Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Pete Heck
The landscape before us was best described as Tim Burtonesque. Everything appeared exaggerated and disproportionate – thin sprouting trees covered in mounds of sticky snow, forcing a bend in their middle, some curving enough to make an arch over our path.The monotone pallet didn’t change for miles. It burnt into my psyche such that when/if Pete and I ever have a home again, I know the exact colour scheme we will draw from. Crisp white, the steel blue of the horizon, slate brown on the barely visible tree limbs, and the burgundy of the crossing signs marking the trail.
Perhaps we’ll leave out the tiny bits of contrasting orange though. The bright tethers of the dogs jingled as they ran, bouncing off of the white, black, grey, and brown of their fur. Behind them I stood on the sled, often mesmerized by their swift movements that provided the only sound on the trail.
We had been dog sledding before on several occasions, but never quite like this. Dog sledding in the Arctic is not like dog sledding in Colorado. We were racing 300 kms inside of the Arctic Circle, each running our own team, and feeling for the very first time that this is how dog sledding was intended to be.
We began our experience by touring the Hetta Huskies Farm. The grounds are well laid out and clean – the dogs are organized by age, level of health, sex, and there’s even the enviable “Hilton” for mothers who just gave birth. Photos and spreadsheets are posted on boards throughout as a display of the various systems in place. The 150 dogs are managed according to such complex formulas that I began to refer to it as puppy tetris. (There’s even a tracking system to ensure that the male dogs have their, um, crown jewels checked thrice weekly. A quick massage with honey will ensure that they don’t get frozen.)Detailed spreadsheets keep track of mileage and ensure that dogs are not overrun, and that certain dogs are not run with others (not everyone gets along, you see). Teams are formed by sex (to prevent accidental pregnancies), and so on. The permutations and combinations of what must be considered are endless, and even after years of doing it, are still being figured out.
Aknil and Obama weren’t making my job easy. It was sometimes a challenge to begin with, given the thickness of the snow with a minimally worn track. The dogs would fight their way through the fluffy stuff, I’d step off often to jog between the runners and give them an easier go. Aknil and Obama, however, had other ideas.
They were constantly yipping at each other. And every time they did, a burst of energy would course through the team and we’d surge ahead, often coming far too close to our guide in front. I rode the brake constantly and just hoped that these internal grievances of my dog team wouldn’t take us completely off track.
We finally made a stop so that a change could be made, another version of puppy tetris was underway. Obama was unhooked and picked up to be carried off to another team, Aknil stayed in the power position directly in front of me, and another was brought and tethered kitty corner. Their gripes would be noted on one of the many spreadsheets upon our return.
This was one of many changes over the day in an attempt to balance speed, power, and rapport. Once the final combinations were set, we were a steady line of three bundled humans with five dogs each, powering us over the Arctic expanse.
The weather was surprisingly hospitable. At only -10c, there were times we were even sweating in our heavy snow suits, especially when we had to help the dogs run up hills or over drifts that formed via fierce wind the previous day.
Our nourishment and rest at the end of the first day came in the form of hot reindeer stew and then fried cheese for dessert, all served in the glow of a grand kota recently built on the property. The warmth came not only from the central fire, reindeer pelts that we slept on and the sleeping bags provided, but the cuddle partners that were included as a part of the excursion. Four of them in total were let in to sleep with us, one nestled in on the other side of my pillow. Each time I raised my head to turn my body over, I could hear his tail thumping against the wall in anticipation of affection. Only once did he wake me as I slept though, nuzzling his wet nose against my forehead. A quick stroke of his fur settled him, and he left his nose on my pillow. (I did not mind one bit.)
Except that a good rest was very necessary. This was not a normal tourist excursion (besides the facts that we were tourists on an excursion). It felt like a grand adventurous expedition.
“We call those the Indiana Jones moments,” our guide said, as I relived several of my mishaps throughout our two days. Over the seventy plus kilometers we traveled, twice I fell off but managed to hold on, but there were many other instances I was close to losing it all. I once stepped off the sled to run with the dogs but sunk waist deep in the snow – I had to tip the sled on its side to get off the Teflon runners and force more of its surface area into the deep bank and stop the dogs from dragging me. Other times the dogs took corners so closely that the sled ended up almost at ninety degrees, it took a quick jump off and run alongside to avoid spilling entirely. But each time I followed the number one rule of dog sledding: to never let go. (Pete didn’t fair as well, having let the entire team go just an hour into our first day.) By the end of our long second day, we both ached. It was not quite the endurance activity that it was for the dogs, but it was intense nonetheless.
At other times, I was blissfully wooed into relaxation. Our guide had warned us not to lose concentration when it would get comfortable, but I didn’t understand how that was even possible until the night drive. My head lamp reached far enough to see the lead dog, but no further – my trust was in the team to get me back safely. I rode the runners like I did skis, loosening my body such that my weight automatically shifted with the curves in the drive. The dogs glided effortlessly under a heavily veiled moon. The silence was pure and peaceful. Big snowflakes blew on my face and formed an actual snowball in my exposed hair, but I didn’t feel the cold.
A quick burst in speed shook me out of my reverie and meant that we were nearing home. The dogs were excited to be pulling us in and could hear the call from their farm-mates who were howling in anticipation of our arrival. I held tight but let the brake go entirely so that I could get a last bit of thrill coming around the corner into the farm.
how to do it
Hetta Huskies offers everything from day trips to multiple-day excursions, and even has a well sought-after program for volunteers. We were extremely impressed with the farm and their commitment to the well-being of the dogs.
This post was produced by us, brought to you by Visit Finland.