One of the great advantages of working at Nature Travels is the regular opportunity to combine business with pleasure on visits to our local partner companies in Sweden. On this occasion I was heading for the tiny village of Undersåker in Jämtland to visit Tommy, a local dogsled guide in the area in and around the Vålådalen Nature Reserve who has been running dog sledding tours in the region for more than 20 years.
This was the first time that I had had the opportunity to take part in the full 5-day expedition Dogsled Adventure in Jämtland tour, and I was looking forward to the experience immensely. The adventure had already begun some weeks before the start of the trip, with a look through the pre-departure packing list and a number of shopping expeditions to hunt for missing essentials. Like many outdoor enthusiasts, I have something of a weakness for new gear and gizmos, and I was delighted to have a good excuse to update a few tired old pieces of kit and splash out on one or two things I’d been hankering after for some time. Along the way, I found some real bargains, including a terrific pair of Gore-Tex ski pants from the PDSA charity shop for £15 (which satisfied the demands of both my limited budget and eco-consumer conscience) and a great value alternative to the Buff multi-functional headwear. I’d had my eye on one of these for quite a while (and the discovery of a Windstopper version had sent me into paroxysms of avaricious yearning), but I just couldn’t bring myself to spend 19 quid on what was basically a stretchy scarf. I was delighted, then, when I found that Oswald Bailey do a version made by Trespass for half the price.
Laid out on the living room floor, my assembled packing seemed to take up a frightening amount of space – always the problem when planning for a winter trip – but with judicious planning accompanied by a great deal of groaning, swearing and jumping up and down, everything was finally shoe-horned into my long-suffering rucksack and ready for the off.
It was with a mix of excited anticipation and gnawing guilt that I abandoned my wife at an obscenely early hour on Valentine’s Day at Poole bus station to catch the National Express to Stansted. Not the most convenient airport for those of us on the south coast, Stansted is nevertheless currently the only airport in the UK offering a direct low-cost flight to Trondheim in Norway, from where it is only just over 2 hours across the border to Sweden by train to the start of the Dogsled Adventure in Jämtland tour.
Back in my youth, on my regular comings and goings between Edinburgh and the South West, I used to watch in open-mouthed amazement as National Express drivers berated passengers mercilessly, shouting in the ears of little old ladies, cursing blank-faced foreign tourists for their lack of comprehension. In the intervening years, I have watched these surly fellows be gradually replaced by a new generation of polite, soft-spoken, well-dressed driving professionals – marvellously efficient, but sadly less entertaining. I was both shocked and oddly nostalgic, then, when our driver turned out to be a die-hard member of the old guard, calling a young French passenger an “ignorant git”, warning us to fasten our seatbelts and hang on because “for those that understand English, I’m a s*** driver”, and sending a pair of young Asian girls scurrying off in panic with their enormous suitcases bouncing crazily behind them by joking to the waiting queue, “Anyone for Manchester?”
The rest of the journey was smooth and far less eventful, and after a restful night in Tommy’s guest cabin, I watched as he and Lena, our other guide for the tour, loaded 44 eager and insanely excited Alaskan Huskies into the truck. This was my first sight of the dogs that were to be our friends, companions and means of propulsion for the next five days. There is no doubt about it – Alaskan Huskies love to run, and they are superbly designed for the purpose. They came in a wide range of shapes, sizes and colours, some heavy-set with thick, shaggy coats, others lean and wiry, some with eyes of piercing blue, others a deep chocolate brown, but all with an athlete’s physique and faces alive with energy, intelligence and friendliness.
With the whole truck practically humming with collective excitement (how much coming from the dogs and how much from me it’s hard to say), we headed 40km up the snowy track towards Vålådalen tourist station, the start point for our dog sledding adventure. We left the dogs for a while to rendezvous with the guests, who were already gathered expectantly in reception. Of the six other participants in the experience, four were Nature Travels clients from the UK, and we were also joined by two young French guests who had been dog sledding in Canada before and were keen to try the Swedish version.
We began with a brief look at the map to see the likely route we would be taking during our dog sledding adventure, with our first objective being the cabins at Vålåstugan. From there to Helags, with its promise of showers and sauna (some of the guests got rather excited at the mention of the “s” words), where we would be staying for two nights, leaving our luggage at the station and running fast and light on a day-tour through the surrounding mountains. Our last stop would be the cabins at Gåsen, before the long downhill stretch back to Vålådalen.
With the basic tour description completed, Tommy went on to outline what to expect during a typical day’s dog sledding. “Ah – adventure, excitement, swooshing through endless white expanses of untouched wilderness, the wind in your hair and the cry of the dogs in your ears,” we thought. “Poo patrol”, said Tommy gravely, bringing us back down to earth with a bump, “and every night we must dig shelters for the dogs before we have dinner”. Ah well, we were sure there would be a bit of time for adventure and swooshing in there somewhere.
With the introductions over, we made our way down to the truck to collect our equipment and meet the dogs. It was remarkably mild for the time of year, just around freezing and snowing gently, and the mood was jovial as everyone changed into their winter boots and tried snowmobile overalls on for size, with frequent jibes about James Bond films and Nanook of the North as we appraised the dashing figures each of us cut in our new Arctic garb.
Then it was time to get down to business. By now the dogs had been unloaded from the truck and were standing patiently waiting to be harnessed. We huddled around one of the sleds as Tommy took us through the basics of handling the dog sled and harnessing the dogs. In particular we were given some important safety information, shown how to use the anchor and where to hang it safely out of harm’s way, and how to brake the sled when going downhill. Good braking is vital, both to prevent a spill and so that the sled does not overtake and injure the dogs. “Keep tension in the lines at all times”, said Tommy, “…and don’t let go!” he added with a wry smile. By this time the dogs had begun to sense what was going to happen next and the noise level was rising, and we strained to catch Tommy’s final words of wisdom before fanning out to find our own sleds.
We were each given a card with the names of our dogs, and with Tommy and Lena’s help in identifying our charges, we set about the business of harnessing them according to the positions on the card. Huskies have strong individual personalities and, like people, different strengths and abilities. Some dogs like to lead and think, others to follow and pull, and the teams had been chosen carefully to ensure that each dog was in its proper place. First the lead dogs are harnessed, with a “Dead Man’s Hand” staked out in front to keep the team straight and prevent tangles. The technique for harnessing is very simple, and though I still managed a twist or two and needed a friendly word of advice from Lena, before long all the teams were in place.
While quiet and remarkably well-behaved when at rest, when harnessed up and waiting for the off, the dogs go absolutely berserk, straining against the anchored sleds and producing a deafening cacophony of barking, howling and whining. This moment of anticipation before the anchors were released and we surged forward was to be one of the most enduring images of the whole dog sledding experience for me, an intensely uplifting sensation that sent my heart racing and blood pounding. You cannot help but be swept along in the wave of primal energy and longing that is produced by 44 four-legged pulling machines in full cry, and those few seconds as we waited for the signal to release the brakes held a magical quality for me, when the modern world seemed a distant memory and life was filled with infinite possibility.
As we upped anchors and took our feet off the brakes, our teams leapt forward as one and the sleds took off in a whirl of flying fur and snow. The track dipped sharply downwards almost immediately and we stabbed in alarm at the brakes, but apart from one minor spill we all negotiated this first obstacle successfully and were on our way – masters and mistresses of our very own dogsled team! Somewhat overawed by the whole thing at first, over the next few kilometres I really felt I was getting the hang of it, and hands that had been desperately holding on to the sled for dear life just a few minutes before soon lay relaxed and nonchalant, guiding the sled smoothly and confidently through the twists and turns of the track as we headed upwards through the birch forest.
I began to feel elated, proud of my new-found skills and my rapid mastery of dog sledding technique. As my dogs pulled for all they were worth I had time to take in some of the beauty and silence of the forest, and turned my head to catch a suggestion of the majestic shapes of the surrounding mountains looming through the low cloud. But pride comes, of course, before a fall, and a few seconds later the world went suddenly and completely white as I pitched head-first into a deep snowdrift and disappeared in a puff of powder. I emerged to see my sled on its side and disappearing into the distance, pulled forward at a slower but still impressive pace by the unrelenting power of my dogs. Two legs are considerably less efficient than four when it comes to running in snow, especially when they are attached to a slightly paunchy 37-year-old body and encased in a thick set of padded overalls, and it took me what seemed like an eternity before I caught up with my sled, panting, sweating, and with little stars bursting in front of my eyes. Even with the added encumbrance of the sled on its side, my dedicated team of canine pullers had seemed to have no problem charging up the hill and putting an impressive distance between us, even before I had had time to struggle to my feet and set off in pursuit, with my cries of “Stop!! For God’s sake stop!!” falling on eight deaf, or perhaps just indifferent, ears.
“Still, I’ve learned my lesson”, I thought, as I clambered awkwardly aboard and set off once more, vowing not to get so distracted by the tempting beauty around me again. Indeed, that was to be my only fall of the whole trip, and by the end of the tour five days later I would have good reason to be justifiably proud of my new skills of balance and control, but for now I was content just to stay on my feet and count myself lucky that I was nursing nothing worse than a bruised ego.
Much of the Vålådalen Nature Reserve through which we were travelling has a restriction on snowmobiles, which makes it possible to enjoy the tranquility of this lovely area undisturbed. Though we were not scheduled to enter the restricted area until the following day, when we would be penetrating deeper and higher into the reserve, we neither saw nor heard a single scooter during our trip up to Vålåstugan, our only fellow travellers a hardy-looking group of ski tourers out on a winter camping expedition. As we raced ever upwards, the dogs pulled tirelessly, taking occasional bites of snow from the track and even going to the loo on the move.
When finally we stopped for a short break, the air was alive with exclamations of “Wow!”, “That was amazing!”, “This is beautiful!” and occasionally “Ooh my aching legs!”, and the sun made a welcome appearance through the clouds as we surveyed the ascent we had made and the lie of the land behind us, sipping coffee from our thermoses and attacking the proffered sandwiches as if we hadn’t eaten for days. The dogs took the opportunity to roll in the snow to cool down or lie panting, tongues lolling with great clouds of breath hanging in the crisp air.
Just the sound of a thermos top being screwed back on or the rasp of a sled pocket zip closing seemed to be enough to signal to the dogs that we would be setting off again shortly, and once more the teams erupted in a frenzy of yelps and barks. A few kilometres later, we rounded the corner to see the welcoming low huddle of buildings at Vålåstugan winking at us through the afternoon sunshine. Almost immediately, our thoughts turned to cosy fireside chats, the crackle and spit of dinner cooking on the stove, and the evening of cheerful camaraderie that lay ahead.
But it would be a while before we settled down to enjoy such creature comforts – for now, the dogs came first and their needs must be attended to before we ourselves could be fed and watered. As we waited in turn to park our sleds, the wind picked up noticeably behind us and the clouds rolled in, obscuring our view of the mountains, driving snow down our collars and chilling our faces, giving us a taste of the approaching weather front that we had stayed just ahead of all afternoon.
While we were to be spending the night wrapped up cosy and warm in the mountain cabins, the dogs would be sleeping outside, and it was important that adequate preparations be made to shelter them from the worst of the weather. First of all, static lines were drawn between stakes and the dogs clipped on at intervals of a couple of metres, each section of line with its own individual piece of cable to allow the dogs ample room to move around.
Once the dogs had been unharnessed and clipped on to their static lines, we moved the sleds together and faced them downwind to prevent them being lost in snowdrifts overnight (a very real problem – Tommy told us later that he has spent hours searching for sleds buried completely in the snow after a storm!). Then it was time for our first taste of snow-shelter digging, which was to be come an essential part of the dog sledding experience and a major part of our dog-care duties over the coming days. By this time the wind had really picked up, and for the next hour or so we struggled with our snow shovels against horizontal snow and driving winds of up to 22mps (about 50mph) to build walls of snow sufficient to protect the dogs through the approaching night. Though the still air temperature was still very mild (around -2), wind of this strength drops the actual temperature to around -20. But with the exertion of digging the snow and packing it to make the walls there was little chance of anyone getting cold!
At the end of an exhausting but strangely rewarding hour battling the elements, we stood back to survey our handiwork. The dogs looked distinctly unimpressed with our efforts, some even jumping over the walls to lie on the windward side, their ears flapping as they turned their faces full into the wind, but we knew at least that we had done our best and that shelter would be there for those that wanted it. It seemed only right to test one of our snug-looking creations for myself, and so I curled up to try my hole out for size. It did indeed make a surprising difference to huddle down behind the wall of snow, though the prospect of a warm bed inside was a still good deal more inviting.
As we mopped our brows and congratulated ourselves on our fortitude and stamina, Tommy and Lena called us over with the cry of “Food time!”. “Excellent”, I thought, “I’m starving.” But of course they meant the dogs. They showed us what was on the canine menu for the evening – a veritable banquet of dried food mixed with water followed by a hunk of frozen meat of unknown and rather suspect-looking origin. Dutifully we held out the bowls while Tommy and Lena slopped in the food and, though it didn’t look too appetising to us, we assumed that after their exertions the dogs would be ravenous, falling upon the food like a pack of hungry, well, dogs. We were therefore astonished when most of the dogs looked at the food disdainfully before turning their backs in a huff and curling up in the snow, while others licked at it listlessly or deliberately emptied out the water by tipping the bowls over to pick the dried food off the snow.
“This is often a problem,” explained Tommy, his brow furrowed with concern. “In bad weather the dogs don’t like to eat. We really need them to drink as well, which is why they need the water from the bowls – they don’t get enough water just from eating snow.” And muttering to himself about the vagaries of the mountain climate and canine mood swings, he shuffled off to redistribute the untouched bowls to other dogs.
“Well”, we thought, “they’re bound to like the meat at least.” But no, as the hunks of frozen meat were hacked up with an axe and handed out, once again the dogs sniffed at them hautily or quickly buried them in the snow before lying down in disgust.
There was one more task to accomplish in the gathering darkness before we could retire to the warmth of the cabin. Lena produced a bag of doggy coats and we went around covering the more lightly-built dogs or those with the thinnest fur. Alaskan Huskies are incredibly hardy animals, but even a husky gets cold sometimes, and in the evening ahead Tommy and Lena were to make regular excursions out into the storm to check on the welfare of the dogs, even bringing one or two inside occasionally to warm up.
At long last, our duties were completed and we retired to the steaming interior of the cabin. Thanks to the efforts of the warden, who had been anticipating our arrival, the fire had been lit many hours before and the cabin was a roasting 23 degrees. We stripped off our many layers and suspended our icy hats and gloves above the fire before flopping gratefully down around the table to bask in the unexpected warmth.
The evening passed in a haze of gentle conversation and laughter, punctuated every hour or so by one or other of us deciding they could hold out no longer and it was time to get togged up for an expedition to the toilet. And an expedition it was – the wind was unrelenting and it took all our strength just to open the door to the cabin. We were propelled by the wind at our backs across a carpet of snow to the toilet block, where even the thick doors and solid Swedish construction could not prevent icy drafts whistling into the most private places. When we opened the door to brave the trip back, the cabin was just a hazy outline barely visible through the driving snow, and though a distance of just 30m or so, it was not hard to imagine yourself as an intrepid Arctic explorer struggling valiantly back to base across the frozen wastes.
Dinner, when it was finally time for us to eat, was well worth the wait, and before long our bellies had been filled to bursting with a hearty meal of reindeer meat and mashed potatoes. This was the first of many tasty meals that Tommy was to prepare for us over the coming days – perhaps it was the mountain setting and expedition ambience, the drama of the howling storm outside, or just our ravenous hunger after the day’s adventures, but we all agreed that mashed potato had never tasted so good.
By the time 9pm rolled around (though it felt like midnight at least), all of us were yawning and looking longingly towards our beds. As I slipped into my sleeping sheet, pulled over the duvet and lay back to listen to the wind still racing around the corners of the cabin, a jumble of impressions and thoughts swirled through my head – the myriad sights, sounds, and powerful emotions of my first day dog sledding in the mountains of Jämtland.
Look out for the next instalment, as we go in search of buried sleds and watch the skies anxiously for signs of sunshine…
The Nature Travels Team
The article above describes the first day of this February’s Dogsled Adventure in Jämtland, a 7-day adventure holiday with 5 days’ dog sledding in the mountain wilderness of western Sweden. We have limited spaces still remaining for some of our dog sledding tours in Sweden in March and April 2008. Please contact us for details or see our full range of dog sledding holidays in Sweden at www.naturetravels.co.uk/category-dog-sledding.htm.