A Night Amongst the Dogs
Have you ever had an experience so incredible that when you sit down to write about it or tell your friends about it, you are at a loss for the words to tell the story?
That’s the predicament I find myself in now…. I am going to attempt to capture in words one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and I’m going to fail miserably. But I appreciate your willingness to give me a chance at success.
Right now I should be packing my bags to spend three weeks in Thailand; however, when I found out that I needed to quickly move back to Washington, DC for work, I had to abruptly change plans and cancel that trip. Eager to have one last European getaway before we left the continent, we booked a week in Finnish Lapland to see the aurora one last time. While some of our trip included the usual staples of nighttime snowshoe hikes and sky gazing for the aurora, we decided to get really adventurous and spend two days on a husky safari. This overnight trip would take us deep into the forest along the Finland / Sweden border, where we would make camp in a rustic cabin and care for our dogsled team.
We were both a bit nervous about this trip - we have previously done 15km dogsled rides, but this was going to be a trek unlike any previous. As we packed out suitcases, we added liberal supplies of snacks, wet wipes, and extra thermal underwear specifically for the unknown that an overnight dogsledding trip brings.
Our trip to Finland started with a bang as we had two great nights of aurora viewing, but we kept thinking about Friday, when we’d meet our dogsled teams and head into the wilderness. When the time came, we packed our overnight bag with a variety of warm clothing and equipment, and set out to meet our guide, Esa.
Esa is a Finnish man who has been working with dogsled teams for over 20 years. So he knows a thing or two about this adventure. Esa spoke English, though not as well as the Dutch mother / son team who also joined our safari, and gave us basic commands for gearing up and getting ready.
The first stop was to the equipment shed, where he gave us sleeping bags and liners. Loaded down with even more gear, we trekked into the dogsled pens to meet our teams.
Mike, the Photo Sherpa, would bring up the rear of the line with his team. I was third in line with my team of four dogs - Celina, Palvy, Oden, and Chicko. As we approached our teams, we saw all the equipment we needed to rig the sleigh waiting for us. First is the sled itself, which had a canvas zipper bag mounted in the frame for carrying our gear. Next were the four harnesses for the dogs and the lines and cables that connect the dogs to the sled. That’s it.
I know I made it sound like a lot of equipment, but at its core, dogsledding is a minimalist sport. It is only when you take into account the wood for a lunch fire, food for the dogs, spare harnesses, food for humans, axes, etc that the sport becomes more gear intensive. Anyway, Esa showed us how to put our dogs into the harness and we built our teams.
Each team has two leaders - mine were Celina and Palvy. These dogs are more ‘mature’ - they are more experienced and you could argue the sleds are self-driving because the dogs know where to go and how to ride these trails. Celina became my pal - her charisma and attitude was addictive. The other two dogs are the muscle. They follow the leaders and help pull the weigh of the sled, though they just follow the dog butt in front of them and don’t need to think about the journey like the leaders.
Before we get any further we need to discuss the human job in this whole affair. Esa taught us the basics of working the sleigh, but you learn best by doing, and that also applies to dogsledding. The majority of the sled is for hauling gear and cargo- the human cockpit is only a small bit at the end of the sled. There are two runners - wooden slats covered in a rubber grip material, that you put each foot on, and a handle that you cling onto for dear life.
Between the runners is a metal paddle with two spikes called the brake. When your foot isn’t in contact with the brake, springs keep it retracted and out of the way, but when you need to slow the sled, you move one foot off the runners and onto the brake, pressing down to dig the spikes into the snow to slow or stop the sled. There is no accelerator or gas - you are either braking or you are going. For longer stops, you can deploy a snow hook, which is a fancy looking boat anchor, and tie the sled to a tree so the dogs don’t pull it away. The dogs really don’t care if you are attached to the sled and ready to ride - if they can run, they will, so brake discipline is one of the first things a driver learns….
There is no steering wheel. Steering the sled is done by 1) praying your dogs won’t have the idea to run head first toward a tree and 2) leaning your body weight between the runners to counterbalance the sled. It works like a motorcycle - you have to lean into turns and curves so the sled doesn't tip over.
Driving basics out of the way, it was time to set off. I stood at the back of my sled, both feet on the brake, nervous with excitement. I won’t lie, when the snow brake and ropes had been removed, I felt a bit like someone had tied me to a rocket ship….. the only thing keeping me from blasting into space was that foot on the brake.
Go! Time for mistake #1. We had been told to ease off the brake, but having never experienced that before, it didn’t go well. Easing off was more like “let go” and the dogs rocketed out of the pen at full speed. If you have ever ridden the ‘Rockin’ Rollercoaster’ at Epcot - that’s what it felt like. I had just enough time to hear the other kennel staff yell “BRAKE” before flying out the gate, eyes bulging and knuckles white as a clung on for dear life.
Oh shit, what have I done? These dogs love to run, and the second they are free, they explode forth. I tapped the brake, trying to get a feel for the right speed, and hoping I would survive until my next birthday. Every time I touched the brake, the sound of the spikes scratching the snow caused one of my dogs to turn and give me a look of disgust. He was probably saying “can’t you see I’m working here” and frustrated I didn’t have more respect for his efforts.
I had a few minutes of riding relative flat to collect my nerves before the next endeavor - hills. On an uphill, you need to kick like a skateboard to help the dogs up the hill. More on this later. On the downhill (with the gravity assist), the sled is faster than the dogs, so you have to brake as the sled can go so fast that you’ll run over the dogs. All of this sounds good on paper, until the execution. Going uphill sucks because it’s slow and requires me to run uphill too - something I’m not good at during the best of situations, never mind when I’m wearing 10 layers of clothes and its snowing. But downhill, which inevitably comes after the exhaustion of uphill, is where death awaits.
On our first downhill, I was convinced I wouldn’t make it to dinner without loosing a few bones and limbs. The track we were riding had been made by snowmobiles that leave the snow bumpy. When I say bumpy, I’m not fooling around. It was like a downhill slalom course covered with a million speed bumps. So here I am, still trying to find my way around the sled, being bounced down a hill trying to keep the sled from running over the dogs.
Remember when I said you have to put a foot on the brake? Putting a foot on the brake - thereby preventing the brutal crushing of your dogs, requires removing one foot from a runner. The result is that your body weight is no longer evenly distributed over the sled, so now the whole contraption wants to lean slightly to one side.
Please form the mental image of me hanging onto the back of a sled for dear life, with one foot on a runner covered in slick snow and ice, one foot on the brake, leaning slightly and bounding down a bumpy hill. Yikes. I arrived at the bottom shocked more than anything - shocked that not only was I still alive, I still had all four dogs!
In addition to being exhausting, uphill also gave me a chance to dread downhill. On these climbs, my team would often stop pulling, turning to look at me with faces that said “could you have gone on a diet before this trip lady?” I would get off the sled and kick and jog to help push the team up the mountain, still clinging on for dear life in case they had a burst of energy that sent the team shooting up the mountain without me.
We experienced a huge diversity in the scenery as we rode - some spots were densely wooded and required keen attention to make sure the dogs didn’t send you flying into a tree, while other portions of the ride took us over frozen lakes, where we could let auto-pilot-dog take over and enjoy the scenery. Likewise, the snow conditions changed as we rode - in places it was nice and flat and well compacted. Other spots were deep and soft, so the dogs looked more like they were swimming than running. These patches of soft deep snow were another death trap in disguise.
To cool off, the dogs will take a bite out of the snow and rub their face in snow as they run. The best place to find fresh snow for eating is on the edge of the path, where the snow is a little higher from the ground. My team was all too happy to push that even further, forging their own path in the high snow so they could more easily snag a snow snack. If you have ever walked in snow and had your foot sink down further than expected as you step, then you know what is about to happen. Led into the soft snow, the sled starts to tip, and you have to lean with all your weight and might to keep it from flopping unceremoniously off the hard snow track.
Our team pulled us deep into the forest, past trees covered in fresh snow and ice, before arriving at our first stop - a small shelter for having lunch. These shelters are spread along the wilderness and are designed for communal use - they have a small area for sitting out of the weather, a fire pit, and usually an outhouse. I had been so pre-occupied with staying alive on the back of my dogsled that I didn’t realize my own hunger until we stopped at this shelter. After securing the sled dog team, we built a fire and dined on “Finland Hamburger” - a slice of pork, ham and cheese cooked in a cast iron skillet. Remarkably delicious meal, made even better by the surrounding scenery…….
As we ate, the dogs relaxed and cooled off in the snow. To my surprise, they were fairly quiet and mellow during this break - when the dogs are geared up and tied to the sled they get really animated, jumping and barking with excitement to go. Anytime we paused on the trail to re-group the dogs would immediately start howling and barking in protest, but as soon as the brake was released, a blissful silence fell over the team. So to hear the dogs be so calm while we ate came as a surprise, but I quickly learned they are smart enough to understand the immediate potential of running. When we were finished and packing up, they became animated again, knowing that a run was in their future.
We set off down the track, which had turned into a mostly flat frozen lake at this point. All of my senses were in overdrive. I took in the soft sound of pitter-patter paws running in the snow and the smooth crunch of the snow running under my sled. I smelled the ice cold air, which has been tested as some of the cleanest air anywhere in the world. I felt the light undulations of the sled below my feet and realized I was getting more comfortable driving. After 20km of riding, I finally felt like I was in my groove.
After almost four hours of riding, we turned off the frozen lake and into a small piece of property situated on the snow covered banks. I parked my dog sled team and tied off to a tree before looking to Esa for instructions.
The first rule of overnight dogsledding is that you take care of your team before taking care of yourself. Human dinner would come only after the dogs were attended to and fed. We took our stuff off the sled and started to untie our team. It took about 30 minutes to get the sled dog teams broken down - harnesses off, dogs secured, and gear unpacked. These steps were pretty easy - it was a reverse of the process we’d done earlier that day.
Esa summoned us to follow him into the sauna to get “water for dogs.” We followed and were promptly handed a sled, two large buckets, and one smaller bucket. Pointing out toward the lake, Esa said “water for dogs.”
It was a command. Go fetch water for the dogs. Um? We looked at each other bewildered. We had just ridden over the lake - I’m fairly sure it’s frozen….. and there is no running water in the cabin we were staying at. “Do we put snow in the bucket?” we asked Esa. He scowled at us with a look of “no stupid, I said water.” Seeing that we were stumped as to where we should source water that was in a form other than snow, he pointed to the lake again and said “water for dogs.” This didn’t help. One of our teammates asked Esa if there was an axe for us to cut a hole in the ice. Again Esa frowned. Clearly that was wrong. One last time he pointed “water for dogs.”
At this point we decided to just start walking with our empty buckets - maybe a source of water for dogs would become apparent if we started walking. Uncertain of how we were going to complete this seemingly simple sounding task, we embarked out toward the lake. Then we saw it. On top of the lake, a few feet out from the shore was a metal lid sitting on the ice. Someone had previously drilled a hole through the frozen lake, and we just hadn’t been able to see the access point until walking out to the water. Lifting the lid, we saw a thick layer of ice on the top of the lake, with a hole big enough for us to stick a small bucket through and scoop out water. Got it - water for dogs.
We plunged our hands into the freezing water to pull out enough buckets of water to fill our two larger pails. Fully loaded, we worked as a team to haul our water back to land. We chuckled at how stupid we must have sounded to Esa as we questioned his instruction of “water for dog,” but realized then that our instructions didn’t include a destination for our freshly collected water. Knowing the water was for dogs, we decided to haul it to the dogs….. We guessed wrong. A moment later Esa came out yelling that water had to go to sauna, around the other side of the cabin. I wish there had been a camera on my face that instant, because the look of confusion would be worth a million bucks. We had just gotten water for dogs, here are dogs, why are we going to the sauna?
We followed Esa’s instructions and carried the water into the sauna, where he told us the water was going to warm to make “soup for dog.” Equipping us with an axe, he sent us back outside, now to hack at a frozen slab of meat. This slab, which is chicken and pork, is literally a frozen block of meat. So we took turns hacking at the slab with the axe to pull apart the meat into smaller frozen chunks. We placed a small amount of the meat into one bucket and the remainder in a second bucket. Sensing our our confusion, Esa told us that the dogs got a two course dinner - first was “soup for dogs” then came the main entree, which is what most of the meat was for. But before the entree could be served, the now hacked meat needed to defrost in the water that was now warming in the sauna. Things were coming full circle for us, and Esa’s madness started to make a lot more sense.
“Soup for dog” is really a generous term for the meal, as it’s mostly water mixed with a small amount of the meat and some dry kibble. Each dog got one ladle of soup into a bowl, and it quickly struck us as ironic to prepare soup, because dogs didn’t want soup. Almost all of the dogs used their nose, mouth or paw to unceremoniously dump the soup onto the ground, picking out only the kibble and meat slurry. This also explained why the snow in the area was so discolored - it wasn’t urine from dogs, it was dumped over soup from previous dog teams that had frozen. Clearly the dogs are rebelling to soup!
Before the main course, the dogs needed time to digest the soup they didn’t eat and for the main course meat to melt. So Esa gave us another task - chopping firewood for the sauna and fireplace in our cabin. The wood stored on the property was too big to put in the small sauna and fireplace, so again we were handed an axe and given something to chop. We filled the sled with wood, then dragged it to the sauna. I just made the wood chopping process sound fast, but it was slow at best. None of us have a career as a lumberjack waiting for us…..
The chores were never ending, but I found them to be the most fun chores I’ve ever done. At some point Esa handed me a large jug and again pointed to the lake, telling me to get water before adding “safe for drink.” Oh, right. The hole where water for dogs came from is the same hole where water for human would also come from. My confidence in Esa’s statement that the water was safe for us to drink wavered as I eyed the light brown tinge to the lake water. Thankfully Esa would mix the lake water with a juice mix, giving it a red hue and making it easier to forget the origin of the water.
At last the main course was ready, so we hauled the meat stew out to the dogs, who sensed the meal they really wanted was upon them. They howled and stood on their hind legs, jumping with excitement. The main, which had the consistency of a stew, was quickly devoured by all of the dogs. As we finished picking up bowls and cleaning up for the night, the dogs got ready for bed by curling into little balls and laying in holes in the ground covered with straw. According to Esa, even though it was below freezing outside, it was still warm for the dogs, and that made me feel better about having them sleep outside all night.
With the dogs tended to (we kept saying “soup for dog” and “water for dog” all night), we finally retreated into the cabin for some human rest and relaxation. The cabin is rustic, but very nice. There is no electricity or running water, but it had separate bedrooms, a large dining table, a kitchen, and an out house in the back. For me, the out house was the low point, but not because I’m a germaphobe. Using the toilet meant having to brandish bare skin in 20*F / -8*C temperatures! Thankfully waste in the toilet freezes quickly, which helped control any ode. The other problem with using an out house was that it took a lot of work to use the bathroom, so we all tried to wait until the last possible moment before bed to pee, else we had to don 20 layers of clothes for a middle of the night trip.
We sat around the candlelit table socializing and sharing tales of our adventure while Esa cooked up a meal of mashed potatoes, reindeer meat, bread, cookies, crackers, cheese, etc. It was a feast - there was nothing rustic about our dinner! As I reached for a second portion of reindeer meat, I could envision my dogs looking at me the next morning when we got to the first hill - no doubt they would be able to tell that I’d had seconds!
With a full belly and exhausted from a day of dogsledding, we were ready for bed. I crawled into my sleeping bag and laid down to great dismay. Mike and I had chosen the bunks with the world’s thinnest mattress. In hindsight, we should have gone into the main room where there were more bunkbeds with reasonably sized mattresses, but exhaustion over took me, and I laid down. It wasn’t a very restful sleep - anytime I got cozy, the dogs would start howling outside, jerking me back to reality. By the morning, my back was pretty sore from the non-existent mattress, and back pain coupled with howling dogs only complicated the issue.
The following morning Esa told us that the dogs were unusually loud - as he put it: “Dog no sleep, I no sleep.” That makes two of us. At 2 o’clock in the morning, Esa went out to check on the dogs because they were being so noisy, and he attributed it to one of the dogs in the group that he usually doesn’t work with and belongs to another guide. This dog would start to howl, which got the rest of the dogs feeling animated. But when Esa emerged to make sure everything was okay, the dogs all fell silent…. for a few minutes.
I was groggy from a very restless sleep, punctuated by sore back and shoulders, but dogs and dogsledding doesn’t wait for the weary! We had another feast of a breakfast and then went out to tend to the dogs before cleaning up and setting out. The dogs need time to digest their morning soup before running, but since we were seasoned pros at making “soup for dog”, it was much faster to serve than the night prior. Again, most of the dogs dumped their soup onto the ground. We moved amongst our teams, patting the dogs on the head and checking that everyone was ready to embark on the day.
My team was exceptionally well behaved, though all of the dogs were friendly and personable. The exception was Celina - my leader. She wasn’t just personable, she had so much personality that she might have been part human. Whenever I got near her, she jumped up wagging her tail and with eyes wide hoping you were coming to scratch her ears. She loved to shove her head on my leg and lean against me in a sign of love. She’d stand on her hind legs to greet me, and was always sweet and affectionate with me. Celina was the leader of the team, and I loved having a lead dog that I could bond with so quickly.
We cleaned up the cabin and started to pack our sleds to depart, which the dogs recognized. They became more animated and excited seeing us pull out the ropes and harnesses, and were happy to get suited up for the ride. The really smart dogs, like Celina, would even lift their paws as you put the harness on so you could more easily slide it on them - they were experienced pros!
We built our teams again - muscle dogs in the back were connected first, followed by the leaders. In the few minutes between building our sled dog team and the start, the dogs jumped and howled with excitement. The forest echoed with the sound of 20 dogs eager to run. At last, we picked up our snow hooks, let off the brake, and were off. The silence was immediate - the pitter-patter of paws was the only sound.
Esa told us that we’d take the same route back that we took out, because he thought the dogs ran better in the woods and forest than over large open lake, which was the alternative route. I gulped knowing that meant we’d face some of those bastard hills again, but felt far more comfortable on the sled than I had the day previous. Keeping my knees bent and hips relaxed, I absorbed the bumps gracefully, almost having fun with some of them as it started to remind me of a roller coaster. I think this is the key to dogsledding - if you are too rigid and tight, you’ll feel every bump and will be more white knuckled. But if you relax and let your body roll with the sled, it is far more enjoyable.
Of course there are times you still have to use your body to drive - again my dogs found a high snow drift and brought us dangerously close to tipping as we caught the soft snow. I had one particularly close call with falling off the sled, which happened as I went to move my foot back from the brake to the sled runner. The rubber grip section where my foot normally rests had a big patch of ice on it, and when my foot hit the ice, it slid off. I was in the middle of redistributing my weight back to that foot, so my whole body gave out and I had to hang onto the sled with my arms as I regained my footing. For a brief moment I thought I was going to loose my grip and fly off, but I managed to recover….but if there had been a bump in the snow around that point, I almost certainly would have fallen off on the bump. As it was, Esa remarked his surprise that none of us ever fell off our sleds, and no one wanted to be the person who ruined that record!
On the way back we again stopped for lunch in a shelter, this time enjoying some pork and reindeer sausages over the open fire. We were only a few kilometers from the kennel when we paused for lunch, and the dogs knew it, so they were more restless than before. In their minds there was no reason to stop here, we were almost home! And more doggy soup awaits….
I was filled with sadness as we pulled into the kennel. I could have trekked for several more days with my team - the peace and serenity of being that deep in the forest is a sensation I rarely experience, and I wanted to savor it forever. But my dogs were hungry, and after two hard days of hauling my butt up and down mountains, they deserved some TLC.
Pulling into the kennel, the other dog teams went straight, while my team turned hard right. They have pretty good autopilot, so I let them go for a second thinking they must know another route to get to the kennel. Nope. Turns out one of the dogs on my team belongs to another guide, so he lives someplace else, and he had vetoed the other dogs and was leading us to his kennel. It took a few minutes to get sorted out and untangled, but alas, we were back.
At this point there was no doubt in my head about the intelligence of my dog team, but it was once again put on display as we took them out of their harnesses. They didn’t need to be guided back to their dens and houses - they knew where they lived. We let them out of their harness and they went home naturally. We followed behind serving a last round of dog soup and patting them on their heads for a job well done.
It was with a heavy heart that I said goodbye to my team, especially Celina. As I approached herkennel to say goodbye, she ran over and stood up with her paws on the fence, putting her paw on top of my hand to say farewell. I got a little choked up we linked paw / hand through the fence, and thanked her for taking such great care of me during the past two days.
The whole experience, which has taken almost 8 pages to write up, is one of the most memorable of my life. It was incredibly surreal to experience Finland and the Arctic like that, and the relationship and bond I made with my team in such a short time will stay with me for the rest of my life.
The photos that appear in this entry were taken with the Leica SL and Leica M 240 camera (with 28mm Summaron lens). I was able to tuck the Leica M into my jacket and pull it out as we rode, snapping some of these photos on the go.
I booked my trip through Artisan Travel: https://www.artisantravel.co.uk