In the middle of February we headed up to northern Finland for a winter adventure – a long weekend of Husky dog sledding in the very snowy Lapland. It was a great experience, and one that we’d really recommend! You can read about the logistics of booking a trip and the different options available within Finland in an accompanying blog post (Dog sledding in Finland – options and logistics). And since we’ve now finally also edited our camera footage, you can also watch a short video of the sledding too here on the blog.
Our friend Melissa had long dreamed of doing Husky sledding, and when she heard that we were going to be living in Finland, she decided it would be the right time to fulfill her ambition… So on a cold and windy Friday night Brigitte, myself, Melissa and Marjan (another ex-Stellenbosch’er) flew from Helsinki to Kittilä. We arrived rather late and spent an uneventful night in the Ylläsjärvi Tunturi Hotel – I was very glad that Ylläs Adventures had organized a transfer for us, because the weather was foul and I would definitely not have wanted to drive a rental car to our hotel under those conditions.
Fortunately then next morning the weather was good, and after a quick breakfast we were transferred to the Äkäskero sledge dog centre. First step was to get fitted for our outer gear – and if you are spending a whole day in -10 °C (or -20 °C) you want to be sure that your clothes fit well! Then we met our guide, Andy, (from Germany) and our dogs – Andy overseas the “Lapland” kennel (one of the eight [?] kennels at Äkäskero), which is comprised mostly of young uncastrated males (i.e. the most energetic individuals). Andy explained the basics of sledding, showed us how to harness our dogs… and before we knew what was happening we were flying out of the Lapland kennel and bouncing through the forest behind some very excited dogs!
We each had our own sled, packed with our small bags and food for the dogs and for us. Andy’s team comprised 6 dogs, but we each only needed four dogs for our lighter sleds. Our dogs were Alaskan Huskies, and while many of them were initially a bit shy, they soon warmed up to us. Learning their names was a bit of a challenge – so I’m glad that we each only had four! These dogs love to run and to pull, and they have amazing stamina. One of the first lessons that I had to learn was that could apply my breaks when ever I wanted to – I didn’t need to worry about tiring them out! We only had to learn two commands – “halt” and “ok” – our dogs would follow Andy’s dogs so we didn’t need to know how to turn them left or right.
On the first day we covered 40 km – it was a slow and difficult start as we hit some very deep snow after about 1 km. My sled slipped off our compressed track into the loose snow and it took me a while to realize how to get the dogs to do the work of pulling the sled out of the snow. Unfortunately the hole I’d created next to the track trapped the sleds behind me too… The advantage of such a rocky start was that we quickly learnt how to shift weight when encountering loose snow. We also did our first bit of trail breaking early on the first morning – Andy and his dogs did most of the hard work, trampling down the fresh snow, but it was still tough work for me and my dogs (hopefully those behind me benefited a bit). So by our first break of the day we’d already had to learn a lot of the tricks…
Late that afternoon we arrived at our first hut (Jokijärvi), with the dogs showing no sign of weariness. Andy talked us through the procedures for unharnessing the dogs and we all managed to get our dogs settle without any problems. We gave the dogs an afternoon snack, and then headed into our overnight accommodation for some soup and knäckebröd. Then we had some more chores to handle – first starting a fire in the sauna and collecting water from the lake, before feeding the dogs their supper and helping Andy clip their nails.
By the time we’d finished with the dogs it was already completely dark. Brigitte spotted some strange clouds, and quickly realized that she’d actually spotted an aurora display. We all forgot about our own supper and the cold temperatures, and headed out onto the (frozen) lake to watch wisps of a white aurora slowly move across the sky. It was quite magical to be lying on the ice watching the skies!
But the sky soon clouded over, and we gladly returned to the hut. The huts was quite basic, with two linked rooms containing 5 double bunks, a kitchen area and a large dining table – and mostly importantly it was also warm and welcoming. That evening Andy made a traditional supper of fried reindeer and mashed potato, served with lingonberry jam – definitely one of my favourite dishes! Everyone then had an opportunity to use the sauna, before all the dogs’ harnesses were hung up to dry there. Before long everyone was fast asleep…
Andy was the first one awake the next morning, and after checking on the dogs he made us some warm museli. We also made up some lunch sandwiches (learning from the previous day’s mistake, when we’d gone without lunch), and then set about tidying up the hut and cleaning up after the dogs. I really enjoyed being able to watch the Siberian Jay‘s pick up the little bits of dog food that the dogs had missed – they are very attractive birds, and much more difficult to see in summer. After packing our sleds, we had to harnessed our teams without assistance for the first time – it is a process which is easy (and quiet) at the start, but gets progressively more difficult (and loud!) as the dogs get more and more excited. The change from standing in front of the dogs and holding the leaders straight to being pulled along on the sled happens in a few seconds. And it is a remarkable transition: loud and excited jumping barking dogs and quickly shouted instructions and confirmations, is replaced by a very sharp acceleration and then… near silence as the sleds skim over the snow. I took a tumble down the first hill of the day, but thankfully the snow is rather accommodating, so I was no worse for wear as we headed out onto new tracks.
Our second day was a long one – 60 km cover in about 7 hours. But it was also a really beautiful day with bright sunshine and amazing snow-covered landscapes for most of the day. I managed a second tumble of the day around lunch time – my dogs accelerated round a corner and I flew off into a snow bank… that was my reward for not wanting to slow them down! At one stage we travelled over the top of a series of hill where all of the trees were completely covered in snow – not a single branch or section of stem was visible. With some imagination it would have been possible to mistake it for a snowman convention. I really enjoyed seeing three Black Grouse – Andy told me there had been a much larger group (12+) that his dogs had scared, but I was glad to even just have seen the stragglers.
Late on the second afternoon the temperature started dropping, and we saw some ice fog on some of the lakes. In retrospect it makes perfect sense that it would occur just above the lakes, since that’s were the coldest air drains to. Anyhow, we were glad to arrive at our second hut of the trip at a little place called Peurakaltio. We were again able to unharness our dogs without any trouble, and we soon had given them their first supper and were warming up inside then hut. Peurakaltio lies next to a marshy area and so out water came from a well – it was a little tricky leaning over to lift the well’s lid and then to pull back the bucket, but Brigitte and I worked well together to draw out the few litres that we needed. Interestingly, we didn’t need to give the dogs any water as they get all they need from eating snow – they often even do this on the run. After getting the fire going in the sauna, we were treated to another aurora display – this time the lights were white again, but much brighter, covering more of the sky and moving much quicker. Our second supper was rice and mince steaks, followed up by some cake – not quite as good as the previous evening’s fried reindeer, but good enough to fill us all up.
Our last morning started a bit cloudy, but soon cleared… unfortunately the sunshine was accompanied by a chilly breeze. After packing up and cleaning up we headed out across the lakes and through the forests again. The dogs were still very excited despite the 100 km we had already covered, and gave some of us a tough start to the day. On our third day we covered a relatively short distance (30 km) but at a fast speed (averaging 10 km/hr) – at some stages we had some light snow which was a bit unpleasant when head-on (I’d recommend bringing a pair of sunglasses along to avoid this problem). But when travelling through the forest conditions were fantastic again. Before we knew it we were nearly back at camp again – and this time we crossed the lake where we had previously got stuck in the deep snow without any problems (so at least we’d learnt some new skills during our 130 km trip!).
We arrived back at Äkäskero spot on time, and quickly unharnessed and fed our dogs. After a quick good bye to the huskies we had some hot drinks and soup in a kota (a modern version of the traditional Sami hut) – the salmon and the reindeer soups were excellent. Then we returned all our warm weather gear (and promptly felt a bit cold in the sub-zero temperatures) and headed out to meet our transfer to the airport. We made it to Kittilä airport with more than enough time to spare, and were soon back in Helsinki!
Husky sledding in Lapland was a great experience – we greatly enjoyed it and and would really recommend it. Even if you don’t like dogs or are not quite ready for the physical nature of sledding, then I’d still recommend that you head up north to experience the wilderness of Lapland in winter.
Many thanks to Melissa and Marjan for being great travelling companions and for letting us share their photos in this blog post.