This month four St Andrews students went on a week-long dog sledding trip in Norway as reward for winning a national competition run by npower, a British energy company. When we last caught up with third year students Catriona Furlong and Anna Steinman, they were running the npower Pedicab Project, a free pedicabs service that ran during freshers’ week as part of the competition, which they won this past November.
Catriona and Anna also discussed the connections they observed between people, animals, and the environment. Altogether they described the trip as both illuminating and humbling. “Once you go up there you realize why people are connected to where they live. For example, the Sami tribe, the indigenous nomadic people, completely live off the land. The land is a close part of their identity,” Catriona said.
Anna explained, “These areas were so remote. Every single thing we did was dependent on the weather and on the close connections with the neighbours for trade. There seemed to be more connection between where they lived and the people around them and the animals they lived with and the conditions that they lived in. I found that quite special. Coming back here – and seeing the lack of awareness of the land you’re living on and the environment you’re living in.”
They also described how they were directly dependent on the environment and their dogs. For example, one day was spent sledding across a vast, frozen lake on which they ran into a snowstorm. Without their dogs, they explained, they would have been vulnerable. Catriona said, “You depend on the dogs. It’s very humbling. If you don’t feed your dogs, they won’t pull you. You also have to be their friend and be firm with them.”
The team was led by a Norwegian man who owned, bred, and raised all of their sledding dogs. His favourite lead dog, which he used to race with, has an uncanny sense of direction. When asked to turn right, the dog will turn exactly 15 degrees right on the compass. When told to turn “right right” she will turn precisely 30 degrees.
Catriona and Anna sled for five hours a day for about 50 kilometres per day over mostly flat terrain. The process of beginning the journey involved some skilful manoeuvring. Each person devised his or her own system on which dogs to harness up and in which order. “We put the most placid dogs first. The lead dogs are usually smarter, usually female, and not as strong. The ones in the back are just power,” said Anna.
“You have these snow anchors that you kick into the ground that anchor your sled, so when you’re not near it the dogs can’t pull the sled away. You’d harness up your last dog then jump on the breaks because they just want to go. You had to stand with both feet on the breaks and the sled would slide slightly. Then you take your foot off the break, it shoots forward, and you’d have to hold on so you don’t fall off,” said Catriona.
The sledders were also tasked with managing their enthusiastic, energetic, clever and occasionally naughty dogs. “If I talked to anyone else, they’d know I wasn’t paying attention to the break and they would just go.” Anna explained. “If you put the snow anchor in, you can’t go forward. They knew if they went backwards the snow anchor would unhook. Once when I wasn’t paying attention I saw the sled go backwards and the dogs started running away.”
When asked about whether they brought back any souvenirs, they recalled the frozen reindeer hide they purchased on the last day of the trip from the Sami people. One week later, upon exposure to Scottish damp, the reindeer hide started to smell and grow soft. They realized that the hide was untreated – it had been rotting inside their flat for an entire week. Catriona and Anna (both vegetarians) tried prolonging its life by means of cutting off the rot and cleaning the blood off its bullet hole. It was eventually thrown away.
Even so, their impressions of the northern lights remained as something to take away. “It looked supernatural. You cannot believe it’s happening. It looked like special effects,” Catriona said. “It’s like a ribbon made of spears of light and someone’s shaking it to make waves. It whips around and the colours join. It was green on the first night and lightly pink on the bottom. They merge and shiver and shake.”
“It was incredible,” Anna concluded.
Photo credits: Catriona Furlong & Anna Steinmann