Cool Runnings: The Importance and Difficulty of Self-Editing

The process of editing is a strange beast. For a writer who has poured every drop of their time, sweat and spirit into a piece, being asked to slash the word count feels a little like being politely asked if you wouldn’t mind hacking off a limb, or a couple of fingers.

In theory, editing is brilliant, too many articles, mine included, are stuffed gluttonously to bursting point with superfluous text and, as the incomparable Dr Seuss says: “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”

But still, the feeling you get when you hand over a piece of your fiercely-wrought prose to an editor is always going to be the whine of ‘please, please, please don’t cut it too much.’ You spend so much time pouring over your writing, changing one word or moulding and re-forming sentences and paragraphs, honing it like a sculptor to a point of reasonable satisfaction where it becomes like your child: precious and yours.

Stephen King may urge writers to: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings” but putting your work on his cannibalistic chopping block is still difficult to put into practice.

That’s why I love blogging – here’s no word count, no restrictions, no page space or column inches. When you write for a magazine or website it’s another story. I recently wrote a piece on my incredible dog mushing trip in Tromso as one of Suitcase Magazine‘s Great Escapes. Their editor is fantastic, and, when she gently suggested that they were after around 500 words when faced with the 1400 epic I had originally submitted, I was determined to cut the flab from my work.

But, faced with rows and rows of what you hope are fluid prose, the cursor hovering accusingly as you highlight passages of text for deletion, you can’t help but wince as words are blotted out, never to see the light of day.

I eventually got the piece down to 850 words. When it went live it had been chopped to around 500. The editor had managed to do what I hadn’t, and, to be truthful, if you’d never read the original you wouldn’t think anything was missing. But, there’s the rub, I do know.

So, for arguments’ sake, or narcissism, or pride, or as an editorial experiment…or for just plain pig headedness, here is the full, unedited, uncut version of my Great Escape. The published piece can be found here.

Cool Runnings: The Life of a Dog Musher

hills

It’s 7am and I’m lying face down in the snow, hands pushed deep into icy, rushing water as I struggle to fill two 25l barrels in the inky, half-light of dawn. In a minute I’ll swap places with my team mate and start hauling the water uphill towards the candle-lit cabin. As I climb, face up to the bruised, silent blue of a Norwegian morning, the ropes around the bottles sliding and cutting into my flesh through my impractically thin gloves, I think that while this wouldn’t seem like most people’s idea of a holiday, I’ve never felt more awake in my life.

In December last year I landed at Tromsø, a tiny, rural airport in the northern fjords and was greeted by a tall, blonde man with pale, hooded eyes clutching a cardboard sign scrawled with ‘Magnetic North.’ This was Stian Hasfjord, my guide, teacher and husky expert for the next five days while I attempted to learn how to mush my own pack of dogs in the near perpetual darkness of a frosty Norwegian winter.

Deep snow

What Stian and his tiny team, which consists of his girlfriend Nieske and their dog handler Amalie, offer is something quite unique – a Scandinavian dog sledding experience that’s an anathema to the traditional tourist’s idea of sledding. Instead of pitching up to a pre-prepared sled and getting pulled around for an hour or two before driving back to your hotel, this is a window into the reality of the musher’s lifestyle and the trust, dedication and physical exertion it demands, all played out daily against a backdrop of towering peaks, black forests and vast, icy skies.

It took two hours to get from the airport to Stian’s home and, as we drove through the snow-covered roads, a thin ribbon of green aurora borealis rippling across the sky and the cold, milky moon above, it felt as though we were travelling into wild country.

The cabin

We pulled up near a wooden cabin decorated by fairy lights, a picket fence of icicles and the warm, red glow of candles flooding through the windows, enticing us inside with the promise of hot food and fires. But the comfort of the cabin was short-lived as we were shown our bedroom for the next four nights: a lavvo tent. Luxurious it wasn’t – there was no shower and an al fresco bathroom – but the traditional tent protected us from the minus temperatures with reindeer hides, thermal sleeping bags and a lone electric heater.

The lavvo tent

Before we were cocooned in our sleeping bags for the night we were introduced to Stian and Nieske’s dogs, all of the 21 huskies and two hunting dogs. It was like stepping into a classroom of excitable children; some were jumping up, straining against their cage fences in ecstasy, pink tongues rasping against your hands through the wire, some watched you with an unnervingly calculating gaze and some stayed hidden, lupine eyes flashing eerily in the beam of our head torches.

They weren’t the fluffy, grey and white dogs I was expecting, they were rangy, sinewy and tightly muscled with mismatched eyes and Collie, Greyhound and Alsatian blood in them. Stain explained that over the next few days we would learn how to handle our dogs; who needed a tiny dog t-shirt and booties to protect them from the shards of packed ice; which ones were leaders; which ones were a bit stupid and which ones could save your life in snow storm and who would become so eager to run for you that they wouldn’t stop even if they snapped a slender leg in a snow drift.

Nouka and Pacha

We learned that while they are well behaved and well trained, they still had a touch of the wolf in them and how they reacted to you depended on how you conducted yourself around them, constantly shouting at them or trying to cuddle them all the time wouldn’t win you much respect here. The reality of it is that despite the love Stian has for the dogs, they aren’t pets, they’re working dogs and if they can’t be trusted around visitors or other dogs then they can’t be kept. Stain was recently forced to put down five good racing dogs for setting on and nearly killing their Irish Setter Dona in an unprovoked pack attack halfway up a mountain.

The lifestyle is enchantingly simple – there’s no TV, no dishwasher, no WIFI and barely any mobile signal in the alpine chalet cabin and during the winter the pipes freeze, meaning that Stian, Nieske and Amalie have to collect water from the nearby stream every day to fill the water tank.

Guests are expected to pitch in and share the daily tasks and after the first morning lugging water like a World’s Strongest Man competitor, we take turns in twos to hack up half-frozen blocks of meat and feed the dogs or spend time examining and treating their paws, stretching their muscles and giving them the full spa massage treatment.

My dog team

On our second day the sky was as white and opaque as smoke and Stian took us sledding, teaching us how to steer the sled, how to balance and brake as we slice through the snow. The dogs felt my inexperience and periodically turned to glance at me in what could have been either affection or irritation. I was running with Pacha, a lead dog with two-tone eyes, next to his ex-girlfriend Nouka at the head of my sled. Pacha’s current love interest, Nouka’s sister Nalla was behind and Lulu, a bouncy whippet of a husky was lashed alongside the tiny, inexperienced Snow White at the back and soon they were surging forwards, shoulders straining against their harnesses as we looped around woods and lakes, the wind flaying our cheeks, sleds hissing as they scarred the fresh, unsullied snow, trees flashing past – black bars blurred against the pristine white background.

The dog team

When we aren’t sledding Nieske and Amalie take us on a snowshoe hike up through the thigh-deep snow and into the frozen woodland where she points out waterfalls and moose tracks. We peel bark and branches from the surrounding silver birches and firs and build a fire to roast sausages and sip steaming cups of hot chocolate in the dying, rosy light. At night we try out a homemade luge run, taking turns to slide on plastic shovels and bin liners down a path as slippery as polished glass, faces pink-tinged and grinning as we tumble, inelegant in our bin bag nappies, into snow drifts.

Building a fire

Firelight

All too soon it was our final evening sitting around the heavy, wooden table in the cabin, the air heavy with the smell of damp wool and reindeer stew. While my borrowed mittens and socks dried above the fire, we shared pictures, played cards and all felt the sort of contented tiredness that only comes from physical exertion and too much fresh air.

There was time for one last game with the dogs, throwing rubber balls and holding them close as they stretched towards my hands, begging to be scratched and climbing over each other to get close enough to curl around my legs.

Then it was back to London via Oslo, bereft of my dogs and back to emails, traffic and the Christmas crowds. I’ve never been a dog person, but these huskies were special and having the opportunity to take responsibility for them, to watch them grow to like me, respect me and want to run for me was truly unique. I found myself strangely reluctant to wash away the smell of clean, arctic husky, fire ash and snow that lingered from my trip into a winter wonderland and if anyone asks, I will maintain that this was one of the most rewarding, exciting and moving travel experiences I’ve ever had.

Emma Sleight @EmmaCSleight

Magnetic North is a travel company who specialise in adventure holidays in Scandinavia. Give them a call and they’ll be happy to help you organise your own adventure. This trip, the four-night Life of a Dog Musher Northern Lights and Dog Sledding Holiday, runs in February, March and December. More information on prices and dates can be found on their website here.

 

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One Comment Add yours

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