When we awoke for the third day of our dog sledding adventure, it seemed that today the weather would be with us. The wind had dropped, and as the skies slowly cleared the mighty forms of the surrounding hills peeped tantalisingly through the dispersing cloud. As I made my way through the drifts on my morning trip to the outhouse, ptarmigans chattered excitedly from the scattered trees. The dogs, bathed in the ice-blue light of early morning, looked up expectantly and shook off their nightime carpet of snow. As one, they let loose a volley of mournful howling, like a gaggle of tone-deaf X-Factor hopefuls launching into a chorus of “The Greatest Love”, which echoed back from the mountaintops until the whole valley rang with their lament.
Back inside the cabin, the morning routines were once more underway, snow melting on the stove, the rustle of sleeping bags being packed away and the zing of zippers. Spurred on by the thought that we would soon be back on the trail in command of our dogsled teams, we set about the ritual of feeding, watering and poo clearing with enthusiasm, and before long were sitting down to our own breakfast of steaming porridge and hot coffee.
When Tommy came in with the day’s weather report, forecasting decreasing winds and good visibility, the excitement was palpable – our goal for the day was Helags, a well-equipped but very remote mountain station deeper into the reserve, with its holy grail of hot showers and sauna.
After their day of inactivity, the dogs were in an even more frenzied state than usual as we harnessed them to the sleds. We chose our anchor spots carefully, as with the dogs so excited it seemed that even the sturdy-looking picnic benches might be unable to hold them back. Blood was up for both canines and humans as we released the ropes and flew forward. We careered along a short downhill section before turning into a wide valley, soon leaving the cabins far behind us as the dogs warmed up and moved into top gear. We streaked along as the views opened up around us and we were able to get a good impression of the lie of the land for the first time since our arrival at Vålåstugan. Previously concealed by the clouds, the remoteness of the area now revealed itself to us in its full glory – a wide, white horizon stretching unbroken in all directions.
Exhilarated to be back on the sleds once more and awed by our surroundings, we pressed on towards the distant peaks. The dogs were doing most of the work, but even huskies need a helping hand sometimes, and on the steeper uphill stretches we “scooted” along with one foot to help the sled forward or took both feet off and ran behind in short, sweaty, breathless bursts. But as one of our group discovered, this needs to be done with care: stepping off the runners takes a lot of the weight off the sled, and suddenly released from the extra burden, the dogs will surge forward – and you have to keep up! As Jackie stepped off, the dogs and her sled accelerated. No doubt remembering Tommy’s words of wisdom at the start, (“Don’t let go!”), she hung on gamely like a cowboy in a comedy western, half running, half skidding, kicking up great clouds of powder in her wake. And her iron determination paid off, as 50m or so later she jumped triumphantly back onto the runners to cheers of encouragement.
Stiff from our efforts and flushed with adrenalin, we stopped half way for lunch at the emergency shelter at Ljungans. Far in the distance we spotted another dogsled team racing towards us in a flurry of snow, and Tommy called to us to stand fast on the anchors as our excited teams spotted it too and launched into another round of manic barking and howling. It was a dramatic sight – 17 dogs harnessed to one sled, which was almost literally flying. As the team raced past, the musher standing heroic and god-like like Thor on his chariot, our first thought was, “Wow! That’s cool!” Our second thought was, “Blimey. That’s a lot of poo for one guy to clear up!”
This astonishing übersled and its larger-than-life musher disappeared rapidly into the distance and we lesser mortals retreated into the shelter of the small cabin to warm our hands around cups of hot coffee while Tommy and Lena checked the dogs.
The second half of the day’s route was steeper and physically harder than anything so far, and we were glad of the sustenance from our simple lunch as we battled with our sleds uphill for the next 10km or so. But, tiring as it was, it was a thrilling experience, surrounded by smooth, white hills with light wisps of powder creating hypnotic ripples along the surface of the snow.
Travelling uphill on a dogsled in a padded scooter overall is hot work, and there was no chance to feel the cold until the very last few minutes of our trip as we glided down into the wind towards the welcoming haven of Helags. As the station came into view, we passed a summery-looking sign almost buried in the snow, incongruously promising “Tea and muffins” for sale just ahead.
With improved weather conditions, the dogs looked instantly more content as we clipped them to their long lines and got to work building their shelters. Although high winds were not forecast, Helags lies in an open, exposed area, and we needed to make sure that the dogs had adequate protection for the night. There was even a little more enthusiasm for the food rations, though it still took considerable cajoling from Lena to get some of the dogs to eat. Patiently she crouched by each dog, hand-feeding them little chunks of meat and cooing encouragingly. The dogs clearly loved the human contact, and I’m sure I didn’t imagine the smug glint in their eyes as they each revelled in their few minutes of extra attention.
Having marvelled at the radiators and electric lights (and, wonder of wonders, a drying room!) as if we hadn’t seen such things for months, it was time to get down to the serious business of trying out the sauna – located rather devilishly in the furthest building away from our cabin. Wading off to the sauna through deep snow clad in full arctic gear and clutching a pair of swimming trunks was a surreal experience, but we all agreed it was going to be nice to strip off after days shrink-wrapped in thermal underwear. We separated off into the men’s and women’s changing rooms, peeled off our various layers and stepped through into the sauna room. There were little squeals of embarrassment and cries of “Oh gosh, excuse me” and “I’m terribly sorry” as we realised it was mixed sex and, true to traditional English form, we scampered back to fetch our towels…
An hour or so later, feeling very lobsterish and gloriously relaxed, we gathered for dinner. With the extra space and cooking facilities, Tommy had surpassed himself, serving up a delicious creamy pasta dish which was devoured with gusto. After some brief after-dinner conversation, the day’s adventures combined with the afterglow of the sauna seemed to catch up with all of us simultaneously, and in a flurry of yawning and stretching, suddenly we were all in bed and fast asleep.
The Nature Travels Team
The article above describes the third day of the Dogsled Adventure in Jämtland tour in February 2008. You can read the first part of the dog sledding diary here, or see our website for our full range of dog sledding holidays in Sweden.