Ready, set...MUSH!

Runa, Nukalukk, Tuvukk and Murph stood poised at the starting line. With less than a minute to go, Murph squatted and took a dump. Luckily, Runa, the human of the group, maintained her poise. At age eight, Runa was one of the youngest dog mushers competing in the 20 kilometer Barnas Finnmarksløpet, the youth counterpart of the longest dogsled race in Europe, Finnmarksløpet. She was joined by eleven other competitors between the ages of 7 and 14, just outside of Alta.

I came to Alta for a week to experience a bit of Northern Norway. At first, it felt a little like time travel. Goodbye, sunny Oslo; goodbye, lounging with ice cream on Aker Brygge. Two hours north by airplane, and I was thrust backward several months to the throes of winter. Why hello again, snow. However, the winter landscape was combined with long-lit days, a classic Nordic trick. On the first morning, the sun rose at 3:30 a.m.

My host family welcomed me with coffee, pastries, and dried reindeer, the latter freshly shaved off the bone with a large Sami knife. They knew I was interested in friluftsliv, outdoor life, and they said that Alta was filled with opportunities. I’ve been impressed, in general, with how “green” Oslo is, and how easy it is to reach the Marka forests. Well, Alta was like Marka, basically all over. One tourist brochure claimed, “In Alta nature is different. Memorable experiences line up on your doorstep, and where else can you find a landscape so varied—with its mountains, endless plateaus and vast forests?”

Thus, I found myself in the midst of this varied landscape, surrounded by barking. I had never seen dog sledding before, much less dog sledding with children in charge. It sounded like a dog opera, and I could help wondering what they all were singing about. Probably things like “Woof! Woof! I’m so excited!” and “You’re going dowwwn, Rover!” and “Hey guys! Great poop place here at the starting line!”

A handler near the starting line

Adults assisted here and there, but the kids seemed to have everything under control. The kids were the ones who unloaded dogs and hooked them into the lines. Most of them came from dog sledding families and had grown up around dogs and racing. Me, I spent my childhood weekends playing softball.

 I went up to one boy, eight years old. When I asked how long he had been dog sledding, he needed to think for a bit. “Oh, some years,” he said finally. This year was his first time in Barnas Finnmarksløpet. “It’s pretty easy,” he repeated with a shrug. I guess this makes sense if you grow up in a dog sled family, in a city with long winters and bountiful nature.

 Some of the dogs were big and intense, with frosty blue stares. Others looked like they could be household pets, brought along for fun. I thought about my childhood dog, Taffy, accustomed to lazing in the California sun, and wondered whether she would rise to the challenge of joining a dog sled team (verdict: probably not).

The teams set off, each staggered by a minute, and a few parents followed on snowmobiles or skis. As it turns out, dog sledding is not necessarily a spectator sport. It was certainly exciting to watch teams prepare and depart, but the majority of the race was out of sight. Despite what the boy told me earlier, dog sledding seems like quite some work and responsibility. You are a racer and coach and team manager all in one! Eventually, the event culminated in typical Norwegian fashion: with grilling and hot drinks outside. Just another day up north, I suppose.

The youngest musher returns

The youngest musher returns

Overall, I was struck by the close connection to the surrounding nature that many people in Alta seemed to have – whether through skiing, biking, fishing, hunting, dog sledding or more. The day before I arrived, all public school 5th graders participated in their annual ice fishing competition.

Oslo may be “green,” but it is still a big city. While Alta may be the largest commercial and service center in Finnmark, it is still very much dominated by the surrounding environment, and it has a rural feel. Many people work in fields tied to natural resources: fisheries, agriculture and mining. When I asked children and adults what they liked best about Alta, many cited nature and outdoor opportunities, or the quiet, calm pace of life.

Yet, times are changing; not everybody has to rely directly on the land or even spend much time outside anymore. There are supermarkets, there is wi-fi. I may have time travelled, but it was a matter of months, not years. “Just like any other place,” my Alta host told me. “You can find people who enjoy being outside, and people who avoid it.

I talked to some teachers who were concerned that their students were playing outside less, lured inside by technology and gaming. Just like America. Even though an adage claims that Norwegians were born with skis on their feet, some kids told me they rarely skied – they would rather ride snowmobiles. One girl said she didn’t even actually like winter. This struck me as a stark juxtaposition from the dog sledding children, but it emphasizes the idea that Alta, like any other place, is filled with diverse people and preferences. Dog sledders, winter haters, hunters, teachers—these are all subsets.

I came to Alta to experience a bit of Northern Norway. And I did. But only a bit, and I have to remind myself of that. I can’t draw sweeping conclusions about the differences between Oslo and Alta, because I would not know whether to attribute them to large city versus small city, south versus north, or simply differences in the particular people I have met in each place.

“Nature has been generous to Alta,” claimed the tourist brochure. This may be true, but it is up to individual people of Alta to decide how they interact with it.