ARCTIC TRAVELER: NORWAY

I have to admit I didn’t expect it. It was just a subtle invitation and I felt quite humbled reading it.Without hesitation I pecked the words out on the keyboard, “Yes, I would be honored to speak at the seminar in Norway.” And I thought that would be that; Andrea and I would fly across the Atlantic to Norway, speak at the seminar and cruise back home to Fairbanks, Alaska. It turned out to be nothing like that. As I sit here in my hotel room in Oslo, the morning sun is glaring through the window and fresh coffee is steaming in my cup. I am anxious to tell you about the September Hakadal Sledehundklubb seminar, but first I’d like to show you Norway, the spirit of Norway—the people, their land and their fascinating history of dog sledding and arctic exploration.When the plane descended on Oslo Airport, I pressed against the window to glance at Norway’s countryside. What a picturesque scene! Green pastures were speckled with small farm houses and large herds of sheep. In the golden brown wheat fields, tractors worked and horses grazed. Looking north I saw, lakes, rivers and deep forests. Straining my eyes yet further toward the horizon there were towering pines that seem to roll like waves with the hills, until they disappear in the blue haze where they meet the sea.“Are you ready for this?” Andrea said, followed with that sweet smile I have always loved. We excitedly grabbed our carry-ons and joined the line of people waiting to exit the plane. I was anxious to meet our host for the first time. The airport was absolutely jam-packed with people. “Hi, Joe…Andrea?” a gentleman questioned as he approached us with a welcoming smile. We must have been the obvious Alaskans, delirious with jet lag. “Snorre Naess,” he introduced himself as he firmly shook my hand. Now, in the Norwegian language, Snorre’s name is pronounced with a rolling “r” and the “e” is spoken as “uh” so his name sounds like “Snorrrr-uh.”Snorre is a 43 years young, square-shouldered, spirited character with a dose of Norwegian hardiness. He is a semi-professional musher who builds sleds and rents out dog teams to tourists and wilderness reality shows. Occasionally, he runs a long-distance race with his Alaskan huskies, just for fun.There was a hint of autumn in the air as we set our luggage in Snorre’s dog van. Snorre skillfully sped his van through jetting traffic for a few miles until we hit a winding country road which led us to the village of Harestua. As we entered the village proper I asked Snorre about Harestua’s history. I was impressed with his knowledge of the history of Harestua. The name “Harestua” has its origin from the Viking word “Hadastova,” meaning “warriors’ cabin.” Established several centuries ago, it was about one day by horse to either Oslo to the south or Gran to the north. The local kings needed a place to sleep and rest or switch horses while traveling this route. So they commanded local Norwegian peasants to live midway between Oslo and Gran to provide this service. Thus, Harestua was born. Today, there are about 2,000 inhabitants in Harestua, among them about a dozen mushers and 200 to 300 sled dogs. As the van sped past the Seleverkstedet harness shop on the edge of Harestua, the road took us up a hill, onto a dirt road, then through a short tunnel made of large stones. The narrow tunnel went under the railroad tracks and the van hardly had an inch to spare on either side as it squeezed through. Rich green pines towered the road side. The van crossed an old wooden bridge over a stream, passed a small cabin tucked nicely in the forest, by some sheep wandering in the ferns, and crept up a steep hill, coming to rest at Snorre’s large farm house. The refreshing smell of spruce and pine mixed with sounds of the creek rushing through the forest hit me the instant I opened the van door, reminding me of Alaska.In front of Snorre’s farm house was a red barn, and lying in the grass was Snorre’s welcoming committee, the guardians of the farm; two giant mastiffs. Coma was a big gal, weighing about 200 pounds. She had a short black and tan coat, long tail and a huge head with jowls that sagged down to her tree trunk sized neck. Her dark eyes held a hint of calm wisdom that all old dogs seem to possess. Tina, whom sat on her haunches next to Coma, her mentor, had identical markings, except her jowls have yet to droop. Wearing a black skull-and-crossbones scarf around her neck, her dark eyes showed child like restlessness. That evening Andrea and I enjoyed a chicken dinner with Snorre and his two sons in their comfortable farm house. Over dinner we talked about Norway’s heritage and politics, US politics, WWII and Snorre’s childhood. At the age of 11, Snorre started mushing with the Norwegian Sled Dog Club (NTK). At that time, the organization lent sled dogs and equipment to young boys and girls from Oslo. Everything was paid for through a sled dog ambulance service for cross country skiers in the forests around Oslo. It would be my guess that Snorre probably fell in love with dog mushing the instant he felt those eager huskies tugging on their harnesses. And I am sure, like many of us, that first sled dog run probably sealed his fate as a life long musher.The following morning, with the sun piercing the window, a full cup of coffee and the sounds of the huskies working their howls reminded me of home. Coma and Tina lay in their bed snoring loudly while Snorre served up breakfast of hand-picked blueberries, yogurt, brown goat cheese (brunost) that’s richer than muktuk, bread, liverwurst, bacon and eggs. Andrea and I were anxious to go for a morning walk after breakfast and Snorre was eager to build a sled to display at the seminar. Snorre’s sleds are designed quite brilliantly, a testament of Norwegian ingenuity. As Andrea and I walked down the gravel road taking in the cool, fresh Norwegian air, we felt like we were at home. We walked along side a lake in downtown of Harestua. Row boats floated a few feet off the grassy shore amongst the lily pads. Some of them were beautifully planked with the nails and chinking concealed skillfully in the wood, obviously built by talented hands. Boat building is Norway’s age old tradition. For centuries, Norwegians have been known for their skilled shipwrights. One example of this reputation is the Fram. Designed by Colin Archer, the Fram (meaning “forward”) is believed to be the strongest wooden ship ever built. She was named by Fridtjof Nansen, an arctic explorer who crossed Greenland on skis. Nansen’s exploration philosophy was captured in a quote from 1888, “Forward, forward must be the motto, death or Greenland’s west coast.” The Fram’s unique design allowed the ship to “float” on the ice rather than be crushed. She served successfully on many Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. Eventually the Fram was retired. Threats of demolishing the ship echoed in the state. Defiantly standing up for her was Otto Sverdrup, who supervised the construction of the Fram (1891-1892) and commanded the ship on the voyage over the Arctic Ocean. Sverdrup and a few other brave souls persuaded the government to restore the Fram and now she can be seen in all her glory today at the Fram Museum in Oslo.After our walk, Snorre invited Andrea and me to a BBQ along with his friends, local mushers and Martin Buser whom would be joining me at the seminar. It’s strange traveling half-way around the planet and running into a person from your own state. The feast was held inside Snorre’s giant teepee. As the sun darkened behind the pines the teepee lit up with life. Many local dog mushers arrived and took their places on wooden benches around the campfire. Snorre’s sons roasted hot dogs on willow sticks over the glowing coals. Smoke spiraled out the top of the teepee leaving behind a slight sweet pine scent. Sounds of reindeer steaks sizzling on the grill with laughter and beer cans cracked open seemed to add the lively scene.As the night grew to a close Andrea and I were invited to stay with Per Olav and Elisabeth for the night. They’re a friendly Norwegian couple with a farm house nestled in tall pines about 20 miles north of Harestua. They had a very comfortable home and I was impressed with the soapstone woodstove. Per Olav and Elisabeth have several puppies and adult Alaskan huskies in their racing/recreational kennel.The following morning amidst the familiar tones of howling dogs outside their guest house window, Andrea and I prepared for the day – the day of the Hakadal seminar! While Per Olav took off with the team of huskies pulling his ATV, Andrea and I enjoyed another great Norwegian breakfast. The Hakadal Sledehundklubb seminar came about 10-12 years ago. All the income goes directly back to the local sled dog club and is used for public trail maintenance around Harestua by volunteers from the club members. I was amazed at the large turnout of folks at the seminar. Dog mushing is growing in Scandinavia with recreational mushers and racers alike. There were many vendors selling dog sledding gear, cold weather clothing, dog food, and sleds. Jan Reinertsen, the owner of the Seleverkstedet harness shop, displayed his harnesses, mushing gear and presented some very interesting heart rate research he’s conducted on racing dogs. Two other speakers beside Martin and me spoke at the seminar. One fellow from Germany, Heini Winter, is one of Europe’s best middle distance mushers. In his lecture, he shared his strategy for training and racing. Another speaker, Kjell Brennodden, is a veteran sled dog racer who uses his sled dogs to help rehabilitate drug addicts. After the seminar it was off to another Norwegian BBQ for another reindeer steak perfectly grilled over the fire. I could really get used to those BBQ’s. After the party, Andrea and I said our thank-yous and goodbyes to everyone then caught a ride to the big city of Oslo. Oslo is Norway’s capital with a population of 1.4 million situated on Oslo Fjord. Its streets are aligned with shops, restaurants, hotels and it’s a remarkably clean city. Before we got too wrapped up in the city life, Andrea and I had a few opportunities to visit some malamute kennels, one in Norway and two others in Sweden. Outside of Oslo, Petter and Torhild Ringerike’s Trapline kennel is situated overlooking green rolling hills and farmland. Their 25, beautiful, adult malamutes and 7 playful pups were a pleasant surprise to see. Those pups sure tugged on my yearning to see our pups at home. Andrea and I enjoyed Petter and Torhild’s generous hospitality. We drank coffee, nibbled on hot rolls and brunost, and the four of us discussed dog mushing, Norwegian history, and their lives with the malamutes. Petter and Torhild are recreational mushers who enjoy running some freight and distance races. They also hike and bicycle with their malamutes in the cooler summer days and train them in the fall with an ATV. Petter admits though, running with the ATV just isn’t the same. “Nothing compares to dog mushing in the moonlight and -20 °C. Those are the moments when you feel that you and your team are one,” he said.One of the malamute kennels that Andrea and I visited in Sweden was that of Chris and Kristin of Noatak kennel. They live on a wonderful farm setting with Icelandic horses, sheep, and Scottish highland cattle (crazy looking beasts with long reddish fur and wide horns like a Texas steer). They also have in their kennel about 30-40 Alaskan malamutes and huskies. Chris and Kristin, along with their helper Hendrik Stachnau operate a tour business. Hendrik also has a kennel of 20+ malamutes and some day they a plan on joining both kennels and run the Yukon Quest Race. Just as with our other hosts, Andrea and I enjoyed generous Scandinavian hospitality. Chris and Kristin fired up their BBQ, broiled steaks, steamed farm vegetables and served up a fresh garden salad topped off with a glass of red wine. Andrea and I decided to wrap up our trip in Oslo and take in the old sights. Although we had no clue where to start, Snorre and Jan saved the day and offered their assistance as guides to the local museums. Holy smokes, those two guys are walking history books! Norway has an interesting heritage with explorers, adventurers, and art. The Fram museum was fascinating to see. Snorre and Jan explained the structural design of the ship, material that she was built with and why it sailed so successfully on the arctic expeditions. They knew many of the names of the explorers that sailed on the Fram and their history, failures, successes, and notable quirks. Later in the day Snorre and Jan toured us in the Norsk Folkemuseum where 1000 year-old and younger buildings, cabins, and churches were displayed. The intricate woodwork on the structures was amazingly detailed like the ships the Norwegians had built. No wonder Norwegian ships were known as being the best built ships in the world. Topping off our journey to Norway Andrea and I were invited to a restaurant with Johanne Sunby. She inherited the Siberian huskies from the famous Norwegian explorer Helge Ingsted after whom “Ingstad Mountain” near Anaktuvuk Pass in the Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska is named. Ingstad lived near the mountain during his 1949 to 1950 stay among the Inupiaq Nunamiut Eskimos, while he and his wife documented the Inupaiq lifestyle. Ingsted and his wife also became the first to prove that Greenlandic Norsemen set foot on North American soil 500 years before Christopher Columbus. Johanne now uses Ingsted’s line of Siberians for recreational dog mushing, racing and showing. They’re beautiful dogs. I have to admit, Norway and her people have quite a treasure in their generosity, rich culture, and history of pioneers, and great explorers. It seems that names like Amundsen, Nansen, Ingsted, and Sverdrup, to name just a few, are woven tightly in the people’s lives and hearts. No doubt, dog sledding was a huge part of their ancestry that continues to thrive in today’s Norwegian culture. •

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