The wind is blowing the snow sideways. You can’t see more than a metre in front of your pack leader’s nose. You have no idea what time it is and how long you have to go until your next meal. You ask yourself: why am I here? What am I doing? But later that night, as your dogs rest beside you and you gaze up at the Northern Lights dancing their way like a psychedelic rainbow across the sky you can answer those two questions. You’re there because you have dreamed of this moment, of pushing your boundaries, of taking the adventure of a lifetime. This is Fjällräven Polar.
Each year since 2012 we’ve sent roughly 25-30 people up to the Scandinavian Arctic to go on a dog-sled adventure. These people are just like you and me; they aren’t mushers. They aren’t outdoor experts. Yes, some have spent plenty of time in the outdoors and know a thing or two about wild camping. But there are plenty that know nothing. Some have come from the bright lights of Manhattan, others from sandy beaches in Greece, never before seen snow. The only thing that unites them is their passion for the event.
It’s clear what the participants get out of it. It’s a true adventure, one filled with camaraderie, over coming personal obstacles and challenges. For some it’s a life changing experience. But what do we, Fjällräven, get out of it?
“Back in 2013 we were looking for ways to showcase our Arctic gear. We had so many good down products; we had tents and sleeping bags designed especially for super cold temperatures and snowy conditions. But we didn’t want to just tell people how good they were. We wanted to show them,” says Andreas Cederlund, Fjällräven Polar Event Manager.
Fjällräven Polar had been running previously as a competition, a kind of Iditarod light. This involved professional mushers and was not really linked to our products at all. But Andreas and the team saw a possibility.
“We saw Polar as a way to show people we know what we’re doing, both with the equipment but also with the knowledge of these kinds of climates. This is our home turf; we know what to do when we’re there. So we changed the set-up a little, but basically we picked up where we left of.”
The change of set-up was to go from competition to education. The goal was to show that anyone in good physical shape, with the right mindset, gear and preparation can not just survive, but thrive in the Arctic environment.
Ahead of the first event, Andreas and his team were probably more nervous than the participants. They didn’t know what to expect. They knew the gear would hold up, but driving a dog-sled for 300km through the Arctic, especially if the weather turns nasty, requires more than just the average dose of gusto. It requires dedication, focus and commitment.
“It’s not dangerous, but it does take a lot of focus,” explains Andreas. “It’s long hours; sometimes it’s much colder than expected. The participants really have to push themselves. But we felt that after the first event the participants all got so much from it so we wanted to continue. We were pleased that the competition aspect had gone but the event had still worked.”
We’ve fine tuned things over the years, of course, particularly the educational parts. We’ve learned, for example, how much people can take in in one go. We also have to remember that for each group this is new.
“We’re so used to everything and we’re in the middle, unable to see how it looks from the outside. I have to step back sometimes and take a bird’s eye view to see that people come from all different places and walks of life with all kinds of past experiences. And for everyone it’s life changing, some just in a small way, but for others it can send them down a new path.”
Fjällräven Polar has now become its own organism. It’s no longer just about us. There are millions of people supporting this message, either by voting for participants or entering themselves – or both.
“It’s an incredible force of people power when we open the application period. People really want to be there and take part. We’ve succeeded in reaching out to people in so many new markets, like Mongolia – Fjällräven products aren’t even sold there. The message of Polar: the winter adventure of a lifetime, is spreading to all parts of the world. And this year we’ll include even more countries than ever before. So going with this message globally is really effective. I think we’re seen as a brand that’s serious and non-competitive – this distinguishes us from other brands. We want to teach people so they can enjoy nature and all it has to offer.”
More than 100 people have taken part in Fjällräven Polar since it’s non-competitive reboot in 2013. And their lives have changed. Not everyone’s as dramatically as cancer doctor Larry Doherty who moved, with his family, from Florida to Alaska to take part in Iditarod – twice! Others have just started taking more solo steps into the outdoors, spending more time in nature’s embrace and encouraging and helping others to do the same. Polar is a physical journey, but it’s also a personal one.
“As soon as mobile phone coverage disappears and when the participants have to drive the sleds themselves, they focus and slowly but surely become more present in the moment. They become calmer. They start to learn. They listen more. With the long hours they have a long time to reflect on stuff. It’s quite amazing in today’s society to have that time to think freely, to let whatever’s on your mind just come up. That’s why life-changing moments come to the fore, because you have the time to question things: where you are in life, what you’re doing. And all that time allows them to really think things through. And some then take action and change their lives. For some it’s just small steps, like spending more time outdoors. But some even quit their jobs, move somewhere else, change careers and so on. There’s a whole spectrum. And I love that,” says Andreas.
Images: Nicklas Blom.
Text: Sarah Benton