A little over a year ago I posted some thoughts on time. Back then PJ and I were both on furlough, the pandemic had only just begun and many of us imaged that 2021 would be very different from 2020. But the reality of things hasn’t changed all that much. Also this March we entered a lockdown in Norway as the number of infections was steeply on the rise. The new year did not become what many had hoped it would be.
Friends and family are still no longer within reach. We see each other on Skype, longing for the time when we can meet again. Talk about the fun things we will do. I’ve stopped dreaming of far away journeys and exotic adventures a while ago (except about returning to New Zealand. That one just has to happen somehow somewhen). Right now, just being able to cross the border into Sweden and go climbing with friends would be a real treat.
The renewed force of the pandemic had its consequences for the team as well. The aim of this year was to participate in several 200km races and learn the skills needed to progress from there. We did participate in a short race in January, but had to downscale to 50km after many, many challenges encountered training in the dark days of December. I didn’t feel ready to push the dogs as far as 200km. But I thought it would be OK, the season was still young and events on the calendar were plenty, we’d take it another time for sure.
A week later the first races started cancelling and while we all hoped it would get better at some point, the seriousness of it struck when the two major races in Norway announced that they couldn’t go ahead. A lot of mushers remain bitter about that, because for most of the event we stand alone on a sled and are far away from any other human being. Race checkpoints had strict routines in place to make sure the risk was minimal at all times. Major ski events went ahead but those who had spent hundreds or thousands of hours training their dog teams were left empty handed. Naturally, many felt their motivation slip away.
It’s the 8th of April today. Snow is gently falling on the ground and it’s been cold for a few days now. The season is not quite done yet, something I am very happy about. According to my training log I have spent 444 hours training the dogs between September and now. This does not include all the hours spent in the dog yard or driving places. It will probably be well over 500 by the time I park the sleds before summer. Together we’ve covered nearly 3000km on gravel roads and mountain trails. It’s a lot, yes, but compared to those who compete at the top, it is nothing.
Nearly every free day I’ve had since August has gone into training of some kind. The thing with mushing this way is that you’re either in or you’re out. And when you’re in it becomes an all-encompassing lifestyle that narrows the world considerably to staring at fluffy butts for many, many hours on end. Naturally, there needs to be an end goal to this. Without a goal, why get out of bed and train in a white-out with gales up there? It was hard to justify to keep going for a little while. But the dogs need to run, so out you go anyway, maybe just not with the same intensity and gusto as one would have otherwise.
When spring approached I decided to use the holidays I had taken for the races to head out into the mountains instead. Heading out on my first week trip I could hardly remember the last time I had been so excited and nervous for something. Will we be ok where we are going? Will it be too steep? Will the sled be too heavy? Will the routes be marked? I had Berit with me, someone I had been training with a lot this winter. That week we all learned so incredibly much and drove through some incredible and challenging terrain. We got stuck in a storm for over 30 hours. We got our boots wet because of overflow on the lakes. Every challenge led to a new skill, a neverending finetuning of the packlist, an evaluation of how we prepared. And I found an excellent new companion who agrees that anything that’s fun needs to come with a little suffering. There’s no better place to solidify a friendship than in a crammed tent with 20m/s winds blowing outside.
Looking back at this season it’s been very black and white. There have been incredibly dark and sad days and incredibly light and wonderful days. There were times when nothing was working out, the toll on my personal life became quite big to bear and I was so tired I could sleep as soon as I dared to blink my eyes. But then there’s been those other days. The sunsets during the cold spell of January, meeting the reindeer in the mountains, seeing the puppies progress as they started taking up their training. The learning curve that endlessly goes up and up and how the relationship with the dogs intensifies through that. There is so much trust.
The upcoming weekends we’ll be out on Hardangervidda a little more, enjoying the spring and the good weather that comes with it (hopefully at least, as it stormed pretty neatly on my last two trips). In the end the cancelled season simply became something else. We did what the mountains taught us time and time again: we accept the circumstances, we adjust, and we go on.