William Gray tries his hand at mushing and discovers there's a lot more to dog-sledding than first meets the eye when he sets off on snowy trails through the boreal forests of Swedish Lapland
This article was originally published in The Sunday Telegraph
There is a dreadful silence as we watch Jen descend the training slope. The huskies chained nearby stop barking and some even look away. I see her back stiffen as she fights to control the sledge, but it’s too late. As she strikes the mogul, her shock of red hair becomes a bright blur, as vivid as a wayward firework. The wooden sledge shoots from beneath her feet and a shrill Essex-grown expletive shatters the calm Arctic air as she cartwheels into snowy oblivion.
“Don’t forget to use the brake,” Niclas Huuva calls down to her, a hint of exasperation in the guide’s voice. The rest of us have fared little better on the first morning of our week-long husky sledging course in Swedish Lapland. As four complete beginners, our closest experience of Arctic mushing amounts to grappling supermarket trolleys in our local Iceland freezer store.
I don’t blame Kim for slinking into her kennel when the time comes for us to practise fitting dog harnesses. Once Niclas has hauled her out again, she stands resignedly, tail between legs, watching us with sad blue eyes as we take turns fumbling the harness over her head.
Kim’s fur is as thick as a sheep’s fleece. It has to be. We are over 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle where winter temperatures can plummet to minus fifty. Now, during mid-April, it has soared to a balmy zero degrees. Under the dazzling noon sun, one or two of the huskies begin rolling in the snow to cool down. The hundred or so others, meanwhile, are alert and tense, anticipating the moment when Niclas starts selecting dogs for our five-day sojourn in the wilderness.
Canine chaos breaks loose when the first chosen husky is led towards a trailer stacked with cages. Every other dog leaps forwards, straining on its leash. From the cacophony of barks and yelps rises a single, piercing howl – a wolf-voice so haunting and beautiful that I feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck. Soon, other huskies take up the cry, throwing back their heads and filling our ears with that mesmerizing ‘call of the wild’.
With 17 dogs loaded on the trailer, we drive slowly out of Kiruna, parking on the town’s outskirts where a fairy-tale forest rises from drifts of snow dusted with sparkling ice crystals. Niclas hands each of us a scrap of paper scrawled with the names of three huskies. Suddenly it dawns on me that the training is over.
“This is Sara,” says Niclas, struggling with a writhing, silver-grey beast with enormous pointed ears. “She’s a little crazy.”
“Hello girl,” I croon in my best doggy voice, but Sara is beside herself with excitement. She pauses briefly to swipe a drooling tongue across my face, rolls her mismatched eyes (one blue, one brown), then lets out a delirious whining yelp as she wriggles in my grasp.
Next is Rubor, white and fluffy like a polar bear, and only slightly less zany than Sara. Thankfully, Sonny, my lead dog, brings some semblance of order to the trio. With grizzled fur and a lean, muscled physique, he might have stepped straight from the local wolf pack.
One by one, I cajole the squirming dogs into harnesses and clip them to the running-line attached to the front of my sledge. I have already kicked the sledge’s grappling-hook anchor into the snow, but such is the pent-up energy of the huskies that they threaten to tear it loose and bound away without me.
Jen and the others are having similar problems – their dogs hurling themselves forwards until they stand upright on their hind legs. Niclas sprints to his own team, leaps on the sledge’s rear runners and waves a hand above his head – the signal to mush.
As I gingerly reach for the anchor, the heaving bodies of Sonny, Sara and Rubor send shockwaves through the sledge. I glance to my left. The others are already underway, Jen’s anguished voice rising briefly above the crescendo of barks as she is whisked away into the forest.
Abruptly the anchor comes free in my hand and the sledge lurches forwards, stretching my arms to their limit.
“Stanger!” I shout the Swedish command for ‘slow’, but my huskies are beyond listening. The sledge careers through the forest, skipping off moguls in the trail like a speedboat riding a choppy sea. I soon catch sight of the other teams threading, single-file, ahead of me. Miraculously, in those first frenzied moments of departure, no one has taken a tumble.
Gradually, I relax enough to shift one foot to the brake – a plume of ice erupting between my legs as the spikes dig in. Sonny glances over his shoulder at me when he feels the brake’s resistance, but there is no let-up in his determined, loping gait. Soon all three dogs are drooping long, pink tongues and panting like a trio of steam engines. Occasionally, they scoop mouthfuls of thirst-quenching snow from the trailside, but nothing it seems will ever stop them running.
Without warning, we break out of the woods into the white expanse of a frozen lake. The trail turns sharp left and Jen is caught unawares. In her haste to stamp on the brake, she loses balance and slips off the runners. For a few spectacular seconds she clings grimly to the handlebar, her legs dragging along behind the speeding sledge. Even when she finally lets go and is left spread-eagled in the snow, her dogs bound on ahead until Niclas finally restrains them.
Soon all three dogs are drooping long, pink tongues and panting like a trio of steam engines. Occasionally, they scoop mouthfuls of thirst-quenching snow from the trailside, but nothing it seems will ever stop them running.
“So, who suggested you should try husky sledging?” Niclas looks up from his plate of reindeer stir-fry.
“I can’t remember,” says Jen. “But if I ever find the bloke, I’ll kill ‘im!”
Shortly after Jen’s third fall, we reached the wooden cabin that is to be our base for the next four days. It is sparse, but warm. Outside, the huskies are curled up in the snow, seemingly oblivious to the penetrating cold of nightfall.
The following morning, we are woken by another howling chorus. Stiff-shouldered from the previous day’s exertions, we don moon boots and all-in-one polar suits and hobble outside.
“Do you play golf?” Niclas hands me a shovel and nods at the frozen turds scattered amongst the huskies. Treating it as a kind of ‘pre-mush’ warm-up I spend several minutes chipping them into the trees. After feeding the dogs with hot meat soup, we collect water for ourselves from a nearby stream before retreating to the cabin for porridge and coffee.
An hour later we are back on the trail, riding the mini-rollercoaster through the forest. Rounding a corner, I find Jen lying facedown in a snowdrift – no sign of her dogs or sledge.
“This has nothing to do with a sense of adventure,” she groans, staggering to her feet and shaking snow out of her vermilion hair. “It’s more like a mid-life crisis!”
For five hours, we sweep through a winter-gilded landscape of silent forests and frozen lakes. At times all I can hear is the panting of my dogs and the tinkle of Sonny’s collar chain. Twice we spot reindeer browsing amongst the lichen-clad fir trees and Sara’s huge ears prick alert. But the trio has settled into a steady, but exhilarating, rhythm. They have only one thing on their minds – to run.
We pause briefly for lunch, anchoring the sledges to trees, while Niclas gathers kindling for a fire. The damp wood proves stubborn to light and when Jen offers her sledge as an alternative, it seems she is only half-joking.
The next day she opts to ride pillion with Niclas, reclining on his sledge like an Arctic Cleopatra. Snow-laden clouds smudge the sun and by mid-morning we are sledging through the white void of a blizzard. Every sound, from the dogs’ breathing to the rasp of the sledge’s runners, is muted by the snowstorm.
Sara hears them first – her ears flicking upright – but it takes several seconds before I detect the grating whine of protesting engines. Moments later the skidoos burst into view, darting along the trail like a swarm of hornets. We stop to let them pass, wincing in the acrid wake of their exhausts.
“Have you ever tried that?” I call out to Niclas.
He shakes his head, a wry smile on his cold-reddened face.
“On a skidoo the first hour is like every other,” he replies, reaching down to free his anchor. “With huskies you just never know what’s going to happen next – it’s much more fun.”
Everyone, even Jen, nods in agreement as Niclas and his team of dogs disappear into the forest. Sonny, Sara and Rubor strain at their harnesses and soon I am hurtling along the trail, revelling in the huskies’ speed and blissfully unaware of the sharp turn looming ahead.