A golden sun is setting over an endless, frost-encrusted forest of pine trees and as I walk onto a small wooden jetty hanging over a vast, frozen lake, the ice below crackles and pops.
100 miles within the Arctic Circle, it’s eerily quiet as I get to work with the camera, pulling my scarf and cap tighter against the fast-plummeting temperatures.
And then, 300 yards away, as the sun disappears over the horizon and the mercury falls another notch, 200 husky dogs break out in a chilling chorus of howling. Sounding like a pack of wolves, it’s feeding time and, through the trees, I catch a glimpse of keepers tending to them inside the kennels.
It’s tough out here. Temperatures regularly fall to -40, often lower. Even trees that are 120 years old are short and stunted, arrested by the penetrating cold. The ground is frozen solid, even the undergrowth, covered in a fine hairy frost, slinters and crunches deliciously underfoot as I retrace my footsteps to the firelit warmth of my cabin.
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All of this makes it the perfect place to put BF Goodrich’s latest all-terrain tyre, the KM3, which has been developed at a huge cost over the course of a decade, to the ultimate test.
Flown in by the US subsidiary of Michelin, I’m here to cross the frozen tundra as part of a small, day-long expedition in a small convoy of rugged Toyota 4X4 pickups. I’ve already witnessed how the tyres made short work of the famous Rubicon Trail in California. Now I’m here to see how the tyres get to grips with this unyielding terrain made of gravel, rock and ice.
The only missing ingredient - at which, it is claimed, this tyre excels - is mud. It’s all frozen into sharp, rutted lumps and will remain this way until the thaw reaches Kangos in the spring.
Eearly the following day we drive out from our wooden cabins, part of the ‘Explore The North’ reservation some 130km east of the tiny, local airport at Kiruna, in northern Sweden and an eight-hour drive from Murmansk on the Barents Sea in Russia.
Following a reindeer herder’s track skirting the frozen lake, we head deeper into the forest and engage the four-wheel-drive system when the track narrows to little more than a pathway, carved out two centuries ago, we are told by the postal service. Some postal round. The only relief from the dense forest is the occasional large, remote ‘paddock’ which was cleared by reindeer herders generations ago.
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Johan, one of our guides, who was born here but studied in Stockholm before returning to Kangos to found Explore the North, guides us deeper into the frozen forest which, he says, sits on a thick layer of gravel left behind by the ice age. It feels like an ancient, largely untouched landscape and there’s not another human or structure in sight.
As we push further into the forest we spot the occasional reindeer, shy, skittish creatures that melt quickly away into the shadows. We fail, however, to spot any of the local brown bears, moose, wolverines or golden eagles; they must have heard us coming. Tackling steep inclines, gravel-strewn pits, ancient tree stumps, boulders and frozen, log-ridden bogs, the Toyotas - and the KM3s - perform brilliantly, reaching for every shred of grip and providing a cushioned, comfortable ride.
According to BF Goodrich, the new KM3 is 27 per cent tougher than its forerunner, and offers eight per cent better traction on rock and five per cent better traction on mud. It has tougher sidewalls, more split and bruise resistance and thicker, extended shoulder rubber - useful out here - when you really don’t want to become stranded through tyre failure. Usefully, they’re multi-directional, meaning they can run in either direction.
Next year, to keep the off-road show-offs happy, BF Goodrich will even start selling tyres with red, white and blue lettering on the sidewalls. I feel they won’t catch on in the frozen north, where it’s all about practicality and stealth. In the UK, BF Goodrich’s fifth largest world market, it might well be a different story.
After three or so hours’ driving we stop for lunch in a clearing on a high rocky outcrop; the views are stunning. Siberian Jays flit from branch to branch and a rough legged buzzard soars high above.
BF Goodrich rubber is a particular favourite among the off-road community in the UK as well as the US (where they are manufactured). Upon close inspection of the tyres, they have fared well. No cuts, no tears or blisters, despite pounding the vehicles mercilessly over the inhospitable terrain, in sub-zero temperatures, in heavy vehicles straining for every bit of traction.
We eat reindeer meat cooked over an open fire, wash it down with steaming coffee heated on the flames, and pat the chef’s Siberian Laika who, on account of her old age, is excused of herding or hunting duties. She seems to be more companion than pet.
Lunch over, we belt ourselves in to the Toyotas’ double cabs again and tackle a vicious pathway of loose, heavy, craggy boulders that roll and rumble under the KM3s. You’d risk a broken ankle if you walked over them, even driving over them seems crazy and the Toyotas take a pounding but we make it to the other side.
We zig-zag towards another, hauntingly beautiful lake surrounded entirely by trees, crunching over fallen branches and undergrowth, and tackle a series of ‘tank traps’ which would look at home in a battlefield. We sail over all obstacles unscathed - despite the Toyotas regularly hoisting two wheels into the air in protest and crashing down on their bash plates which are bolted on to protect the engine and running gear.
The final treat, driving the vehicles up and onto a crude seesaw fashioned from logs on the edge of a steep natural precipice, fails to outwit tyres or trucks and, tired, we head home.
As we emerge from the forest, we hear the howls of those huskies again. Wide-eyed, open-mouthed and lashed in teams to wheeled ‘sleds’, they hurtle towards us at speed and disappear, again, into the shadow of the trees as we rumble back to camp.
David Williams can be found Tweeting at @djrwilliams