later, when we were back in town, I poured about a liter of water from each boot - it probably would have been a good idea to keep the trousers outside the boots instead of tucking them in. And I kept my fingers clenched in my mittens, since water was collecting at the end of the mittens and if I extended the fingers, they would dip into a pool of cold water.

Also the dogs didn't like it much, since they aren't fond of getting wet either. And the snow was turning into slush, which isn't that good for sledding in. From time to time it felt more like dog-assisted water-skiing than dog sledding.

At least Zakk was sufficiently unenthusiastic and avoided any detours, but just kept heading forward towards the kennel.

So it wasn't the best of riding that day, but at least it was atypical.

I didn't do any photographing that afternoon (I was afraid I might drown the camera), but here's one from a street in Longyearbyen the next day, just to give an idea of the general conditions.

Slushy Longyearbyen road

But we made it safe and sound back to the kennel.

Even the guide (who did have a lot of dogsledding experience and had even participated in the Finnmarksløpet, a sort of European equivalent to the Iditarod, in 2007) noted that he had never been that wet while being dogsledding. (To which one of the Scottish guys remarked that he had never even been that wet before while sailing...)

So the last bit of the trip was slightly unusual.

Here's the group of dogs that brought me out to the Noorderlicht and back again.

My lead dogs Zakk (not that strong in the head) and Cato (quite ok):

Sled dog: Zakk Sled dog: Zakk

My 'point dogs' (second row) Putin and Polka:
(Polka was part of a litter where the mother was called Dancer, so all the pups were named after dances, hence Samba, Swing and Polka. (I think there was also mention of Tango and ChaCha, but I'm not sure.)

Sled dog: Putin Sled dog: Polka

And, finally, the lead dogs, starting with Timon and Miska:

Sled dog: Timon Sled dog: Miska

With Timon getting replaced by Milo after a couple of hours and Miska getting replaced by Borneo on the third day.

Sled dog: Milo Sled dog: Borneo

And then it was time to get back to Longyearbyen and another night in the hotel (and another nicely 'rough styled, but comfortable' room to stay in) before flying back home (after a bit of worry if the flight would come in at all - yet another snow storm).

Basecamp Explorer room Basecamp Explorer room

This is the route we took, covering 122.5 km on dog sled - together with the other dog sled trip, the total was almost 280 km:

Track of second dog sled trip

The route of the trip (as a Google Earth KML file) is here.

Distances travelled:
Kennel to Noorderlicht49.4 km
Tempelfjorden day tour22.8 km
Noorderlicht to kennel50.3 km

Back to other travels