Speed is relative.
Imagine: zipping downhill on a bike with the wind whipping through your hair – breathtakingly speedy. In contrast, think of a 747 trundling along the runway – 300km/h can’t be fast enough to haul itself into the air, can it?
These were the thoughts flitting through my mind as I was dragged face-down through drifts of urine-stained snow, clinging to my sled with strangled desperation behind a team of hyperactive huskies. That three-dogpower sled certainly topped a speeding sportscar for adrenalin buzz. At that moment, 20km/h seemed every bit as exhilarating – just a hell of a lot colder.
The team clearly weren’t likely to halt of their own volition any time soon. So I scoured my memory of the training session I’d had that morning with Taisto Thornaeus, my sledding instructor and guide, for tips on persuading recalcitrant huskies to stop.
I’d been jolted awake at dawn by howls echoing around Taisto’s lodge in the village of Jukkasjärvi, deep in Sweden’s Arctic north. The weird song was different from a wolf’s baying – more like a primitive polyphonic chant or whistle – and it wasn’t hard to work out what it meant. The dogs were itching to get underway, and there was little chance they were going to let us sleep in.
It was a wake-up call I’d have to get used to – for the next five days our small group would be sledding between wilderness lodges in a broad loop across the snowy countryside. I donned my insulated snowsuit, boots and gloves (three pairs) and crunched my way outside to a thermometer hanging amid a fringe of icicles. The mercury was sitting just a few degrees below zero – a mild morning by Arctic standards. Steeling my nerves, I tramped tentatively across to the yard where the dogs were caged and where Taisto was pulling the equipment together.
With long hair, beard and vast sealskin coat, Taisto was every inch the man of the woods. I made a mental note to listen carefully to everything he said – generally the best policy when the speaker has a wild look in his eye and a foot-long knife hanging from his belt. The fact that he’s been running husky teams for over 20 years was also a factor.
Being surrounded by 150 lupine beasts barking, whining, rattling and snapping at their wire cages did nothing to make me feel more comfortable. But there was no time for cowardice: Taisto was already fetching the harnesses from a clapboard outhouse. He issued a few key instructions before I attempted to retrieve my steeds-to-be from their cages. Grabbing the first dog’s collar, Taisto dangled it at waist height as the dog danced on its hind legs, making gurgling, choking sounds.
“Make sure you keep their front legs off the ground until they’re harnessed. They’re only two-wheel-drive like this – if you let the front legs down they go 4WD: much harder to control.”
My sled’s snow anchors firmly hitched around a tree, I fetched my dogs – Tuck, Mindy and Zoewhat – from their cages one by one, and struggled to pull their harnesses on. Like boisterous kids, they were too excited to make things easy and I had to grip them tightly between my knees. Getting their heads through the neck straps was harder than lobbing a hoop over a moving bottle at a fairground.
The harnesses were colour-coded by size to indicate which dog fitted which harness. As I discovered, the colours had an alternative use – like judo belts, they gave me an idea of the chances of each mutt knocking me flat as I struggled with them. Thankfully, there were no black belts on my team.
Harnessed, the dogs yapped and hopped, restless to get running. I quickly counted my fingers – all still there – and took stock of my canine companions. Tuck was the strong, silent type, his white fur spattered with coffee-coloured patches; while Mindy, a slender female, gazed up at me with dark, winsome eyes. And Zoewhat – well, he seemed almost half-fox, with reddish patches on his dark pelt, a wiry animal with inscrutable pale eyes.
As I removed my gloves to zip my gear into the sled, Taisto broke into my musings: “If you have something you want peed on or chewed, leave it near the dogs; if not, keep your stuff away from them.” I spotted the mischievous glint in Mindy’s eye and hastily snatched my gloves from her reach.
OK. Firmly, not limply; and not too often. Is that all?
“And remember – yelling ‘stanna’ won’t do much unless you’re stamping on the brake at the same time.” Right.
After a couple of trial starts, I planted my feet firmly astride the sled’s runners, hauled the snow anchor on board and barked a confident “Hike!” The dogs exploded into action and the sled shot forward like a cork from a bottle. Bursting from a pine copse at the edge of the lodge, we emerged onto a hillside, startling a ptarmigan, which flew up from the side of the track and vanished into the trees.
I whooped involuntarily as we hurtled downhill – it was a rush in every sense. My eyes streamed as icy air blasted against my face; breath condensed instantly on my balaclava, creating a circle of frost around my mouth. We’d been warned not to wash our faces in the morning – any residual moisture would freeze, risking frostbite – but it seemed to make little difference. As Taisto turned to check on us, I could see the ice in his beard and eyebrows. White candy-floss wisps formed on the seams of my snowsuit and the hat’s fur lining. Even the hairs in my nostrils crackled as they became coated in ice. This season’s hot look: the Shackleton. Only half an hour into my Arctic adventure and already I looked quite the explorer, I told myself proudly.
Fortunately, the hefty snow bank that tossed me off the runners also broke my fall. Grimly, I remembered Taisto’s words on dealing with such a situation: “Don’t fall off the sled. And if you do, whatever happens, don’t let go.” Back then it seemed so obvious, so easy.
Spitting out the snow, I gasped out a couple of feeble “stanna!”s before losing my breath. Without my weight on the sled, it was skipping ahead, and it was as much as I could do to hang on to the back. With a final effort I hauled one knee onto a runner, and the other onto the brake. Eventually the sled slowed to a halt, the dogs glaring back at me for spoiling their fun.
Humility lesson drummed home, I tried to concentrate on just heading in the right direction. I learned that by hopping from one runner to the other, and pressing on either side of the stomp-pad brake, I was able to influence the sled’s direction (calling it steering would be a gross overstatement). At the same time, I had to remember to duck frequently to avoid being brained by low-hanging branches stretching across the trail, laden with impossibly oversized heaps of snow.
The dogs were learning about me, too – and made clear their opinions of my driving as we progressed. They were prepared to give me the ride of my life – but if they thought I wasn’t up to it, they’d save their efforts for someone who was.
When I braked too heavily on a downhill run, they snorted scornfully at me over their shoulders. And when I hopped off the sled to push as they strained uphill, they smirked to each other and eased off the gas. But gradually they decided there was fun to be had, and got back to the business of pulling.
As I gained more control, I was able to absorb the surprising variety in the environment around me. That old lexicographer’s wives’ tale about 400 Eskimo words for snow started to seem plausible. The sounds of the sled runners shifted from a rustle to a crackle as we left the soft powder of forest trails to cross a frozen stream, or to ride the hard-packed snow on hilltops. The gentle crunch of paws on snow morphed, too, and the noises themselves were affected by the surroundings – muffled and quickly lost in the soft atmosphere of the forest, or sparkling sharply in the crisp air of the open lake.
We headed up into the woods to follow an old Sami trail. The Sami – or Lapps – have been herding reindeer in this region for four centuries, and their tracks lattice the forests.
They’re obviously handier than us at manoeuvring through the deep drifts in the narrow gaps between the pines; as I cornered around a fir, I heard one of my companions come unstuck as his sled jammed against the tree. It was clearly going to take a few minutes to unwedge, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to get some photos: the low sun glinting through the firs promised mouthwatering shots. I set the snow anchor and stepped off the sled.
Straight up to my armpits in a drift
Helplessly, I tried to heave myself out of the snow without dropping my camera. It was like crawling out of quicksand. By the time I managed to swim out, I was sweating and panting, my pockets, gloves and boots filled with powder. For the second time that day, the dogs’ wolfish grins seemed entirely justified.
Back in the open, we passed remote cabins peeking out from the forest’s edge. Occasionally their chimneys scented the air with sweet pine woodsmoke to smother the doggy odours wafting back to me. Frankly, huskies aren’t shy about their bodily functions. I was consistently amazed at their ability to haul a sled and defecate at the same time, their bottoms skidding and bouncing off the snow like an extreme Japanese endurance challenge.
The sun was hovering just above the horizon as we pulled up to the cabin that was our home for the night. The tired dogs turned circles before nestling quietly into the snow. The temperature was plummeting towards -20°C and I expressed my concern about leaving them outside.
The grin that cracked Taisto’s face was a fair imitation of Zoewhat’s. “You’re worried about the dogs? Well, I don’t know any wolves or foxes who have kennels – and our dogs have more fur than them.” Sure enough, the dogs’ faces peered out from toasty-looking balls of fluff as they curled into the snow, their pelts warmer than any down jacket.
Axe and buckets in hand, to collect water for dinner and the all-important sauna. The sunset that had begun mid-afternoon was still lingering almost two hours later: though days are short this far north, the compensation is a lengthy twilight. Gradually the western sky deepened to a salmon pink, then burned a fiery orange before the sun dropped below the horizon.
As we strolled towards the sub-ice gurgling, Taisto pointed out the animal tracks leading into the trees alongside the path: squirrel, hare, fox, grouse, reindeer – even the occasional lynx or wolverine. He also chatted about the husky races that traverse Scandinavia’s icy north. “Some races cover up to 1,000km in just a few days, with teams of 14 dogs pulling sleds at 20km/h. But the real iron man contest is the Iditarod in Alaska: over 1,800km in only eight or nine days. You really need to love your dogs to undertake it."
Though I was already developing a lot of affection for my boisterous furballs, I just don’t think I could ever love dogs that much. To say that the scene was magical falls woefully short; better to describe it as musical. The wood cabin nestling at the forest’s edge and occasional mournful howls brought back childhood memories of the story of Peter and the Wolf, and Prokofiev’s flute, oboe and clarinet floated through my mind as I zipped up my snowsuit after the obligatory Swedish sauna and roll in the snow.
Stepping out of the sauna, I gasped in wonder. Above me, an aurora shimmered across the heavens, as if pirouetting in time to the symphony in my head. I walked through the trees to the frozen lake, away from the lights of the cabins. Silky green rivers of light danced across the sky, the bottom edges rippling pink and red; the strands twisted and untwisted, split and remerged.
For 20 minutes I raised my arms and conducted a celestial orchestra until the lights slowly faded into the Milky Way, and the strings subsided in my mind. I noticed abruptly that the icy blocks that had replaced my toes had started to ache, and turned back to the cabin.
As I crunched back along the dog-lined path, the huskies’ gazes followed me silently, an avenue of unblinking eyes. Tuck stood to greet me as I passed, and I bent down to ruffle his furry head. I wanted to believe that he was as rapt as I with the aurora’s performance. But I knew he was just a dog, and you can’t eat the northern lights – Tuck’s interests were edible, not emotional. Still, despite his lack of passion for the fireworks overhead – if this was the ideal spot for my first aurora, my team of haulers were the perfect audience with which to share it.
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