A Winter’s Tale

2017 –Another year older, another year wiser! This was going to be THE year – the year that I FULFILLED dreams instead of chasing them, a HAPPY new year in every sense of the word, the year that I LIVED my dreams and ambition, and the year that I LOVED every day that life made possible. My trip to the northern coast of Norway began once upon a time, as we glided below the clouds and across the snow-capped mountains, and crystal lakes of a winter wonderland. I zipped up my coat and braced myself for the minus temperatures of this frosty wilderness.

It was the sort of excitement I remember feeling as a young child going to Disneyworld, or the scene out of Edward Scissorhands where Winona Ryder spins in the snow as the snowflakes softly fall around her. I could hear the tinkle of the piano as I looked at this vast blanket of land before me. In the days ahead, I would meet Alaskan husky dogs, reindeer, some of the oldest tribes native to Norway, and spot whales in the wild – my frozen fairy tale was within my reach!

Day 1 – Husky Dog sledding

They were certainly eager! We disembarked the bus to the deafening howls of these excited dogs. The site housed over 500 dogs, with only a 100 of them at a time taking visitors out on the 1.5 hours sledding experience. The husky dogs in Norway, are not the wolf like, eye piercing breed of husky we’ve come to see in films, paintings and literature. This breed is known as the Siberian husky, and are more commonly found in countries such as Greenland, and of course Siberia in Russia. In Greenland, some huskies are considered semi wild like their wolf cousins, and are used for hunting. In Norway and other popular sledding countries, if it’s a thrilling recreational sled ride you’re after, then Alaskan Huskies are a world-class breed of choice! Alaskan huskies are not considered pure bred, and are instead made up of a mix of Northern breeds; namely border collies, Greenland foxes, greyhounds and Akita; all popular for their intelligence, excellent work ethic, speed and strength.

Once we got some hugs and cuddles in, we joined our sledding team for the morning and off we charged across the blanket of snow, with the frosty air brushing past our skin. Our musher kept the dogs on the tips of their paws as they anticipated what the next call would be; left, right, up, and down inclines – these spirited dogs had no shortage of stamina or strength. In total there were 10 dogs pulling the sled, each took in turns to take the lead, with two at the back balancing out the weight of the sled as they raced across the undulating land. Each time we stopped to wait for the other teams to catch up, all the dogs would break out into fits of howling, as if to cry out “why have we stopped! Come on let’s go!”

These dogs were not only working dogs, taking out visitors sledding and even competing in races, but they were family members; curling up in front of a warm fire and seeking out their own arctic adventures with the musher, the alpha, into the wild mountains. When racing, like any living creature, they paced themselves so their energy levels were used effectively and efficiently. Nonetheless, these dogs could reach speeds of up to 50km per hour, and run up to 80km in one day. This also meant that they ate several times a day, depending on the activities planned for that day. Their diet consisted of meats, fish, biscuits and lots of water, which was added to their food so they remained hydrated at all time. They were getting so hot, I even saw some of them eating the snow whilst pulling the sled and there I was fingers, toes and face turning to ice trying to stay warm under my blanket. In spite of their spirited nature, I was surprised to find how gentle, loving and even timid some of the dogs were – I was definitely in love!

Day 2 – Whale Watching

The seas around Norway are an ideal location to spot some of the Oceans majestic giants, especially as the shallow waters around the northern coast provide an abundant stock of herring for large mammals such as Humpback whales and Orcas to feed on. This felt like a rather special birthday treat, being another year older, and hopefully by the end of the day, another year wiser spotting, observing, and understanding a little more about these charismatic and intelligent marine mammals.

Our first stop for the day was a fish factory, where I bundled into a bright fluorescent boiler suit to protect myself from the polar temperatures. Climbing into the RIB boat, off we sped, across the calm waters, zigzagging in between the icy fjords, with layers of dark and light blue clouds chasing us in the skies above. Every moment we spent out at sea was precious due to strict guidelines set by the International Whale Commission; we would only be able to observe the each whale or pod for a maximum of 20 minutes to respect their peace, wellbeing, freedom and natural habitat.

My eyes were darting from left to right and then in front again, whilst trying to shield my face from the frosty winds thundering past me; According to the on board marine biologist; there would be 3 different types of whale interaction we would see today – in 89% of cases, Orcas can be found hunting typical prey of Dolphins, porpoises and seals, when humpback whales will suddenly put themselves in the path of these Orcas, to save the smaller mammals. I learnt that despite being apex predators of the ocean, Orcas risk internal bleeding and injury if they choose to face the thrashing and wrath of a Humpback’s iconic tale. As a result, Humpbacks’ have acquired the coveted title ‘The superheros of the sea”. Nevertheless, these “superheros” aren’t invincible to an orcas’ ambition. In 9% of cases, Orcas do target smaller, vulnerable humpback calves, hence the title ‘Killer of whales’, as oppose to the incorrect and rather negative label ‘Killer whales’ branded upon them by historical literature. The remaining 2% of interaction is peaceful, and both giants leave each other alone to concentrate on feeding on the ample stocks of herring.

I was fortunate enough to see both several pods of Orcas and one lone Humpback whale feeding. As unfortunate as it is to admit, I had seen orcas at Seaworld as a naive child, and it certainly doesn’t compare to seeing those iconic dorsal fins standing up straight as they gracefully navigated the freedom of the ocean. For me, it highlighted the plight of all those depressed, and stressed orcas, circling their tanks, and missing their families. How on earth do you get a 5 -8 metres Orca weighing in at up to 6 tonnes into what is essentially, a giant paddling pool? An orca’s life span is halved in captivity, whereas in the wild they live up to 100 years old, with females usually living longer as the Matriarchs of this family unit. I learnt that Orcas are in fact members of the toothed oceanic dolphin family, and are not whales.

Watching the pods of Orcas glide through the water in perfect synchronicity, and rarely straying too far from one another made it apparent how strong their family and team work were to their dynamic. It is this very dynamic that make them successful hunters, thus establishing them as the Apex predators of the ocean. Film-makers have especially documented their ability to disable the once feared great white sharks. Their clever teamwork, enables them to flip the shark over, putting into a catatonic static, and then they bite into its stomach and rip over its liver to feed on. However, their feeding methods for smaller prey like herring resembles more of an experience on a Carousel ride, where they repeatedly circle the schools of herring to corale them together. However, on this Nordic winter’s day the tension and drama of a wildlife documentary took a back seat to the beauty and tranquillity of this frozen landscape.

One of the IWC’s most successful conservation stories are that of the Humpback whale, and we luckily spotted one circling beneath our boat as it corralled the herring together to feed upon. In the past humpback whales have been known to leave the arctic coast for warmer waters of the Caribbean to breed and give birth to new calves. However, scientists have found that more and more young humpbacks and females humpbacks have been staying behind in the winter months to feed and replenish their energy especially, after the tiresome experience of birth for the adult females.

Male or female, this lone humpbacks movement was rapid and agile, covering vast expanses of water. I couldn’t keep up with how fast it was moving from one side of the boat to the other without detection. At 15 metres, it was bigger than our RIB boat! How could I have not noticed? I eagerly anticipated each moment that it surfaced for air. Humpbacks normally come to the surface for air every 5 to 6 minutes, but they can hold their breath underwater for a staggering 20 minutes. The circles it was swimming in, got smaller and smaller, creating bubble nets to catch the herring in. As bubble nets get smaller and tighter, they begin the boil and push to the surface. As a result, the herring try to throw themselves out of the nets and away from the school of fish. The jaws then come up behind the nets to gulp the fish. I couldn’t quite believe I was witnessing this fantastic view before me! I saw the humpback breach the water several times as it circled, pushing its 45 to 50 tonne weight body out of the water, and crashing back down again and diving into the water, flipping its iconic tail behind it!

With daylight drawing to a close, it was soon time to return to port. With all the stories of cruelty, captivity, and wild capture I had seen, heard and read in films, documentaries, articles and social media, I felt a new and hopeful energy that there were still people out there protecting these magnificent marine creatures, and the fight for their freedom was only going to get stronger!

Day 3 – Reindeer and Sami Culture

To be honest, I was hesitant about meeting members of the Sami Culture and their reindeer, after reading so many horror stories about the poor conditions working animals are kept in all over the world. I received a warm welcome from our Sami guide for the afternoon, Nyles Peder Jaup. He was dressed up in all the Sami clothing characteristic of the culture; a tunic, with traditional embroidery representing the colours of their red, blue, yellow and green flag. On his feet and he wore reindeer skin and fur shoes to keep him warm. Against the white snow and dark night sky, he stood out. He guided us down the snowy hillside to a spot where he had two of his reindeer waiting for us; Muzet, 8 years old, and Juoevat, 7 years old. The reindeer were a lot smaller than I expected, but having been the stars of many a childhood Santa story, I felt captivated by them. Juoevet, although younger, was definitely the more shy, stubborn and weary of human beings of the two reindeer, and judging by the shape of his antlers, he’d been in a lot of fights with other reindeer; note to self “must ot get too close and anger him in any way”. Muzet on the other hand was quite happy being fed moss. Nevertheless, when dealing with semi wild reindeer, body language was key; rather than hide away under layers of thermals, I stood in clear eye sight so he didn’t feel challenged. Although these animals looked so placid, it was a gentle reminder that they were highly instinctive creatures, and Nyles emphasised that it was important we “respected their space”.

Juoevet and Muzet were two of Nyles own ten working reindeer; they were used to giving tourists sleigh rides, and in teaching; helping both tourists and his own grandchildren and other young people to gain more of an understanding about their importance within nature and the Sami culture. Within the Nyles family they had a herd of about 3000 reindeers; not all of them working “family members” as Nyles referred to them; some would be sent to slaughter in the autumn season; these would primarily be the male calves, as females were valuable for breeding. reindeer such as Muzet and Juoevet, however, had been traded for their strong physique and bought to work.

At over 3,000 years old, Sami Culture is one of the oldest indigenous cultures in the northern hemisphere. Speaking with Nyles about the significance the reindeer played within Sami life was eye opening. In many of my articles, I have emphasised the importance of respecting nature and its wildlife, choosing to be aware rather than ignorant, giving wildlife a voice that can be heard, and embracing their role next to us rather than against us in this world. However, despite these reindeer being slaughtered for their meat, or made to pull sled for work, I could see how well looked after they were. Nyles stressed that living within the Sami culture meant embracing nature wholeheartedly and letting it take its course. This meant that the reindeer although part of their herds were left to roam freely like wild reindeer, and fed off the land, meaning that they had an organic diet of moss, and leaves. He believed “eating reindeer meat is like eating vegetables”. Children were encouraged to be involved in the slaughter process from a very young age to prevent them from becoming sentimental about the reindeer, and to encourage them to see this as a circle of life. Nyles assured me that the slaughter process was quick and painless; the children get involved in cutting the carcass up and even carrying out parts such as the guts in preparation for sale. All the body parts are used from the meat, from the skin to the blood.

Nyles passion for these animals and his culture shone through. But despite talk of keeping an emotional distance from his reindeer, he clearly had formed some sentimental attachment to his business partners. A week before our arrival, a wolverine had killed a female reindeer during the night. When Nyles found the dead female, its calf was stood next to her crying for her to wake up. Seeing how lost and upset the calf was, Nyles took him into his care and herd; “you never know he may make a great working reindeer” he said bowing his head, but holding back the drops of tears forming in his eyes. His body language spoke volumes over his words. I was truly moved at the understanding and relationship the Sami people had built with these animals. They lived alongside these animals, trusting them to guide them across land. He playfully referred to the reindeer instinct as his very own “GPS” as they travelled between summer and winter grazing grounds, never leading them in the wrong direction.

With human populations growing so rapidly and taking up natural habitats, putting these animals to work and living alongside them, protected not only their survival from hunters, but also from extinction. In the case of the baby calf, it was strange to think that whilst Sami people slaughtered their reindeer, they at least used the whole body, and left no part wasted, showing respect to the reindeer that sacrificed it’s life whereas, the wolverine, just left the female reindeer to die and bleed out with no intention of feeding on the body, but only with the purpose of it being trained to hunt by its parents. Meeting Nyles and his reindeer was a reminder of why it’s important to step out of one’s comfort zone, seek adventure and explore this beautiful planet. My time within this unique world had helped to restore some of my faith in humanity.

As we flew above the snow-capped mountains, with the traditional Nordic wooden houses scattered amongst the frozen landscape, I waved goodbye to the arctic north. The few days I had spent in Norway had certainly stretched the emotions. I was sad to leave but on the other hand my encounter with this fairy-tale land had been food for the soul. The natural world was leading the way in creating a unique culture and way of living, and humanity was following.


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