Jeff Allen is not your typical 54-year-old North Londoner. After spending nine years in the army, Jeff moved to Cornwall at the age of 25 and became a boat builder. In 2001, he visited Norway for the first time and fell in love with the place. Now, he visits two or three times a year with his sea kayak guiding business, Expedition Paddler, and shares with his clients the wonders of kayaking, dog sledding, snowshoeing and skiing through this incredible part of the world.
“Although London was my place of birth, it was not where I felt I was from,” Jeff tells me when I ask about his attraction to Norway. “I have always felt a strong pull towards the ocean and as I grew up I learnt that my mother’s side of the family came from the Shetland Islands, which has a very strong Norwegian ancestry. I feel like this is where my connection to Norway first began.”
Jeff’s passion for kayaking and dog sledding through the Norwegian wilderness was beautifully captured in the recent clip The Blue time, by filmmaker Greg Dennis. Jeff thinks it’s important to do away with modern conveniences every now and then, which is why his Norway expeditions (he also runs trips in Cornwall, Alaska and Iceland, to name a few) use only traditional modes of transport.
We caught up with Jeff to find out more about his work, his philosophy and his adventures.
Jeff - what was it about Norway that first captivated you?
The first time I became truly captivated by Norway was after I crossed above the Arctic Circle or, as the Norwegians call it, the Polar Circle. The best of Norway, I think, lies in the north, where the peaks meet the sea, where golden beaches, blue skies and snow-capped mountains blend into a picture-perfectness. I had arrived by sea kayak, I came to Norway from the ocean, and that is the way I think it should always be approached.
Tore runs a dog sledding business on Kvaløya – he’s a mountain man and a legend in the North. He became my teacher...
How long do you spend out there when you visit? And where exactly do you go?
I started to circumnavigate the Scandinavian Peninsula in 2007-08, this was by sea kayak. The journey started in Goteborg in Sweden, it was March and still winter time - very cold and the coasts were almost deserted. I take one or two months off each year, gradually working my way northwards. The aim of the journey at the outset was to complete the circle using only traditional modes of transport.
Now most of my travels lie above the Polar Circle, using Tromsoo and the island of Senja and Kvaløya as my bases for both commercial and personal aspirations
What was it that drew you to dog sledding?
When I looked at ways I could complete the overland section of my trips, I turned to a friend of mine called Bjorn Eines. Bjorn had started to teach me cross country skiing and is a great supporter of my expeditions and a very close friend.
He had another close companion called Tore Albrigtsen who had skied across Greenland and Alaska. Tore runs a dog sledding business on Kvaløya – he’s a mountain man and a legend in the North. He became my teacher and invited me out to his timber cabin on Kvaløya to go dog sledding. He was preparing his team of dogs for a race the following year in Alaska and he said he was going to baptise me by fire!
"I remember trying to recall what my friend had said about the brake as I was propelled through the air like a missile."
His first piece of advice was totally obscured by my adrenaline: “Be ready to stamp on that break before the bend”. We set off along the trail. I had not been expecting so much raw power and energy from a pack of dogs and within moments we were at top speed, trying to negotiate a right angle bend on a dip.
I remember trying to recall what my friend had said about the brake as I was propelled through the air like a missile. I had quite literally been fired from the back of the sled and ended up in a snow drift upside down twenty feet away, legs akimbo. Tore had taken control of the dogs. I remounted and for the next six hours we howled our way across Kvaløya, up and down mountains, across frozen lakes, through ice-draped birch forests, chasing moose…
Around 45 miles later we came down from the mountains in the dark, the trail was getting icy and it was all downhill. The dogs were still full of energy and Tore decided to reduce their numbers by unharnessing some of them.
Even so, we came down the mountainside only just on the edge of control, hounds running alongside, in front and behind our sleds. I felt like a member of the pack. I felt so at one with the experience, my beard had big chunks of ice in it where my breath had frozen, my body ached, my eyeballs were freezing over but I had such a warmth in my chest. I hadn’t felt so alive in years. It was amazing. After that experience I was hooked, both line and sinker
"...just as the sea paddler must learn the way of the ocean, so to must the sledman learn the way of the mountain."
How does one even go about becoming a dog sled expedition leader?
I am not a guide nor leader of dog sled expeditions, I blend the dog sledding expeditions into the sea kayaking expeditions I lead. I work closely with Tore on Kvaløya - he is guiding me towards becoming a dog sled guide. I am sure at some time it will become a more formally organised affair, but that’s not where it’s at just yet. It’s still in the hands of wild men, men of experience who love what they do and who love their environment.
In my mind if you want to learn, you find someone like Tore to take you under his hairy armpit and guide you. It’s not just about the dogs and the sled, just like kayaking is not just about the boat and the blade. The kayak is to the ocean what the sled is to the mountain and just as the sea paddler must learn the way of the ocean, so to must the sledman learn the way of the mountain.
How do your expeditions work? For how long do you go out for and what kind of people do you find are drawn to your clip?
My commercial expeditions last from two to 14 days. Sometimes they are just weekend experiences along the coasts of Cornwall, other times they are two-week wilderness trips to Northern Norway or Alaska. Over the years I have logged many miles beneath my keel and when I take a client back to an area I have already visited, you can guarantee it’s back to a place that was special, a place I want to see again…to explore in more detail.
What is it about the way of life in Northern Norway that you find so appealing?
I love the transition, especially when I am guiding an expedition. Humans develop veneers which cover their true being, when you take someone out of the world which is ruled by the credit card and protected by the double glazed window, you get the chance to see those veneers peel away. You meet the real human being who’s been laying dormant beneath.
For some it is a discomfort - their need for those false attachments are too great. They go home and talk of their wilderness experience. For others, it brings the wild out in them - he or she embraces and becomes the experience. They may return to society but they never go home again. It becomes a form of enlightenment.