Riding with Norway’s dog sled champion
Aspiring documentary maker Kelsey Eichhorn witnesses first-hand this unique marriage of man and animal…
At 7.00am in late October I am just beginning to get the feeling that something is not quite right with the sun they use up here in Norway. It is pitch black outside my window, but despite my body’s protests I throw back my warm quilt, shiver as my feet hit the cold floor of my apartment, and shuffle to the kitchen to put on water for tea. Returning to the bedroom I am faced with the first challenge in many women’s day: what do I wear?
Yet today I am not concerned with fashion or style. I couldn’t care less if my hat matches my top or even if my jeans are clean or dirty, because the thermometer outside my window reads 1.6 degrees Celsius. Even in the morning darkness the clouds overhead are ominous. I am preparing to embark on a day-long exploration of the world of dog-sled racing – one of the few sports I know nothing about - in a forest north of Oslo that I have never been to, with a man I have never met. All that I am sure of right now is that I will be outside and it will be cold.
You see, I am a documentary filmmaker and we revel in the unfamiliar, the under-the-radar world. This is where the stories are. I also know for certain that I am already running late. 10 minutes later, camera bag slung over my shou-der, tripod under one arm, I am running down the hill praying that I don’t miss the morning bus to Gardermoen airport where I have arranged to meet Robert Sørlie. He is the defending 3-time Iditarod champion, and the pride of Norway in this enduring arctic sport that embraces this country’s passionate love of nature, and of alliance between man and animals. I am equipped with Robert’s mobile number so that when I arrive at the airport I can ring him. Yet the precaution seems unnecessary, for when I disembark from the bus at the Oslo airport terminal, a large Ford 4-door pick-up truck, painted from headlight to tailpipe with a panorama of huskies thundering across the frozen tundra greets me. Something tells me this might be my guy.
In my two months of study at the University of Oslo, I have only semi-mastered the Norsk language:
“Hovrdan hard u det?” (How are you doing?)
“Hva koster det?” (What does this cost?)
“Jeg vil gjerner ha en glass øl.” (I would like a glass of beer)
“Jeg vil gjerner ha en glass øl til.” (I would like another glass of beer.)
From our email exchanges I have determined that Robert’s command of English is, albeit better than my Norsk, only slightly so: this is going to be an interesting day. The car ride was as anticipated, a slightly awkward experience that I was willing with all my might to be over quickly. It is much easier to avoid social awkwardness from behind the lens of a camera. The safest topic of conversation seemed to be cultural comparisons, and a constant exchange of a Norwegian’s favorite phrase: “Hva betyr *blank* om engelsk?” (What means *this* in English?)
All the while my eyes were glued to the truck window as we climbed higher into the hills and drove deeper into the forest. The Jeppendal Kennel in the Hurdal Forest is a modest affair, housing the 50-odd dogs that make up “Team Norway”, and abutting the houses of their owners: Robert Sørlie, Bjørnar Anderson and Kjetil Backen. A cozy dog-sled community shrouded in evergreens and half an hour from anything most Americans would associate with civilization.
The dogs greet Robert with controlled excitement, obedient in their silence yet eager in their tail-wagging, as he invites me inside, introduces me to his wife and prepares a breakfast feast fit for a Queen. Then he politely yet hesitantly asks me what it is that I am doing.
“Um….” Panic seizes as I realise that I don’t exactly know what I am doing. I am a film-maker, and while I may revel in the unfamiliar and adventurous experiences of the world, I also dread the impromptu. Collegiate film students depend upon a network of academic peers and community volunteers to make our projects a reality. I hadn’t realised until now how much I, as a student, rely on this safety net; yet here I was, in an unfamiliar culture with no resources save my small hand-held camcorder and my “Directing the Documentary” text book, ready to film what I hope will be a successful documentary exploration into the culture I have come to love. And I realise suddenly that documentaries don’t depend on plans, they depend on life.
Deep breath. I smile, look up at Robert and say, “You do what you do, and I’ll film.”The walls of Robert’s equipment shed are covered in drawings and letters from young children. I peruse the wishes of “good luck” while Robert organizes the harness lines, and outfits me with the smallest weather-defying jumpsuit in his collection. Images of the pioneering documentary “Nanook of the North” flash through my mind, as I secure the zipper of the still-too-big-jumpsuit under my chin. I must have been a sight, as Robert stifles a laugh. The grey skies of early morn have given way to steady showers; no matter for this is the reality of the sport – you train in any weather. While the temperatures flirt with the freezing point, there has been no major snow accumulation in the forest yet, and so Robert trains with an ATV until the Norsk winter arrives in full.
Unleashing the dogs 4 or 5 at a time, Robert calls them individually to him to take their place in the waiting harness lines. The excitement is audible, as yips and whines crescendo throughout the yard. Dogs thunder through the gate past my camera, some oblivious to my presence, others pausing to sniff my boots and the most courageous barely slowing as they leap through the gate to plant their large paws firmly on my shoulders, deeming the camera lens worthy of an upclose and personal inspection. Eighteen powerful huskies harnessed to the ATV strain against the lines in poorly contained anticipation until Robert finally gives the command and we are off.
Beauty as I have never seen before passes before my eyes, as the ATV surges through the hills under the vigor of the exuberant team. The majesty of the forest rests in its solitude, and is emphasized by the rhythmic breathing and echoing thunder of paws on the rough trail. Though I could understand just half of the steady stream of Norsk conversation between Robert and his team, the encouragement and energy with which he addressed his team paralleled his eagerness to assist me with my film. Despite the relentless rain the afternoon of filming was both enjoyable and successful, as Robert was more than willing to alter his training regime to accommodate my cinematography requirements.
I could not help but anticipate the warm house and dry clothes awaiting us. Releasing the dogs from the harness and returning the equipment to the shed, Robert comments that I look like a drunken cat. Odd, I thought, but oh well. At the house, a new face hands me a towel and points me in the direction of the guest bathroom – Robert’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed 22 year old son…and I’m sure I am absolutely stunning in my dripping wool hat and muddy jeans. Hastily retreating to the shower, I emerge refreshed and cleanly clothed.
Supper in Norway is no joke, and the family affair that awaits me is revitalizing and hearty. Traditional caribou stew, a first for my somewhat discerning palette, is surprisingly delicious. Robert regales the stories of the afternoon for his wife and son, ending with his reiteration that I emerged from the experience looking like a drunken cat.
“Um, I think you mean drowned cat” I said hesitantly. The son, whose command of English is somewhat better than his parents’ begins to laugh as I explain that drowned cats have fallen in the water while drunken cats, if there is such a thing, are inebriated house pets. Robert laughs at his own expense.
Life in Norge is different. I am living in a foreign land, in a foreign culture, with foreign students from all over the world, endeavouring to submerge ourselves in the Norsk society. And in this day, as in all other days here that I interact with the Norwegian people, I am touched by their generosity. A stereotypically “shy” culture, I have found the Norsk to be anything but. Reserved, perhaps, but undoubtedly friendly, eager to please and eager to share. Though my film has yet to be edited, and the audio is not yet mastered, the experience of that day foretells success.