The tour described below was a special arrangement during February/March 2017 and is not currently part of our standard portfolio for dogsled tours. However, we offer a wide range of options for dog sledding in Swedish Lapland of varying duration and level of challenge. Northern Lights Dog Sledding in Lapland offers the closest equivalent in terms of general area and landscape to the tour described below, while for tours including winter camping, see Dog Sledding and Winter Camping on the King’s Trail or Wilderness Dogsled Adventure in Vindelfjällen.
Day 1 – Up In The Air
While living on the beautiful south coast in Dorset definitely has its advantages, one downside is that whenever I need to travel to London for a flight, which is frequently, it often requires beginning my journey at silly-o’clock. So it was for my latest adventure to Swedish Lapland, and I was feeling just a little sorry for myself when my alarm went off at half past midnight, my wake-up call for catching the 01.30 National Express bus to Heathrow.
But a little lost sleep is a small price to pay for the chance to go dog sledding, far and away my favourite winter activity, so any grumbling seemed a little churlish (after all, as my Grandma wisely used to say, “You can sleep when you’re dead”). And while I wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders by the time I landed in Luleå later that afternoon, I was still standing, and the expectation and excitement of the coming week’s mushing had done a lot to blow away the cobwebs.
Joining me on the tour would be father and son James and Brian, from Ireland, and Ben from England. The meeting up with James and Brian at the airport went smoothly (the Guinness cool-bag they were carrying made identification easy!) and we then picked up Ben, easily-recognisable resplendent in new musher’s hat, from outside the library in town, where he was basking in the late February sunshine and a balmy -17 degrees having arrived earlier in the day.
After a stop at the supermarket for last-minute supplies, we were on our way north towards Överkalix in the company of Nigel, our host and guide for the week. Regaled en-route with stories of mushing derring-do and life on the trail, the two-hour drive passed quickly.
After our first meeting with the dogs in the evening and a fascinating introduction to the exciting world of dogsled racing over dinner by Nigel’s partner, Mel, we retired to recharge our batteries for the coming adventure.
Day 2 – Happy Feet
Like all outdoor activities, the planned itinerary is just that, and is always subject to change to take account of weather conditions and the needs of the group. In this case, we had originally intended to sled out to a tipi for our first day, proceeding from there to a more fully-featured cabin and from there to a wilderness cabin before retracing our route home. However, come the next morning, it became apparent that a change of plan was desirable. That night was forecast to be COLD (properly cold – about -30 degrees C) and while adventure is all very well, few people will pass up on the offer to spend a -30 degree night under a roof instead of canvas, so we elected to use the first day as a training and preparation day.
In the end, this turned out to be an excellent way to use the time. We began with dog feeding and poop-picking, basic and unglamorous as they may be, but essential tasks and a great way to begin to bond with the dogs, who really appreciate and notice that you’re doing something for them and consequently respond better to you when the time comes to take to the trail.
All our dogsled tours involve working closely with the dogs, and this tour was no exception, but in this case we would be even more fully involved than usual. This would be the first time I’d be running a six-dog team, and while all tours involve harnessing your own teams, here we were also involved in bringing them out from the kennels – which sounds easy but is far from it when you have to select one husky from among a writhing mass of excited others and get the right dog out without the whole lot escaping!
We began with harnessing four dogs, going carefully through the procedures for braking and anchoring the sleds safely, before taking to a test track for our first bit of mushing. We progressed adding a dog at a time to make five and then another to make the full team of six, and it was very interesting to feel how the sled responded differently and the pulling power increased with the addition of each extra dog.
As the light began to fade, we headed out for our first fully-fledged trip, a tour of about 25km (using teams of 5 dogs rather than the 6 we’d use on the tour itself to build our confidence) through the beautiful forests surrounding the kennels, giving us the chance to experience not only driving our own sleds for a more extended period, but also the very different feel of sledding in the dark with headlamps.
We even crossed the Arctic Circle (twice!), a point marked somewhat anti-climactically only by a small blue paint splodge on a pine tree!
As the evening drew on, the temperature plummetted, the ends of our fingers began to get distinctly chilly, and we were thankful that the plan for the day returned us to the warmth of the cabin at the kennels.
Day 3 – Into Darkness
Today we would be packing for the expedition before sledding to a tipi for our first proper “expedition” night.
Once again, it was time for a change of plan, and Nigel arrived in the morning to say that our expected camp location had to be changed due to a blockage of the road following the recent very heavy snowfall, so we’d be camping at a different spot from the one originally planned – no problem there, except in addition to the challenges of getting there in the first place, we’d now have the added adventure of erecting the tent (in the dark!) on our arrival, as the camp location had had to be moved at the last minute.
And so the morning proceeded with preparations for our trip. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that getting ready for anything involving dog sledding takes AGES – come up with a figure for how long you expect something to take, then triple it and add a bit extra, and you’ll be about right. But of course it’s these aspects of the experience that are a major part of the fun. Once again we were to be fully involved in the preparations, everything from checking the food to packing the military-issue Arctic sleeping bags we’d be using to actually lashing the sled bags on to the sleds themselves (something I’d never done before) before packing our sleds and harnessing the teams.
What with one thing and another, it was late afternoon before we were ready to head off – which was fine, as we had our headlamps at the ready and from our trip the day before were now expert night mushers! The dogs were extracted from their kennels and harnessed up amid much barking, yelping and howling – a cacophony that never fails to stir the blood and get the adrenaline pumping and stands in stark contrast to the silence that descends as soon as the sleds get going.
Finally we were off! Up a slope, through the forest and out into a lovely open section with tantalising views of the rolling hills beyond before plunging back into the trees again.
There had been a lot of fresh snow in the night, and the time it takes to cover a particular distance when sledding can vary enormously depending on trail conditions. Our previous evening’s 25km had flashed past in just a couple of hours or so, but this evening it would take us more than twice that time to cover about the same total distance. There’s no doubt there was some proper mushing going on this evening, as Nigel and his team blazed the trail ahead in the dark through deep, virgin snow – we even had to make a course correction and retrace our steps at one point when the trail proved cunningly elusive for a while, hidden deep beneath the thick while blanket.
But as evening became night, the welcoming sight of the bundle of canvas lying in the snow that was to be our shelter for the night loomed out of the darkness, and our trip for the day was at an end.
But the work was far from over – there was much to be done. The teams needed to be unharnessed and staked out on their lines for the night (an exhausting job when you’re wading through a metre of fresh, powdery snow), the tent needed to be erected, and snow needed to be melted to make water to feed the dogs (First Rule of Dog Sledding: The Dogs Always Come First) and then ourselves. This was to be another of the little challenges of the tour – we would have no access to fresh water during the whole trip, so all our water (which adds up to quite a lot with 30 huskies and 5 humans to feed) would need to come from melting snow. For this tour, we’d have no easily-accessible holes in the ice to draw water. To this end, we had two “dog cookers” with us – large meths burners – as well as a small gas stove for our own water. Straightforward and effective, but as with everything concerning dog sledding, not something you can do in a hurry!
Our little group was already evolving into an efficient team, and while Brian and Ben took charge of figuring out the inner tent and James took care of the dogs, I mainly wondered about fiddling with guy ropes and trying to look useful. Eventually the dogs were fed, the tent was up, our insides were glowing with tea and a hearty meal of “Tur Mat” (high quality camping rations we would use quite a bit during the tour), and we settled down to enjoy the warmth from the log-burner inside the tent, Nigel’s latest purchase and a very welome little touch of luxury to take the edge off.
Then as midnight ticked past, it was finally time for bed. A good 30 minutes or so of pfaffing about with reindeer skins, sleeping mats and sleeping bags followed, not to mention figuring out what to do with all our snowmobile overalls and winter boots in the limited confines of the tipi, before we finally settled down for the night.
Day 4 – On The Road
We awoke to an overcast but calm and wind-free day with good visibility, and Nigel had the breakfast porridge ready in no time – we’d be thankful of those slow-release carbs as the day progressed. Our first challenge was a road crossing, flanked on each side by high mounds of snow deposited by the snowplough – a road crossing is something that needs to be taken very cautiously indeed, particularly if it’s the first thing you do in the day with a fresh, raring-to-go team of powerful huskies. Luckily Ben was a landscaper and extremely handy with a shovel, and thanks to his hard word the enormous mounds were soon tamed to more manageable humps. This would be by no means the only example during the week of how well the group worked together and how quickly everyone’s confidence and ability grew, but before long we had executed quite a tricky manoeuvre and were all across the road safely and on our way over the lake on the other side.
We covered a good distance this day – about 35km in total – and with some varied landscapes and adventures along the way. With the normal trail lost in the deep snow, we elected to follow some small lanes, the hard-packed, fast snow beneath our sleds feeling very different to the heavier conditions we’d been used to so far.
We made an extension at one point for a real bit of cross country mushing off the beaten track. Here we had our first experience of the trip of turning the sleds in deep snow.
Turning a line of teams always has the potential for creating a tangled chaos of husky-spaghetti, as the teams further back will naturally want to cut across towards the lead sled at the front as soon as they see it rather than following nicely round the semi-circle in order. But given that we were doing this in waist-deep snow, when every step is a monumental effort that quickly saps your energy and it’s hard to help your team as you sink immediately as soon as you step off the sled, it went pretty smoothly – by the time we made it back to the main trail, everyone had experienced a new aspect of the art of mushing! Yes, we were sweating, but we’d done it, and we’d done it well!
As afternoon gave way to dusk, we arrived at our cabin for the night. This was really to be a tour of contrasts – from the privations of winter camping in the tipi the night before, we had arrived at the other end of the spectrum: a modern, comfortable cabin featuring the miracle of electricity and the unimaginable luxury of duvets! No running water, though – we’d still be melting our snow.
The cabin was to be our base for two nights, and we wasted no time settling in and fanning out around the lovely wood-burning stove. Mel dropped in to see us from the kennels and we spent a happy evening socialising and swapping stories.
Day 5: A River Runs Through It
Today was to be a special day in many respects. Though most of us didn’t realise it beforehand, today was James’ birthday, and he had a surprise planned for the evening. But before that, we’d be taking a day tour down the river. There had been reports of open water to the north, so we elected to head south, where ice conditions should be good.
After a fairly challenging couple of days, today we’d be running with lighter sleds and taking it easy, and as we didn’t need to worry about packing everything up, the morning became a leisurely extended breakfast extravaganza! After Ben’s shovel prowess the day before, now it was Brian’s “real-world” skills as a chef that were brought into play and a breakfast feast was soon forthcoming.
Our sledding started with another difficult manoeuvre. This time we would be releasing the ropes and starting directly down a steep incline onto the river. This was potentially going to be especially tricky since once started, Nigel would need to stay down on the river with his sled and would be unable to get back offer assistance if we got into difficulties – we’d need to sort out our own tangles!
I really hadn’t expected it all to go so smoothly, but sure enough, the start was trouble-free and we were soon gliding peacefully down the wide expanse of the Kalix river. It was lovely to have the open space of the river after sledding in the forest – we even found a local to wave to as we passed!
Growing up in Britain, you have a natural fear of ice, and it’s disconcerting the first time you sled on a lake or river to find that you can sometimes be travelling through several inches of water (though today it was just the odd puddle here and there). A number of factors can cause surface water, such as when the weight of snow pushes the ice layer down and water bubbles up through – but while you’ll sometimes get wet feet (and the dogs will give you a dirty look over their shoulders as they struggle through the slush), there’s no cause for concern – there’s plenty of ice beneath to take the weight!
Our little adventure for the day was another deep-snow turnaround (this time REALLY deep snow, requiring us to help our lead dogs find their way back to the trail by struggling through the snow to the front and leading the sleds) and by the time we’d finished, we were more than ready for an energy boost from the lunch-time Tur Mat rations. As we sledded towards home, the sun came out and bathed the river in a glorious late-afternoon light at our backs.
You’d think we’d have been ready for a rest by then, but no – on our return, Brian’s boundless energy was directed towards building a snowman. And not just any snowman – an enormous creation replete with dog-kibble eyes and some past-their-best tomatoes as buttons (which gave the snowman a rather unsettling CSI-victim look as the tomatoes got squashier).
The sun had already shown itself that day in celebration of James’ birthday, but as the sky darkened and the stars came out, the Northern Lights decided to put on a display for us as well, which provided a magical backdrop to the evening’s dog feeding. Silhouetted against the night sky with the green Aurora in the background, Brian’s snowman looked even more menacing than before!
Then it was time for James’ surprise – to our delight, he’d brought along a bottle of Jameson’s to introduce us to the delights of hot Irish whiskey – Jameson’s mixed with hot water and sugar. There was a slight mistake with the ingredients on the first round, the details of which cannot be divulged as we’ve all been sworn to secrecy (following the maxim that What Happens On The Trail Stays On The Trail), but the second round was delicious and set us up perfectly for our second and last night in the cabin.
Day 5 – Carry On Camping
Today we’d be turning for home, making our way back towards the tipi – which James had memorably christened “Hardship Hotel” – for a second night.
We’d loved the comparative warmth and comfort of the cabin, but were keen to plunge back into the adventure, and we had a good stretch ahead of us. We awoke to a glorious blue sky and bright sunshine, in which the whole winter landscape seemed transformed, and were super-efficient in readying everything to take to the trail once more.
Coming from this direction, the trail we’d originally intended to find earlier in the tour was much easier to identify, so we were able to take a different route back for much of the day, sledding through long gaps in the forest beneath the beautiful winter sun. A section of sledding through denser forest, the trees groaning under the weight of fresh snow in true Christmas postcard style, was a particular highlight of the day.
Brian voiced everyone’s thoughts when he remarked that today’s sledding could have gone on forever, but all things must end, and in the late afternoon we found ourselves once more crossing the lake in familiar surroundings, with the tipi still standing (more or less – the heavy snowfall had taken its toll a little) and welcoming us once again.
How different everything looks and feels with a little experience. When we’d first arrived at this spot just three days before, everything had been strange and unusual. Returning here emphasised clearly how much we’d learned in just a few days, as arrangements for staking out the dogs, organising the feeding and making camp proceeded with military precision.
After a very pleasant evening making toast on the wood-burner, we wriggled into our sleeping bags for our final night under canvas.
Day 7/8 – Homeward Bound
Emotions were mixed as we ate our porridge and readied for departure. We still had a full day’s sledding ahead of us to reach the kennels, but there was the wistful feeling that came with the realisation that our adventure would soon be coming to an end.
But the sun was still shining and there was much to be done. We packed up, took to the trail and spent a glorious day sledding in and out of the trees, culminating in a thrilling descent down through the forest towards the kennels. The dogs were clearly pulling for home, encouraged by the barking of their kennel-mates in the distance who had remained at base, and we flew down towards the kennel compound to end the trip in style.
Coming back made it clear how much snow had fallen in the last days, with parts of the kennels now almost buried in deep, fresh, powder. But though everything looked different to us, the dogs were in no doubt they were home, and there was much wagging of tails and delighted barking and yelping as they greeted their stay-at-home kennel companions.
And so our tour ended, with unpacking, returning of equipment and general organising, followed by a lovely family roast dinner with Mel and Nigel to round off the trip and the start of the long trip home the following morning.
Something that I’ve felt strongly throughout 11 years of being lucky enough to participate in many of the dogsled tours we offer is that, yes, the landscapes are wonderful, cabin and camp life are a real adventure, the Northern Lights are great, and moving through a winter wonderland under puppy power is the best ever way to travel, but when it comes down to it, it’s the people you meet and perhaps most of all the dogs themselves, with their enthusiastic, affectionate natures and their distinctive personalities, who are the real stars of the show and are what makes dog sledding such a very special experience. I was not alone in the group in having a real lump in my throat putting my team back in the kennels and saying my goodbyes:
• Håkan, my hyperactive lead dog, energetic and friendly, but with a penchant for chewing his harness off if you took your eyes off him for a second. It also meant he had to go without a doggy coat at night, as he’d simply have shredded it. To make up for it, he got some extra big chunks of meat and extra straw!
• Kanut, my other lead dog and a massive woolly Russian bear of a thing. Incredibly strong, yet very gentle and placid.
• Orca, the only female dog in my team and one of the swing dogs. A lithe, spritely collie-type creature with bright, friendly eyes.
• Daim, a comparately elderly (at eight years) ex-race dog, now retired from the rigours of long-distance racing but still well up for an extended tour. Very calm and with a “seen-it-all-before-you-can’t-phase-me” demeanour and lovely doe eyes that made him one of my favourites.
• Bounty, a beautiful chunky, furry ball and a great wheel dog. I owe him an apology for accidentally putting on a harness that was too small then having to squash his ears to get it off again. Sorry, Bounty!
• Granite, my other wheel-dog and the back-position trouble-making counterpart to Håkan at the front, but a big bundle of fun and energy and a great puller. When he got bored, he’d bite through the tug line of Orca in front, normally just as we were about to set off, and have me scrambling about tying up the frayed ends!
It had been a memorable week, a trip of contrasts, challenges, and much laughter. We’d learned a lot about each other, ourselves, and had a great taste of the enormous commitment and dedication it takes to be a musher.
While summer will soon be here, bringing its own special magic, I’m already looking forward to next winter and the barking of huskies as they prepare to take to the trail….
Bob from the Nature Travels Team.