8.16.2010

Walking the dogs: Seiland 44-68hrs


Kangias high pitched whine wakes me a couple of times in the night but other than that I sleep soundly enough. I wake warm. Not hot like the previous morning but uncommonly warm given my situation. This morning it's not a sweltering tent that provides the motivation to rise but an awkward lie. The pitch that looked so nice had put me on a convex bed. Lie with both feet and head lower than your waist for a night and you're guaranteed to start the day with back pain. There's a consolation of sorts though. As I crawl out of the tent sharp pain shoots through my knee and the pain in my lower back fades into the background. Over muesli and coffee I inspect my knees, old rivals of mine I know them well, today they're different. As I poke one side fluid bulges out of the other. The left is the worst, swollen and reluctant to flex. I've been here before. I find I use my knees a lot when hiking. This is not a good development.

It's another slow start but I'm getting the hang of it. We drink coffee, chew the fat, discuss what we might do placing the emphasis on “might”. I'd quite like to see the glacier. Seilandsjokelen, Norways Northern most glacier is just to the west. Five kilometres as the crow flies with five hundred meters of up. Randulf talks me out of it, gently suggesting that the knee situation should be taken seriously and pointing out the the nearest tops, two hundred meters shy of the glaciers eight hundred, are in cloud. We consider following the outfall through the Guicavaggi to the coast where there's another large lake and some buildings, probably disused houses. The stream may offer some fishing opportunities on the way down, the lower lake will certainly hold fish and the buildings may offer Randulf with a photo opportunity. We agree on the apparently light option that we can do with light packs. Some more milling around and the essentials are packed, dogs are on the leash and we're heading out of camp. My watch says it's gone two in the afternoon. I can't decide if that's late or early. It could be either.

We follow the shoreline, pick up the outlet and start picking our way downstream. As we descend the undergrowth gets thicker and we soon find ourselves back in birch wood. The trees slow progress, tripping, snagging leads, whipping faces, obscuring views and making route choices that much harder. The stream drops into a narrow gorge and we climb again, high above the left bank, looking for a way round. We find ourselves on steeper ground. A mixture of rock steps and damp greenery makes for tough going. After some effort we get a better look at what lies ahead. If we stay on this bank we'll soon have to descend steeply and climb back up again bushwhacking all the way. From where we stand the opposite bank looks like a better option so we zigzag back down towards the stream, stopping frequently to scout for the best way to avoid steep rock, and search out the least treacherous place to cross. Dogs and men safely across we traverse more steep green and weave through more birch. We arrive at an edge. In next to no distance over ground the stream drops what looks like forty meters or so. Closer inspection of the map reveals we've been conned. A little more attention to the contour detail before setting off might have lead to another choice of easy day. Although the stream drops only two hundred meters in three kilometres, it concentrates most of that drop into three sharp steps. We're looking over the first.

We follow the edge looking for a way down. More tree dodging and climb brings us to a likely spot. One bad step will put us in a rocky chute running back under the rock face, with the edge for a handrail we could loose a lot of height over a boulder staircase or alternatively cross to what looks like steep but easier ground on the other side. It all looks easy enough. but then we have dogs. Randulf holds both dogs while I down climb face to the rock. Then come the dogs. It takes some coaxing to get Thule over the edge but Kangia doesn't need asking twice. Once over the step we pick our way back down to the streams edge. Thule moves, more or less on command, the rest of the way down without hesitation. Greenlands apparently sense when a situation is serious enough to take heed of their handler.

Pool

It's hot sweaty work in the undergrowth. As the slope levels out I catch sight of what's in store. The stream splits and meanders across a stretch of level, marshy ground bounded left and right by high flanking valley sides and in its rear by the steep rock step. A lost world of silvery water and luminous birch dotted with dark glassy pools begging to be fished. These are just the sort of pools, isolated, accessible to small fish, inescapable to small fish grown big, that could hold something well worth catching. We choose to take a break. Randulf tries his luck but his luck runs only to a couple of returns.

Mirror Mirror
What's left of the afternoon deals us more of the same. Slow progress on a route that alternates between bushwhacking and stream crossings. Moving forwards and downwards always wondering what's rushing over the next rise to bite us. The remaining two steep sections bark louder than they bite. Although the map suggests potential for treachery they´re easier in descent than the first and we reach the lower lake, the Vuolit Guicavakkejavri, without having to scramble. The dogs at once alert to something unseen as we skirt the eastern shore looking for a suitable day camp. Reindeer have most probably passed through here. I check my watch, we´ve averaged something like one and a half kilometres an hour. It occurs to me that a path, constructed or use-worn, however meagre, makes such an incredible difference.

We find a nice spot at the southern end of the lake. There´s a fire ring, used more recently than any we´ve seen along the way and the first real sign of life. Low life it would seem judging by the discarded beer cans. An annoyance I hadn´t expected to encounter here. We revert to form. Dropping packs, we brew up, put up our feet and lay back. We fish a little. Randulf sleeps a little. I fish a little more. My effort is rewarded with another good fish. In the late evening, bothered by mosquitoes, we move to the top of a rise away from the waters edge, set a fire and make a meal. Chicken curry, courtesy of Real Turmat.

Mining Gold

There are moments when life seams surreal. This is one of those moments. I´m sat in the wild North eating curry with a friend made over beer and curry in the big city. The sights and tastes don´t match up but the company does. For most of the afternoon I´ve been watching the sky. Slowly but surely its mood´s been changing. The cloud base gradually lifting, the light warming. As I eat I watch the last of that process, watch the air become translucent and the light turn golden. The impact of the fall of light amazes me once more. We´ve spent late afternoon and evening in a nice place. Under this new light that same place has become a fantasy landscape. Up and down, near and far, sky and ground are abstract concepts the whole melted down into a single topsy turvy scene by the power of reflection and shadow. I reach for my camera and mill around taking photos. I notice Randulf is doing the same

Flower Garden

We sneak away from the dogs and Randulf strolls and I limp through the last kilometre of the valley to the shore. We find the buildings marked at the edge of the park boundary. An old house, still being used by someone but with a meter wide hole in the roof. A barn, rickety, filled with the detritus of previous human existence. I spot two rusty childrens bikes through a low doorway. Lower down, on the shoreline, a boathouse, connected to the shore by a stony slipway terminating in luminescent bladderwrack. Two nailed lapstrake double enders lie rotting, one within and one up against the boathouse. Faerings I guess. Years of neglect and exposure have done nothing to conceal their beauty their lineage so clearly Viking. This is another unexpected. I hadn´t imagined that I´d spend precious wilderness time snuffling through the waste of forgotten lives but it's fascinating. Who had lived here in such isolation? Who had left here with childhood memories of running free through the meadows and cycling around the house? How had this family fuelled their existence? Cameras run hot.
We head back up to the lake, collect the gear and dogs and start the return trip. It´s just shy of ten thirty. My instinct is telling me that it´s foolhardy to still be out so late but the truth of the matter is that we we´d have to take the whole of July before getting benighted. By that time, only having food for three more days,  not having packed a head torch would be the least of my worries. To save my knees more abuse, Randulf takes both dogs. This isn´t without consequence since a little way into the walk Randulf finds himself at the epicentre of an explosion of overexcited play fighting dog. Shouting commands and pulling on leads has no effect. Ear pinching extracts a passable impression of pigs at slaughter and restores calm.

Dog Fight

Now that we know the route, the climb is, on the whole, easier than the descent. Scrambling with dogs remains a challenge, especially since Randulf now has both dogs and dog-to-dog synchronisation is called for. I find myself, on more than one occasion wondering why I´d deemed it sensible to leave my Spot Tracker back at the tent. As we walk back into camp its long gone midnight. I feel surprisingly beaten up. So much for the easy day. It´s late but there´s time enough for a supper of fresh fish before bed. As we eat we whitness another lightshow. The Gressnesfjellet is cut in two its base in dark, cold shaddow its top bathed in warm, golden light. Randulf toys with the idea of heading up to take some photographs but instead just eats his half of  my prize fish.



8.01.2010

Walking the dogs: Seiland 22-44hours

Buogovarceabetjavri, Seiland

It's hard to find sleep. It's full daylight, I'm too warm and my heads brimming over with the happenings of the last twenty four hours. I'm too warm because, although I've packed a sleeping bag suited to nights that follow ten degree days, here, ten degree day is followed by more ten degree day. I fiddle around a little with my layers, work out I'm warm enough with my bag pushed down around my waist and pull my beany down over my eyes. Bingo, instant night. Even if sleep doesn't come I'm at least comfortable.

Sleep does come. And when it does it's deep. I come round slowly. I'm hot. Far too hot and for a moment I'm twenty one again and lying suffering in a cheap tent in the south of France on an interailing holiday. The tent's in full sun and it's yellow interior amplifies the Mediterranean illusion. With the realisation that I'm at the very top rather than the very bottom of the continent comes, first the joint pain and stiffness that reminds me I'm no longer twenty one, and then the need to get out of the tent and into fresh air. I sit up, pull on my boots and crawl outside grabbing burner and food bags on the way. The dogs prick their ears and watch me with interest as I make coffee and munch on muesli. I check my watch, it's 8:30. Far too early and far too late all at the same time. Too early given I was still milling around in the small hours but hardly an alpine start nevertheless. Time seems irrelevant. More important is enjoying the location to the full.

Mans Best Friend

Randulf emerges and we sit and drink coffee in silence. Strong, black, fresh coffee sweetened only by the view. The sun shines intermittently through patchy cloud. There's a long view south through the pass and over the last lake to the line of hills defining the coast on the mainland. Layers of cloud hang low over the tops. It feels like a two brew morning and so it turns out as a second pot of coffee is set. I take advantage of the slow pace, taking photos, at first without filters but then with all the bolt on paraphernalia. I so often pack this stuff only to leave it in the bag, schedules overriding photographic experimentation, but not this time. The captures look fine on the small screen. I'll have to wait and see how they look in the real world. Fish jump in the lower lake as we sit. We decide to try our luck. One last indulgence but with a purpose, if we can bag some extra protein already we'll be sure of a good evening meal.

We catch but nothing big enough to keep. The main achievement is to kill so much time that we decide to eat lunch before setting out. The alternative, stopping soon after starting, doesn´t make sense. So it´s with full bellies that we pack up and head out. It´s long gone midday already. Today I´m paired with Kangia. As we leave the camp she darts quickly and purposefully to the left taking me with her a metre or so. Before I´ve worked out what´s going on she´s uncovered and swallowed a fish head. Rule number two of Greenland dog handling is that they get no food between meals. I start this second leg, therefore, with another exemplary display of dog handling. As I pull her away I promise to do better.

Tinnstua Vassbuktvatnet Seiland

We wind our way through the valley, skirting round the Northern shore of the lower lake and then veering further south looking for a higher traverse to avoid loosing too much height. At the three hundred meter contour we cross the first patches of old snow, pausing briefly, perhaps instinctively, to allow the dogs to roll around and cool down. Then we climb more steeply, due south, making for a slight notch at the root of a high spur that, if our interpretation of the contours is correct, should bring us into the breach of another unpronounceable high pass, the Geaidnovaggi. On the way up we are rewarded with views back across the Buogojavri, the Tinstua hut perched in splendid isolation on it´s northern shore. An ideal location, I imagine, for a winter base. As we drop the few metres to the first of a long string of lakes in the Geaidnovaggi we continue to reap reward. Austere, monotone, an acquired taste perhaps, but beautiful to my eyes. This first stretch running South-South-East, an irregular hotch-potch of rocky knoll, tarn and fast flowing stream. Further in, after a slight dog-leg, narrow, ruler straight. All of it, rock strewn and desolate.

Passing Through

Our passage through the Geaidnovaggi starts with a river crossing. Narrow, not too deep, but fast flowing. Under normal circumstances a minor obstacle but with dogs requiring a little more care. We scout a little to find a good place to cross and then, with dogs on a tight lead and shouting instructions, cross stone to stone. Feet still dry we pause briefly for a drink and snack and continue up the valley. Towards the summit the scant vegetation gives way to rock and lichen. Since setting out yesterday we've passed through birch woodland, crossed berry-strewn hillside and have arrived in the mountains. Three hundred and fifty meters of up is apparently all that's required to reach high alpine territory in this part of the world. All the usual climatic zones are here, they're just sandwiched into super thin layers separated by sharp transitions.

High Pass

The going is very slow. There´s little by way of rise and fall, the summit, at just just shy of four hundred metres, requires a net climb of just fifty meters in four kilometres, but it's rough ground. We're dealt a stretch of uninterrupted boulder that has us rock-hopping for what must be a kilometre or more. Rock hopping, for me, already difficult with a full-pack, it turns out is even harder when tied to a dog. Kangia moves quickly and unpredictably. Less insistent when we're in the lead but pulling hard to catch up when we fall behind. I don't always get to decide when to take the next step. Without a moments pause to find equilibrium and choose the next landing my movement is even more awkward than usual. On occasion the tight rope acts as a handrail but the benefit comes at a cost. I find myself frequently having to pirouette on one toe, turning a full three sixty degrees, in order to disentangle my lower legs as Kangia runs rings around me. Two entities, with two agendas, tied to the same rope. Fun to watch from the sidelines I imagine but my knees are grumbling under the strain.

Point of View

It's close to six in the evening by the time we've reached the summit of the pass. We pause for another break, munch on some snacks and drink. Dropping down on the Southern side into the head of the Guicavaggi is a pleasure even on tired legs. Before long we're back on a carpet of bilberry and we move faster and more freely. As we lose height the large expanse of the Guicavakkejavri swings into view. Pausing to take photographs we discuss the options. On the one hand crossing into the next valley, a move that would require a steep but short climb, would put us in a great jump-off point to make a day trip to the Seilands Jokelen. On the other hand the Guicavakkejavri is a beautifully situated lake and will clearly make a superb camp. We agree to make the decision  at the waters edge but in truth I can't see us digging deeper to make the extra climb leaving the perfect camp behind in the process.

Room With a View

A couple of hours later the tent is standing on a green rise on the lake shore, the dogs are tied up and fed, and a short trip to a stand of stunted birch has unearthed enough firewood to fuel a good fire. There's drama in the sky as I twist on my big lens and take some shots of the camp and of Randulf preparing a meal of pancakes. As I focus through the smoke and flame I get a strong sense of deja vu. I've captured the self same image before. The same man, the same setting, two fleeting moments each lasting a few hundredths of a second separated by nine years.

Fry Away

It's a cold camp. Exposed to a wind following on our heals through the head of the valley. I pull on every scrap of clothing I've packed. Even my gloves. It's enough, but only just. Even with a full belly and a blaze. There are two choices open to me, crawl into my bag or get active. I choose the latter and try my luck with rod and reel. I walk the shore, first against and then with the clock, casting and reeling in the little golden lure that served me well the evening before. Nothing. An hour and a half of nothing. This lake is different. Deep, black, cold. I suspect if there are fish they're not active yet. Still, I'm out, soaking up the views, watching the change of light and the drift of cloud. Breathing the air. I'm just about to call it a day and throw one last cast. Less than half focussed on the job in hand I reel back in. A second later my rods bent double and the mono-filament is whistling a high pitched tune. Ten minutes later I've landed the biggest trout I've ever caught. Beautifully marked, a sleek torpedo of muscle and skin, built for speed a mouth at one end and an arse at the other, surely one of natures finest designs. No room for improvement. No useless widgets. I feel genuine sadness as I deliver the coup de grace. Randulf approaches, camera in hand, and captures the moment. He comments that most fishermen would be smiling broadly right now and that I instead look like the best thing that's happened to me today is getting my balls caught under the wheels of a tram. I'm smiling broadly on the next few captures. I'm still smiling and the suns still shining on my way back to the tent.

Big Fish

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