I’m standing in the middle of a husky kennel where runners are selected for our dog sledding adventure. Some of them have bright blue eyes and a fur pattern alike the cuddly toys of many toddlers. Others have fierce looking eyes and a fur composition that gives them a wrought-up look, and frighten me. The dogs lined up in front of our sleds are jumping up and down as they’re eager to take off. We would have lost them right away if they were not on a leash attached to a cable anchored in the ground. The three dogs waiting in front of my sled are less excited for take off and more interested in sniffing and eating the yellow snow surrounding them – urine stains of other dogs. This brings me to a rectification of how I started this story – it’s not only the sound of this moment that’s imprinted in my memory, it’s definitely the smell as well.
Our guide Tomas – a cheerful red bearded local – shares some last words of advice before we leave the kennel and head for Abisko National Park. The wooden sled will be our means of transport for the coming hours and it’s up to us to control the enthusiastic bunch of huskies (mine have now also decided the adventure ahead is more exiting than yellow snow). Techniques to get going and stay on your sled: stand up straight with your knees slightly bent, use the break (an iron bar in between the wooden wedges to be pushed in the snow with your feet to increase the resistance and thus slow down the dogs) and balance on the wedges – specifically when lifting up a leg to break, and when cornering. There are two guides – Tomas who is leading the first sled with the heard of females that has all the male dogs running and Andreas on his snow scooter to keep the group together. “And remember: the dogs will not stop running. You should not allow your dogs to overtake the dogs in front of you as this will start a fight. If you loose your dogs, give a shout and run after them. If the person behind you has lost his dogs, grab the reins when they pass by. How often that happens? On average two people are thrown off their sled each tour.”
Right. Off we go.
A short run to help the dogs uphill and I’m on the sled. As the dogs pick up speed, I bend down to avoid hitting the low hanging branches of the leafless winter trees. As the trees make way for open field and the horizon comes into view, I’m amazed by the sight of the national park. The sloping, far stretching landscape is topped with dreamy light pink and blue skies like an aquarelle painting. As the cold wind hits my face, I push my scarf up to hide my chin. The tips of my fingers and toes already feel numb, but luckily my core is warm from the thermal underwear, ski pants and arctic parka I’m wearing. I see breath clouds coming from the panting dogs. As we’re going downhill, they slightly get off track and so I carefully steer them in the right direction. At least, that was the plan. What happens instead is that I loose balance as soon as I lift up my leg to try a soft break. I try to hold on to the sled, but then decide it’s better to let go than to be catapulted in a couple of meters distance. And so it happens that I’m the first of the group to loose my dogs. I quickly step aside to let the other mushers pass (don’t forget I’m a bit scared of the dogs), and start a sprint to catch up with mine. Again, that was the plan. Reality is that as I try to land my foot on the snow it doesn’t land on the same surface as the compact path we use for sledding. My foot, ankle, and then my entire leg disappears in the snow and I fall down in the white powder. It could’ve been a scene from Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Luckily, Andreas catches my huskies gone loose so I can continue the musher experience. It’s truly unforgettable to slide through the still and deserted landscape, all quiet but the sound of the panting dogs. There’s no possibility of talking nor photography so it’s just the dogs, the sled, and yourself. It is an amazing way to experience the beauty of the national park. But is it relaxing? No, I wouldn’t go for that description. As you continuously have to keep your balance, your muscles get quite sore. Going uphill means that you have to run and push the sled as the dogs do not have the strength to pull you up. The upside of that is however that your fingers and toes warm up quickly. Heated up and ready to take your musher skills to a next level, you might be stuck behind another amateur who’s not afraid of dogs, but of the entire activity, and thus slows down your group (since you’re not allowed to take over). The young woman in front of me was rewarded for her constant braking by being catapulted off her sled in a downhill corner. Luckily, it was a soft snow landing.
Arriving at the kennel some hours later, I feel exhausted and energised at the same time. I can’t wait to stretch my legs and strangely enough I’m eager to give my huskies a big hug. I’m totally impressed by their strength and now that they are tired from all the exercise they quietly sit down and wait for food. I pose for a picture with a beautiful grey and white male – which I will definitely send to my Dad when I am back at the mountain lodge. We’re the last ones to leave the kennel, and by the time we do so the huskies have started howling again.