Adventures and Reflections from Cathy O'Dowd

Adventures & Reflections
from Cathy O'Dowd

Every now and then I get email from kids who’ve been sent out into the wilds of the internet to find a real adult ‘explorer’ to interview for some school project or other. I always try to answer such requests, generally to the surprise and delights of the kids involved.

This is an email interview I did recently for a boy at a Catholic military academy in the USA.
Sled dogs

1. What is your experience with dog sledding, how long have you been doing it?
I have only done in the one big trip, which was the Nordkapp expedition, 11 days from east of Tromso to the northern-most point of Europe, the Nordkapp.

2. Have you ever competed in any big races like the Iditarod?

3. What is the most common mistake by beginner mushers, that can end fatally?
Being ill-prepared to surviving in changing condition. Running on a cold day with no wind and blazing sunshine is a wonderful experience and can feel very easy. If the temperature drops (wind and/or drop in air temperature) and/or the visibility decreases (snow, mist or darkness falling) you can get into trouble very quickly. You (or someone in the team) needs a vast background in knowledge about wilderness and cold-weather survival. If conditions stay good, that knowledge may never be used but if things change, it is all you have at your disposal to save lives.

On a less fatal note, the most obvious mistake on a trip like mine is to let go! You stand on the back of the sled on two narrow wooden runners that get icy and slippery, while holding onto a hooped wooden bar. Either bumpy terrain or lack of attention of your part (running for 10 hours a day standing up gets tiring) can result in your feet slipping off. If you let go with your hands, the dogs will accelerate out of sight rapidly! The fully-loaded sled carries about 100kg of supplies, with your 70/80kg weight added to that. The dogs like running. If the sled is suddenly lighter by 80kg they run faster. If you are the last sled in line (you normally run single-file) no one will realise you’ve been left behind. So you NEVER LET GO. Which can mean you end up Super Man style, fists clenched to the bar, face and body dragging in the snow, while frantically scrambling to try and get your feet back onto the runners.

4. What is your favorite part about dog sledding, and have you learned any life lessons from it?
The interaction with the dogs is a big part of the attraction, as is their sheer joy in running. (The hardest thing is to get them to stay still while you do work on the sled.) Although there are moments of drama, it is also a meditative activity, with hours spent standing on the sled as you slide through this vast wilderness.

Life lessons? Hmm. Perhaps that the value of an experience is enormously enhanced by shared joy in the activity. And that is easier to find that with the dogs than with your team-members. I don’t mean that team-members never share joy – they can and do and it is very satisfying when you get it right – but people so often let their ego and issues and needs get in the way of simple enjoyment.

5. I read the book Woodsong by Gary Paulsen, and in it he describes some very strange experiences like encountering deer attacks on wolves, finding a deer dead but frozen standing up, and having a human like connection with his dogs. Have you experienced any of these?
Nothing like any of those. One of my odd experiences: I very much wanted to see reindeer in the wild. We knew we had a good chance of seeing herds as we got further north, so each day I was looking out for any sign. Then we were running on a frozen river and coming towards us was a Lap herder on a snowmobile. Sitting on the seat of the snowmobile behind him was his herd dog. And on a trailer pulled behind the snowmobile were three male reindeer, sitting down, secured by tarpaulin and ropes, looking around them as the world whizzed by. That was my first live reindeer sighting! In the 21st century everyone is mechanised!

6. I found your information on the Northkapp 2004 website, can you tell me a little bit about that trip?
The idea was to run from the Arctic Circle to the northern-most point of Europe. We knew all the sections of the trip had been done before but as far as we could work out, no one had connected them all together in a single push. Our team consisted of three people and 26 dogs and the trip took 11 days. (For exact numbers on distance, etc, you need to look at the website, I don’t remember any more.) I had feared that I might find such a flat landscape boring after all my years in the mountains but actually it changed all the time. The sky becomes enormously important, as does the way the light changes constantly. And the landscape is like travelling over a vast frozen ocean, subtly different all the time.
I loved the interaction with the dogs and the fact that they are so clearly enjoying the running.
An unexpected outcome was the curiosity of all the locals we met. Norwegians almost never use dog-sleds other then for racing. Everything is now mechanised. The tourists we came across loved us, as example of ‘ethnic Norwegians’ although only one of us was local.

7. I know that you have also climbed mount everest, have you ever used dogs at a high altitude like everest base camp? were there any changes in dog sledding?
Dogs would serve no purpose in the Himalaya. They are useful to pull loads / people in flattish territory with ample snow cover. In the Himalaya the snowline is very high and there is no flat ground.

8. where were you raised, do you think it had any impact on your career?
I grew up in Johannesburg in South Africa, a place which bears little relation to any of the things I enjoy: snow, cold, mountains. For that reason I now live in the Pyrenees mountains in Europe (in Andorra). I first discovered real mountains – and real wilderness – in the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa, and I’ve been drawn to such places ever since.

9. where did you go to college? were there any courses that you took that influenced your career choices?
I did my Bachelor of Arts in the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and my Masters (in journalism and media studies) at Rhodes University in Grahamstown (both in South Africa). None of my courses directly influenced by career. I once asked one of my history professors what I needed to do to get firsts in History. (I kept getting high upper-seconds.) He said if I put the passion into my history that I put into my climbing I’d be fine! At that point I’d twice written deferred mid-year exams because I was away on expeditions in the Andes at exam time.

The most useful thing I did for my ‘career’ at university was join the rock-climbing club and so embark on my climbing career. However, the skills I learnt, particularly in my journalism training – story telling, writing, editing, public relations, photo-journalism, lecturing – have all proved to be very useful. Skills don’t need to just be confined to the context in which you learnt them.

10. What do you have to do for dogs after running them/ during races?
Check for any injuries, particularly on the pads of their paws (by the end of the trip they were having to wear little felt booties – which they hated and kept trying to take off – because their paws were beginning to bleed.) Chain them on a long line, each just out of reach of the next. They are not very aggressive but will get into fights if they can. Feed them their meat broth. It is all fairly straightforward.

11. I read that you feed you dogs reindeer meat, and you make soup for yourself out of it, is there anything else you eat on your journey?
Our dogs were eating a mix of dried dog food and reindeer meat, fed to them in a broth so that they would get liquids as well as solids. We ate the standard mix of expedition food, rice, pasta, dehydrated meal mixes, packet soups, etc.

12. how many dogs do you usually use on your sled, and why?
On our trip, Rona and I both had eight dogs on our sled and Per-Thore – who was more experienced than us – had 10. It is a balance of power (more dogs, more power), efficiency (more dogs, more chaos) and weight (more dogs, more power but more weight of dog food to carry, which can cancel out the power advantage).

For photos from the Nordkapp expedition, and more information, click here.

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