Claire Jopson

Soon after I joined SIA in July 2015, I was scrolling through their website to learn more about the charity when I found the SIA events page. I knew that SIA offered popular fundraising events like Going the Distance and Cycling Challenges but I didn’t realise they also offered adrenaline based events, like the Dog Sledding Arctic Challenge! The event looked really exciting and less than a week later I was signed up to head to the Swedish Arctic in January 2016.

Claire with dogsArriving in Kiruna was like arriving in a wonderland, snow covered the landscape as far as the eye could see and the sun was already setting at 2.30pm. In arrivals, we were met by our guides for the next five days and taken to our home for the night: the Mushers’ Lodge. Stepping out of the car, we were met by the sound of over 60 huskies barking and howling; the sound was overwhelming and I think we were all wondering what we had let ourselves in for.

Fortunately, our first afternoon was a gentle one and we were treated to a tour of the famous Ice Hotel. This is made anew each year and as well as having over 50 uniquely designed rooms, it also boasts an ice bar where you can enjoy a cocktail in your thermals! Before we left, we all said goodbye to any phone signal as we prepared for a truly wild next couple of days.

Saturday morning was a shock to the system as we learned the basics of how to ‘mush’ and how to harness our dogs. Trying to harness four extremely excited huskies was a real challenge and I fell over repeatedly as I tried to lead them one by one from their kennels. By the time we were ready to leave for our first morning of sledding I was exhausted.

Our first morning was a steep learning curve, with two of my team members falling off their sleds multiple times. As the dogs started to calm down, however, we all settled into the motion of the sled and began to enjoy the beautiful landscape around us. Lunch was spent in a tipi around a crackling fire, where we shared stories of our first morning and tried to warm up our fingers and toes.

Our afternoon trail took us to our new home for the next two nights: the Wilderness Lodge. Without running water or electricity, I was bracing myself for the worst but as I got inside, I was met with a roaring fire and oil lamps gently lighting the walls; it was so cosy. Unfortunately, we didn’t stop for long, and before I had a chance to de-ice my hair, it was time to start on the camp chores of collecting water from the creek, cutting wood, feeding the dogs, lighting the sauna fires and preparing dinner! Although I had prepared physically for the dog sledding aspect of the challenge, I wasn’t expecting the camp chores to be so demanding. By the time dinner came, I could barely keep my eyes open but sharing stories with the group over candle light, without access to mobile phones or digital distractions was really enjoyable.

Sunday took us on more beautiful trials, taking us across frozen lakes and through winding alpine paths. By now I was feeling more confident with my sledding and even relaxed enough to take a few GoPro videos along the way! As the sun set, the sky turned to pinks and purples and we enjoyed another night at the Wilderness Lodge, enjoying the view of the night sky beside the fire. At this point, I was so desperate for a wash I even braved the traditional Swedish Sauna, washing my hair outside in -20 degrees!

Our final day of sledding on the Monday was the toughest yet; both physically and mentally, with temperatures falling to a tropical -25 degrees. We all struggled with the cold, particularly across the open lakes and by lunch time we were all in need of some warmth. Huddling around the fire, we enjoyed hot dog sausages and warm cups of tea before our final stint on the sleds back to the Mushers’ Lodge, where we were reunited with a shower and a toilet that flushed!

Our final evening was spent having a celebratory dinner and sharing stories of why we were fundraising for our various charities. The evening ended perfectly with Mother Nature deciding to give us one final treat: the Northern Lights! It was a perfect end to a wonderful trip.

For anyone thinking about taking part in a charity challenge for SIA, I couldn’t recommend it enough. I really did have a once in a life time experience and despite all of the hard work I would do it all again in a heartbeat.