Kitty Zaja x Polar 2018

Kitty Zaja, a participant in Polar 2018, tells us about her experiences and how the journey changed her life.

Every year Fjällräven takes a group of 30 applicants from across the globe to the Scandinavian arctic for the adventure of a lifetime: driving a team of sled-dogs for 300km through the tundra. For Kitty the adventure began when she spied a post on social media in 2016. Determined to take part in Polar, Kitty applied twice before successfully getting into the team for Polar 2018. But she didn’t let the journey stop at 300km across the arctic tundra - instead, upon finishing Polar, Kitty turned her life upside down and now lives and works in Northern Sweden leading sled-dog tours full-time.

Kitty tells us in her own words about her experience, why she decided to take part, and how her life has changed forever because of Polar 2018.

Happy sled dogs

So Kitty tell us: why did you decide to take part in Polar in the first place?

My Mum has actually been a Siberian husky breeder since 1989 in Hungary. I grew up around sled-dogs. I spent most of my childhood weekends at dog shows with my Mum and my sister - and I loved it! But I had forgotten most of that after having moved from Hungary to Denmark five years earlier to study at University. I started off studying environmental management. I had just finished that and I was applying for another course in global health and nutrition sciences. I was also working at a hospital kitchen from 6-10am every morning and exercising at the gym almost every evening as well. I didn’t have a lot of time to think. My days were pretty much the same - work, school, study, repeat. Then I saw the application for Polar 2017 on facebook and then it just hit me! Polar here I come - at least I thought!

You didn’t get into Polar the first time you applied - how did that make you feel?

Honestly, when I first applied I was 110% sure that I would get in to Polar in 2017. And then of course, I didn’t. It’s actually a really funny story - I had to upload my application video at the gym because the wireless was stronger than at home. I was on the treadmill while I was uploading my video. Everyone at the gym thought I was crazy.

With my application I was close, but I didn’t make it and it was devastating. I was mad at myself, because I felt like I didn’t do enough work to get in. I didn’t like my video. I just felt like I could have done a lot more. But most of all it got me more determined than ever to keep trying.

Winter campfire

After not making it into Polar 2017, what kept you motivated to apply for Polar 2018?

After I didn’t get in to Polar in 2017 I started to travel a little bit. I visited one of my friends who showed me a motivational speech. It’s a speech called Choice by Alan Watts. In this speech it says that every decision you make in your life - you need to try to consider yourself a cloud or a wave. There are no misshapen clouds, or badly designed waves. So if you treat yourself like a cloud or a wave then you can make mistakes. Even if you want to do something that seems bizarre, it will come out in the wash. Through this you will develop a confidence that will help you to trust your own intuition. I downloaded this motivational speech as an alarm and I listened to it every day when I woke up. And it affected my whole life. I was always insecure about my decisions before this - I changed my mind many times, moved around a lot, broke up relationships. I was never sure about any decision I made. This motivational speech stuck with me, I even got tattoo inspired by it after I won in 2017.

I really wanted to go on Polar, and even though I felt many people doubted me, I stuck with my decision. Everybody wants something different in their life and that’s totally okay. I moved home to Hungary in March 2017 because I was homesick. That’s when the idea for my video surfaced. My mum and I wrote the script together. We decided to do a carpool parody. After that, I learned how to cut the video. Every month I did something in preparation for Polar.

Tell us about your time on Polar. What were the highlights?

The experience of Polar was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was something that I will remember for my whole life. One of the major highlights was seeing the Northern lights for the first time. Everyone was screaming and shouting at the sky because we were all so excited. Another highlight was that the whole team was so connected. No-one was on their phone. No-one was busy with their everyday lives back at home. When we were sitting around the campfire everyone was speaking to each other, it really felt like we were a little family.

When you first meet the dogs there is so much to do - harnessing, feeding, packing the camp up and all the preparation for the journey. But when you are dogsledding it is suddenly quiet. You are in a white box, you are alone with your thoughts. So I had the time to think about my life and that was when I realised that I was not happy and I needed to make a change.

How did it feel getting back to ‘real life’ after Polar?

Before Polar I was really insecure about my decisions and what other people thought about me. So I tried to adjust myself to fit in. But after Polar I changed my thoughts and attitudes because I realised this is the only life I have - and if I live it in a way someone else wants me to then I will never be happy. On my first day back at work in the office everyone asked me about Polar. For a few minutes I showed them photos and we talked about it - but then everybody went back to work. The office I sat in at that time had no windows. It was at that moment that it clicked. I need to do something that makes me happy. Something to do with dogs. Ten days after Polar ended I applied for a job in Alaska working with sled-dogs. Long story short I ended up in Sweden, working as a guide for sled-dog tours at Lapland Wilderness Tours.

It’s so great to hear about how Polar positively affected your attitude and decisions. Tell us about your job and your life today.

I moved to Sweden 5 month after Polar. It was one of the most exciting times of my life. Everything was so new and unexpected - I didn't even know what to bring with me. I wasn’t exactly unprepared, but of course, I was not prepared for the job. Every day I learned new things. My boss is amazing, my colleagues are really nice. They enjoy spending time with the dogs. It’s really nice to be able to show people that there is a different way to live your life. We have quite long working hours from 7:30am - 6:30pm. But, everything pays off when I am with the dogs. I really love my job and my life today.

Kitty Zaja with sled dog puppies

I live close to Väkkärä, where Polar ends. I must admit, every time I pass the lake there, I am so proud of myself and happy with the decisions I made! On Polar I said many times to our guide that he has the best job in the world. Here I am, one and a half years later, doing the same job. Nowadays, I feel more secure about my decisions - I prioritise myself, my family, my friends and the dogs. I don’t need to prove myself anymore.

What would you say to anyone thinking about applying this year?

Do it. Please do it. Try to collect as many votes as possible, and make a good video. Never doubt yourself. If you really want it eventually you will manage. If you can get to Polar - everything will change around you. You will prioritise yourself and your decisions and you will definitely not be the same person as you were before. You will want to be outdoors. You will learn about surviving. It’s really funny, because I said in one Hungarian magazine - we learned how to survive. And then I corrected myself, actually we don’t learn how to survive - we learn how to live. Another thing that you will learn is that you don’t need a lot of ‘things’ to be happy. You don’t need the newest TV or the newest phone. All you really need is nature, and the dogs. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough. Polar is a genuinely great experience that everybody should participate in.

Kitty’s story is an inspiration and a great example of the importance of being true to yourself. Fjällräven Polar is not designed for arctic adventurers or professional mushers - applications are open for everyone. The only prerequisite is to be open and ready to take on the adventure of a lifetime. To find out more about Polar and how to apply this year click here.

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