Walking the dogs: Seiland 0-22hours

The little plane climbs steeply, prop engines screaming, the deafening noise in stark contrast to the scene framed through the window. Inside noise, vibration and the side to side jittering of a plane being wrestled into level flight. Outside, silence, stillness, solidity, permanance. I'm looking down at a jumble of black rock and white snow that stretches into the distance. An intimate mixture of mountain and sea. I wonder why I'm clenching my cheeks. Is it the rollercoaster plane ride or the intimidating array of sharp ridge and pointy peak that make up the Lyngen alps? I decide I need to come back here and take a closer look. I wonder if I can legimately tick off the tops already and save myself the effort and anxsiety of having to climb them. It seems that no sooner are we in the air than we're heading back down. We circle Hammerfest before landing. It's a steep-banked, tight radius turn. Apparently it takes just a minute to make a full circuit of the worlds most Northern city.

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.

I think to myself that the evening is going just fine but then realise I have lost all sense of time. A glance at my watch tells me it's now gone midnight. It could just as well be three in the afternoon. None of the usual keys are telling me it's time to wind down so I do just the opposite. Gathering my camera gear I head off up the hill in search of the midnight sun. I wander upwards, looking for interest in the fall of light looking for foreground detail and pastel backdrops but the light isn't long and a capture I'm happy with elusive. I've climbed another hundred meters or more before I realise that a clear view of the sun is going to take more effort than I'd banked on. I look at my watch once more and it's gone two. Twenty two hours after shutting my front door behind me I decide enough's enough and head back down the hill with every intention of getting some sleep.


Seiland: The place and the gear

High Perch

Although I'm sure there's no written rule on this it always feels like I should start with the trip report and finish up with some reflection on the gear. It feels, therefore, like I'm doing this one backwards, or upside down, depending how you look at it. Nevertheless, the trip report may yet be a while in the making and the observations on gear, well they're already in my head and just need setting free. Hopefully the process will free up some neurons for the write up. Reflections on gear are bound to be trip, terrain and weather specific so first some short comments on the trip to give the rest context

North versus South
It was a short trip of just four nights conducted at a relaxed tempo. Seiland is a wild and pointy little island with, at least on its North side, barring the road from the ferry dock to Hornseby, very little by way of infrastructure. Routes are marked on the Turkaart leading South out of Hornseby along the eastern shores of Storvatnet and Ovrevatnet and on to Seilands Jokelen, Norways Northern most glacier. These are “route suggestions”. Don’t be fooled into thinking there is any kind of path on the ground. There isn’t. Don’t be fooled that the dashed line follows the most sensible line over ground either. It doesn’t. At least not all of the time, as we found out to our cost on one occasion. Crossing Seiland requires that you navigate, often along watercourse and shoreline, frequently on contour detail alone, but always staying in reasonable contact with the map. The ground under foot is rough. Where marsh is marked it is wet, deep and may require detours. Where vegetation is marked is bushwhack territory of the first order. Where nothing is marked is often extensive boulder field. At this latitude, 71 degrees North, climatic zones are compressed into thin layers. Seiland is at it’s highest point just 1000m up. We used only half of the altitude available to us but passed though everything from coastal to high alpine zones with lush birch woodland and bilberry carpeted hillside in between. Bare mountainside with closely spaced contours and all the trimmings, in July 2010 including snow and ice, jumps out and bights you from around 400m. There were times when, especially at lower altitudes, with packs and dogs and all and sundry, we were making just 1.5km an hour over ground.

As far as the weather is concerned we were dealt a good hand. I guess the temperature hovered around 8°c, give or take a couple of degrees either way. We got little by way of rain, a reasonable amount of sun and a little light wind. At times, when sheltered and out of the shadows, the temperature felt more like 15°C. When in the shadows and exposed to the wind it felt cold. Although the sun didn’t always shine it was, of course, ever present. Wind-chill and sun-bake aside the temperature was remarkably constant without the usual rollercoaster boom and bust normally associated with the swing from day to night in the mountains. Thankfully we always had good visibility making navigation that much easier.

Tarps versus Tents
Hmm tents. It’s a hard one this me not being a tent person and all. Randulf had a new Tunnel tent on test and needed nights in it so that was what we took. Large and heavy it wouldn’t be, for either of us, the tent of choice for the job in hand. I’m not about to spill the beans on the review and talk specifics but my generic experience of tent use on the trip is worth sharing (at least I think so). The two main motivations for choosing a tent over any other form of shelter in this part of the world are a) bighting beasties and b) weather.

Let’s deal with a) first. In retrospect, the insect activity was never so bad that I would choose a tent over tarp for this reason. We camped in relatively exposed locations at elevations of around 200m and, although I took some flak, I’d have been happy to use a bivvy with some mesh protection. We passed through areas at lower elevations where I would definitely not want to overnight, tent or otherwise, and of course, had we been Inland, on the infamous Finnmarks Vidda, I would most likely draw another conclusion but Seiland, at least in July of this year, was not at all bad.

Now for b). We didn’t get heavy weather. A bit of wet but nothing major. For what we were dealt a bivvy bag/tarp combo or even just a bivvy bag would have been ideal. Of course there’s always a chance that you get caught out in something nasty. On normal trips I apply the rational that, I’m out for just a few nights, I’ve checked the forecast, that I know how to pitch my tarp and, perhaps most importantly, being never more than a half days walk from a hut or village, I may have a rough night but bail out is always possible. Seiland is, in that respect a little different. lack of paths, the requirement for careful navigation in poor visibility, terrain that slows you down to 1.5km an hour could all potentially force a couple of miserable nights before a bail out was executed. Hmm, tent or tarp?

A factor I hadn’t reckoned on before the trip was the midnight sun. I’ve camped in tents in hot climates and know how unpleasant it can be. Lying sweating in an oven-like tent and being forced to come out for air in the early hours isn’t my idea of fun. I associated that experience with summers spent in the south of France not with the far North. In reality the two aren’t so far apart. Wherever you sight your tent, at some time in the next 24hrs, it will potentially be in full sun. In Seiland, I found myself, on several occasions, wishing I was in an open shelter, in a light breeze with fine views. That was partly due to my choice of bag but mostly due to the choice of shelter.

I think, on balance, regardless of the mosquito and sunshine arguments that, because of the remoteness and potential for heavy weather, I would again choose a more enclosed shelter than a tarp. Whether that shelter would be a two skin tent would depend upon factors beyond my experience. The middle ground between tent and tarp is somewhere I’ve not yet been. Although enclosed single skin shelters like the MLD Duomid or Trailstar, look ideal to my eyes, I’d want to give them a thorough trying first. The jury is still out.

Shoes versus Boots
I started with warm, dry, blister free feet. I finished with warm, dry, blister free feet. On the whole I’m happy with my boots. To be fair, the pace was never fast and distances were not that great, we never covered more than 10km in a day. There were moments when I wished I could just cross watercourses without performing a strange dance. There were moments, when boulder hopping, I felt a desire for helium-filled footwear with sticky rubber souls that would transform me from a lumbering hulk into a graceful athlete. There were no moments when I thought my footwear was truly unsuited to the job in hand. I don’t need to change the formula but, in the interest of science, I’ll be trying out trail shoes this year.

Down versus Synthetic
Down every time! Perhaps I’d be singing to a different tune if I’d had all my insulation collapse on me but, so far, five years and counting, I’ve managed to stay high, dry and warm with down. I suspected the PHD Ultra Pullover rated to -5 would be overkill for this trip but wanted a little extra just in case. I also wanted the security of it’s drishell outer. In the event it was just right. The second night in camp saw me wearing all my available layers (Merino base, microfleece Gillete, PHD Ultra pullover and Hoglof Oz shell) and I was just comfortable. Any colder and I would have had to retreat to my bag. At other times, the comfort range of down being so great, I was happy in a baselayer and the Ultra pulley when stationary. Hoorah for down!

Applying similar logic I went with the PHD Minimus 300 also in Drishell. This was a mistake. I cooked in the tent. No zipper and too much down. Given the choice again I’d run with my Cumulus Quantum 200. Less down, a full zipper and 200g lighter. I’d anticipated I may spend a nights outside of the tent but rain put a stop to the idea. You can only push Drishell so far.

Meths versus all comers
I had the white box stove with me again. This time combined with an Alpkit My Ti Pot equipped with a foil lid. The pot, sold as 1300ml but in practice having the capacity for a little under a litre, is big enough for two. The combination worked well. The stoves simple fool proof and easy in use. It was reached for at most lunch breaks to brew up and as a second burner when preparing main meals for two. It doesn’t burn as well or as cleanly with Norwegian Rod spirit as I’m accustomed to with my normal fuel (clear, 95% Methanol) but, sooting can be reduced by adding a little water to the mix and it does the job.

More test kit provided an interesting comparison. A Swedish jet-boil look-a-like (no prizes for guessing correctly) was used as the main boiling machine. A heavy unit, especially when paired with a large canister, but I can see the attraction. Even putting fuel efficiency arguments aside the convenience is a major plus. The ability to cook safely in a tent is welcome. The luxury of stretching an arm out of your bag to hit the piezo and brew a first pot of coffee is bordering on hedonistic.

When it suited us we also cooked on open fires so a third fuel wades into the mêlée here. Wood fires sure don’t win on convenience but it has to be said that they elevate the wild camping experience to something bordering on the spiritual. It’s fantastic to have the freedom to set a fire! We didn’t experience a shortage of fuel at any point, never higher than around 500m, there was never more than a couple of hundred meters drop separating us from supplies of birch. Had we been serious about using wood as an only fuel we wouldn’t have had a problem collecting on route. Even at higher elevations there was sufficient creeping vegetation to fuel a small fire.

I think all three types of stove have developed to a stage where, on short trips like this, the weight argument is as good as irrelevant. I think the choice basically boils down (no pun intended) to personal preference. If I were to travel through this sort of terrain again (please let it be so), for this duration and sort of trip, then I would be very tempted to take a wood burning stove. I’d want backup fuel to contend with bad weather and laziness, but I’d want a fire to feed my soul.

Inflatable’s against the World
The Neo Air remains a miracle in my eyes. Together with the Granite Gear Vapor Trail it forms the foundation of my pack list. Never have I slept better on a camping mat. In Seiland it very nearly lost it’s crown. After an abortive attempt to bivvy (rain stopped play) I found it was deflating every few minutes. I managed to find the hole and patch it up (a blob of superglue and a strip of ductape-why don’t TAR supply a repair kit on purchase, surely the product costs enough for them to cut us a little slack!) so it lives to fight another day, its reputation a little tarnished but still functioning. Clearly I have to take more care not to run up punctures but, and this may just be coincidence, this is the first time I’ve managed to fix a mat of any description in the field. Even at home, with the aid of a bath full of water, I’ve never yet been able to locate the source of a leak in self-inflatables and down mats alike. Against the silvery base of the Neo air the puncture stood out like a saw thumb. I’m in the market for a longer mat (I have the short Neo Air) and the POE Ether elite has got my attention but it’s going to have to be good, very good indeed, if it’s going to displace the Neo Air.

Fresh versus Freeze Dried
As far as food was concerned we pooled resources. We ended up using a broad mix of fresh ingredients, preserved food and technical freeze dried meals. It was interesting. The trip became as much about preparing food and acquiring it as backpacking. Real Turmat was interspersed with alternatives concocted from supermarket packets and fresh produce. Real Turmat is good, realy good, but when you have the time, the fuel and the inclination you can make a fine meal from supermarket packets for a fraction of the cost. I had a couple of those “must make this at home moments”. In terms of main meals we’d packed a little light. We had more than enough staples but we were banking on fresh fish to add interest. We weren’t disappointed. trout and arctic char, straight out of the lake into the pan, supplemented several meals. Of course in order to fish you need to build time into your schedule. On Seiland, blessed with good weather and endless days, armed with only the sketchiest of route plans and an easy going attitude towards objectives and schedules, we made time to fish on all but the last day. Boy does arctic char taste good next to a plate of dried porcini mushroom mash!! It would take some effort to persuade me to leave rod and real behind if I where to go back to Seiland!


Seiland: Coming back down

Well it's all over. The fat lady has done her bit and walked off into the wings in search of chocolate and doughnuts. I'm down, more or less in one piece, and able to tell the tale. Seiland was a great experience. Not for the faint hearted but well worth the effort. We had our fair share of  good weather, freshly caught fish and stunning scenery. The company wasn't bad either. A nice chance to catch up with an old friend who taught me (a repeated lesson but I'm a slow learner) that there's more to being out than eating up kilometers. It realy is okay to just be outside and take it all in! More, much more, will follow but before that I need to work through the photos and let it all sink in.


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