Dog Sledding in Sweden. Epic Adventure.
Two of our directors, Will and SJ, enjoyed an adventure of a different sort recently. Here they tell their story. On arrival at Kiruna Airport in Northern Sweden we were met by our guide, a grinning Norwegian called Kent Gjøran Svendsen, who drove us an hour North West, further into the Arctic Circle, to his dog kennels where his 73 huskies of every shape, size and colour were waiting to greet us.
We were issued with large padded indestructible overalls, thick warm mitts and fleece lined waterproof boots before being briefed on the etiquette of dog sledding. “Keep the gang lines tight at all times, brake when going downhill but not on the corners, lean into the corners except when traversing a slope and whatever happens never let go”! Outside we were introduced to the sleds and the workings of the 3 vital brakes; the soft brake, the hard brake and the anchor.
Four dog harnesses were handed out to each person along with the names of the four huskies who were to become our best friends and companions over the next 5 days. SJ’s dogs were Thunder, the “lead” dog, Kira, Sean and Taruk. The huskies, or dogs as they were known, are kept in kennels which were approx 5 m wide by 10 m long with a small wooden house for each dog. The only time they are allowed out is when they go sledding. The noise of 58 yapping, barking, snarling, dogs being harnessed and clipped into the gang lines of the dog sled was tremendous, usually with the odd escapee creating general chaos.
After a good hour of preparation and loading up, remembering heavy kit at the back of the sled, the short 24 km learning and human training run was about to begin. Standing on the runners at the back of the sled and all lined up in single file we were ready to go. The dogs knew the script and releasing the anchor and brakes, followed by the command of “OKAY”, there was a burst of canine energy and off we sped at full tilt, catching the unwary off balance. The next couple of hours was a rollercoaster of twists and turns, up hill and down, dodging through small trees, around obstacles and always hanging on. The less fortunate amongst us had the first taste of snow as the challenge of balancing around corners at speed eluded us with some sleds tipping over. As long as you hung on to your sled, even if being dragged through the snow, all was OK but if you let go, the huskies did not wait, and there came a yell from Kent at the front, “get your ass up out the snow and run”!
That evening, having fed the dogs, we sheltered in a traditional Sami tipi, squeezed in around a large central fire which acted as both the cooking place and a welcome source of heat. Reindeer stew and blueberry pie filled our bellies and after a wee nip of whisky to keep out the cold we crawled into our thermally insulated sleeping bags and settled down onto the reindeer hides for a good nights sleep. The snoring was awesome and accusations flew over a breakfast of strong Swedish coffee, cold meats and cheese all served with the most wonderful “Arctic Bread”.
That morning we headed out of the forests along frozen rivers and into some great frozen expanses on a 50 km trek towards our first wilderness cabin. The warmth of this day (above -10) made it hard going for the dogs so progress was slow with plenty of breaks which suited us beginners well. Along the way we saw reindeer, an eagle and those at the front were lucky enough to see a Moose. A two hour stop for lunch allowed the dog teams to rest whilst we built a wonderful fire to boil up a reindeer broth. Sausages were cooked on sticks and the obligatory Swedish coffee washed it all down.
The afternoon sun shone brightly and the scenery was breathtaking as we trotted on in peaceful silence. As the sun lowered in the sky the temperature fell and we reached our cabin shortly before dusk. Dogs were released from the sled gang lines only to be attached to long lines of chain which kept them a few feet apart. Then it was time to light the fire, collect the water from a small nearby stream, thaw the frozen dog meat, mix in the warm water and high energy biscuit and feed the 58 hungry mouths. Only once this was completed did we start on our own fire and meal preparation of vegetable broth and reindeer meatballs washed down with the obligatory Swedish coffee.
As soon as we were out of our sleeping bags in the morning we fed the dogs again and because they needed a couple of hours to digest their breakfast before setting off, the start of the day was very relaxed allowing plenty of time to add insulating layers and drink coffee. Day three was a shorter day but with more undulations which saw us running up long hills helping the dogs on the steeper parts.
That evening the temperatures dropped and the skies cleared. Just as we were about to settle down to a good nights sleep the Northern Lights appeared. What a tremendous display. Streaks of light lit up the sky growing wider and lighter before turning orange, purple, green and dancing around the night sky, twisting into wonderful shapes, morphing and fading then springing to life again. As one display vanished another started perhaps from the West or North. Gasps of wonder, “Wow, look at that one”, “amazing”. For two hours we gazed heavenwards, lying on our backs in the snow. And then almost as quickly as it all started the Northern Lights faded and were gone.
That night the temperature dropped to below -20 and as we ventured out in the morning light to feed the dogs it was still -18. The huskies were delighted with the cooler weather. This allowed for a faster day and we covered the 35 kms non stop reaching our next wilderness cabin by early afternoon. At one stage we sped through a freezing snowstorm and whiteout which thankfully was short lived. Water that evening was gathered by lowering a metal bucket on a chain down through a hole in the ice. Plenty of water was needed as beside the cabin there was a small well insulated wooden shack with a wood burner full of hot stones. And so we enjoyed our first Swedish sauna, a bizarre experience in the frozen north, but the only good way to warm up and wash. Enthused by this new found heat, a few dug snow holes, and with thick hats, mitts and socks, burrowed into sleeping bags wrapped in reindeer skins for a night below the stars.
The final day was already upon us but we had to cover 60 km, the longest distance so far. With rations consumed the sleds were lighter and my team of Scar & Cross who were brothers, Kizhaz who had amazing blue eyes and Gilla an all white husky, we literally skimmed across the ice. It proved to be the fastest day and we were tested to the full with plenty of twists and turns at speed as we returned from the ice, back down rivers and into the forests. Kent led a display of serpentine manoeuvres on a wide open expanse of frozen lake commanding his team to “Gee” (turn right) or “Ha” (turn left) and encouraging them when they did well with the words “oh so flink!”. It was the most fabulous day of bright sunshine, whizzing along with a cool wind in your face, enjoying every second.
And so the wonderful adventure ended having completed 200 km of sledding and become close companions with some extraordinary dogs. It is an adventure I would recommend to everyone, as long as you don’t mind a bit of cold, reindeer meatballs and lashings of Swedish coffee.