FINNMARK - 2006  

Monday 6th February 2006

Most had managed to miss the majority of the morning rush heading in-bound on the M4 by making an early start. Once inside the perimeter of Heathrow however came the usual melee of taxis and frustrated business travellers fighting for space outside the terminals. To add to the confusion a small band of four carrying a rather cumbersome load landed. Four sledges, four sets of skis, four holdalls and the heaviest hand luggage they could each lift made them the check in desks favourite customers that morning. The four were Naomi Shiner, Darren Davies Mike Thornewill and Myself, and we were heading north.

At 10:45 hrs after a breakfast of Pizza we departed London for Oslo where we had more Pizza, then a second flight to Alta two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. The airport at Alta was about the size of a service station with none of the traffic problems experienced at Heathrow. There was such a lack of traffic that even our arranged taxi failed to show up leaving us to chill out quite literately in the car park while another one was organised by Mike. We eventually arrived at our Chalet in Alta Strand Camping. It seems that long since retiring from making action films in the seventies Charles Bronson has taken to running a camp site and welcomed us with fresh towels and bed linen. After some essential admin we headed into the town for a hearty meal of Pizza and a few beers.

Tuesday 7th February 2006
After a relatively early start we all had breakfast before unpacking the skis to sort out the fitting and to have a practice. The views were fantastic with a good clear sky over the mountains and the river running next to the camp site. We all took our skis and fiddled with the attachments to try and get a good fit before gingerly setting off on practice runs. I was relieved to find that I hadn’t forgotten although a little out of practice. Naomi and Darren had never put a pair of skis on before but both scooted down the track in a wobbly kind of confidence. Proud of our first attempts that confidence was slightly dented when Charles Bronson came out of his office with a smile saying “First time yah?” This would become the trip phrase and title of the video. That afternoon we walked into town and collected supplies for the trip such as fuel salami and pita bread. We headed back to the chalet for more admin then into town again for a hearty meal of Pizza and a few beers.
Wednesday 8th February 2006

This was the day before departure and we woke to sun outside our chalet, which made it seem warmer than the minus 10C suggested. The morning was spent checking that everyone new what they were supposed to do. This came by way of a Q & A session with Naomi being the sort of kid everyone hates at school butting in to answer all the questions but probably saving me from embarrassment.

After another short trip into town we spent the afternoon packing the sledges and preparing the equipment so that there would be nothing to do the following morning. Darren had clearly misunderstood the packing list, and Mike tore into his kit with the ferocity of the Women’s Institute at a jumble sale, removing enough spare thermals to supply the Chinese Army. Naomi practiced lighting the stoves while I captured the carnage on video.

Once the packing was done we headed back into town and to our relief managed to find something other than Pizza to eat. After a great Chinese meal we filmed individual interviews for pre expedition thoughts and feelings before heading off to bed.

Thursday 9th February 2006

We arrived at the start point of our trek at 11:00 hrs. It was a beautiful day as we began to climb the slope onto the plateau. The views of the mountains and valleys in a sunset that lasted four hours were very special indeed. The slopes as we approached the top had sheet ice where the wind had blown the snow away. We had to walk sideways on our skis using the edge to gain a little bit of grip. The weight of the sledge threatened to pull us back down again and it took sometime to get all four of us past this section of the climb. As we climbed the wind was punctured by little “Whoops!” as Naomi took a small slip.

Eventually we made it onto the ice road, which is a small skidoo route used by the locals and the plateau began to level out. Naomi began to feel that the going was getting a lot easier and seemed very pleased with herself until Darren noticed that her sledge was no longer attached. She had to ski all the way back to it and then start again, but after the obligatory laughter I went back to help. We made a cosy camp on a tiny frozen lake at 4pm and it would be the shortest day we would have.

Friday 10th February 2006
The day began at 07:00 hrs as we experienced the free for all in the tent for the first time. After a good breakfast and morning admin tasks the days skiing began. The ice road took us across more larger frozen lakes where we came across a gang of skidoos that would race past us a closely as they could get. They reminded me of the gangs of mopeds that we get on the estates at home except that among the skidoos the odd one would be towing a caravan. This still didn’t slow them down however and we wandered if they had the wife and kids in the back as he flew along. After a long day we made camp at 19:00 hrs in a bank of snow next to the track. We placed it in a small re-entrant out of the wind and dug in three feet in an impressive piece of excavation. With two stoves on, it was a warm night as Darren proved by stripping his clothes off. Later Mike read us a story from his book “Jonathan Livingstone Seagull,” whilst Naomi produced some Vodka which was poured into a plastic wine glass and shared amongst us. What she failed to mention was that it was 50% abv and when not expecting it the kick took us all a little off guard.
Saturday 11th February 2006

Mike and Darren woke with at 06:30 hrs with hangovers from the vodka the night before and so the morning was a little slower than the first one. We made our way off the ice road and out into pure wilderness. Now we really were venturing into untouched territory. Not even the skidoo gangs would be able to disturb us now as we made our way through the foot hills to Lake Lesjav’ri the largest lake in Finnmark. I decided that I wanted to experience the solitude and decided to ski off ahead from the other across lake. I told the others what I was doing and put my head down and went for it. I had managed to expel a lot of pent up energy and built quite a gap between myself and the others. At about the half way point I suddenly stopped for no apparent reason. For the first time I took a look around me a realised that I was stood in one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. The Moon was up in the East and the Sun was setting in the West creating a panoramic purple glow surrounding the lake. I then made one of the most important decisions of my life. I had been planning it for some time but hadn’t decided on the actual time or place but now it seemed was that time and place.

I waited for the others to catch up and made an excuse for Naomi to wait behind. She appeared a bit annoyed that I was allowing a gap to build between us and the other two as she had struggled to keep up through most of the day. “I feel like I’ve been playing catch up all day, I’m having a bit of a moment.” she announced. “Let me see if I can cheer you up” I said as I got down one knee and fumbled with my gloves on to reach into my pocket. I managed to get the box out but was forced to open it with my mouth and produced a ring. “Will you marry me?” “Oh of course I will!” An immense feeling of relief and elation went through me, and as I rose to my feet Naomi lovingly said “I thought you were getting me a fisherman’s friend.”

We caught up with the other two who stood staring at us quizzingly before I gave them the good news that she had accepted. We skied on into the dark to make the far bank of the lake camping just short of it. As usual Naomi got the stoves going while we erected and dug it the tent. This meant that by the time we were all inside it was nice and warm. My diary entry that night read “Now the happiest man on earth, and what an earth!”

Sunday 11th February 2006

Woke up and had tent packed within two hours and twenty minutes. Today’s travel was again true wilderness with myself taking the lead and having to navigate through deep soft snow in the foot hills off the lake. We found ourselves deep in snow up to our thighs regularly but had no option than to keep going onto the high ground. After climbing a slope that was really pushing the boundaries of the skins on our ski’s we made it back onto the Plateau. The weather had closed in and it made it difficult to distinguish between sky and ground. You would be skiing along on the flat one minute and then suddenly find yourself sliding down hill. The air was punctuated as usual with little “Whoops” of surprise from Naomi every time this occurred. The snow had the consistency of apple crumble, with a crust that would collapse into powder beneath. This for me was one of the better days skiing as it really did feel as if we were somewhere no one had ever been and I was still buzzing from the day before.

That night we made camp at 16:20 hrs overlooking a valley. With the promise of lemon cake and custard Darren and I got the tent up in record time. After pudding and Vodka a game of Charades began. Naomi’s attempt at describing the classic film “Where Eagles Dare” had us all rolling around in stitches for the rest of the trip.

Monday 13th February 2006

We woke at 06:47 hrs and were under way at 09:27 hrs. The snow was packed hard by the fall in the night and the wind had blown it into a good hard surface for skiing. We travelled through boulder fields and a discussion on they got there kept us bemused for some time. Naomi got her second wind and took the lead forging ahead and navigating for the first time. The weather was fine with intermittent snow showers which were great because it reminded us that we were in the Arctic after all. At the end of the day we reached the edge of the Plateau overlooking the Finnish boarder.

Forest seemed to spread into the distance and it came to me that the lyrics from Monty Pythons song about Finland may have been based on fact. We could now see the beginnings of civilisation and I felt sad about it. We still had two more days of skiing but the odd hut could be seen and we were coming across fences belonging to Reindeer pens. That night we put the tent up in Force 6 winds with a -20 oC wind chill which made great video footage but hampered our efforts slightly. Still we managed it and good nights sleep was had by all.

Tuesday 14th February 2006. (Valentines Day)

We got out of bed to admire beautiful views over forests and a frozen lake in half light at 06:47 hrs. There was a lot of down hill to the forests and our decent towards the river that would take us to Karasjok. Darren not being the biggest fan of the down hill stretches spent most of it on his backside, much to our amusement. As we descended we came across a Ranger post which officially signified the end of wilderness. Excitement about what food we were going to eat monopolised our conversations with Pizza being a firm favourite amongst the others. I still was determined to sample a local reindeer dish however. It didn’t take long for the Skidoos to show up again and spoil the silence but I suppose in deep snow there is no other way for them to get to work. We travelled through the forest and took the opportunity to have a toboggan race down a particularly steep section sitting on our sledges.

Once out of the forest we came onto the frozen river which we were to follow into Karasjok and made camp on the river in the dark. As we were setting up a team of dogs came yapping up the river. As they approached us they slowed down and stopped as the dogs got confused at the tent now erected in the middle of their path. To make them more confused Naomi took a picture with flash blinding everyone and the dogs resulting in the Musher having to guide them around by hand. That night I was presented with a chunk of snow decorated in little chocolate hearts and a dozen miniature red roses by Naomi. She had been carrying them the whole way.

Wednesday 15th February 2006

We woke up on the last day of our expedition and packed in record time.

We only had a short trip today travelling along the river into the Sámi town of Karasjok. I had been looking forward to getting there as I had read a lot about the Sámi and their culture. They are the local indigenous people of the Scandinavian Arctic and are traditionally Reindeer herders. We set off walking with ski’s on sledges as the river was so solid it was easier than skiing. Naomi seemed more impatient than the rest of us to finish with a craving for Coke. At every bend in the river I made her feel better by stating “It’s only around the next bend.” I said this about six times and I’m not sure it was appreciated. Eventually that final bend came and the bridge at Karasjok suddenly appeared. We walked up the steep bank onto the bridge before heading immediately to a Café for some proper food. The days of expedition meals and salami had left us ravenous for a decent meal. The other three all ordered burgers and chips but I am glad to say I finally managed to try a traditional Reindeer meal which was delicious. A taxi was then ordered to take us back to Alta and after sorting out our Admin and having a long awaited shower we headed into town for PIZZA!

The expedition was one of the best I have been on - and despite the amazing views, weather and the challenge of the environment it was made by the company in which we travelled. Mike is an unstoppable character with real knowledge and skill for the Arctic environment. Darren has to be one of the nicest and most sincere men I have had the pleasure to meet and although I didn’t know him before the trip I now regard him as a true friend. As for Naomi, well we are due to be married in September 2007 and the expedition served only to confirm to me that I will never meet anyone quite as special as she is.

Stuart Ship.