Pat Brown isn’t particularly sporty, nor is she keen on the cold, so why is the 60-year-old from Otley about to take on a trek across the Swedish Arctic? She talks to Stephanie Ferguson.
Eddie the golden Labrador lies across my feet staring at my sandwich with pleading brown eyes. I drink my tea from an Eddie-illustrated mug and on the wall opposite the handsome dog looks down from his studio portrait.
There’s no doubt that eight-year-old Eddie and his companion, India, a two-year-old German Shepherd cross Golden Retriever are the apples of their owner’s eyes. But next month guide dog trainer Pat Brown will leave them behind in Otley when she harnesses up a team of Alaskan huskies to sled across the Swedish Arctic.
Just when most women approaching 60 are thinking of getting a bus pass, Pat, from Riverside Park, is in training to pit herself against the last greatest wilderness on earth to raise money for a new guide dog puppy, to be named, appropriately, Otley.
Pat will hand over the leads and walking duties to husband Chris, an air traffic controller at Leeds Bradford Airport, and fly out to Stockholm on February 21 on the first leg of her Charity Challenge adventure. She has been putting in five days a week at the gym with circuit training, weights and aerobics to build up her fitness. And she’s been taking her dogs on long treks round Lindley reservoir and on Otley Chevin to get into shape.
However, that pales into insignificance when you consider mushing four large huskies 30 to 35 miles a day in temperatures that can hit minus 30.
“We have to stand up on the sleds when we drive the teams for more than six hours a day in freezing cold and so I have been working on building up my upper body strength to be able to hold them,” says Pat, a petite 5ft. “If you fall off you sink into deep, soft, snow so you need the strength to pull yourself out and to be able to stop the dogs from running off.”
Pat admits she’s not a sporty person at all and isn’t wild about cold climates. “I have skied but I’m not very good”, she admits. “My daughter, Lee, who lives in Dubai, took me on holiday near Mont Blanc. She’s a very good skier, but I was just happy on the green, baby slopes.”
Pat has been a puppy walker, or trainer, for the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association since 2007 when she first got Eddie at just eight weeks old. Sadly, despite her dedication and care, he was unable to be matched with a blind person as he didn’t like wearing harness and was frightened of traffic. Next came Flora, now a “working girl” who provides the eyes for a lady in Aberdare, South Wales, and then there was Zia, a lovely black Labrador who became a brood bitch and super mum to sixteen pups at the Guide Dogs breeding centre in Leamington Spa. Kassie came next, another black Labrador, who now guides her young owner with special needs in Lancashire. Lastly India was unable to graduate as a guide dog as she has a problem with her hips.
Puppy walking usually lasts for 12 to14 months before the dogs go into advanced training and are teamed with a blind person. While with Pat the youngsters become socialised and acclimatised to the busy world of the pavement. They go on trips to the supermarket, libraries and all other essential places where they will need to guide their owners. At home they learn discipline. They are not allowed on the furniture; not allowed human food; don’t have sticks or balls as toys and never get to chew slippers.
“It’s such a wrench when they have to go,” Pat admits. “When they are very small and haven’t had all their vaccinations I carry them round in a baby papoose. Once I was in Otley market and a woman got too close and Zia grabbed her sausage roll.”
Guide Dogs is purely a charity and blind owners pay just 50 pence for their dogs. A keen fundraiser, Pat decided to have a go at the challenge after being prompted by another puppy walker. She signed up for the Arctic two years ago and has been in serious training since last February. She went on an outward bound course at Ingleborough and she and Chris have also walked 91 miles of the Dales Way from Ilkley to Bowness. She pumps iron with a special programme devised for her by Maggie Tierman at Club Energy in Otley and walks her dogs twice a day.
The adventure begins when she flies from Stockholm to Kiruna in Northern Sweden, within the Arctic Circle to mush across the 70,000 square miles of snow and ice. She and her fellow challengers – the oldest is 77 – will face five days in the wilderness and as well as ensuring they stay warm and safe they have to look after their huskies.
“We get a briefing when we arrive and the next day we go to the kennels to learn how to harness the dogs and ride the sled. The teams are our responsibility and we will have to feed them and bed them down at night. We have to sort them out before seeing to ourselves.”
At first they will learn to sled along existing tracks and will sleep in a tepee. The next morning Pat will stash her rucksack on her sled, harness her team and head for the wilderness over soft snow and frozen lakes. She will be following in the tracks and paw-prints of TV adventurer Ben Fogle who featured the Kiruna trails in his recent C5 programme, New Lives in the Wild. A vegetarian, Pat has given much thought to what she will eat on the trip and has been going to Slimming World both to get fit and gather some ideas for energy meals. “We have to make fires and cook our own food,” she says. “I’ve camped in the desert in Dubai but this will be a bit different.”
After a day on the trail the group will return to base and stay in huts used by the local Sami herdsmen, which have wood stoves but no electricity.
Pat is funding her own travel and equipment expenses, so any money raised through sponsorship will go towards the training and naming of young Otley. So far she has raised more than £2,500 but needs to double that to be able to officially name the pup and start his education programme.
So what does she need for the ice challenge? ”We can only take a rucksack”, she explains.” Everything has to go in there.” How about skin care or a beauty regime? Hardly. “I’ve got factor fifty children’s sun block. You can’t put anything on your face that has water in it or it will freeze on you so I have got an oil-based face balm. Also, because the area is so protected, you have to take natural shampoo and conditioner that will be biodegradable.”
Pat will be piling on the layers to keep out the cold with a down anorak; waterproof thermal boots; Merino wool thermals; silk socks; unbreakable sunglasses; fleece lined leather gloves; a furry hat with flap; extreme thermal over-mitts and silk underwear. “I’m still trying to find some silk knickers,” she reveals. “If I get the layering wrong my sweat will freeze.”
The challenge company will provide mushing suits and snow boots, but Pat would love a Canada goose down jacket, hardly a snip at around £600, and beyond her budget. Goggles are also a must. It might be too much information, but the huskies relieve themselves as they run so mushers could be in for unwelcome showers.
After learning to ride the sleds with feet on two small runners either side of the central brake, Pat will spend three days mushing on different trails. “You need to be able to transfer your weight easily so I am practicing standing on one leg,” she says.
“I’m really looking forward to it. I know it’s going to be hard and we could have blizzards and extreme temperatures, but I love travelling and I hope I will get to see the Northern Lights.”
Pat, who has lived in Cyprus and Germany and used to work for Santander in Bradford, says she is concerned that she might hold the rest of the party up if she gets it wrong on the trail. But with her dog skills and determination I think she’ll end up being the snow queen. With or without those silk knickers.
• If you would like to back Pat’s Guide Dogs challenge you can donate on http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/PatBrown1
Or to support her talks and fund-raising events contact her on 01943 462491.