After I completed my animal care course at college I spent a week that summer volunteering at a husky sled dog racing kennels. At this point they were UK based, but have since moved to Norway and then Sweden.
On the last day, I got to drive a two dog sled team around their land. I spent the week learning so much including the lingo, which I couldn’t wait to confuse everyone with when I was back home. In the photos you can see the excitement on the huskies’ faces. While I look silly in my horse riding hat, because I don’t ride a bike so that was the best I could do for a helmet! It may not sound like much, but massive highlight and experience for me!
Before that on my second to last evening, my hosts the great idea of camping with the dogs. To this day, my mum says I can’t believe you agreed to that! My mum has a serious problem with camping! Of all her hates I think that would come pretty high. And I have always said I would only camp for a very good reason, such as if I were on a placement in Africa, and I would quite happily wake up to the sight of a herd of elephants or a striking looking giraffe! But I would not choose to camp, and worry about slimy things all night. Well I wasn’t going to say no. It was important to be up for anything and get a good name with these people. Plus we each had a husky and you had to be happy with a husky!
Well, it was just getting dark as we set out, I was being dopey and falling over and dropping my bag, and apologising over and over, the other two probably wishing I had stayed at home! The whole night was cursed anyway. We had only just stopped to set up camp, when the lady that was our host (they were a couple that ran the kennels) had her husband ringing on his mobile. He had had an allergic reaction to something and his face was swelling. Worried, my first and currently only camping trip was over before it had begun. The only problem was we were literally and deliberately in the middle of nowhere with three huskies and our ride home was red and swollen!
So began a long night. (Maybe not so long if I had actually camped). We had to find our way back, and now it was dark! Then we had to wait for a taxi, which took its time! Then our host had to get in the taxi while me and another girl waited with the dogs. Eventually she was back with us in the van, and the hospital next. And instead of sleeping under the stars, we slept in a van with three huskies! And woke up and went back to sleep again and again. I remember they said the accommodation was spartan but I didn’t think this was what they had in mind! I stayed quiet, I just of course hoped our host was OK. Luckily he was. That was my first and rather short experience of camping. Quite eventful. When we woke up to the puppies wanting feeding the next day, we decided on less activities that morning!
The Sweden was a long time coming, I had wanted to do this for ages, weird fact about me, I have always been a cold weather person rather than hot. I hate the heat. If you think about it, most people say they love the sun and the summer yet when it starts getting REALLY hot they also start moaning! When its cold I can layer up and still horse ride, dog walk all the things I love. So really I’m just sensible! Anyway, after life got in the way like it does, I finally got around to making contact with them again enquiring about one of their holidays with the huskies and what the possibilities are of seeing some wildlife too. Well basically, the wildlife is there, but they rarely see it! It wasn’t until I got there that they said to watch the huskies (you do anyway, you are driving them!) because the huskies will spot anything that is there!
They guaranteed snow until May, so it was April I booked a three day mountain dog sledding safari. The flights all went smoothly I went to Stockholm, bought some moose souvenirs then as soon as we landed in Lulea it looked like a Christmas card and I was an excited kid all over again. The pickup time came and went and it was soon time to be an adult again. I was panicking. It was sri Lanka all over again, but this time the phone number wasn’t ringing! What the hell was I suppose to do if no one simply showed up? Do I just buy a flight straight home!
OK, they made it in the end I was at pooping my pants point…nearly! We shook hands we said it was so good to see each other again, and he apologised he thought it was 6.30 not 6pm. So apart from bits and bobs on Facebook it had been a long while we had a lot to catch up on. I told him about my dog grooming business and my travels. He told me they were soon to be parents!
Then came the reminiscing about the huskies I got to know and love. Only one original left now, little Diva, she’s getting old though. The other huskies I had met when I saw them last had either passed away due to illness and old age or found different homes, all with loving husky experts of course, they are very thorough with who they let have one of their babies! They now have Alaskan huskies, not a registered kennel club breed or a crossbreed, but a very old breed.
I asked if they had had many injuries. Surprisingly no. Well, if you think about it with your snow suit and all the layers and the very very thick snow if you fall you pretty much go plop in the snow, not crash bang wallop!
From the outside of my cabin it was so beautiful and there was a lovely view of snowy forests and a lake. On the way I got to see some reindeer crossing the road, which was just awesome and I was like an excited kid all over again! I was reminded of when I went to Finland when I was thirteen. Still one of my favourite places. Inside the cabin it was freezing because someone had left the windows all open! Shut went the windows and on went the heaters! The bed clothes consisted of a sleeping bag, we have to bring our own sleeping bag liners. I don’t mind a bit of spartan accommodation, but a word of warning to anyone wanting to do this husky sledding experience…highly recommend, but just forget about luxury and glamour and nice hotels! To be honest if you want to stay anywhere else around there it will cost an arm and a leg.
I got myself up early the next day, making sure I was all dressed and ready for when they came to fetch me. I managed to shut myself in the bathroom and couldn’t get out! Eventually it turned out the doors were just stiff and I felt like the biggest numpty in the world, I seriously thought there was a problem with the lock and it had stuck. I cursed myself for getting up so early it would be hours before Frank would get here…at least I hadn’t left my clothes in the bedroom! Man, the relief I felt when the door miraculously opened!
I just love Lulea! I could easily live here, I have always been a self confessed summer scrooge I absolutely hate hot weather. I loved looking outside the window of the van, as we drove along, looking for wildlife, taking in all the snowy scenes. And I was very happy to be greeted by lots of beautiful Alaskan huskies of course!
They are fed a combination of meat and a special high quality kibble for working dogs. As we went into each pen, they told me all their names and their story and how much to feed them. There was also a lot of puppy cuddles going on during my introductions. Every litter of puppies they have have a theme when it comes to their names. Musicians during the sixties is a favourite of mine! But the puppies I had the pleasure of helping socialise and got to spend the most time with playing and cuddling, were Pirate, Yankee and Ranger!
I had already been given my winter suit and boots, but I was given another heap of layers, as the temperature is quick to drop!
I got told the four dogs that were going to be my team during sled training. He gave me four harnesses and we got out the first dog. I got showed how to put the harness on which looked very simple, but alas I continue to make a mess of the whole thing that whole week! He then showed me how to attach each dog to the sled whether they be a lead dog or not. There were lead lines and tug lines not to be mixed up. It was not easy leading then harnessing then attaching four crazy excited Alaskan husky dogs! And I didn’t find it easy all week. I really hoped if I came back I would get better at that part!
They pointed out the foot brake I had to step on and the anchor I had to dump in the snow when it was time to stop. And the weight mat if I wanted them to go slower. Then the lingo! When it is time to go you say OK. When you want them to slow down you say easy. “But they won’t listen to that. So you need to say it and apply the brake. When you want them to stop, say whoa. But they won’t listen to that, so you need to apply the brake.” Gee means turn left. Haw means turn right. So when the gates open I have to say Haw so that they turn left onto the track that I practise on, and not straight ahead up into the mountains, that comes later!
Luckily for me, these dogs are used to being a practise sled team, so they turned onto the right track. And off I went. Wow, what an experience and we had barely started. I am so in awe of these dogs, they just love to run! You can definitely tell how excited they are to get going, and they don’t want to stop. When I had to use the gee command to get them back through the gates, I kept getting it wrong and so around we would go again. I had a great team, and like when you finish riding and you give your horse a pat, you always have to go and thank your team when you have stopped. Shower them with praise!
So when all the huskies had been well praised and safely unharnessed and back in their pens, a quick cup of coffee before our first mountain safari! A different team for me, and a team of strong, champions for my host. I got warned about some of the corners on this trip, and not to come around them too fast but at the same time not to come around too slowly and not make it! With these huskies there was no chance of going too slowly! So the gates were opened and this time we were going straight, on wards and upwards into the mountains. After this trail I can say I have passed the arctic circle driving a four dog sled team! That first mountain trail went so amazingly smoothly right up until the very end. My team followed the team a little too closely, they seriously love a fast pace I had to keep braking so they weren’t running him up the bum! Or trying to overtake! That first trail was probably the best one for me not messing it up! I was able to take in such breathtaking scenery, I was constantly on the hunt for wildlife, but apart from the road crossing reindeer on my way to and from the airport, I didn’t see anything else. Its not really surprising of course, any wildlife would certainly see us coming! So my huskies went so fast, I was still able to take in the breathtaking scenery and feel like I was in a Christmas card, and think how therapeutic this amazing experience this is, this beats sitting on a beach any day! And then my host turned round to me and said “all down hill from now on!” And the speed kind of took over! Man, those huskies went fast! It was all going so well. Maybe it was that we were so nearly home and then kennels were so nearly in sight. You could definitely hear the huskies back home so we were very close. But it was probably just that we turned round a bend in the woods too fast. We certainly did go around a tight corner very fast, well the huskies did, I completely cannoned off the sled, and rolled down the small hill and as they said rather than being battered and bruised I just went plop in the snow, I ended up on my back legs and arms all stretched out. I felt bad, they said if you slip, try and keep hold of your sled so that huskies and sled don’t disappear off into the wilderness! But its OK, they have been doing this for so long he was able to stop his team quickly and catch mine, and ask if I was OK! And I was gibbering apologies, which he shrugged off, it seems what I did was pretty normal, which was good to know, I think everyone falls off at some point!
Day two of dog sledding was much harder. I had to pack an overnight bag, we were to harness up our team, and layer up- it was very cold, and we were to stay overnight in one of their cabins they owned, very small, have a camp fire dinner and then sled back the next day. They already changed the plan once because he was worried about a road crossing on the first plan. Well this plan we had didn’t go to plan. I was beginning to find harnessing the dogs up to the sled such hard work. If I were to come again would this get easier? Four very excitable dogs, not to mention, the other ones that were trying to run out the pen too when you only wanted one out of that particular pen. The noise was ear deafening and as a dog groomer I am used to a lot of noise, in fact I am used to screaming huskies sounding like they are getting tortured when actually they are just getting showered. I am used to dogs pulling on the lead, but I found it hard to control these huskies who didn’t do lead walking and when you had to lead them to the sled they were just interested in running, I was just interested in not falling over! So we headed up the mountains.
I crashed into a tree. My anchor got stuck in the tree and we were stuck while I had to think quickly to free myself. All this time, thinking poor guy, he doesn’t need my stupid ness breaking the sled and probably annoying the poor huskies who were doing such a good job. I fell again, tried to hang on for ages and get up, but it was no good, my legs were just sliding, my hands were holding on, but my feet couldn’t get back on the sled. It’s a bit like that scene in Bridesmaids when Annie drives the car to get her police officer’s attention and bends down so you can just see her hands, and she shouts “hey, who’s driving that car?” Frank afterwards was laughing when he said he could just see my hands, no body, even though in the end I had to let go, and yet again, he had to stop his team and catch mine!
So we on we went up the mountains, it was a long trail! I kept making the mistake of not putting my extra layers on when we set off because it wasn’t so cold, but just like that clicks fingers the temperature drops and my poor ungloved hands were blue and freezing, even my feet in boots and thick socks were little blocks of ice. I was freezing cold and craving a hot cup of coffee. The trail was so beautiful and the huskies even more beautiful and I am so in awe of their hard work and love for running. These dogs have a lot, lot, lot of stamina, they are amazing! I could praise them all day! Even though I just moaned about their noise and their pulling when I am trying to lead them and harness them to sled. Sorry team! Forget all of that, you are an AMAZING team, and I am so in awe of you.
So eventually we had gone uphill so very far, it was so cold, and my host announced we had arrived. There it was, the very tiny cabin. He had warned me it was a bit grotty, and extremely basic. Well. He didn’t realise that was a very mild, generous way of putting it. We tied up the dogs safely, praised them lots, and on entering the cabin found that the roof had caved in. I mean, we opened the door and the roof was there in our faces. All we could hear was creak, creak, creak of the poor roof. It was too much snow on the roof. It didn’t take us long to decide that it wasn’t safe to stay there! I was getting used to the fact that after all that, we know had to trail home and I had to try again not to mess it up. Our hot cups of coffee and camp fire food we had first helped us both! Despite a previous lady on their exhibition complaining about the food, I thought it was delicious. Maybe that was because it was so welcome! And so began again the madness of harnessing and untying the dogs and getting them attached to the sled, and I was all fingers and thumbs and the dogs were bouncing off the walls, which was not a good combination!
We also got stuck in the thick, thick snow. One minute there was a trail all set out for us like the yellow brick road, the next we had to rely on the Jee command to get them to turn the right way. At one point, he had to actually leave his sled and lead the lead dogs in the right direction. He shouted to me to ‘stay on his tail!’ As in don’t lose us!
Why am I not a normal person, who likes the beach and chooses to holiday in glamorous hotels or whatever the average tourist stays in. Sat here writing this now, I am thinking Nah! Still give me dog sledding and volunteering with pandas any day. I hate the beach. And I hate hot weather. But I have to admit that night, probably due to my host’s stress and my pity at his horrible day and worry about stressing him further more than anything else, those cushy, fancy hotels with buffet breakfasts and 24 7 bars, they were just a little bit tempting. But I can’t say that. What would my amazing team of huskies think, they work so hard and they love getting their praise at the end!
His wife was a little surprised to see us back! We all agreed it was a shame about the cabin, that would have been nice to have that experience. We had to laugh though, after the last time all those years ago in England when we tried to camp, and we ended up in A&E because of the allergic reaction! I said to them what on earth is going to happen the next time we try to camp out or stay over in a cabin! Bit of a curse going on!
So that was another day over, huskies praised and seen to and put to bed, it was time for us to have some hot drinks and chocolate and chill for a bit before our bedtime. And as I had my overnight bag, I stayed in the spare room where the handler if they had one would stay rather than one of them drive me back to the tourist’s cabin.
On my last day they took me out to a lovely tea room all decorated and set out like the 30s nice and old fashioned and vintage. I highly recommend Sweden as a holiday destination. I just loved being driven around or driving my dog sled team around and taking in the snowy surrounding and looking for wildlife. The only wildlife I saw was reindeer on the way to and from the airport but that was amazing to me! Pretty normal for anyone living there but a treat for me! On the way it looked like a family standing by the side of the road, on the way back it was a couple crossing in front of us, one of them had a magnificent pair of antlers!
The last dog sledding mountain trail was beautiful and extremely enjoyable like the first, it was a similar trail actually. I fell off at pretty much the same bit, downhill, turned around a corner too fast, I literally cannoned right off no chance of saving myself, hit the snow then bounced off again bump bump bump down the hill before coming to a stop, on my back, missing a glove and a boot! The boot was still on the sled it had never left! I found the glove in the snow! My host had again come to my rescue and stopped my team and his own, but we were so nearly back at the kennels, they would have just run home through the gates! He asked me if I was OK and shut down my gibbering apologies. No one was hurt the dogs were as happy and waggy tailed as always, so of course we could now officially laugh about it!