Running with the pack in Swedish Lapland
Like many young boys, the most upsetting thing I could hear as a child wasn’t that my mother was angry with me, but that she was “disappointed”. Thankfully, it’s been a while since I felt that particular kind of upset. Or I should say it was a while – because despite having only just met her, Lumiki fixes me with a withering gaze. She isn’t snarling, or barking, but the disappointment is plain to see. All I had done was apply the brake – two crude spikes on the back of my sleigh – driving it into the frozen ground. Feeling me deny her the chance to run, Lumiki flashes that terrible look. “Why?” She seems to ask.
Her name means Snow White and she is one of my two lead dogs, along with the dependable Viper. They are joined by Tuomi and Musta, who run behind and provide most of the power needed to pull our sleigh. We’re on a week-long trip with Nature Travels in northern Sweden, well inside the Arctic Circle, where the sun won’t breach the horizon for a month.
Following German guide Marion Kanerva, myself and American Cate Fleming manage our own teams of huskies as we traverse the vast white of the far north, moving between off-the-grid cabins in the Swedish wilderness. Though not actively dangerous, most days the temperature is below -10C. Without the dogs we wouldn’t survive long in those conditions, and without us… Well, the dogs would probably be fine. On the occasions we spot distant semi-wild reindeer, the dogs instinctively speed up, so keen to pursue the scent that they too seem at least semi-wild.
The adventure starts from the Jukkaasjärvi Vildmarksturer, the main kennels just a few kilometres outside Kiruna. The town has an airport and is home to the famous Ice Hotel, but it feels on the edge of an altogether older world. The kennels are essentially an athletes’ village, home to 200 amped-up, pedigree hounds, born and bred to run. When they see harnesses approaching, or other dogs being attached to sleighs, they descend into howling bedlam.
As the cacophony builds, the huskies get more and more excited, sometimes losing it and snapping at the dog next to them. Occasionally this mass of energy and confusion spills over into violence. In the world of the Alaskan and Siberian husky, there is a good deal of workplace harassment.
When you hear the word ‘husky’ you probably think of a sort of White Fang figure, wolfish and enormous. Racing huskies bear little resemblance to that lupine ideal. They are smaller, scruffier, dirtier, madder. They are infinitely more reliable too, with stamina to burn and a will to run superior to any other dog breed.
The noise is incredible, though, as the dogs yammer and howl and bark, pulling hard against the anchored sleigh. To the first-time rider, this can be an intense, intimidating experience. The small anchor struggles to hold onto the snow – there is absolutely no need to say “mush” or any other words of encouragement to these dogs.
And then suddenly, we’re off, racing through some pine trees and out into the cold beyond. At that moment, something very strange happens: there’s an almost total silence as the dogs set to their task. This quiet after such a din feels something like turning off a television that’s been blaring white noise for an hour.
The days out on the trail vary in many ways, but this quiet after the storm is a constant. And once we’re out onto frozen lakes and rivers, the dogs go onto something like autopilot, following Marion’s lead sleigh along paths ploughed by snowmobiles at the start of the season.
Hanging off the back, bumping through the frigid Arctic air, there’s plenty of time to look around, and to think. Some of my thoughts are quite profound; others are total nonsense. One morning I spend far too long wondering if my eyes give me an advantage in this gloomy, northern environment. Some huskies have blue eyes; I have blue eyes – maybe there’s some crossover there? For a while between the pink light of the 11am near-dawn and the amber glow of the 1pm non-sunset, it seems to make sense.
At other times, I think about how little this process has changed over the millennia since people first started yoking dogs to sleighs. The ropes may now be made of synthetic material and the bindings of forged steel, but the birch-wood sleigh is as prehistoric as the dogs’ energy.
There’s something that feels true about this way of travel, something natural. When a boisterous snowmobile roars past my team, I can’t help feel that its driver is missing out. I think too of the Great Age of Antarctic Exploration and the fact that while Robert Falcon Scott took his doomed party to the South Pole using ponies and motorised sledges, it was Amundsen who made it first, and lived to tell the tale – Amundsen and his huge team of sled dogs.
It’s important to switch off these kinds of reveries travelling through snowbound forests, when maximum concentration is required. Coming downhill I need to make sure I don’t accidentally run-over my own team, while ahead I must keep an eye-out for low-lying branches, bent by heavy snow to make scenic but potentially problematic archways.
In some ways, the work really starts when we arrive at the cabins. After running for anything between two and four hours, the dogs have been made more docile by fatigue, but they know food should be coming within the hour.
We transplant the dogs to chains outside the cabins, while Marion makes her way inside to start lighting fires. These little outposts are basic in the extreme – there’s no running water, nor any electricity. In December, it’s completely dark by 3.30pm, meaning all the work inside must happen by candlelight. Outside, meanwhile, we use head torches, both when fetching water (from wells or pre-cut holes in the frozen lake) and when preparing the dogs’ meals. Marion cooks our meals in the cabin – which are hearty and plentiful, without being fancy. Because of the conditions, over-eating is a must: you’re burning thousands of calories just being out in the cold, let alone with all the extra work.
“Some people come here and expect just to have everything done for them,” admits Marion. “But one person absolutely could not do this for a group – everyone has to be involved.”
The good news is that once the dogs have been fed for the day, everyone can clock off – and any time after 4pm, there’s a chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
These days there’s less need to stand outside as the thermometer drops lower and lower (bottoming out at -30C during my trip). Instead there are apps which accurately predict the amount of solar activity and likelihood of a clear sky.
On the final day of our trip, we get a hopeful forecast and around 10pm the sky is transformed into a great grey-green river, a cosmic lava lamp. I thought this would set the dogs off, but they seemed to be as reverent as we were.
It was an amazing sight, rivalled only one afternoon during those extraordinary hours of dawn-dusk, when our small group, with our rag-tag dogs, was overtaken by a legend.
Everyone around Kiruna knows Tysto Thorneus, identifiable from afar thanks to his seal-skin jacket and intimidating team of 12 dogs, running as though in a battle. They say he can silence his hounds just by glaring at them, but as he passed us he made a sort of growling noise to deter his huskies from interfering with ours.
The dozen dogs put their heads down and strained away from the noise, galloping in majestic, synchronised stride. His huge sled soon vanished into the frozen peach-coloured air, leaving only tiny particles of ice dancing in his mighty wake.
If you go
The flights Emirates flies direct from Dubai to Stockholm from Dh2,945 return including taxes. The flight takes six hours. From there, Kiruna Airport is accessible via a 90-minute direct internal flight with either SAS or Norwegian, from Dh650 return including taxes.
The trip Nature Travels offers adventure experiences across the Arctic, including extended dog sledding tours in Norway and Sweden. The Northern Lights dog sledding tour in Sweden runs over eight days/seven nights between December and April and costs from £1,500 (Dh7,473) per person including accommodation, guiding, food and the use of thermal gear and winter boots. A decent level of fitness is required, alongside being willing to help look after the dogs and yourself.