Born to Run — Arctic Circle Dogsledding by Kathleen Doler
The cacophony of barking is deafening. Aki, one of my lead dogs, is screaming, not barking, and he’s throwing himself into his harness so hard that all four paws are coming off the snow. He’s demanding, “LET’S GO!” It’s the first week in March and early morning in the Arctic, 12 degrees, glistening snow, deep blue skies. My nose would be running, except the snot is freezing along the edges of my nostrils.
It’s day three of a five-day dogsled adventure across part of the Arctic Circle in Finland. Getting here from California involved 15 hours of flying and layovers, a night’s stay in Finland’s capital, Helsinki, then a two-hour commuter flight to Kittila, an overnight there, and then a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride in a blizzard up to Hetta, well above the Arctic Circle. This is one of the few places in the world where a mushing operation will allow daring (actually daft) novices to drive their own dog teams. A challenge that’s irresistible to me. I prefer expeditions to vacations, and physical challenges to relaxation. I’ve already bonded with my five dogs – Aki is a mad-man; we connect at a core level.
As usual this morning, all the dog teams are raring to go. The phrase “straining at the leash” doesn’t begin to describe the enthusiasm of huskies eager to get on the trail. I pray the snow anchor, a heavy metal hook tethered to the sled that you bury in the snow, holds until it’s our turn to rocket out of camp.
Our trek will take us 150 miles in five days. We mush from about nine-thirty in the morning until four-thirty in the afternoon. But we’re also responsible for feeding and bedding down our dog teams every night, checking their paws for ice cuts, massaging their tired muscles. In the mornings, we feed them again, give them warm-up massages and hook them to the sleds. After three days, I’m covered in dog hair and I reek of wet dog (probably another reason I’ve bonded with my canine companions). Our accommodations are rustic wooden cabins, many heated with wood stoves, no running water, no electricity. Late night trips to the outhouse, through snow drifts lit by the moon and my headlamp, are part of the fun. Some of the camps also feature woodfired saunas for thawing out. Our human group is small, seven teams including our guide, Emily. But seven teams, times five dogs, (plus an extra dog on Emily’s team) that’s 36 high-octane huskies. Pasi Ikonen, owner of Hetta Huskies (http://www.hettahuskies.com/en), is supporting our trek, following us on a snowmobile pulling a boxy sled, filled with gear, food (for mushers and dogs) and a much-appreciated staple … rum.
My stiff muscles ache. You don’t just ride a dogsled — on the uphill parts of the trail you run in the snow behind or alongside your sled. So far, we’ve had only snow flurries, no significant new powder. The track has been firm and pretty forgiving, to a point…when the dogs pull too far to the side of the track you end up post-holing in soft snow. Too bad. Rule No. 1 of mushing? Don’t fall off, and if you stumble DON’T LET GO! The dogs WILL … NOT… STOP! They will leave you, lost in the vast white room. And if they catch up to the dog team running in front of them they’ll fight. A massive ball of tangled cables, sharp teeth and fur. I haven’t fallen … yet. Others have. It took 15 minutes for the fearless Emily to break up one snarling dog pile. Much of the trail is flat tundra, but we’re also passing through forested areas, up and down through glades and gullies. Getting wrapped around a tree is a real possibility — it happened to one of the guys yesterday. His shoulder is bruised and sore. The good news? The tree he body-checked hooked his sled and prevented his team from running off.
We’ve already seen the eerie Northern Lights, and today we’ll pass a large herd of reindeer. But right now, I’m as tightly wound as Aki and focused on the next couple of minutes. It’s almost my turn to navigate the twisting path out of camp and onto a frozen lake. Finally, Pasi, who’s barely holding onto the leaping and twisting Aki, hollers, “Ready?” “YES!” I yell and pull the snow anchor. To get them directed onto the trail, he runs holding the team’s cable for ten steps and then lets them go. With Aki stepping on the gas, my team pulls with every furry muscle and the sled accelerates to what feels like NASCAR speed. I balance on the skids and do a deep squat, keeping my center of gravity low and back, as the team makes two tight turns and then bounces down a short hill and finally onto the frozen lakebed.
I gasp and exhale a frosty breath. I’m still aboard. I can straighten up and slightly loosen my death-grip on the sled’s handlebar. My team gallops out ahead, now silent. They’re doing what they love … born to run.
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