Dog Sledding Above Norway’s Arctic Circle-
The desire to run for or an Alaskan Husky sled dog is so overwhelming that when you are about to leave on a 5-day expedition, they can feel the excitement in the air. Their barks are deafening. They rear up on their hind legs, paw at the air, even though they are tethered to the earth with a steel anchor. It adds to your excitement too for going on a wilderness adventure, far above the Arctic Circle, in Lapland, driving your own personal team of sled dogs across 200 kilometers through some of the most mind-blowingly beautiful land you have ever seen, well, if you could bark like the dogs, you would too!
My guides are Villmarkssenter, Norway’s leading Husky dog sledding company- a family run business based out of Tromso, who have been leading dog sledding adventures for more than thirty years. Tove and her son Torkil offer anywhere from a few hours experience, to a multi-day adventure like the one I am on. Their 300 dogs have been raised from puppies to adulthood, are used to being around all sorts of people and children and are the most loving, cooperative dogs you’d ever hope to meet.
We’ll be traveling through Sami land in the northern most regions of Norway and Sweden. It is home to the native people of Lapland, the Sami, whose life work is with the reindeer herds, a small caribou which have been domesticated. Their herds migrate in the thousands. Our route will often follow the fence row that separates the herds in the two countries or along the Sami snowmobile routes.
Our first encounter with the dogs and their hosts is a driving lesson as well as getting assigned the high-quality gear that will keep us warm: down filled pants and long, hooded parkas and mitts, as well as thermal snow boots. Into each mushers sled will go our personal items, our dog’s stake out lines and their cold weather coats, our winter expedition tent, with storm flaps all around its base that we will shovel snow on top of if we encounter high winds or a storm. I’ll have double insulation under my very warm sleeping bag- a closed cell foam pad and an inflatable mattress. There also is a white gas stove, 20 kilos of dry food for my dogs, and a plastic tub of amazing food and supplies for me, put together by the staff. For dinners, they prepared traditional Norwegian entrees like reindeer stew in a bacon cream sauce and cod poached in a spicy fresh tomato sauce. They were frozen and sealed in boilable plastic bags that I only need to drop in boiling water for a few minutes before enjoying.
A musher pays 100% attention when on the back of your sled. “Being ready” is a state a driver is always in when you are standing on the runners, when moving, and even when stopped for a short time. You watch the sled ahead. You adjust your speed, by breaking, so your dogs do not overtake them. You watch the trail ahead, for hazards or changes in slope, or a rock exposed, or a deep slushy area when crossing a partially defrosted lake. You watch the driver ahead and how they are handling their sled. If they have to suddenly get their weight radically over to one side to prevent dumping, you too will do the same in a few seconds. You watch your dogs, making sure they don’t get tangled when one has to take a dump and tries to squat and still run, or if the snow conditions change and they get into deep snow or post pole and have to leap and swim through the snow, you will need to brake and let them recover. And of course, you look around, at the exquisite Arctic scenery, the pearly white streams of clouds, the snow-covered mountains, the magnificent expansiveness of the land.
Evening #2 finds us camping near a tiny Sami fishing camp on Lake Rostojávri. Tove and Torkil made prior arrangements unbeknownst to we guests, to fire up their traditional Swedish wood-fires sauna. The women in our group indulge first and after the delicious heat works out any soreness or kinks in our muscles, we roll in the snow, howling like our beloved sled dogs. Then, we return to the bathing room and dump buckets of warm water over our steaming bodies.
On a 5-day dog sledding expedition, you pretty much run the gamut of weather. Bright sun and robin egg blue skies that force you to don suntan lotion, lip balm and polarized sunglasses, coupled with a stillness where only the sound of the whoosh of your sled runners and the pattering of the dog’s paws on the packed snow breaks the quiet. Or, there could be intense wind and driving snow, producing white-out conditions, and you drive in a sea of white where the land and the sky completely melt together as if it were a new type of geography, and you batten down the hatches, zip up the parka, snap the chin protector, secure your snow goggles and you just drive to get through it.
In all the conditions we traveled through, I might have been uncomfortable, but I was never scared or fearful. I felt well taken care of and safe and that is huge. If someone is going to stick themselves out there doing an activity that is completely foreign to them, in a land like the northern Arctic that is completely foreign to them, one could feel intimidated. That was never the case. I felt like family. I felt embraced. And when it was all said and done, I felt very good for accomplishing the 200 kilometers that I drove my team through in the Arctic world.
Driving a sled is a bit like a dance. Your feet stay light on the narrow rudders, and you constantly make little shifts with your weight. After five days, I finally began to feel like I was getting the hang of driving. I think I tried to use brute strength, which I do not have, to manhandle the loaded sled, in order to keep it upright. Clients are requested to be “fit,” but that is relative. I work out an hour a day, “maintenance” fitness, I call it, but in order to get ready for this trip, I combined yoga for balance, weights for strength, besides my usual hiking and cycling. It was a challenging five days and I was very tired every evening as our days on the sled were long. I dumped my sled quite a few times too but there was always a guide to help me right it.
Every evening in camp, we unharnessed our dogs, strung them out on their stake-out line, fed them and petted them. You get your face very close to their faces when you work with them but you only feel love and affection and trust coming from them. For the first time in my life, I wanted a dog of my own. Torkil and Tove’s dogs do that to you. Although we come to this amazingly beautiful world in hopes of viewing the Aurora Borealis, this “Land of the Midnight Sun” will be true to its name this April. The sky will always be lit.
Towards the end of the trip, we faced a new challenge, driving through a forest, downhill, with many twists and turns. Torkil gave us a new driving lesson that morning, how we should brake going into a turn but NOT in the turn as it will propel us straight, perhaps into a tree. Tove placed me right behind her. I watched her like a hawk. She yelled “BRAKE!” when I needed to slow it down and “NO BRAKE” when I was tight in a turn. She was my guide, my hero. She increased my confidence as well as my skill. Tove tackled the Iditarod not too many years ago and both mother and son annually compete in Norway’s famous race, the 1,200 -km Finnmarkslopet, Europe’s longest. I learned from the best.
There was one particular moment on this long ride that I will never forget. The sky was breathtakingly blue and snow-covered mountains surrounded us, shimmering silver. The beauty took my breath away. I couldn’t believe where I was and what I was doing. I was so very happy. I heard the lines from a song by Dido in my head, “Just this moment, I need no other. Just this day, I want no more. Just this life, it can all stop here, it can all stop here, I’ve had my fill.” I honestly felt that I could die now and my life would be enough. In 60 years, I’ve only felt this way one other time, rolling out of a plane to sky dive at 15,000 feet and free-falling. That speaks volumes about my dog mushing experience. Life doesn’t get much better than this.
Posted in: Travel Story