Friday, 6 January 2017

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

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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