In late February of 2022 the world looked to be well on course to rapidly opening up post the Covid-19 pandemic. Suddenly travel dreams were once more obtainable desires and no longer mere pipedreams. For almost two years our dreams had lain on the backburner as a “one day when the world is back to normal” fantasy.
And so it was that the fantastic military charity VetRun180 re-approached Sandgrouse Travel & Expeditions with a view to planning a new adventure. This time however, we would be travelling further afield then Scotland’s majestic Scottish Highlands - the charity was honing in on the frozen north of Scandinavia, Lapland to be precise!
"These remarkable expeditions allow participants to switch into an alternative world for a few very special days, the norms of day to day life back home for all of us are forgotten and life is simplified to what is really important. On these trips the guys are thrown together, and preconceptions seem to fall away, left behind in the real world. Time and again, seamlessly and quickly the groups find a unique rhythm that is comforting and familiar for all to be within" - Jonny Stage, founder of Sandgrouse Travel & Expeditions
With the world being in near complete lockdown for leisure travel since early 2020, for us at Sandgrouse, it was a dream come true to be able to help support the charity and plan an extraordinary overseas trip for a new group of medically discharged veterans. We jumped right to it in typical fast reaction fashion and started brainstorming ideas to match and hopefully exceed what we had previously created for the charity here in Scotland. The result was inevitably a trip of a lifetime for the group. Ditching Land Rovers for ski-doos or snowmobiles, an adventure of epic proportions beckoned. The trip that unfolded took the guys on a 650km, 100-hour adventure into the wilderness of Swedish Lapland, with an ultimate goal of crossing the Arctic Circle and living off-grid for 5 consecutive days.
Our trip started in Lulea, the small town capital of Swedish Lapland, located in North East Sweden on the Bothnian Sea, a part of the wider Baltic Sea. This area of Sweden is extremely cold during the long winter months, so much so that the brackish waters of the Gulf of Bothnia around and east of Lulea are frozen solid. This ice forms a vast area of pack-ice that is unlike anything south of the true Arctic. To experience anything comparable to it you would have to visit waters much much further north, nearer the pole itself.
Our group of x8 Iraq & Afghan veterans from VetRun180, plus Sandgrouse team members and expert local guides, embarked from Lulea on individual ski-doos or snowmobiles! We travelled across the pack ice north to the head of the Råne river valley. Here we would follow the river north west into the frozen and increasingly sparsely populated area of Norrbottens. The Råne river valley route is mirrored by an ancient iron ore trail north into the interior of Lapland; in centuries gone by, Saami herders were paid to bring out the iron ore extracts by reindeer sled to the coast from deep within the interior - loosely speaking we would be following this very route all the way up to the official Arctic Circle for the next few days, before returning south back to civilisation.
"This was a group of guys who until they rocked up at the airport in London a few days prior, had for all intents and purposes never met one another before, yet here we were in the heart of Lapland, as if long lost pals."
The journey was for all involved from the charity, a baptism of fire, but with our expert guides and a proven route across the wilderness - regular stops lead us each day deeper into the wilderness. Our first two nights on traill saw us sleeping in rustic log cabins, one of these incredible camps being owned by a true Saami reindeer herder. An authentic experience lay in wait for the group, sleeping in wooden huts lined with reindeer furs and heated by an open fire pit. This amazing camp turned out to be not only memorable due to the rustic cabins and remote setting on a frozen lake, but whilst we were there we were blessed with what many locals said was the most impressive Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) display of the 21/22 winter season! The sky literally danced for us - vivid luminous greens, fluorescent pinks, rolling waves and starburst explosions above our heads as solar charged particles thousands of miles above the earth collided with our hospitable atmosphere! In Scotland we know of this phenomenon as “the merry dancer”, it's not hard to see why in Scandinavia these displays held so much sway in folklore and mythology. The Norse Gods of old were smiling on our group, we are quite sure of this!
Travelling on, the next few days would test the group with challenging riding on the snowmobiles. The group would head across varying terrain, differing snow and weather conditions and of course battle with the inevitable fatigue of such a testing trip. Due to an indomitable group spirit and our exceptional local guides, who continually plied us with local delicacies such as reindeer sausage and lingonberry jam, the group never missed a beat!
Northern Lights aside, the true phenomenon of this expedition was how well an immediate and solid bond was formed amongst the group. This was a group of guys who until they rocked up at the airport in London a few days prior, had for all intents and purposes never met one another before, yet here we were in the heart of Lapland, as if long lost pals.
All of us experienced new and exciting bucket-list wonders that will be carried within our hearts and minds for many years to come - but I am still amazed by the friendships and bonds formed on these short trips! That’s the beauty of the VetRun180 expeditions, the ethos of the trips is of course “adventure therapy’ and the motto of the charity is ‘If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you’ - these are undoubtedly powerful and poignant sentiments, but there’s something more to these brilliant trips and expeditions by VetRun180. Something very special that I find can’t truly be explained in a catch phrase. These remarkable expeditions allow participants to switch into an alternative world for a few very special days, the norms of day to day life back home for all of us are forgotten and life is simplified to what is really important. On these trips the guys are thrown together, and preconceptions seem to fall away, left behind in the real world. Time and again, seamlessly and quickly the groups find a unique rhythm that is comforting and familiar for all to be within. Being away from normality and experiencing often new and incredible things allows for personal growth and reflection too. It is also the best chance to find new friends and if you wish, open up to others who understand you. I feel very privileged to have been able to be involved with all the groups we have worked with from VetRun180 - and the friendships and memories from this latest trip to Lapland will, like the others here in Scotland, stay with me forever.
Special thanks to Snugpak - for providing the group with their exceptional cold weather kit. These items of clothing kept the guys amazingly warm throughout their time in the Arctic and proved reliable and rugged. We used the Tomahawk jackets as well as insulated pants/trousers which formed the basis of our outerwear. Rated down to around -15 to -20 the kit kept everyone warm even when static on a snowmobile zooming along at 80kph across the pack ice!
I would also like to thank our local partners and guides, who really brought to life the area and trip. They captured the magic of where we were, personified the true spirit of hospitality and good will, changing what would have been a great expedition into a truly extraordinary expedition! Thomas, Michael, Issak, Jonas and Fredrik - thank you from us all!