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Saturday, 18 February 2017

Visiting the Sámi Village of Rávttas

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One of the biggest selling points of our stay at Björkliden Fjällby was its unmatched view of the Lapporten, a U-shaped valley in the stretch of mountains overlooking Abisko. We were told that according to old Sámi folklore, this natural spectacle was considered the gateway to Swedish Lapland, where the indigenous peoples of Scandinavia have lived for millennia out amidst the ice and snow. On our last full day north of the Arctic Circle, we travelled over an hour on a Visit Abisko bus to get a taste of Sámi culture, on a journey that took us far past the Lapponian Gate. 


Day trips to the sameby of Rávttas is a typical part of the itinerary for visitors to Abisko, providing a fleeting glimpse at the traditional lifestyle of the Sámi. Historical records of these people date back centuries, with Tacitus in Rome writing about them hunting through the forests and mountains in 98 A.D. Reindeer husbandry came in later centuries, but soon became a cherished resource intertwined with their lives and culture.  


In a land of polar night and the midnight sun, seasons are affixed to the rhythms and movement of the herd - a year-long business of calving, marking, grazing and corralling. Today, all the reindeer in Sweden are owned by the Sámi. Inherited from generation to generation, the reindeer form part of their birthright. There's no such thing as a wild reindeer, as all of them are from one herd or another. At this point it must be noted that asking a Sámi how many reindeer they own is as crass as asking a rancher how many acres and cows they have, so don't do it. 


A sameby is often referred to as a Sámi village, but clear all mental images you may have of quaint log cabins perched on snowy knolls - it's more an administrative union than anything else. Like people everywhere across the world, the Sámi are thoroughly modern. Of the approximately 20000 Sámi who live in Sweden, less than 10% are actively involved in reindeer herding, even if they own some livestock. Many are also keen to stress that as much as they are Sámi, they're also very much Swedes. 



There's a delicate balancing act between the need to preserve and share Sámi culture, while also acknowledging that this isn't necessarily how most Sámi live anymore, explained our host. Even the everyday reality of herding reindeer is more than a little different to how it was done in the past. Dressed in a traditional kolt, he told us stories of reindeer herding in the 21st century, which involve lots more ATVs than you probably imagined. 


So if you're looking to see something exotic and utterly unchanged, this isn't for you. What you can expect though, is a learning experience about the naturally evolving traditions and culture that the Sámi remain proud of. And of course, you'll learn more about reindeer than you knew before. 


Visiting Rávttas isn't complete without getting up close with some reindeer, and that's exactly what we did. The first reindeer we encountered had massive horns, from which strips of fur hung off, the underneath looking surprisingly red and raw. Reindeer are the only species of deer where both the males and females grow and shed antlers each year - when these grow in, they're rubbery masses of blood and marrow covered in fur, which is then rubbed off against trees or bushes once the antlers harden. 


Male reindeer typically lose their antlers after the mating season is done in early winter, while the females keep theirs till spring. If you've ever visited the LA Zoo during Christmastime, you'll notice that all their Santa-ready reindeer are female, which means one thing: Robert L. May hadn't the first clue about reindeer biology. The only way Rudolph wasn't female, according to our host, was if he was a castrated male. Most male reindeer herded by Sámi are castrated young, which reduces aggression and tension among the herd and make them easier to manage. 




Each of the reindeer has its own distinct personality, and we were able to see it most clearly not while we were feeding them nutrient-rich moss, but during the reindeer sled ride. It was a simple set-up: One person to a sled, pulled by a single reindeer. The somewhat grumpy one I harnessed turned out to be the Ferrari of reindeers, careening down the snowy path with reckless abandon. All the children were enthralled, and immediately demanded that one. Those who ended up with a gentler ride had to contend with  reindeer that stopped in the middle of the ride to have a curious nibble through a patch of snow, slowed down to have a breather, or in one memorable incident, refused to move completely and had a bit of a poo. 






Sledding aside, we were also taught the art of lassoing reindeer, which doesn't involve splashy overhead rope spins, but a simple toss and pull. We practiced on a stationary set of antlers, which for some of us (I.E. Me), was difficult enough. The true test came when you had to try and catch the antlers when someone was running around with them. This, I did not dare attempt, though other people in the group tried, and were quite successful. 



We enjoyed lunch in a lávvu, where our meal of smoked reindeer meat was cooked in butter over a roaring wood fire. Wrapped in warm Sámi gahkku (The Lebanese family on the tour marvelled at how similar it was to pita bread), the reindeer was remarkably tender, and utterly delicious. A treatise on the benefits of reindeer meat soon followed, highlighting its virtues of being both low in fat yet high in omega 3 and 6 essential oils, as well as rich in minerals and vitamins like B12. There's also a particular trait of reindeer meat that's absolutely apt for the Lapland climate: it's apparently the only meat that can be frozen and defrosted up to seven times without any significant worsening of texture. Washed down with cool, tart lingonberry juice, we polished it all off in no time. 



When the meal was through, we settled in by the fire to listen to more stories, the smell of smoke sinking into our hair and our clothes, the only other thing we'd take back with us to Abisko. 




Friday, 10 February 2017

Chasing the Aurora with Lights Over Lapland

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We've made pilgrimages for stargazing before, certain that the heavens would open up and show us some magic. Yet we've been foiled each time - whether by moon, or cloud, or fog. Still, we persist, ever-hopeful, and when D announced that we'd be heading to Sweden so we could check off his and M's Bucket List dream (mine too!) of seeing the Northern Lights in person, we prepared ourselves for watching, waiting, and lots of prayer in the freezing cold. They say that staying 3 nights in Abisko gives you an 80% chance of seeing the Aurora, so being kiasu Singaporeans, we stayed 4 to up our odds. Off the Map Travel made most of the arrangements for us, designing our itinerary to maximize our chances.

Our main hope of seeing the lights lay in our visit to the the Aurora Sky Station in Abisko, a site which looks perfect on paper. According to Lonely Planet, it's the #1 spot in the world to see the Northern Lights. Perched 900 m above sea level at the top of Mt Nuolja, the Sky Station is situated far away from much of the light pollution of the town. Sitting in the middle of a ring of mountains, Abisko also possesses what the locals fondly call a "Blue Hole", a quirk of the local micro-climate. This means it receives far less precipitation than any other location within the vaunted Aurora Oval this far north of the Arctic Circle, or anywhere else in Europe for that matter. In other words: optimum conditions for Aurora sightings. 




The heavens had other ideas. Peculiarly warm weather brought with it overcast skies, and all we got for our efforts the first night was a pale and sickly looking glow on the edge of a cloud for a couple of minutes, then nothing for the entire three hours I stayed up there. M & BB were too fatigued the next night, but not to be deterred, D & I went back up the next night once we got word they could squeeze us in. After all, no quest is truly satisfying unless there are a few obstacles thrown in.

The drill at the Sky Station is simple: stay warm indoors and listen to the talks on how Auroras are formed. If and when something interesting pops up on the live camera feed, charge outside with everyone else. Battling the elements, and in my case a nasty fever, we belly crawled up the side of the icy mountain in the dark the moment the alarm sounded. Ah, the crazy things we'll do once we set our minds to it. 


And then there they were, thin strips of green ribbon undulating in the night sky. Near the horizon, a hint of shimmering pink mist, flickering in and out of existence by the light of a full moon. Nothing like we'd seen in the pictures, but startling and magnificent nonetheless. In real time, we were seeing supercharged particles from the sun interact with the Earth's upper atmosphere, the energy released in the form of colourful lights - here one moment, gone the next.




The Sky Station had given us the briefest taste of cosmic lights, but it wasn't till our final evening that we were able to properly satisfy our desire to take in the Aurora, with the Lights Over Lapland nightly photography tourThere's a good reason why Lights Over Lapland run the top ranked activity for visitors to Abisko - while they can't control the Aurora, every other detail has been thoughtfully planned out. From equipment that will rise to the occasion when called for (Everyone in the group is armed with a preset DSLR and matching tripod, with a camera backpack for transporting things around. They even provide boot grips so you'll have an easier walk across the snow and ice), to professional guides who'll help you at every step along the way (We were mentored by Sarah and Andy Skinner, two amazing wildlife and nature photographers who taught us more than a few camera tricks), everything was ready for us. All we had to do was point at the Aurora as they appeared, and shoot. Together, our small group camped out for a few hours in Abisko National Park, just a stone's throw away from the lodge that the company is based out of. And finally, we got very lucky indeed. 




In Finland they have old stories about the Aurora being the sparks thrown off by the Fire Fox that runs across the sky, while here in Sweden, some Sámi tales say they're a manifestation of ancestral spirits, and something that needs to be treated with respect. The Northern Lights have also been thought to be the Bifrost, a bridge between worlds, or a portend of good things to come. There's something distinctly otherworldly about these mesmerizing arcs of light, dancing across the sky. The reality of how the Northern Lights are formed is no less spectacular, involving highly charged particles from the Sun hurtling towards us through space, and interacting with the Earth's magnetic field. The lights occur at an altitude of at least 80 km above the surface of the Earth, when solar particles impact with the atmosphere. Depending on the gas they hit, different coloured light is emitted - deep reds and blues for Nitrogen, or bright greens and reds for Oxygen. 



We were one of thousands who were compelled to go see the Aurora after reading the articles proclaiming the end of Solar Maximum and the beginning of Solar Minimum, supposedly marking the end of such spectacular lights for years to come. The actual science is not quite so doom and gloom, as Sarah explained to us over hot lingonberry tea. Yes, sunspot energy is moving towards a low, but such coronal mass ejections (the bursts of plasma streaming out of the sun) aren't the only things that result in Auroras. Magnetic activity creates coronal holes in the surface of the Sun, blasting solar winds in our direction that also create spectacular Northern Lights, and none of this goes away at any point in the solar cycle. It remains a matter of luck, timing and location, but you'll still be able to see the Northern Lights for years to come.



If you're a homebody, let me tell you now that the Northern Lights actually do look much better in pictures than in real life, mostly because our eyes can't distinguish colours at night as well as a good camera can. But when you're able to stand amazed under an intense show as we were, there's nothing quite like it. 

Some nights, the groups that go out are only able to glimpse little spots of lights, and have to stand focused and ready to be able to capture them. In contrast, it felt like we were at an Aurora buffet. At first, it was hard to decide which angle to start with - we were so afraid the lights were all going to dissipate. This led to a lot of frantic shots of various corners of the sky, swivelling the tripod this way and that. Eventually it dawned on us that we'd been gifted with the opportunity to take our time. For that night at least, the lights weren't about to disappear on us. As the Aurora came and went like emerald and silver curlicues stretching across a scrolling page, we were able to properly compose our shots, experiment with shutter speeds, pose for family photos, and even sprawl out on the ground to watch the show. I wouldn't call Aurora hunting a very relaxing activity, but on this night, it certainly felt quite an indulgent one. 




Eventually, when the adrenaline from seeing so much light finally wore off, I made myself comfortable in the tent where Sarah and Andy had built a nice big fire. As I lay on some reindeer pelts, there were the world's largest marshmallows to toast and stuff my face with, more cups of deliciously tart tea, and the satisfaction of an evening well-spent. 

One more thing crossed off the Bucket List - now onto the next adventure. 




Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Mindful Beauty Reboot: 7 Mindful Beauty Hacks for 2017

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It's the third week of January, traditionally a time when all my resolutions somehow fall by the wayside in spite of my own best intentions. At this point, I know myself well enough (50% desperately wishing to be more organised, 100% garbage fire) to understand that most times, SMART goal-making just doesn't work so well. So instead of setting up endless detailed to-do lists that I'll likely misplace and never get round to, this year I just resolved to incorporate mindfulness into my life. 

Mindfulness isn't about successfully going into deep meditative trances. Rather, it's the act of being present, and embracing greater self-awareness in life. Becoming more mindful is an almost unquantifiable goal, and somehow that's helped me break out of my bad habit of taking an all-or-nothing approach to life. I'm taking things slow, but more importantly, I'm still at it, and enjoying the journey. By being kinder to myself, and building new routines from the ground up, my life is taking on more positive patterns at a realistic pace. 

I've been taking a really useful online course on the subject called The Art of Mindfulness Meditation, and while I'm still nowhere near being able to sit still and meditate, I've found that incorporating some of the exercises to my daily beauty regime has helped me establish a more effective routine (my skin thanks me), and get more comfortably into the groove of mindful practices. Here are the seven things that have helped me the most:



Mindfulness Hack 1 - Take the time to nurture and care for yourself

Setting aside the time and space to focus on the present moment is imperative when you're just getting started with mindfulness. I'm self-aware enough to know that sitting and doing nothing makes me antsy, so the part of the day I've carved out for mindfulness is now also self-care time. Instead of rushing through whatever I remember to do each day while my brain is on a plane somewhere far off, I try to bring my thoughts and focus back to the admittedly fairly pleasant task at hand. Unless you're feeling extra-indulgent, you don't even need that much time - my full head-to-toe hair, skin, and body care drill is done in the ten minutes before I go to bed, and I spend that time trying to fully focus on whatever I'm doing. And if you can't even manage that, you're probably in desperate need of some time to spend on yourself. 



It starts with my hair, and a pump of Milbon Deesse's Elujuda Mellow Oil Hair Treatment, which came in 3rd in the entire Hair Care category at Cosme's 2016 Best Cosmetics Awards. Made from a base of Baobab Oil and mixed with Olive Squalene and Argan Oil, it feels slightly thick at first touch, but is actually amazingly light and non-greasy. Rub it between your palms to warm it up and release the gentle floral scent of the oil, which has a really nice and relaxing quality. Then, finger-comb it through your hair, paying extra close attention to the ends. 

While this leave-in treatment is usually used in salons as a pre-styling product to ensure perfect blow outs every time, it's also the best hair softener out there. My hair is on a coarser side, and after spending much of December on the road through wintry climes, I started the new year with my worst hair ever. Each time I apply the Mellow Oil, I can see and feel it imparting a subtle lustre, and an obvious conditioning effect. I'm now waking up in the morning with silky smooth curls, which is honestly very exciting. 


Mindfulness Hack 2 - Reflect on the day

Learning how to acknowledge and accept things that happen (Without judgement!) can be an absolute trial, but it's also the first step to greater insight and calm, which doesn't just impact your overall mental well-being, but also your skin. It is so, so easy to get sucked into a never ending cycle of did-I-do-this-well-enough, which makes it all the more valuable to step back, and sort out what was truly important, from all the petty stuff. 



The Bifesta Enrich Cleansing Lotion helps remove makeup, cleanse and tone skin, and add lustre to your complexion with an array of moisturising agents like Hyaluronic Acid, and Coenzyme Q10, which helps act as an anti-oxidant. There are three other Cleansing Lotions in the Bifesta line, each targeting particular skin care concerns (Like dehydration, clogged pores, or acne) with specific ingredients including Lactic Acid and Vitamin CThe gentle and non-irritating Enrich formula looks and smells faintly milky, and like all the other lotions in the line, is created free from oils, colourants, fragrance, alcohols, and parabens. 

On its own, the solution definitely helps remove most traces of foundation and eyeshadow, but more stubborn eyeliners and mascaras may not budge fully. As a big believer in double cleansing, I use the Bifesta Enrich Cleansing Lotion only after thoroughly removing my makeup with maNara's Hot Cleansing Gel. I saturate cotton pads with three pumps of the lotion, then place them all over my face. I've taken to journalling while leaving the skin care ingredients to soak into my skin, which is a great tool for self-reflection. Once I'm done sketching out my day for future Abigail to marvel over, the sweep the pads across my face and neck, catching all the stray remnants of makeup or dead skin. Afterwards, my face feels refreshed and toned, and plump with moisture. 


Mindfulness Hack 3 - Do a full body scan

Checking in with your body and regulating your breathing is a great way to wind down, and provides an excellent framework for allowing your thoughts to order themselves. Being consciously present in your own body is also a really nice way of feeling more comfortable in your own skin. I've been doing this regularly after exercise, and feeling my muscles ache in places I didn't even know I had muscles has made me more driven to building my strength. 

I can't quite get the hang of just lying down and bringing my focus to my toes, so I'm now moisturising with firm intent instead. 


Majolica Majorca has always struck me as a rather romantic sort of brand, and their special winter sky-inspired Christmas 2016 range is no exception. The sole hair and body care product is the limited edition 2016/17 Fall/Winter Majolica Majorca Twinkle Body Jelly, which doesn't actually leave your skin looking glittery. Instead, yellow "stardust" capsules laden with with emollients and a heady perfume are suspended in a purple gel. Spread out, the effect is reminiscent of far-off galaxies.  It takes a while to massage the melty capsules in properly, which provides the right amount of time for you to tune in to what each of your body parts are telling you. If your thoughts inevitably drift to how we are all made of stardust, or the possible heat death of the universe, just let them flow, and then  gently herd them back. 

Remember to breathe!


Mindfulness Hack 4 - Be more conscious of your actions

My morning makeup routine has always been rather slapdash, which means I always forget something. Robotically going through the motions however, isn't what we're aiming for either. Actually paying close attention to what you're doing is immensely helpful, especially when you've got something sharp and pointy very close to your eye. 


The Heroine Make Tenmade Todoke Long and Curl Super Water Proof Mascara is beloved of many a Japanese lady, for excellent reason. Beautifying ingredients like Camellia Oil, Argan Oil, and Royal Jelly Extract have been added to this mascara to care for your lashes, but more importantly, it does what it says on the packaging. The hyper-pigmented fibre-in mascara formula creates a quick-drying waterproof "cling film" around your lashes, and you can build on it for extra drama. I haven't tried crying with this mascara on yet, but it definitely smudges a lot less than other brands I've used before. 

Rather than the traditional zig-zagging motion, the curved brush has been specially designed to mimic the contours of the eye, meaning this is a mascara that needs to be brushed on in straight upward movements, fanning out in sweeps towards the outer corners of your eyes. Devoting your fullest attention to proper application pays off beautifully.  



Mindfulness Hack 5 - Start small!

So you have dreadful beauty habits that you want to change. Trust me, nothing's going to change overnight. The best thing to do is begin with a small and totally manageable step. 

2016 saw me juggle 7 different lip balms - a sorry tale of loss, replacement, grimly repeating the process, and suddenly being swamped during a rare Marie Kondo influenced spring clean. This year, I'm trying a different tactic, by placing three different lip balms in three locations I'm most likely to search for them - one in the bathroom, one on my bedside table, and one in my bag. Once I'm done with a lip balm, I put it back where it belongs. 


I cart the Pure Smile Delicious Lip Cream in Roasted Sweet Potato with me throughout the day, mostly because I can't get over how it smells exactly like my favourite sweet potato cake. I love it so much that I'm far more careful with it than I usually am about my lip balms, which is a great thing. Pure Smile is generally all about moist, plump skin with a dash of fun - think sheet masks that might help you role-play warring state factions, or Chinese New Year ready chicken print sheet masks. They have an extensive selection of different lip care products, but the Delicious Lip Cream range is one of their most popular. Right now, they're completely out of stock for their Chocolate Mint, Caramel Popcorn, and Freshly Baked Bread flavours. The rest of the range include Corn Potage (Omg!), Apple Pie, and Hot Cakes. 


Mindfulness Hack 6 - Practice some form of creativity

There's nothing quite like creating something utterly unique, and your face is one of the best canvases to practice on. There are so many ways to scale up or scale down, and if you really hate anything, it's easy to wipe the slate clean and start over. There are so many great makeup tutorials and tips out there, and you won't know what really works for you until you try. Besides, slowly expanding your beauty horizons is a great way to prepare yourself for growth in other areas in your life. 


I have hitherto shied away from sparkly eyeshadows, preferring less loud matte pigments. I recently came to the realization that much of the problem lay in the trashy sort of eyeshadows I'd previously used. In fact, there's really nothing that imparts a fresh and healthy glow like a subtly shimmery eyeshadow. DHC collaborated with Disney for their very special Christmas product releases, and the adorable Marie of the Aristocats graces the DHC Essence In Eyeshadow. The Marie collection consists of eyeshadows, lipsticks, and blushes in flattering shades, all imbued with the great ingredients that DHC uses for its effective and fuss-free skincare products. The cream-gel Essence In Eyeshadow in GD01 is a deep bronze if you lay it on thickly, but if you pat in a pearl-size amount across both eyelids, you're left with a very pretty champagne glimmer. 




Mindfulness Hack 7 - Open yourself up to possibility

Whether it's a new shade of lipstick, or an overhaul of your entire beauty regime, if you're able to live in the moment when you try something new, it'll make more of a positive difference. 



And of course, if you want to try any of the products that I or any of the other Wonect Starlets have featured, use the code ABIGAIL<3 to get 15% off over at Wonect, which brings the newest and best Japanese products to you (no matter where you are!) direct from Kyoto. 

Friday, 6 January 2017

Huskies in the Arctic Circle! Dog Sledding Around Abisko National Park

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What no one tells you about husky sledding is this: the smell hits you first. Images of the activity help conjure up the vague, inchoate scent of snow and pine, while all anyone ever talks about is how thrilling it is, getting caught up in the excitement of the dogs, the absolutely breathtaking landscape. So there's nothing that really prepares you for how your first introduction involves getting bashed over the head with a strong dose of l'eau de wet dog, before it settles and permeates everything - earthy, musty, and vaguely sulphurous. 

It had taken us three flights and an hour-long taxi ride to get to Abisko-Björkliden, which is about 250 km into the Arctic Circle, and as far north as we've ever been. The low light and lingering fog of our first morning cast the entire world with a dream-like haze. It was like the sky was reaching down to touch the earth, the sort of sight that makes you not quite believe you're actually there. But there's nothing quite like an unmistakably pungent odour to snap you fully into the present moment and force everything into hyper-reality. We were here, and so were the Alaskan huskies. 


Whenever we engaged in any activities that involved going into the great outdoors, to protect our delicate constitutions, over our own layers of clothing (Praise be UNIQLO Extra Warm HEATTECH) we were fully kitted out with cold weather jumpsuits, and thick boots that I took to calling snow wellies. Still, in spite of how much we suffered, we were informed that in fact, it wasn't as cold as it should have been. Even the Alps were colder, bemoaned one of our guides, a Frenchwoman who for years had lorded Abisko's superiority over her friends back home. 

Abisko has been suffering an unseasonably warm winter, which meant that during our visit in December, the insufficient snowfall was affecting the skiing, and creating rather treacherous road conditions as the melt-off would freeze over in the night. Despite the kennel being located in Björkliden Fjällby, not 300 m away from where we were at Hotell Fjället, for the safety of the dogs we weren't going to risk moving until we could be absolutely sure the way was clear.  Eventually, things eased up enough that they felt confident enough to board the dogs onto their trailer and come up to get us. Smell aside, our first introduction to the Alaskan huskies that would pull our sled was bright eyes and and excited sniffles. 


Slowly and carefully, our convoy of 10 people and 23 dogs made our way to the start point at Abisko National Park, going past the Torneträsk, a lake formed from the remains of an earlier glacier, standing at nearly half the size of Singapore and reaching depths of 168 metres. When the lake freezes over, the ice is metres thick, and perfect for cross-country ice skating. Looking over the vast expanse of rippling water, it seems almost inconceivable that such a thing could happen. As is grows, the ice apparently groans and creaks, from cracking and reforming, which sounds perfectly interesting. Unless of course, you're standing on it, out in the middle of the lake.

Abisko is a thing of beauty, and the park itself, which was established in 1909, stretches 77 square kilometres from the banks of the Torneträsk through some of Sweden's most picturesque natural landscapes. The Northern Lights had been the main draw for us coming all the way here, but there's also a whole host of other activities to take part in throughout the year. Much of it reads like something out of an adventure challenge or extreme sports gallery: hiking the fjords under the midnight sun in the summer, ice fishing in the dead of winter, peering into the depths of the Trollsjön, Sweden's clearest lake, taking a walk through the boreal forest, skiing off-piste, ice-climbing... 

And of course, what we were about to experience. 




The sledding trip would take us through a short section of the Kungsleden, or King's Trail, a popular hiking route that runs 440 km from Abisko to Hemavan further south, giving us a taster of what I assume must be on the must-try list of someone vastly more adventurous than I. Our vehicles were parked by a thicket that seemed to grow denser the closer you looked, like a fairytale wood where the path might shift if you weren't careful.

First out were the sleds themselves, each just large enough to accommodate four riders and a guide at the end. Lashed to each were warm reindeer furs for comfort and warmth. You won't realise just how important these are unless you're as unfortunate as I was to slide off onto the cold, hard wooden slats during a bump in the road. The sheer relief when I was finally able to scoot back was immense




There is a definite art to harnessing Alaskan huskies to a sled. Having been bred for generations to run and pull loads, they're not exactly built for keeping still. Compounding this perhaps was the fact that our dogs needed to stretch their legs after the ride over. There was a lot of excitable yipping with each new dog let down from the trailer, and once harnessed and clipped to the main gang line, each one would lunge this way and that. The leaders were brought out first, stretching the line out taut as they ran to explore, so as to ensure that it didn't tangle with each successive husky added. The sled, of course, remained firmly anchored in the snow. 

Partly to keep the dogs occupied with something other than attempting to race off prematurely, and partly because they deserve it, we were strongly encouraged to lavish them all with affection. D and BB went down the line, doling out pets and cuddles with glorious abandon, and received enthusiastic barks, and jumps, and licks, and tail wags that could have broken the sound barrier. I mainly preferred staying next to the quieter dogs, who were content to press their sides against my leg and get idle head scratches while we stood in companionable - well, if not silence, then relative peace. 





Eventually, all 11 of our huskies were strapped in, and all there was left to do was get on the sled ourselves. Generally speaking, taller and heavier people make their way towards the back, which left me with the best seat in the house. There are compensations sometimes, for being the smallest in the family. 


When we set off, it was quite literally with a whoosh. I hadn't realised just how used I'd got to the raucous noise of the dogs until we took off, and the din plummeted away, muted to a sweet tranquility. The only sounds now were of the swish-swish of fur, and sled-against-snow, and the pitter patter of feet. 

As we moved through the silence and the snow, I mused on the fact that for people from our small island along the equator, there's very little more exotic than the Lappish landscape. At 11 am in the morning, there was low light gleaming off the expanse all about, rendering it softly opaline. Overhead, the sky was awash with moody blues and greys. The distant dark mountain were dusted with snow. And whipping past us and the trees, crisp air so unlike our own, which is too often thick, heavy, and sweet with the promise of rain. 



After the initial jolt, we grew comfortable with the feeling of dashing through the snow. The dogs bounded along at a pace of around 15 km/h, and the world seemed to float past us. The trees somehow still stately for all their bareness, branches twisting and sometimes alarmingly close. The snow, though no longer powder soft, still stark and pristine. Seated up front I was able to appreciate the speed at which we were travelling through this winter wonderland, the ability of the dogs to move fast through a landscape like this one, where I'd be hard pressed to pick my way through without help and equipment. 

I'd read up on Amundsen's South Pole expedition prior to the trip thanks to the Google Doodle, which made me all the more appreciative of the fact that trained huskies are excellent pack animals in all ways. While they run best at -20°C, they can withstand far harsher climes - even blizzards - while still maintaining a good pace for hours on end hauling passengers and supplies. Given the balmy (Ha!) nature of the day, we stopped ever so often for the dogs to take water breaks so they wouldn't overheat. Some of the best sled dogs that compete in races like the Iditarod, run at night as the days get too warm to keep them at the fastest pace they can go. 


It used to be that sled dogs here were trained to pull supply loads and people where horse carriages could not, but with the advent of the rail system, and now cars and flights connecting Abisko to the rest of the world throughout the year, the use of sled dogs for transportation has fallen by the wayside. Today, those that make the cut for temperament, intelligence, strength, and speed, get to haul tourists through the snow. 

Rather than hollering out instructions, our Scottish guide would issue short and simple commands when he wanted them to go left or right round particular turns. The dogs didn't actually need much guidance, staying the course with ease. Most of the time, he'd soothingly murmur compliments to particular dogs, or the whole team. We asked if any of the dogs tend to tear off to chase wildlife, and while the instinct can be there, the closest we got to other animals was moose tracks, and the huskies know to stay away from moose, who are big, and largely mean. 


It's not just the dogs and the guide doing all the work, you need to put in some effort too when the sled is negotiating sharp bends. We'd heard from another Singaporean family who'd not shifted their collective weight enough the day before, and toppled over into a snowbank. They'd found it hilarious and exhilarating. After hearing our guide wryly remark that it's still much less painful to stay on the sled than be dragged behind it though, we leaned with alacrity when asked. 



Though winter solstice approached, and the sun remained stubbornly low on the horizon, there was still light enough to enjoy the stunning vistas that the park had to offer. We stopped once along the ride, to enjoy the view and more time with the dogs, and I looked long and hard at the scene before me between thanking each dog with gentle pats. Every once in a while, the brisk breeze would die down, and a whiff of wet dog would stir again. There is something decidedly therapeutic about vastness, and knowing the space you occupy within it, as well as something comforting about knowing that you're not alone. 

The sledding was over all too soon, but it's definitely not a sight, (or a smell) that I'll be forgetting. 



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