In April 2014, Alexandra Kalita spent six days dog sledding through the Arctic tundra.
A twenty-six-year-old New York City native who runs her own interior design business, Alex is an outdoors enthusiast but had no previous dog sledding experience. (I mean, how many of us do!?) She was, however, one of twenty lucky people from around the world chosen by Swedish outdoor clothing and equipment supplier Fjällräven to participate in their annual dog sled adventure, the Fjällräven Polar:
“Fjällräven Polar is an approximately 300km long winter adventure across the Arctic tundra. The participants will steer a dog sled all the way from Signaldalen, Norway, to the forests around Jukkasjärvi, Swedish Lapland…. We want to give “ordinary” people, with ordinary jobs, the chance to discover how amazing outdoor life is in the winter, and we want to demonstrate that anyone can experience the adventure of a lifetime – as long as they have the right knowledge and equipment.”
A month after she returned to New York, Alex and I sat down over lunch for a conversation about her adventure:
So, first things first–how on earth do you pronounce Fjällräven Polar?
You should probably ask a Swedish person that but I’ve been working on it! Fyaehll-raehven. The first A with the dots over it is kind of like an “AE.” I have a little Swedish pronunciation app on my phone that I’ve been listening to on the subway. But I think people in the U.S. say Fyall-raven, and that seems acceptable enough.
And can you tell me a little bit more about Fjällräven, and how you heard about Fjällräven Polar?
Last October, Fjällräven opened a flagship store on Grand and Greene in SoHo, and a friend of mine who’s an architect was working on the design and told me a lot about it, because I’m very interested in Scandinavian design. So I went with him when they were under construction, and he took me to their opening party. Fjällräven was founded by a man named Åke Nordin, unhappy with the design and weight distribution of mid-century backpacks, made his first improved backpack prototype when he was just fourteen. And then he started his business at age 25, and it’s been around for fifty years now. At the opening party, a musher named Kenth Fjellborg, another guy who found his path early in life, started mushing as a teenager, and worked for Iditarod legend Joe Runyan, came to speak about this experience, and the Fjällräven Polar. They sponsor an online contest to select participants every year. I decided that I definitely wanted to do it. But I never in a million years thought that I would win. It was very much like a, “Hey, why not!? I’ll just submit a video!”
That’s awesome. What was the contest like?
So, there are 10 country categories—the markets in which Fjällräven has a significant presence—and 2 people from each country get to go. The first person is picked by popular vote, and the second person is picked by the company. So, I was not picked by popular vote—the winner had like 10,000 votes, and I had like 150. I was still top 10, top 12, but they make really clear that for their jury pick it’s not about who comes in second, they pick someone whose video appealed to them, or someone they think would really enjoy the experience.
And that was you!
That was me, yeah! But the voting was a pretty crazy process in some other countries. There’s an “other” country category, and the winner was from Estonia, and she had something like 28,000 votes, and the president of Estonia endorsed her.
Yeah! The president of the United States did not endorse me. [Laughs.]
What was your reaction when you found out you’d been picked?
I was sort of in disbelief. The voting closed a week before the jury picks were announced, so I knew who the winner was from the U.S., a guy named Greg. And when I didn’t win the vote I sort of thought, OK, I’ll just sign up for this second event that they do, Fjällräven Classic, which is a hike in August, and that’ll be my Scandinavian outdoor experience.
And I was in the middle of a particularly bad workday, I was doing a client installation and everything that could go wrong went wrong. A $2000 sconce broke, and I was panicking about whether that was my fault, and if I’d have to replace it, and the delivery that was supposed to happen didn’t happen. So even though I’d been anticipating this day for so long, everything went so wrong in a professional context that I’d forgotten about it.
Then I got this email from Greg that said, “Hey, just wanted to say, I thought your video was so great, congratulations, hope to see you sometime soon, I’m going to be in New York in the next couple months.” And I thought maybe he was just emailing the people whose videos he liked congratulating them on their great videos. So I responded, “I’m so happy for you, it’ll be such a great adventure, maybe we’ll meet sometime in the future,” and he was like, “Didn’t you see the announcement? Go to Fjällräven’s Facebook page. You won. You’re going to Sweden.”
And I started screaming.
Well, actually, I didn’t scream, but I was still in a state of disbelief.
No kidding! How many months did you have between finding out you won and when you actually left?
I think it was mid-December that we found out, and I left April 7th, so we had a lot of time. Once all the participants were selected we were all in a Facebook group together, and we all joined a WhatsApp group, so we were chatting almost every day, certainly in the weeks leading up to the event.
What kind of outdoors experience did you have going in? Did you have to do a lot of prep?
I’ve always been into being active, just for my own sanity. I know if there’s a weekend when I don’t get outside I’m going to be stir-crazy the entire week. I’ve always done a lot of hiking, and I’ve been trying more and more to find ways to get out in the city. I’m active and fit generally but I was worried about cardio in a cold environment. I don’t run outside, certainly not in winter, so a friend of mine who’s a personal trainer, German Phanord, worked with me on a regimen to build muscle endurance. We would do circuit training outside so I could get used to using big muscle groups and getting my heart rate up outdoors. But that was really the only prep that I did. And Fjällräven provides 100% of the equipment. We are all in disbelief, we kept asking, “But what should we bring?” and they said, “Whatever you want to wear on the plane, and a toothbrush,” and we were like, “No, no, there MUST be more, can you send us a pack list!?” And they were like, “That is the pack list.” And, of course, the concept of going on this kind of adventure and not being prepared was so anathema to most of us that we did bring more than we needed to, and it was totally unnecessary.
And once you got there, you pretty much just started out, right?
Well, I was one of the first to arrive, because everyone came in on different flights.So there was a lot of waiting around and chatting and anticipation, but as soon as everyone arrived we went immediately into training.
There was this incredible guy on the trip, Johan Skullman, who was an officer in the Swedish military, with over 30 years experience in outdoor survival—he literally wrote the book, called Winter Solider, and it’s what the Swedish armed forces uses as a manual. He gave us this whole PowerPoint presentation on how to calculate the wind chill index, and how to look for signs of hypothermia or frostbite in yourself, and also what to look for in other people if your teammates are flagging. And some of it, if you’re somewhat experienced with the outdoors, is intuitive, but I was not experienced at all with camping. My only prior camping experience was college orientation in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where we didn’t even use tents, only tarps, and it was extremely hot. Because of that the education component for me was very critical and very reassuring.
I read on your blog that you decided not to wear a watch. How come?
I sort of didn’t want to know what time it was. It ended up being a positive experience, because there’s something really nice about being removed from a schedule, and just waking up with the sun.
Though we did not go to sleep when it got dark, we went to sleep long after that!
I already felt a lot of anxiety not being very experienced in camping—there was so much that had to be done the second you were off the sled. You had to not only pitch your tent, but you had to shovel out pits inside the tent, and then we used ice saws to cut out blocks and create an igloo wall to block the wind from our camping stove.
This is all after we’ve unharnessed and carried the dogs’ food—the dogs always come first—so we’re already three hours into camp by the time we start to pitch our tents. So it was a lot of anxiety, and for me it was enough seeing the sun setting and thinking, What do I have to do that’s going to be really tricky with just a headlamp? and prioritizing the sunlight. And I think people do go into the outdoors looking for that pre-modern-times experience! So that was a fun part of it.
What was it like being with the dogs? You had an outdoor adventure with animals!
Yeah! That’s what’s very different about it. It was very collaborative. They know what they’re doing and you don’t, so you’re very much trusting them. They are unbelievably strong. They can be quite stubborn, but they’re also very affectionate.
I have a dog, he’s a little lapdog, and he’s a pet. I thought, OK, no problem, I spend a lot of time around dogs, I’m good. But when we walked up to camp the first day, and there were around 200 dogs, all chained together in a row, they were leaping over each other—they looked like wolves. They did not look like my Puggle. They were so energy-laden, and they were howling up a storm, howling at the moon, snapping at each other, snapping at the air, and even I was scared.
You have to unhook them from the chains, and walk them to the sled, and to do that you hold them between your legs, and I was dragged through the snow by this lead dog—she pulled me off my feet and dragged me to the sled! So it was a little scary at first, but as soon as I had her in her harness she was licking my face, sitting in my lap, just like a lapdog. So they’re this incredible combination of wild animals and unbelievably affectionate creatures. But it’s much more a relationship of equals than a human and pet relationship.
And what are the mechanics of sledding like?
The mechanics are fairly simple to understand, but I think they probably take a lifetime to execute well. There’s a birch sled, and it’s narrow in front and comes out with two rails that you put your feet on, and then there’s a handle that you hold onto, and the storage compartment is in front. So it has a triangular shape, and a very wide base, so it doesn’t tip over, it’s hard to fall off. It’s very flexible, so you can feel it bending beneath you, and you can feel it responding to the different snow conditions. One of the things that I’m sure was intentional in the route was that we were sledding for four days and we experienced four different snow conditions—and it’s probably a bit like skiing where if you’re a really expert skier on hard, packed snow, when you encounter powdered snow it’s like learning to ski all over again.
Basically, the basics, as they were explained to us by our musher, were that there’s two different kinds of brakes, a hard metal brake when you want to stop and a perforated rubber brake that collects snow and creates drag, which you manage by clearing the snow off of it and then letting it accumulate again. You always want to make sure that there’s no slack in the line, and you do that by braking—if you don’t brake and you’re going downhill and you’re picking up speed the dogs will get tangled on each other and they’ll all crash in a heap, so you want to keep tension. That I was nervous about, but it’s actually pretty easy, especially if you’re like me—I had my foot on the brake because I was nervous. The trickiest part for me was anticipating what the runners are going to do—if you see them about to tip down, you want to be on the higher side, to stand with one foot in front of the other, and you’re basically torquing and shifting your body weight the entire time. So after the first day my obliques were killing me.
Yeah, that’s an intense workout.
It was a great workout! And especially when the snow got really wet and heavy, when we got further south, clearing the brake—imagine three-to-five pounds of snow accumulating, and you’re just picking it up and clearing it off with your foot repeatedly for seven hours. That was really hard.
And are you all by yourself on your sled?
Yeah, and you’re basically just out with your team, you’re four people plus your musher, and you’re all in a row, so it’s very solitary. When we had to communicate we had to turn around and shout to the person behind, because you don’t want to get too close or your dogs can run into each other. You can see the people ahead, but you’re very much alone, in your own headspace.
What were some of your best moments?
After the really hard first day, when we were on the sled for eight hours, and then pitching camp for seven hours, the next day was just beautifully sunny and we were still in the tundra so there were all these snow-covered mountains around us, and it was so majestic and so otherworldly. And it struck me that it was just so easy to reflect on my life in this incredibly positive way. I know on an intellectual level that I am very lucky—I have a loving family, I have a great job, I like my job—and that’s something I try to think about everyday. But it’s hard! When you’re in the zone of your life and you’re on the subway and somebody’s standing in front of the door, it’s easy to get annoyed about that, and think, Oh man, I’m twenty minutes late for my meeting, this is worst. And when I was standing on that sled and looking around, I felt so lucky—as though my life were unbelievably charmed, I was the most fortunate person in the world, there has never been anyone more lucky than me, I have never been happier. I think it was a very joyful moment, and what has stuck with me about the experience is that I have felt that way ever since coming back. I just wake up every morning happier, and more grateful, and more connected to the good.
Yeah, it’s great! I mean, my friends are sick of hearing it, every time they ask how my week was I’m like, “My week was amazing, I am the luckiest person on earth, I have the best friends, I have the best life, everything is good!” [Laughs]
The power of nature, and that experience, to transform your worldview is just incredible.
Yeah, and in such a permanent way. Because I think we all have moments where we think, Life is really good right now. The tricky part is holding on to that, and this was so different. Certainly going up to Breakneck Ridge and looking out over the Hudson Valley I think, Oh, this is a wonderful afternoon, it’s a beautiful day, I feel good right now, but you know, by Monday, I’m back to the grind. And I think this was just so overpowering and it felt so far away from anything that I’d ever experienced or done or seen that it was a much less superficial moment of joy. I feel like it penetrated that everyday grind, and that’s why it had the power to stick with me.
What’s next, in terms of this particular experience, but also for you?
I wrote my blog posts, and certainly anybody who wants to hear about it I am happy to share, it was so much fun for me. But I think for me, what’s next is being even more disciplined about getting out in New York City, expanding my network of hikes around here. Part of that is prepping for this trek that I’m doing in August—a five-day, sixty-five mile trek in the same part of Northern Sweden as the end of my dog sled adventure, except that it will be completely different and look like a different planet because there will not be any snow!
And I think part of the reason that I wrote those very detailed blog posts is because I wanted to share the experience with my loved ones, but also because I wanted to remember all of the thoughts I was having at the time, and I’m hoping this feeling of gratitude will stick with me forever, but just in case it doesn’t, I have those posts as a touchstone.
What’s one thing you really want others to know about your experience?
This is the one thing my friends didn’t believe when I got back! I expected to be cold, and I wasn’t. It was so cold outside, but there were only a few times when maybe my fingers were a little stiff, like when I needed the dexterity to unhook a dog’s collar, and I just couldn’t do that with my gloves on—you’re not supposed to take your gloves off, but sometimes you have to. I was wearing so many layers, but the sleeping bag—even in my Brooklyn apartment I’m always freezing in the middle of the night, but in that sleeping bag I slept like a baby! I was so warm the entire time, and it was a really good lesson to me in how important equipment in. Somehow the wind didn’t really penetrate our tent, and I was in this state of awe and respect for what must go into product design for the outdoors, because it’s a question of life or death! In my case it was more a question of comfort, there were a lot of physical and intellectual challenges, and I was certainly exhausted by all of these new tasks, like using an oil-based camp stove, digging out a giant pit, building an igloo wall, all of these things that were very new to me, but environmentally I felt extremely comfortable.
Do you find that that connects back to your work in some ways? Are there links between your interest in Scandinavian design and your interest in the outdoors?
We’re a contemporary design firm, so very much utility-driven, minimalist, influenced by ergonomics, and there’s actually a lot of overlap between camping and the idea of a shelter! Going back to basics—what do we need to subsist, how can we subsist in the most efficient way, maximizing exposure to your environment. We’re very big on how the environment shapes the way you live, and I think that’s true both in the context of interior design and the context of outdoor exploration. My mom’s family is Danish, but I think it’s also that the Scandinavian aesthetic appeals to me. There’s something about respect for nature, letting the materials lead you and the design process, respecting the environment that you’re working in, and the clean lines, the palette really appeals to me. I’m a perpetual student of Scandinavian design, and there’s this palette that emerges, and you think, OK, I guess these Scandinavian designers just really liked these same colors! Then you go to Stockholm and go to the north and realize those are the colors of the landscape. The light is very pale, it’s pale northern gray light even in the summertime. It’s really taken from the land.
For anyone reading this, would you recommend applying for the Fjällräven Polar—and because not everybody gets to go, is there anything you’d recommend that captures the same essence?
Yeah, absolutely. I would totally recommend people apply. The same musher who partners with Fjällräven on Polar does dogsled treks for the general public. I suspect they might be quite expensive. But there are so many great operations around that area, especially in northern Norway where we started, in Tromsö—the musher who taught us to sled runs treks like this one. And I just think it’s really different! Especially for people who love the outdoors and have done a lot of hiking and want to have a slightly different experience and see a different part of the world. I don’t think it’s as physically demanding as backpacking, because your equipment is in the sled and not on your back, but it’s challenging in other ways. It’s a little intellectually challenging, when you’re thinking about weight distribution and balance, and the mechanics of the sled, but in some ways, there are definitely moments, like when you’re going over frozen lakes, when you don’t really have to think, and that can be very beneficial to an experience, to just be able to be on autopilot and contemplate what’s around you, and your life.
And I think even if dog sledding doesn’t appeal, I would absolutely recommend that people go to Sweden—there are a lot of hikes that Fjällräven organizes or sponsors, not only this five-day hike in August, but there’s also hikes on the High Coast near where the company was founded, which seem extraordinary, and they’re open to all levels of hikers. And they just started a hike in Denmark. And it’s just so beautiful. Part of Fjällräven’s mission is exposing people to Sweden and I had no idea, it’s just exquisite. I don’t know if it’s somewhere people put at the top of their lists to go hiking, but they should!