We heard them long before we saw them, an overwhelming cacophony of barking that cut short our conversations and set our eyes to sparkling in anticipation. We walked underneath a sign that read “Rami’s Huskies“, past the board with safety instructions and right into the middle of mayhem. Six sleds stood ready, and tied to them were anything from four to six dogs rearing to go. If possible, the din grew even louder when the animals saw us. They were as excited as we were, probably even more so.
I’d heard before that huskies were working dogs, not pets, but was still surprised by how wild and wolf-like they were. When I was a little child, before age six, we had a snow-white Alsatian called Husky as a pet. Husky was a kind and gentle creature, and nothing like his namesakes in front of me. The two lead dogs in the sled closest to me were fighting fiercely, their muzzles red with blood and the snow at their feet speckled in crimson. Of course, this was the sled that Gareth and I were assigned to.
Gareth decided I should have the first turn at driving the sled, so while he was getting comfortable under a thick reindeer hide, I stood nervously at the back, both feet on the brake while the sled was still tied firmly to a tree, wondering how I was going to cope with the sheer power the huskies were barely keeping contained.
Our guide came round to make sure everyone was settled and ready to go. Her instructions were quick and precise: break when going downhill, lean to steer the sled, and make sure you have both feet off the ground when the huskies start running. I nodded and gulped. Shouldn’t you be licensed for this kind of thing? Before my nerves could fail me completely, the rope was untied and we were off!
Panic. Speed. Ice cold wind rushing past. Heart pounding. Exhilaration. Unexpected laughter. Joy. Freedom.
I laughed in disbelief. It was a Wednesday morning and I was in Lapland, steering a husky sled with the most indescribable feeling of sheer happiness. Another unforgettable moment.
Now that they were running, the dogs were strangely quiet, intent, focussed on their job. I was no longer somewhat afraid of them – I was amazed by them. They were in their natural element and they were magnificent. With the sled in front of us out of sight, it was almost like we were in a world of our own. We sped through the twilight forest, up and down hills and around corners. At one particularly steep incline our sled came to a stop. The huskies looked back at me, almost like they were wondering what to do now. I tentatively suggested “Mush?” and, much to my delight, they put their backs to it and we were off again.
All too soon we had to stop for lunch. No wooden shelter this time, the nine of us stood around a fire our guide made, grilling sausages and swapping stories. A couple from Germany were the first to break the ice and soon we learned that our group also harboured a young couple from Russia and two friends from Hong Kong, who regaled us with a hilarious tale of how one of them lost a mitten along the way.
With lunch wolfed down, it was time to set out again. This time Gareth was driving and I got to sit in front, admiring the scenery. It was beautiful. But while the exhilaration of steering had kept me warm enough, sitting stationary inside the sled was a completely different matter altogether. I have never in my life been that cold. My eyes were watering from the wind rushing past and soon my eyelashes were frozen solid. The condensation on the balaclava formed a frozen block of ice and whenever I pulled my gloves off for a second to take a photograph my fingers burned with the cold. I was relieved when the sled pulled into the husky compound and we were shown inside a little log house where a roaring fire awaited us.
While a few of the others stayed outside to take more pictures of the huskies, I remained by the fire with one of the girls from Hong Kong, proudly displaying the lost mitten she was lucky enough to find on the way back.
Just before it was time to leave, I braved the cold again to say goodbye to the huskies. I had come with the expectation to see cute, fluffy puppies and instead left with a profound respect for the working dogs that showed us yet another fascinating insight into the arctic lifestyle.