Husky Dog Sledding: The true story of a beginner Musher
Its minus 20 degrees and I’m lying face down in 4 foot of fresh powdered snow. Its so cold, my face and body is yet to recognise the ever growing freezing sensation ripping through my face and down my neck. I manage to turn my face to the side, and through the silvery glints of the snow- I see my pack of 6 Husky dogs running free, merrily into the distance. Shit.
Its day 3 of my solo adventure to Tromso, Norway. And today is the day I’m about to tick off one of my lifelong bucket list dreams: Husky Dog Sledding. For many years, I’ve been in love with the Husky breed and often lose myself into the Facebook/Instagram algorithm for cute Husky pup videos.
We arrive at the Husky camp at 9am sharp, I’m already wrapped up in an excessive amount of layers, and have been profusely sweating-it-out for the 30-minute van ride it has taken myself and 9 other tour companions to get here.
I look around the bus and it becomes quickly obvious that I may be ever so slightly overdressed. I can’t stand the cold, and I feel it quickly, so the 4 thermal layers, 5 pairs of socks, electric hand warmers, head band, woollen polo neck and outer ski wear feel somewhat excessive. However, the old mantra plays in my head ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ -after all we are in the arctic circle ladies and gentlemen.
We arrive at the ‘Husky home’ to an eerily quiet guide who greets us from the bus.
Erm ‘where the dogs at?’ is my first thought. Instead I feel increasingly as if I’m playing a cameo in a budget horror movie; a bunch of international tourists all being blindly bundled into a shed in a remote farm in Tromso. Classic.
My mind is quickly put at rest however, when I spot some sort of large wolf running in the distance. Ok, huskies definitely exist here.
To my amazement ‘Martha’ our tour guide starts handing out even MORE layers- A black and red all in one snowman suit straight out of the 1970’s.
Martin, a solo traveller from Italy asks whether he really needs the extra snow suit, he of course already has his (intentional name swop) Camera Moose down- jacket, it is, of course, made for arctic temperatures. Martha just smiles, and calmly says its minus 20 degrees where we are going, and that’s without the wind chill factor, in her experience she suggests he take the jacket.
Martin smarmily declines. I smile at Martha and we exchange a glance that I just know means ‘Shove your Camera Moose jacket up your bum Martin, you condescending prick.’
I grab my 70’ ski suit and an extra pair of socks, just in case.
Kitted out, we head towards the demonstration area and what happens next, I’m not entirely confident it would pass UK healthy and safety regulations. Our lesson consists of a 2-minute sledding demonstration where our Mushers (Human pack leaders) basically scream at us to 1. Never let go of the sled, 2. Always have one-foot balancing on the break and 3.) when you going up hill, get pushing, your part of the pack now, you’ve got to help the dogs out. In the short tutorial one things becomes very clear, you have to be the boss. Husky’s don’t take kindly to weak characters, they can smell your fear and they will run rings around you. Fake it till you make it is our groups tune for the next 4 hours.
Right, got it, Have I? (inside I’m thinking shit, should have listened rather then taking selfies…but I digress). Its all happening pretty fast now, next thing I know, I’m walking up a snow covered hill and on the other side is 100 husky dogs barking and raring to go. Their sled reins are pulling taught and slack, they are barking, growling, fighting, nipping at each others necks. These puppies want to run. In fact, they look hungry for the kill. Are they? Instead a thought pops into my head-damn really wanted a selfie with these dogs- but at the moment they don’t look ‘Gram friendly’ so to speak. I need to change my priorities.
I position myself on the sled, a wooden contraption with a seat at the front for a passenger and two skis at the back where the driver (me) balances themselves. In the middle lies a giant metal fork (brake) that rests just on top of the snowline and it works similarly to every other sort of brake. To slow down the huskies press a little, to bring the dogs to a full stop, press the brake straight down and hold. Simple enough.
The Tour Mushers release our safety lines and shout at us to release our foot from the brake. I see Martin, jacket guy, accelerate into the distance, he’s screaming with apparent delight, but I know he’s shitting himself.
A small squeak pops out of my mouth, but I quickly snap my mouth shut as I can’t show these dogs any weakness. Tequila, my lead bitch (literally not metaphorically but more on that later) spins her head round at me with the sassiest look I have ever been given by a human, let alone a dog. Clearly she’s disappointed with her musher of the day, and the look of contempt on her face reads- good god guys, we’ve got a real novice on our hands. I give my sassiest look back to Tequila, I will not show her my fear, and release the break.
NB: You might think Tequila is a strange name for a Husky dog but it came as no surprise to me that all my dogs were named after an alcoholic spirit. With each season brings new litters of cubs and the Mushers name each litter of cubs with a theme in order to be able to identify them. Some were Disney Characters, others named after explorers and mountains, mine of course, alcohol.
I can’t remember much of the first 2 minutes, other then holding on for dear life- the breath-taking Norwegian scenery-which was sold to me as part of the experience is by the point totally paltry to me. It takes all of my being to just focus on gripping, balancing, breathing and steering my pack animals.
Damn they are fast. Unlike the Malamute Husky breeds, these Husky’s are cross breeds with Border Collie and as a result they run with their paws in front, rather then bouldering forward using their shoulder muscles. Somewhere between fearing for my life and the tears streaming through my eyes, I begin to realise how totally eloquent and as one they are looking. These are my bitches.
I have my left foot balancing on the metal break, and I soon figure out that this will be my dominant leg, because as soon as I try to give it a rest and swop to the right, my level of instability accelerates and fear restores once more.
Around me I hear screams of both terror and pain; Martin has to my absolute delight fallen off, and his husky’s are sprinting off merrily into the distance.
A French couple are slightly in front of me, the husband is steering and the women is on the passenger section. I can hear the faint words of ‘Caca’ which I know in French means poo. Has he pooed, has SHE pooed herself? To be honest I wouldn’t blame her, this is somewhat frightening. But almost in the same instant I notice my middle pack brothers ‘Hennessey and Jack’ start to defecate as they are running. Wow. That is impressive. I later learn that the as part of their sled training, the Husky’s are also trained to simultaneously run and go to the toilet at the same time. I find myself for the first time jealous of these dogs, that would save me a lot of time during my ironman I quietly think to myself.
3 miles have passed and I finally feel I’m getting into the hang of things, when the terrain goes downhill- I gently press the brake to ensure I don’t ram my poor dogs up the back side. Round a corner? I lean to the opposite side of the sleigh in order to counter balance the weight.
I’m feeling at one with the dogs, its me and them, me and my beasts roaming the Norwegian fjords and mountain tops. The wind is blistering cold, and my tears are freezing instantaneously but I’m feeling alive. This is what it's all about. Untouched snow, lays either side of me sparkling in the sunlight and despite the fact we are hurtling along at an ungodly speed, I am overwhelmed with a level of serenity I’ve not experienced in a while. My mind wanders and dreams of taking on the Iditarod challenge (1800km Husky sledding race) and I find myself daydreaming about being the first British women to not only complete the challenge but win it.
You absolute mug Lauren. As quickly as I have these thoughts I come to realise that not only are we flying downhill, but hurtling round a left hand bend. My brain still lingering on delusional dreams only allows my feet to do one thing, apply the brake (the only saving grace being I don’t hurt my pups back legs) but in the madness I’m unable to process that the sled it tipping quite unhealthily to the left hand side. In fact, its still tipping and as realisation dawns on me that good god, the sled is almost definitely going to flip, its already begun to happen. A short freefalling feeling, followed by a choking sensation, as my last drop of breath is ripped from my lungs and I’m face down in the sodding snow.
Jesus, where am I? I open my eyes and can only see white. No I’ve not died, I am just staring into the abyss of fresh powdered snow. Turn your head Lauren. It’s a weird combination between burning and freezing on my cheeks, but as I open my eyes and turn my head to the side, sound returns once more and I can hear the celebratory barks and triumphant paw slaps (ok I made that bit up) from my dogs as they release they have succeeded with their one true goal: losing their musher (me) for the day. I see tequila up the pace to drag herself and her dogs even further away from me, and I would even go as far as to say I saw her wink at me before turning face on and running for the hills.
You little bitch.
The tour mushers however, are fully prepared for this, and despite the lack of safety regulations they are never too far away to assist if shit really hits the fan. I get up, take a few deep breaths and start to head in the direction of the rest of the group and where I can see Martha holding onto Tequila et al. We check for any major injuries, non other then my bruised ego, and I insist I want to continue with my pack of unruly bitches.
I rock up and Hennessey gives me an apologetic eye gaze. I stroke his head and he licks my hand. Its alright dude I whisper to him, we are all ruled by women at one point in our life, its not your fault. Tequila upfront is yet to turn around and face me. I decide to bite the bullet and walk to the front of the pack and face her. I put my hand out in ball and let her sniff it, she’s not meeting my eyes but she slowly gives my hand a hasty sniff. ‘Hmmm’ I can see her dog clogs spinning, not so bad. 15 seconds later and our eyes lock. I smile at her, GOTCHA you little minx. Tequila after all is my favourite spirit and Margaritas are my favourite cocktail. We are in theory- a match made in heaven.
Martha the tour guide is smiling at me, and asks if I want to carry on. Absolutely. I position myself once more, and release the break and we are off heading for the mountain tops. This time Tequila giving me intermittent glances to check I’m ok. I lean with the sled as we go round bends, I apply the brake as we hurtle down hills and I fall off once more. Not in the spectacular circumstances as before, but enough that my face, hands and feet are screaming with freshness of the environment and dying for some sort of refuge from the protection of mother nature and the revelation that this is quite a physically taxing activity.
As the tour closes and I spot the camp just a short distance away, I tell myself to take it all in. I can see my dogs running in unison in front of me and they are a sight to see. Their lean muscles accelerating through the terrain, their hot breath steaming as it hits the cold air. Sort of beautiful. We pull up to the camp and my sled is handed back to the Tour Mushers. Tequila to my surprise gives me one last residing stare before she scampers off to join her pack. Whilst the rest of the dogs are watered and fed, the humans are led to a cosy tent, served hot coffee with thick cream and homemade chocolate cake. I pretend to not notice that I’ve taken two slices stuck together, ‘Oh would you look at that’ I say out loud-even though I’ve had my eyes on it for a while.
We all look like a congregation of drowned, then frozen wet rats, I’m thankful I chose to wear waterproof mascara, some ladies were not so fortunate. We exchange equals tales of peril, ‘no I REALLY thought I was going to die’ some say, and others are more annoyed with the lack of training, adamant they could have grasped mushing ‘with just 5 more-minutes of training.’
Martin shivers in the corner, quietly sipping his drink, his Camera Moose jacket lays drying next to the log fire. My much cheaper equivalent lies perfectly dry underneath the suggested ski suit.
Interested in Dog Sledding. For more infomation and a full breakdown of prices, check out www.pukkatravels.com