Born to Run: a Musher’s Diary – dog sledding in Sweden, part 4

The next two days of the tour were to pass in a euphoric blur of sunshine, powder and flying fur.

Waking from our night of comparative luxury at Helags, the morning had an air of unhurried calm, as we luxuriated in the good weather and marvelled at the imposing bulk of Helagsfjället, Sweden’s most southerly glacier, looming over us as we did our morning rounds of feeding, watering, and poo collection.

Replete from a leisurely breakfast, we harnessed the dogs and tore off across the plains en route for Gåsen. The first downhill section was truly exhilarating. With both mushers and dogs well-rested and spirits fired by the glorious weather, it was a joyous experience racing over the virgin snowfields, stealing quick glances behind us to catch another glimpse of the retreating L-shaped glacier. With the sleds emptied now of much of their original food supplies, the difference in speed was noticeable. But our new dogsled handling skills had also kept pace, and we coped effortlessly with twists, turns and bumps which would have easily defeated us just a couple of short days before.

Though today was one of the longest stretches of the trip, it seemed no time at all before we were puffing and panting our way along the final 1km ascent towards Gåsen. Perched spectacularly on a rise, the views from Gåsen were simply stunning. An enormous wide sweep of peaks, alpine and jagged, and a huge sky of perfect blue.

We had made good time to Gåsen and had plenty of time ahead of us before sunset in which to bask in the afternoon sunshine. The dogs clearly loved the unexpected warmth, turning their faces to the sun and closing their eyes in contentment.

For a few blissful hours, we took time out from our adventures and revelled in the glow of the afternoon sun and the breathtaking views. One of our group commented, and we all agreed, that part of what made this view so particularly special and the whole afternoon so idyllic was that we were, quite literally, the only ones around to enjoy it.

Spectacular views may be common enough from mountain peaks in alpine ski resorts, but the experience is always shared with (and some would say marred by) the restaurants, ski lifts and general hubbub of life on the pistes. This afternoon was ours and ours alone, and we were determined to make the most of it. Even our guide Tommy, a veteran musher in this area for more than 20 years, was delighted. “It’s never like this up at Gåsen in February,” he told us, smiling, “this is more like April.”

As the sun began to boil away below the peaks, the temperature dropped sharply, and it was time to build the shelters for the dogs to protect them through the coming night. Here again it was noticeable how much our skills had improved. Instead of the shaky, ramshackle creations of our nights at Vålåstugan, we crafted sturdy shelters in half the time that looked like they would withstand a hurricane, each little wind hole between the snow blocks lovingly filled with loose snow.

After some hot work of digging and packing, we stepped back to admire our handiwork, feeling a certain pride in what hardened Arctic pros the previous days had moulded us into. But while our shelters may have looked hurricane-proof, they were far from husky-proof, as we discovered when many of our charges hopped over to the windward side of the walls to catch the last fading rays of warmth from the setting sun, nonchalantly demolishing many of our little shelters in the process. Ah well, a musher’s work is never done….

This being our last night in cabins for the tour, Tommy and Lena surpassed themselves, putting on a feast of traditional Swedish meatballs (including a veggie version for me) and surprising us with chocolate mousse with whipped cream. Outside, the stars shone bright and clear in the sky and the mountains echoed to the howls of the dogs as they bayed at the full moon like a wolf pack.

Stomachs full and thoughts still back on the trail, it was a reflective evening of solitary reading broken by occasional interjections of “Pass the chocolate biscuits” or “Have you seen my headtorch?” This was no awkward silence born of lack of conversation, but a comfortable, mindful quiet. We were adventurers who had shared an amazing common experience, and there was no need for words. One by one, like characters in an Agatha Christie novel, people drifted off unseen to bed, until I suddenly found myself alone, reading in a pool of torchlight.

As I stepped out of the cabin to brush my teeth by the light of the moon, I had to wonder if it was possible for life to get any better. It was, as they say, the perfect end to a perfect day.

The following morning, our final day of dog sledding in the mountains of Jämtland, was our coldest yet at -6 degrees, though still much milder than normal February temperatures in this part of Sweden.

Though the day started overcast, the clouds were clearing nicely as we readied the dogs for their final pull. Perhaps it was an after-effect of the sunshine the day before, or perhaps it was because the dogs clearly knew they were now within striking distance of home, but harnessing the sleds was an even more riotous affair than usual. By the time we were ready to cast off, my ears were singing from the noise and I was using all my weight to hold the sled on the brake.

Once again, it was immediately obvious this day how far our sled-handling skills, our sense of balance and our general confidence in ourselves and in the dogs had improved. Once again we flew across the snow surrounded by a gorgeous panorama of mountains, negotiating steep downhill sections with the wind whipping through our hair and clouds of powder rising behind us as we braked, before traversing downwards through an icy wind and flying spindrift, at last leaving the high mountain plains behind and entering the shelter of the birch forests.

Perhaps a less dramatic landscape than the high plains with their sweeping views and endless horizons, the forest nevertheless presented its own challenges: tight, twisty tracks requiring full concentration and precise braking. The sleds were all but empty now apart from our personal luggage, and our turns of speed on the downhill sections were thrilling. It is vital when going downhill to brake sufficiently, keeping the lines tight and the sled well behind the dogs. Serious injury can result to the rear dogs if the sled runners catch up with them, and we needed every ounce of our newly-honed dog sledding skills to negotiate the labyrinthine forest tracks.

After a lunch stop at Stensdalen (with a quite spectacular but harmless spill on the way in from Chris as he flew over a sharp rise), it was time to saddle up for the final stretch. With the mix of joy and sadness that accompanies the end of all great adventures, we saw the sign for Vålådalen Tourist Station. At the last moment, Tommy stopped our convoy and relayed a message back down the lines. We had made excellent time on our descent, and with such good weather he had decided to take us on a detour through the forest before finishing the tour – the adventure wasn’t over yet. He swung his sled right onto a new trail and sped off through the trees, and we set off in pursuit.

An hour or so later, now utterly exhausted having covered about 35km in total since leaving Gåsen but delighted to have had the chance for an extra tour, we arrived back at Vålådalen. How long it seemed since we had stood there just 5 days before, huddled nervously around the sleds listening to Tommy’s instructions and fumbling with our dog harnesses.

It was an emotional moment saying goodbye to the dogs as we hoisted them two-by-two into the trailer boxes. They had been our engines, our companions and our friends during our adventure, and we had each developed a fierce bond of trust and loyalty with “our” dogs. When we had first met these 44 animals it had been hard to tell one from the other, and for the first couple of mornings we had needed help from Lena and Tommy to recognise the members of our team when picking them out for harnessing.

But now they were very much individuals to us. We knew their characters, the patterns and feel of their fur, whether they pulled a little to the side or straight ahead, whether they were fussy eaters who liked to be hand-fed, whether they were one of the cheeky ones who always seemed to wait until you had just finished a round of poo collecting before squatting smugly to deposit another little brown pile in the snow. We had breathed in their warm musky odours and huddled with them against the driving snow. We knew them, and we would sorely miss them.

We shook the ice from our sleds and loaded them onto the roof of the truck. As the other guests set off up the hill for showers and sauna and a well-earned hearty meal at Vålådalen, I climbed into the cab, Tommy gunned the engine and truck and dogs rumbled off along the track to Undersåker. As we bumped our way home, I opened my breast pocket and took out my little card with the names of my team which had been handed to all of us on the first day. At the time those names had meant nothing to me, but as I read them now they conjured vivid images from our journey. Marte, golden-furred and full of energy, pulling hard on the front left. Bruno, darker, stronger, a calm and steady force on the front right. Behind and on the left, the lightly-built but tireless Tindra, rolling in the snow to cool down as we stopped for a rest, and my personal favourite, Haddock, a little jumpy and surprisingly shy for such a big dog, but strong and intelligent with deep, rich fur.

I have always counted myself lucky to be able to work in the business of outdoor experiences, but as we rattled along through light snowfall on our way back to the kennels, I reflected that we had named this experience very well indeed – it really had been a Dogsled Adventure.

Best regards

The Nature Travels Team

Read part 3

Read part 2

Read part 1

This is the final part of the description of our Dogsled Adventure in Jämtland tour in February 2008. For further details of our range of dog sledding holidays in Sweden, please see our website at www.naturetravels.co.uk/category-dog-sledding.htm. Dates and prices for winter 2008/2009 will be released shortly. For groups of 5 or more persons, we are able to offer private dog sledding holidays in Sweden by arrangement. Please contact us to discuss your requirements.

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