Pierre, 22 , left for a unique adventure for several months in Iceland. Now back in France, he told me his story.
"I wanted my mind and my body to be challenged"
When did you leave for Iceland and for what purpose?
I left in early February 2015, wanting a real adventure. This was the first big trip for me, I didn’t want to only go from A to B (I think this is just physically moving, not travelling) but really live an experience. Something that will be a part of me for several months. To create a new life and become someone else.
After lots of research, I found a website called Workaway.info which offers opportunities abroad. I applied to work in Norway, Finland, Patagonia and Iceland. I got offered all the jobs available - I think I'm very lucky. So I chose Iceland! To live in a small cabin in the middle of nowhere and drive a dog sled sounded quite exciting. I wanted my mind and my body to be challenged. I don’t like ease!
Where did you live and with whom?
On a mountain called Skalafell, about 45 minutes from Reykjavik. I left alone, with only two backpacks and my equipment. I didn’t want to be dependent on anyone else! I also needed to live this adventure on my own.
"We had one law: "dogs first!""
What would be a typical day for an Icelandic Musher?
Wake up time at 8 o’clock for coffee and to quickly prepare breakfast, especially to have time to get ready for the cold, rain, wind and snow. Mother nature will not be kind to you in Iceland.
Once you’re up, the dogs are too and you have to go clean the kennel at 9 ’o’clock. Once everything is clean, you move the dogs from the same team on the same line. It makes it easier to then set the dogs on the sled. We put two “lead dogs” first, followed by the “team dogs, and then the two last ones - the “wheel dogs”. Each dog has a very specific role and it's important to correctly choose dogs for a great run and good atmosphere.
We then install sleds near the team that will run. They have different sizes and we choose them based on the weight and the number of clients we will have. The number of dogs also differs based on the weather and snow conditions (compact or soft.) We tie the gangline - a long central rope attached to the sled which has necklines (for the collar) and tuglines (tied behind the dog’s harness). We make sure that the snap hooks are well locked and that the bungee (which absorbs shocks between the gangline and the sled to ease the dogs) is in good shape.
Then comes the time to prepare dogs with their harnesses. Each dog has a different harness size so you have to be careful! A smaller size will compress the dog and cause irritations and limit him in his movements.
Once the dogs are equipped and the sleds ready, we welcome the customers. We prepare them with a thermal full-body suit and then explain how to behave on the sled. First start is at 10 o’clock. A tour is about 45 minutes and are from 6 to 9 kilometres based on weather conditions. When we go back, we take the equipment off the dogs and then re-start the process. We go on with the tours at 12pm, 2pm, 4pm and then midnight. Hours can vary across the winter and from weather conditions.
In between each tour, we have about 30 minutes to rest and eat something.
Between the sunset tour at 4pm and the midnight tour starting at 11pm, we feed the dogs. They need about three to four hours to digest their food so the feeding has to be done quickly. We take some time to rest and eat together and then we go outside at 10pm with headlamps and do the same process - but in the dark and with colder temperatures, under the northern lights.
After the last tour, we give food again to the dogs, check the chains and then we go to sleep. By now it's generally about 1 o’clock in the morning, however one dog can detach himself so they all start to bark. We have to run outside and catch the loose dog. In underwear or storms, it doesn’t matter! We have to be quick even with no time to dress. We had one law: dogs first!
Finally, when there is no tour, we clear the trucks from the snow, repair the sleds, clean the cabin, resew the harnesses or take a dog, put the harness on and hike! We never get bored, there is always something to do.
In short, the days of a Musher are intense!
What is your best memory?
Driving my dog sleds at midnight, without my frontal lamp (it died from being too cold) under the Northern lights and the full moon. It was a wonderful moment which will be indelibly printed in my memory. And there is also this adrenaline rush when you ask your dogs to run and they pull the sled like never before. This chemistry with the dogs, I think it was the best memory I could have.
Did you ever have a scary, anxious or bad moment to deal with?
The first day, when I heard the other mushers talking, I thought that I would never fit in: my English was not up to standard! In the end, they reassured me and I realised it was nothing complicated. It’s like everything, you need to jump and then life goes on.
Also, the fear of hurting the dogs during declinations: without breaking early enough, the sled can hit the dogs. Otherwise we had storms. A tour can start under the sun and then get ambushed by a blizzard. We needed to stay calm, find the slope and reassure the clients, not to think about the weather freezing hands and feet as well as making sure the dogs were okay… Sometimes the pressure is not easy to deal with. That’s why a Musher needs to learn how to be calm and watchful 24 hours a day.
"The dogs are like the mirror of your personality."
What was your relationship with the dogs and with the other people?
I made 36 new friends! I was very close to my dogs. I needed to gain their trust and respect which can take a long time depending on your attitude and your personality. I also needed to stay calm and act like a leader, controlling your emotions. I think you change a lot when you’re working with dogs. They are like the mirror of your personality: if you are aggressive, they will be too. But if you are calm and happy, they will be too! I have never met any animals that are so generous. Give them love and they will give you double or triple.
For other people, mushers have very strong personalities. Working in such harsh conditions and leading powerful dogs required stubbornness and responsibility. Sometimes there are some disputes between mushers because their points of view can be different, but overall there is a very good atmosphere. When you live in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, with the same people for several months, you need to get on with each other!
"It’s another way of living that I discovered."
What do you retain from this experience? Did it change you?
I fulfilled my goals, I lived what I wanted to live and so much more. As I said before, working with dogs changes you like crazy. You learn how to stay calm no matter the situation, to find a solution quickly, to deal with clients’ personalities and to be satisfied with little. It’s another way of living that I discovered.
For example, we didn’t have any running water. Which means we had only one shower a week, or not. You also learn how to manage with what you have! One stormy day, the power was out. So we decided to use antibacterial gel to cook an omelet! You forget all the comforts of modern life and you get on with a much simpler way of living; you use only what you need and you are more eco-friendly. 'Back to basics' was much needed in my opinion.
Today I live differently every day. I am not leaving the water running when I wash the dishes or when I brush my teeth. I am not washing my clothes every day. I 'DIY' more and I take time, simple as that.
I used to live a much slower life there and I re-discovered reading. I read more than 10 books during my trip. I would have never read 10 books within 3 months in France.
These three intense months definitely made me the change what I needed to.
"Iceland invites you to an adventure and is full of hidden places that are waiting to be discovered."
How would you describe Iceland?
An wild beauty. In there, nature takes over everything and you feel so weak and so destitute when face with bad weather.
What would you recommend in Iceland?
Dog sledding? Haha. I will definitely recommend not following the tourist circuit. For example, if you want to see the Northern Lights, rent a car and go into a lonely place where you can see the sky. You don’t have to pay for a tour. For the Blue Lagoon, it is true that it’s beautiful. There are thousands of hot spring sources in Iceland! Go for a hike and find your own spring. You could swim naked.
Iceland invites you to an adventure and it is full of hidden places that are waiting to be discovered. Get good equipment, watch the weather conditions and organise your own road trip.
There are also the classics such as the Golden Circle, the geyser - I also strongly recommend diving in the Silfra Crack, which is located in the Thingvallavatn Lake in the Thingvellir national park. It is a crack between two tectonic plates where the water is so pure and clear that you can see everything under the surface. It reveals shades of blue that you will otherwise only see in your Photoshop palette.
What is your next adventure?
I think Ireland or Scotland to do a trek for several days alone or with friends. I’m also thinking about Patagonia. To be honest, this trip in Island really opened my eyes and showed me how to see further. Why not leave and work in a Hacienda in Patagonia, learn how to ride a horse and then get equipment to explore South America like a Argentinian Cowboy? Never would I have imagined to become a Musher in Iceland one day, so now I’m having fun dreaming. It's not fun if goals are too easy to reach.
A dream you would like to realise?
Buy a motorbike with reliable equipment and leave everything to do a road trip in Europe or somewhere else and make a documentary out of it. Ideally, it would be this trip in Patagonia. I need to find sponsors, create an association or a cultural project and become one of those modern explorers who keep me dreaming.
Ps: Do you know any Icelandic?
Unfortunately, I only know “Takk!” (thank you) and Fyrirgefou (sorry). Most of Icelanders speak English fluently and it is very useful. Icelandic is a very nice and sound language but very complicated….
Pierre also directed a wonderful documentary on his experience, to watch below: