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The World's Northernmost Jazz Festival: Polarjazz 2008 in Longyearbyen, Norway

Mark Sabbatini By

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My candidacy for a dogsledding Darwin Award began shortly after we arrived at the kennels, wearing thick head-to-toe clothing our guide gave us in town, when Jacobsen gave us instructions over the non-stop din of barking on getting the dogs from their shelters and attaching them to the sled. He warned it was vital not to let them get away, since about 20 of their 89 dogs were in heat. The kennel yard is separated in half by sex, but the yiping turns into an eardrum-splitting uproar if one gets loose among the other (one escapee was caught quickly by our guide). I struggled to keep my dog held steady between my knees while attaching the harness, which I kept hopelessly rotating like a sweater with four arms that I couldn't find the neck hole through. All told, I got three dogs attached in the same time Joe (in picture) harnessed six. Little wonder Kristan is with him now.

Then came the instructions for driving our three sleds: pulling up the stake-like anchor only when everything was truly ready to go, not throwing it so far when stopping it couldn't be reached from the sled, using body lean to help steer. There was no mention of yelling "mush" to get the dogs started ("It's like a motor that's always on and the only control is the brake," Joe said later), nor did we get whips to spur them on.

"The most important thing: Don't let go of the sled," Jacobsen said.

Kristan and I shared a sled, Joe and our guide had their own. Ours promptly overturned and dumped me painfully into the snow while she was trying to navigate away from the kennels on a downhill slope, the hardest kind to drive on. I made up for it a few miles later by nearly impaling her with the anchor when the sheer force of the dogs starting forward jerked me nearly over the handlebar I was clinging to with my free hand while all but throwing the anchor randomly forward so I could get a grip my other hand.

I stayed upright and (barely) managed to avoid falling while driving, although my vastly underweight 120-lb. body was terribly ill-suited for leaning during turns to keep it from overturning. Joe was less fortunate—and so was I as a result—when he took a spill and his dogs, now moving much faster with the lighter weight, dashed by and his sled hit me in the back. I was sitting in the sled while Kristan was driving and the impact ensured I wouldn't be at the helm again that day.

Which is a bummer, because driving is definitely better than riding. When you're standing upright you have clear view of the scenery, the bumps don't jolt as much and you have a good idea of what kind of terrain lies immediately ahead. In the sled you're sitting low—almost laying down—the view is obstructed by your knees, and the bumps are rough and unexpected (in this hasty and awkward self-portrait, I'm in the lower left corner and those are Kristan's hands on the sled). Plus it's much colder just sitting there. The only socks I brought were well-worn white tubers and I probably would have gotten frostbitten toes if our guide didn't put a down sleeping bag over me during the return trip.

The valley, even if it was a mere 10 miles outside town next to a coal mine, was an exceptional sight with sharply defined peaks of pure white on both sides of the path. The difference in the brightness of the twilight was astonishing from when we arrived only a few days ago, when a faint glow touched the sky for an hour or two. On this day the light was bright enough to see the peaks clearly to the horizon and it lasted twice as long.

"I'm very happy the light is back," Jacobsen said. "It's been a long season."

We went about 15 miles to where a hill started to climb out, with the out-of-shape dogs struggling mightily to get up the first slope that was our turnaround point. This is where the drivers had to step off their sled and run alongside (they've never have kept up speed on level ground), which is a damned hard thing to do for long on a slope with deep snow.

The return trip was relatively uneventful, experienced hands we were by now (cough), as was unhitching the dogs and returning them to their individual dog houses. Of all the tasks, this last one might be the hardest for me on an extended trip—caring for the dogs before thinking of your own comfort, even just a quick warm-up. Luckily, instead of pitching tents there was a cabin with a wood stove going and some hot water Jacobsen brought in thermoses. So we sat on benches around a wooden table while exchanging the kind of war stories one does after an expedition, mild as this was (Kristan and Joe returned a couple of days later for a full-day trip including a crawl through some ice caves). Us novices could least offer comparisons between Svalbard and our work experience in Antarctica, plus Kristan could talk about covering the Iditarod several years ago.


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