I feel strangely conspicuous as I walk cross the apron. I'm a northerner. Or so I've always been told. I clip my vowels until they bleed, I'm friendly to strangers, I prefer my beer with a head and I'll sell my soul for pie. Here, a little short of two thousand kilometres North of Oslo (1903 kilometres or 1day 3hrs drive according to google maps-longer if you don't go via Sweden and Finland) I find myself re-evaluating. This place is surely THE North. My Northerness is, it seems to me, more than a little fraudulent. Still, it's ten degrees here and, dressed for the thirty something degrees I've left behind, I realise I'm the most inappropriately dressed person in sight. With a smile and a semblance of my identity intact I enter the terminal building to be greeted with a smile and a firm handshake.
The how've you beens and how's the journeys quickly dealt with we make our way to the car. A turn of the ignition key unleashes the soft prattle of a boxer motor together with the Bleargh of metal. Death, thrash, black? I'll never know. The subtleties of that particular genre will, I suspect forever remain a mystery to me. Randulf lowers the volume with a smile. Apparently, some things haven't changed. First stop is to be Randulfs house for lunch, a last minute run through gear and food, get the dogs into the car and head off in time to catch the afternoon ferry. This first leg doesn't take long. I'm told it's three minutes drive from the airport to the house. As it happens three minutes is a wild exaggeration, It can't be more than two and half, in three I've pulled off my boots and am taking in the views from the living room, in five I'm spooning up a hearty bowl of Reindeer stew. Just the thing for a Hammerfest summers day. If things don't get better than this in the course of the weekend I'll still be going home a happy man.
A good meal and some more catching up behind us it's time for some last minute packing. I reacquaint myself with my gear. It's a relief to find that it's all present, undamaged and still bringing a smile to my face. The postal service took their own sweet time but got there in the end. In the meantime Randulf has gathered his things and has changed. We lay out the food and take stock. A quick inventory of breakfasts, lunches and evening meals tells us we're well enough supplied. Some dinners will be a little basic without fresh fish but Randulf suggests we take the chance. Give us this day our daily bread but make us work for the jam and butter. I comment on the large quantity of fresh ground coffee. Randulf retorts that it's not supposed to be some sort of punishment.
It's almost time to leave but first I have to make acquaintance with the dogs. I've been watching them through the window. Sled dogs out of context, lounging in the dirt, sleek, bright-eyed, panting in the heat of a ten degree day, waiting for something to happen. The dog, Thule, snow-white, powerful and heavy set. The bitch, Kangia, black and white, a hand shorter, wiry and inquisitive. Truth be told I'm a little nervous about what's about to happen. I haven't been around dogs in any significant way since my childhood. As a kid I had, so they said, a way with animals. As an adult it's proven to be harder to gain their trust. Something in the scent or appearance of an adult male human puts up a higher barrier than does that of a child. I Walk with Randulf around to the cage, watch as he enters and wrestles two overexcited dogs onto leads, crouch low as he opens the gate and emerges and wonder what I've let myself in for as the dogs turn circles and bounce excitedly in my direction. Two seconds later it's clear my fears were unfounded. Greenlands are clearly people dogs. Unless a dog-breathed face licking is enough to deter Hammerfests criminal set these two would certainly make for useless guard dogs.
As we drive out of the town and along the coast it begins to dawn on me how special Randulfs situation is. If you love the outdoors then you're not likely to run up short here abouts. Some, at least to my eyes, seriously wild country starts where the town stops. That particular geographical boundary is here marked with a tall reindeer fence and cattle grids. Hills, not the high alpine variety on offer from Tromso but nevertheless rugged little fells, sit hard up against an intricate twisting coastline dipping their toes in the blue-green water. The shade of blue-green, that I've seen on other occasions in Norway but nowhere else, looks somehow false, too intense to be real.
In a few minutes we're sitting in a short queue of cars waiting for the boat. I figure ours must smell more of dog than any of the others but can't be sure. The front occupants kill time chatting and looking across the water. The rear occupants kill time by chewing any interior trim they can sink their teeth into and whining. Their behaviour occasionally soliciting a loud admonishment from Randulf. To a father of two the scene is frighteningly familiar.
The crossing is short and the drive that follows both short and beautiful. In just a few minutes we've passed through the small collection of wooden houses that constitutes Hornseby and have parked close to village in a gravel lay-by . Then we're kitting up and getting ready for the off. Randulf asks if I want to take a dog straight from the off. I hadn't anticipated that would be an option thinking both the dogs and myself would want time to get accustomed to the idea but I guess if you're in for a penny the pound's as good as a done deal and nod in the affirmative. Then follows a seemingly well practised routine. Randulf kneels down behind the car, opens the boot a crack, reaches in and grabs one of the dogs firmly by collar. Then, a moment almost too short for me to take in, sees the boot door opened and closed , one dog whining in disappointment on the inside and the other bouncing around on outside with Randulf doing a passable impression of a Rodeo star behind it. The action replayed and some fiddling with rope and webbing sees both dogs harnessed. Packs get hoisted, dogs get clipped into waist bands and then and I get a short reading of the rules from Randulf. The rules are short and simple: the dogs must be kept on the lead at all times. If they get away from their handler and attack a reindeer they will most likely get shot. With my new found and acute sense of responsibility, the dogs excitement impossible to contain any longer, we're setting off back along the road.
I pause while Thule sniffs and scurries around in the verge in front of the last house on the road. Before I know what's going on he's marked the illustrious start to my dog handling carrier by squatting and dumping on private property. I drag him away along the road feeling sheepish and willing the curtains not to twitch and the door to stay shut. This is my first exposure to the workings of the Greenland dog. It seems the best policy is to watch their every move and expect them to do exactly what you don't want them to do at exactly the time you least want them to do it. I'm relieved when, in just a few more steps we turn off the road and head up a steep grassy slope and out of sight. A moment later, as I skip and scurry through scrub and bushes at a pace set more by Thule than myself, I feel the first beads of sweat running down my back and I realise, after the months of anticipation, it's really started.
We don't follow the route marked on the map but rather keep to the east in order to gain some height and stay out of the marsh. The going is pretty gentle. Wet underfoot but not very steep and not too densely vegetated. With a bit of dodging and weaving the worst of the wet is easily avoided. A few mosquitoes buzz around my head but they're not in such numbers nor so intent on blood that it's an issue. Thule has settled into a steady pace. He toos and fros a little, sniffing around and checking things out, but basically keeps to plan. An occasional bad call, on his behalf or mine, sees us passing a tree on opposite sides each pulling the other on a tight rope but a little backtracking has us both back in the groove. Staying balanced takes a little more effort than usual but on the whole Thule is taking some of the effort out of the climb. As we climb the trees thin out the bushes dwarf and a carpet of bilberry forms the backdrop for a scattering of rock. We arrive at a short string of pools and take the chance to take a draft of cold, clean, Seiland water. The first of many. I've been thumbing our route as we've gone getting the measure of the statens cartography. The detail on the map is reassuringly visible on the ground. The tiny pool separating the two bigger ones in the string is marked and the bigger ones themselves are recognisable from their profiles. The long view makes sense too. The twin pyramidal points of Veggen are right where they should be.
As we pause the mosquitoes begin to annoy a little more. I break out the deet, strong stuff, imported from Canada, tried and tested. The activity abates a little but the best policy is to keep moving and so we do. We head South, climbing a little more steeply and soon after get a first taste of rock hopping. It's been a while. Dogs add to the fun. With another hundred metresor so underneath us we skirt around the base of the Glimmerfjellet and into the mouth of the Buogovarceabetvaggi. A short pass bounded on one side by the steep Northern end of the long Suolorassa ridge and on the other by the bulk of Eidvagtind Buogovarri it's easier to walk through than pronounce. The pass is decorated with another string of lakes. These more substantial than those we've just left behind. Randulf pauses to check the map and suggests we make out way to the highest lake right at the saddle and set up the tent. The suggestion takes me by surprise. I'd expected to cover more ground today. It does make sense though. We've made some height, I imagine most of the insects are below us, the views are good, and the lakes look like they hold fish.
Half an hour later the dogs are on the line the tent is standing and we're drinking coffee and taking in the view. A magical moment. I count my blessings. Something I don't do often enough considering how charmed my life is.
We fish a little. Catch enough fish to make a meal for two. Arctic Char. My first and lovely little lean, red-breasted , pan-sized, examples that give a good fight on light tackle. Eat well. No pressure, no schedule, no plans, just being in the great outdoors.