Born to Run: a Musher’s Diary – dog sledding in Sweden, part 2

We fell asleep to the lullaby of the wind battering the sides of the cabin. Waking at intervals during the night, stirred by a particularly strong gust or by room-mates gearing up for a midnight expedition to the loo, it became clear that the storm had no intention of abating any time soon.

But despite the dramatic weather just beyond the walls and windows, the warmth and cosiness of the cabin and the softness of our beds made for fine conditions for a sound night’s sleep, and our party awoke refreshed and in good spirits at around 7.30 the following morning. One by one we emerged from the bedrooms, clad in a varying selection of long johns, fleeces and woolly socks, and began pottering around, lighting the fire, heating water for the dogs, and sleepily rubbing the steam from the windows to check that the storm was indeed still raging at full strength.

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Having coaxed the fire into a healthy blaze, one of our party checked his thermos to see if the snow he had spooned in the night before had turned to drinking water as intended. At the time, this had seemed a good idea to all of us, but as sheepish inspection of the thermos revealed that it still contained nothing but hard-packed snow, memories of long-forgotten school Physics lessons came flooding back to us and we realised as one that snow in a thermos is not likely to melt in a hurry…

While we had been luxuriating in the muggy comfort of the cabin, the dogs of course had spent the night outside, sheltered only by our faltering attempts at snow walls and the limited windbreak provided by the cabin. Concerned for their well-being, we donned hats and overalls and forced open the front door, to be greeted by a wall of wind which all but swept us off our feet and sent us skidding across the icy steps.

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But we needn’t have worried about the dogs. They were variously sitting up quietly watching the spindrift swirl around them or curled up half-buried and snoring contentedly in their depressions in the snow. As we passed along the lines, ruffling ears and brushing off the ice caked onto their fur, the dogs looked up at us as if to say, “Storm? What storm?”

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Back inside, the pans of snow were melting nicely and it was time to give the dogs their breakfast. We felt sure that after the long cold night, the dogs would show more interest in this morning’s offering than they had at dinner the night before, and so we dutifully mixed up the food and distributed bowls among our charges – bowls which once again were sniffily ignored or deliberately tipped over, covering the pristine snow with large splodges of murky brown. The second course of frozen meat was a little more popular this time, though, and we took great care to leave the dogs in peace to concentrate on the food as they picked gingerly at the chunks.

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The wind had been blowing hard all night, and despite our efforts to position the sleds to minimise snowdrifts, four had been almost completely buried. As other members of the party began the essential duty of collecting dog waste with a shovel and bin bag (44 dogs produce an astonishing amount of poo, even when they haven’t eaten!), three of us set about the business of digging out the sleds and dragging them up to higher ground.

We began as three macho adventurers, energy levels running high after our long sleep, heaving great hunks of snow out of the way and digging furiously. We uncovered the bulk of the first sled and began rocking it free, heaving in unison for all we were worth, red-faced and eyes popping. But the sled stubbornly refused to budge. This went on for perhaps five minutes until our strength had all but deserted us and we collapsed panting in the snow, puzzled by our lack of progress. And then it dawned on us – buried beneath another metre of snow just to the side of the sled was, of course, the anchor, quietly doing its job of holding the sled firmly in place. Feeling somewhat chastened that we had led with our brawn rather than our brains, we picked up the shovels once more and before long had our first sled free and parked safely on higher ground.

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About an hour later, our various duties had been completed and we were safely back in the cabin interior, working our way through a hearty breakfast of porridge and sandwiches washed down with copious cups of tea and coffee. It was time to assess the situation and see where, if anywhere, we would be going that day.

Given the notoriously changeable mountain climate, weather forecasts too far ahead are largely meaningless, and information is given on a day-by-day basis. As we finished the last of our breakfast, we waited anxiously for Tommy to return with news of the day’s weather report that the wardens would receive by radio.

The forecast, when it came, was not good. Strong winds of 50mph or more continuing throughout the day. Our planned route was to Helags, 24km away, perched high up in the wide and unsheltered mountain plains. This was no day to be setting off on such a journey. Though of course disappointed not to be off dog sledding, we were at the same time all in agreement that in such weather it would be both uncomfortable and unwise to try to make Helags. And the situation was not without its compensations – a quiet, cosy day lay ahead of us, with our time completely our own. The impotence imposed on us by the force of the weather was oddly liberating, and a day of enforced relaxation held a strange attraction.

And so the day went on, measured not so much in hours as in teabags and the pages of books, and punctuated by periodic checks on the dogs, still huddling in their rows against the horizontal snow.

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Lena’s mother both impressed and shamed us all, as she announced after lunch that she was going to borrow some skis and go off for a “little tour”. To a mixed reaction of admiration and incredulity, she set off into the blizzard while the rest of us watched her departure from the warmth of the cabin. “Don’t worry”, said Lena, “she’s an experienced skier, and besides that she’s completely mad.” And sure enough, as dusk approached, a lone silhouette appeared once more though the howling storm and she breezed in, exclaiming what a wonderful bracing afternoon she’d had and what a lovely day we’d all missed out on.

Time passed surprisingly quickly, and as bedtime approached once more we all agreed that, though the day had lacked the thrills of a day’s dog sledding out on the trail, to be caught in such a storm was nevertheless a real part of the mountain experience. It had not only been a graphic reminder of that old cliché, the power of nature, but also a great opportunity to get to know each other and compare stories. We had started the day as a group of fellow travellers, but were ending it as friends.

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Just as we were turning in for the night, Tommy appeared with the latest weather information. The forecast was looking decidedly better for the morning, with the winds expected to drop steadily through the night. It was welcome news – our day caught in the storm had been a real experience, but we were keen to be back in command of our dog sledding teams and heading up into the hills – and we went to bed eager for the adventures the morning light would bring…

Best regards

The Nature Travels Team

Read part 3

Read part 1

The article above describes the second day of the Dogsled Adventure in Jämtland tour in February 2008 – a 7-day experience with 5 days’ dog sledding in the Vålådalen Nature Reserve. Look out for the next instalment, as we watch the skies clear, harness the dogs and strike out for the remote station of Helags, 24km further on into the mountain wilderness. You can read the first part of our account of the dog sledding expedition here.

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