Dog-mushing Tour in Northern Norway - Chapter Three: Outside my comfort zone

"...with just your thermals, socks, hat and gloves on you need to first climb into this inner layer of the sleeping bag. Then you wriggle into the main part. Pull the hood up and over your head and tighten so that just your nose is poking through the hole. This is so you can breathe."

This is so you can breathe... This is so you can breathe.

And yet, I wasn't breathing. At least not properly. I felt as though my lungs had shrunk to a childlike size and the air outside my sleeping bag was not real air but a diluted, lesser version of the oxygen I needed.

I felt as though the thermals and fleece I was wearing (yes, I cheated and added more layers) were not my own but meant for a smaller, skinnier person and they closed in around my ribs and stomach, forcing me in on myself and making me feel light-headed and nauseous.

I kicked my feet around the sleeping bag trying to figure out how much space I had within it, seeking out enough to reassure my mind, which has always indulged in claustrophobia given half a chance. My toes touched the sides too quickly and there was no denying how little room I had to move around in.

And that lesser air that I was straining to suck through my nostrils chilled my airways and stung the tip of my nose; it was really cold out there. I had to stay inside the confines of my sleeping bag.

My breathing quickened, notching up a gear towards full-flung panic. I loosened the sleeping bag and poked my head and neck out, I unravelled the scarf that was wrapped around my neck three maybe four times (oh, did I forget to mention that too?) and when that was done I stuck my hands between my legs to stop them shaking. I was shivering but I was clueless whether it was due to fear or cold.

This is so you can breathe... This is so you can breathe.

Anytime that you can feel yourself fighting to breathe, you know that something is not quite right.

It happened to me when I fell over a skipping rope in the school playground and winded myself. I rolled over and felt an invisible deadweight on my chest; it was the first time in my life that I thought I was going to die.

It happened to me when the first man I fell in love with told me it was over. I could only exhale; sucking in more air was impossible. That breathlessness was only replaced with a sad sickness that I couldn't shift for months.

It happened to me when I was sat in a sauna with a group of naked Finnish women I didn't know. The temperature climbed and the humidity thickened. The air I drew inside me burned my insides. I had to get outside. (That discomfort was the main reason I went through with plungeing myself into ice water.)

And it happened as described above, on the first night I slept in a traditional Sami lavvu tent as part of my husky-dog mushing experience last December. That night, as I lay wrapped up in a cocoon I didn't want but desperately needed I knew exactly wasn't right. As I stretched my lungs to pull in a cruel cold air that was a few degrees below freezing, I had never been more aware of what was going on.

For there I was, lying on my side, rigid and restless, right on the edge of my comfort zone.

This is so you can breathe... This is so you can breathe.

There is a famous saying - at least, in the travel blogging circles I move in - that states "life begins at the end of your comfort zone." I'm quite hasty to disagree with this. Lying in the freezing cold, enclosed in my own anxiety and weighed down by an invisible, irrational fear of not sleeping - yes, that was all I was essentially scared of - this wasn't life; this was a sort of torture. And if we are united in any one need in our wildly different lives, surely it's to live a life free of torture and torment?
In case you haven't read Chapter One or Chapter Two of my dog-mushing story, this a list of factors that were contributing to my discomfort, in approximate order of importance to me.

1. No bed.
2. No flushing toilet.
3. No shower.
4. Nighttime temperatures of below freezing.
5. No personal space.
6. No shoulder to cry on.

I now suggest you read Chapter One to understand why dog-mushing is a lifestyle that influences many different aspects of one's day-to-day life from what time you get up, what clothes you wear and the priorities you have.

Then maybe dip into Chapter Two which tells the story of the five dogs I was tasked with looking after. Each had their own personality and their own story. One of them, Snow White, was so withdrawn and fearful of humans you couldn't help but worry about what had happened in her past before Stian and Nieske - my host dog-mushers, gave her a home. And Lulu, well, you have to read it to understand how Lulu helped make this whole experience about so much more than my own fears and feelings. So many of my travel experiences are about how I feel about a place, and how a place sits in my memory; my dog-mushing "holiday" was about everybody else, but me - including 24 husky dogs. Humbled doesn't begin to cover how that made me feel.

Once I realised that I wasn't there to sleep well, or to enjoy hot showers or the flush of a toilet, but to experience life as a dog-musher - a life that is littered with a lack of sleep and discomfort but also incredibly unique rewards - I stopped worrying about not sleeping and I focused on what I was there to do.

Once I discovered that the people I was staying with weren't forcing themselves to live without a shower or toilet, it was just a matter of priorities (and winter freezing the water supply to their shower!), I realised how low on my own list of priorities having a flushing toilet and shower should be, compared with say, being a good person and achieving my personal and professional goals.
Once I remembered that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing, I told Nieske that I had been cold in the lavvu tent and I borrowed some wool socks and an extra blanket to sleep under. I hadn't been invited to Norway to be cold or uncomfortable - and Stian and Nieske had plenty of supplies to counteract this - but if I'd kept quiet, and not asked for help, I would have stayed very, very cold and very uncomfortable.

Once I drove those dogs for three hours on my own and I realised what I'd overcome to do that, I allowed myself to tell dog handler Amalie and fellow travel writer Emma, that I hadn't found this experience easy and I was really missing my personal space and comforts. After I spent ten minutes in a room on my own - a tear or two winding its way down my cheek - I rejoined them and Amalie let me cry on her shoulder and Emma made me realise how much I'd achieved with some well-chosen wise words.
Over the four days that passed after that first sleepless night, I managed to face, and to some extent, conquer the six things that had caused such admittedly irrational but still heavy, hurtful anxiety and while I'd rather it had taken four minutes or four hours, it was a poignant reminder that life doesn't work like that. Life doesn't get better because you tell it to.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, because I barely slept two hours on that first night. And when it came to sleeping in the lavvu tent a second time I was still incredibly anxious, fearing another restless night. As I climbed into my two layers of sleeping bag, still wrapped in too many clothes, still fearing the cold and unable to shake that sticky unwashed feeling from my skin, I felt my ribs tighten and my breathing scratch its way in and out of me, speeding up a little. As I lay down and sought a non-existent position I was comfortable in, I could see clearly in the dark what was coming. I did everything I could to keep calm and somewhere along the way in doing this, started to repeat a new mantra.

You're doing fine. Just take it a minute at a time. You're doing fine.

So, I took it a minute at a time that night and I resisted the panic, the discomfort and the fear in order to stay calm.

I took it a minute at a time and tried to think about the bigger picture that was being painted.

I took it a minute at a time and I got through the night.

Just like the dogs who relied on us to feed them, exercise them, train them, care for them. They not only take life a minute at a time but they relish every single one that passes.

Life doesn't begin at the end of your comfort zone. Life begins when you become suddenly aware of how precious time is and when you value every minute that passes by, for better or worse. It just so happened that I was lying in a tent, on the snow, in Arctic Norway, way outside of my comfort zone when I realised this.

Disclosure: My dog-mushing adventures were supported by  Magnetic North Travel who run  these unique dog-mushing tours. For more information visit their  website and if you have any questions about the tour (or any of their other arctic adventures), I know they'll be happy to answer them. 

Additional photos by Emma Sleight of The Edible Woman.

Frances M. Thompson

Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before starting a family with her Australian partner. Frankie is the author of three short story collections, and is a freelance writer for travel and creative brands. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her two young sons around Amsterdam.
Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.

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