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Big Issue vendor Ralph swaps south coast pitch for Lapland winter wonderland

A year ago Big Issue vendor Ralph Church’s life fell apart when his beloved dog Jess died. Lost and heartbroken, he didn’t know where to turn. But life took an unexpected twist...

No, it’s not Santa Claus. Pictured here is Ralph Church, a Big Issue vendor on the south coast of England – and now a husky-driver in the Nordic wilderness.

A popular fixture in Torquay, Ralph had worked hard selling the magazine and by Christmas 2014 had saved £1000 to buy a boat for himself and his beloved dog Jess to live on, his “dream come true”. But last November Jess was killed in a road accident close to his pitch. Ralph was devastated and overwhelmed. “It was a difficult time,” he admits. “I loved her. Everybody loved her. She was the perfect dog.

“I found myself at a very loose end and was wondering what direction I should take next. Then I spotted an advert for help driving huskies in Finland and it really caught my attention. I fired off an email and the next day I spoke to Philip, who owns The Border Inn in Kuusamo.”

Customers and friends in St Marychurch, where he sold the magazine, rallied around to support him, and it was agreed with Philip that Ralph would fly out from Heathrow to Northern Ostrobothnia in Finland on October 15. “Surrealism set in and I felt like a great explorer of days gone by,” he says.

He was plunged into a completely new environment. “After around 10 days of steady temperatures, the celsius dropped and the snow came and came and came. It was awesome. The ground turned white and things looked decidedly wintry and everything began to freeze.”

Over the last month, with temperatures plummeting to -20C, Ralph has helped look after 90 Alaskan huskies – preparing, harnessing and feeding the dogs, and keeping the pens clean. He has even learned how to drive a six-dog sled.

Surrealism set in and I felt like a great explorer of days gone by

“The first time driving on my own was terrifying. I’d learned and listened but I was worried about getting it wrong and running into the back of them! We each had six dogs in our team. I stood hard on the brake trying to stop the dogs, and then I got the nod.

“Nothing could have prepared me for what came next. The sled jerked forward, the dogs went quiet and we shot out of the gate like the proverbial hell bat.

Ralph Church

“The inevitable happened and before I knew it I was face down in the snow for a good 15 yards. It was me in the doghouse and not the dogs, I felt. But things became easier and I learned to handle the dogs and sled somewhat better.”

The experience has, Ralph admits, changed his life. “I want to say how very, very grateful I am to owners Philip and Katya for the opportunity they have provided me, and everyone who has helped to achieve this fulfilment of a childhood dream.”

But he plans to return to his pitch after his husky adventures are over. “I would also like to say a huge thank you to everyone who helped and supported me in St Marychurch before I came out here. I look forward to visiting with you all when I get back.”

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