Andrew Eames’ group sets out towards the Finnmark plateau
Andrew Eames’ group sets out towards the Finnmark plateau, north-eastern Norway © Darren Hamlin

Somewhere around lunchtime the sunrise turned into a sunset, but it was impossible to tell when the one ended and the other began. The sun had never quite managed to put in an appearance, but instead grumbled just beneath the red-rimmed watery-eyed southern horizon, before finally admitting defeat and dropping away. It would be another hour or so before it was fully dark, but the moon was already gaining the upper hand.

The Norwegians among us were disappointed. “The return of the sun is a very significant time for us,” said Roger Dahl, a grizzled plain-speaking former policeman, who was making a fire in a pit in the snow for soup and coffee. “People are waiting for the end of the polar night. Life is easier with the sun. It makes us feel happy, healthy. And when it returns, the days get longer very quickly. By the beginning of March we will have 12 hours of daylight.”

Trine Lyrek, the chief musher, served the soup in wooden bowls, a bit at a time. There would be more, she said, but the priority was to consume it quickly, before it froze in the bowl; the air temperature was, after all, minus 25C. For the dogs there was a snack of chicken fat, and now they were mostly quiet, knowing what still lay ahead.

When lunch was over, Trine distributed headtorches and we set off again. There was another 20km to go, and much of it would be in darkness, albeit with the assistance of the moon.

An hour later, we were up in the eye-numbingly blank landscape of the Finnmark mountain plateau, a 22,000 sq km expanse covered in snow with only the occasional dwarf birch, sculpted into anthropomorphic shapes by wind and ice, to break the visual silence. By now the moon had completely taken over, despite it being early afternoon, and we were processing through a surreal, milky-white world. I could feel my eyelashes getting heavy with ice, and when the freezing fog crept up on us, completely without warning, the temperature lurched below minus 30C and I could see nothing except for the sled team in front. I thought for a horrible moment that I was losing my sight — that my eyeballs had frozen over.

Finnmark is no country for the ill-prepared. At 48,618 sq km, Norway’s largest region is the size of Denmark, but with just 75,000 inhabitants. I had flown in to the regional capital Alta (connected to Oslo by daily flights), to join a group of six — three British, two Dutch and a Norwegian — who had come here for a proper dog-sled journey (as opposed to the hour-long tasters available at ski resorts in the Alps). It was to be three days long, in the toughest of territories, with one of Scandinavia’s most professional dog teams.

Tourism here is still in its infancy, and is focused on hiking and fishing in the summer, with Northern Lights viewing, dog-sledding and snowmobile safaris in the winter offered by a handful of small operators. If there’s a reason for coming this far north, it is for the extremes of wilderness living and the authenticity with which things have to be done; tourism here is an extension of everyday life and to immerse yourself in it for a long weekend is a thrill. Meals focus on reindeer, salmon and moose, hunted, cooked and served by people who’ve lived here most of their lives. That fire in the snow made by Roger — it had no petrol-infused fire starter; we had to find the driest possible birch-tree bark. And the soup and the crispbread — they were homemade by Johnny Trasti, chef, artist and Trine’s husband.

The couple’s company, Trasti and Trine, is located by the Alta river, a 20-minute drive south of town, and is one of the best-known names in Norwegian dog-sledding. Trine has competed in Alaska’s 1,800km Iditarod, the world’s most famous dog-sled race, wins regular prizes in Norway, and has 72 huskies in her kennels. Roger Dahl, her colleague and sometime mentor, has done the 1,000km Finnmarksløpet — the longest dog-sled race in Europe — 25 times, won it three times, and on the last occasion had one of his dogs die in his arms.

I’d started my acclimatisation by overnighting in the Sorrisniva igloo hotel, just up the river from the kennels, and coincidentally the starting point for the second stage of the Finnmarksløpet. The hotel had a warm front section, with a restaurant and sitting room; a middle part they called the “wardrobe” of showers, sauna and changing rooms, and then out of the back was the transient Narnia-like world — a silent, low slung cathedral of ice, with a chapel, bedroom corridors like cloisters, and a main hall drenched in misty blue light. Its walls were peopled with trolls, fossegrimen and other mythical creatures carved in ice, frozen in the act of gesticulating at each other. My room was like a monkish cell carved out of glittery sugar, and it was a parky five degrees below, but there was more than enough bedding to cope.

Harnessing the dogs
Harnessing the dogs © Darren Hamlin

At Trasti and Trine next morning, the first thing Trine did was to shake her head at my kit, even the stuff I use for skiing. “Cotton is the criminal,” she said as she delved into her stores. “Wool is far better, because when it gets wet it stays warm. I hope you don’t mind — some people get angry when I tell them their clothes are no good.”

Then we went out to find our dogs, harness them, and load the sledges, and the reality of what we were taking on began to bite. Alaskan huskies are born to run, and they were quivering, whining and howling with excitement — “choose me, choose me” — as we walked among them, standing tall at the end of their chains, scrabbling eagerly as we passed. The noise, the energy, the complexity of the harnessing and the numbing effect of the cold were something of a culture shock, and it was all too much for the seventh person meant to be with us; he backed out at the moment of departure, walking away from his fully harnessed team. Later we all agreed that it was fortunate he had made the decision when he had; backing out any distance down the track would have been very complicated.

The start was fast and hard for novice drivers, with eager, fresh dogs and a trail that twisted through trees. Then we were out on to the iced-over Alta river, where Hemingway once fished, where monster salmon are regularly caught and a week-long fishing permit costs as much as £8,000. For us, though, it was like a sinuous runway between the trees.

Climbing away from the river at a steadier pace gave us a chance to learn the necessary skills. How to shift your weight to steer; how to use the snow hook; that we shouldn’t brake on the corners. Above all, that, if we fell over, we must never, ever, let go of the sled, not even if it meant being dragged bodily along through the snow. If a dog team escaped, they could run for 10km before they’d slow down enough to be caught.

Personally, I had no idea how to control our speed, but my five huskies knew what they were doing. My lead dog, Smash, one of Trine’s racers, set an unrelenting pace, wearing a special jacket to stop him getting frostbite. Smash’s problem, confided Roger, was that he didn’t have sufficiently hairy testicles.

By the time we got to our overnight destination, across that moonlit plateau, frostbite was on everyone’s mind. The last 5km to the wilderness lodge at Jotka Fjellstue were across a series of frozen lakes and the temperature dropped further. But before we could warm the lodge, and ourselves, the dogs needed to be de-harnessed, chained, fed, jacketed and given straw beds, all jobs that would be hard enough in daylight, but in deep snow, in the dark, it seemed to take forever. Numb, slow moving and encrusted with ice, we looked like extras from The Revenant.

So that was day one. The plan for day two had been to set off on a circular route, or maybe go ice-fishing, but now that the lodge’s log stove was pumping out heat, we didn’t want to leave it for long. So we went for short walks, and sat and listened to Roger and Trine’s mushing tales, such as how in one snowstorm Trine’s 16-year-old daughter had got lost, and had to dig a pit in the snow and climb into it with her dogs to keep warm. They told us about the region’s mythical creatures: the forest-dwelling Huldra, the tiny Tomten, and the people who lived underground in these God-forgotten places. And when darkness fell again, we staggered out from the snowblasted lodge to watch the Northern Lights trip their way across the sky.

Then it was time to return. Although the route was the same, in reverse, it looked different. Perhaps it was because we knew what we were doing a little bit more. And we needed to, for going downhill was far harder than the outward journey, careering down through twisting tracks between the trees. The dogs loved the speed, and Smash looked back at me reproachfully as I repeatedly applied the brake.

But before we plunged down towards the river for the last and most difficult part of the homeward journey, the plateau provided one last parting shot. The sun, which had been lying low as before, heaved itself up to the horizon for a brief moment, and winked at us.

I hope it appreciated our ragged cheer.

China falls for Lapland

Newly released statistics reveal a surprise surge in Chinese tourists travelling to the lakes and forests of Finnish Lapland. Official figures comparing the first 11 months of 2015 with the same period in 2014 show that, while the overall number of nights foreign tourists spent in Lapland hotels remained static, the total for Chinese visitors was up 69 per cent (to just over 12,000). Visit Finland said the rise was driven by a desire to see the Northern Lights and snow-covered landscapes — winter visits vastly outnumber summer (Chinese arrivals in February were five times greater than in August). Meanwhile, a €13.5m expansion has been completed at Ivalo airport, the gateway to the region; charter flights arriving there in December were up 32 per cent, compared to the same month in 2014.

Details

Andrew Eames was a guest of Simply Sweden, Visit Norway, Northern Norway Tourist Board and Trasti and Trine. The three-day trip costs from £1,755 per person, including return flights from London to Alta via Oslo and transfers. A night in the Sorrisniva igloo hotel costs £204 per person

Photographs: Darren Hamlin

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