I've been on the lookout for the Northern Lights for a while, and haved missed them a couple of times. When a friend asked if I wanted to go dog sledging in Finland, I thought this was a great opportunity to possibly finish my quest for the immer eluding Aurora Borealis, and at the same time experience the quite unique mushing, ice cold weather and lots of snow.
Mushing is a term 1 for all means of transport, powered by dogs, like bikejoring and sled dogs. The practice dates back to at least 2000 BC, when people from Siberia and North America used dogs to pull loads. Later on, they were used to explore the south and north pole (e.g. Amundsen), help during the Alaskan gold rush, and supply food and medicins to soldiers and isolated towns. But lately, dog sledging is mainly done for racing and recreation.
An early Saturday morning, I got picked up for a flight to Munich Airport, where a second plane took us to Kittilä Airport. After standing for a while at the wrong conveyor belt, we picked up our luggage, and found the guy 2 who was taking us to our destination: the beautiful Äkäskero Nature Resort, situated in Lapland, above the Arctic Circle, between Muonio 3 and Kittilä 4.
Muonio's climate is classified as Dfb. It is cold and temperate, with significant rainfall, distributed throughout the year, and high temperatures in summer and low temperatures during winter. Negative average temperatures start in October, and end around April 5.
When the plane was descending, I had already noticed that this was quite a peculiar landscape, with everything covered in an ethereal layer of thick snow. When we were driving a bit later through this scenery, it was only confirmed that the views were spectacular. And it also looked crispingly cold, from within the comfort of our bus.
When the plane was descending, I had already noticed that this was quite a peculiar landscape, with everything covered in an ethereal layer of thick snow. When we were now driving through this scenery, it was only confirmed that the views were spectacular. And it also looked crispingly cold, from within the comfort of our bus.
And it was crispingly cold, with a temperature of about -27°, I think that was the coldest I've ever encountered. When I got outside, I got a new sensation in my nose, the feeling of nose hairs been frozen.
Luckily, we were not that long outside, and found ourselves soon enough inside the warm hotel. There we got us some nice equipment, such as huge gloves, huge boots (I had to get a size 50 :p), and a onesie that was made to withstand the local minima. We tested our clothes on a quick walk, and were indeed proven to be snow-resistant, after a dive into the deep snow.
The views were so unearthly. At this northern altitude, the sun never gets quite high, so the lighting is very different, shadows are cast uncanny and everything is covered in what seems to be almost a meter of untouched snow. Add to that the peculiar shapes that are produced by snow clenching itself to even the smallest sticks, and succumbing them to gravity, and it looks like a surreal painting, making your jaw drop open (freezing your teeth :[) of amazement and bewilderment.
Also the way sounds sounded was so disparate, the vibrations muffled by the frigidity. And if it was silent, it was as if silence got redefined and all life and movement had disappeared from the surface of earth 6.
After the awe had settled in, we went back inside, and waited for the communal dinner 7 Right after that, still tired and wanting to go to bed, we had to listen to an instructor whose jokes-information ratio was way too high. When he had finally finished, the day was over, and a journey had begun.
After a good breakfast, we prepared ourselves for a first try-out with our dogs 8.
Unsure about how much clothing to use, I put on two pairs of thick socks, fleece trousers, two merino-wool shirts, 1 fleece sweater, the onesie suit, a hat and a scarf. This proved to be about just right -- not cold, and slightly too warm when running along with the dogs. Outside, the moon was still clearly visible, and the sun so low that it all looked even more alien-like than yesterday.
At the dog camp, the howling and barking was audible from a distance 9. Laura, our Finish guide, a girl of about 23 years old, was already eagerly awaiting us, and sighed from relief that we were all fluent in English. She quickly introduced us to our dogs, which we had to prepare ourselves, by strapping on a harness (and some were even spoiled with a shirt) and placing them in their correct position.
When mushing with dog sleds, the dogs are given titles, according to their position. The front dogs are called the leaders, who set the pace, follow the trail and listen to the commands of the musher. Next are the swing dogs. They swing the rest of the team behind them in curves of the trail. Then there are the team dogs, that add just strength to the team. Finally, there are the wheel dogs, closest to the sled. They are usually the strongest, and have a calm character.
In the beginning I was a bit afraid to hurt them in some way, but the dogs were very well trained, willing and patient -- very necessary, if they have to switch every week. Then we had to attach them to our sledge, and we were ready to go! The dogs felt that, and the closer we got to the time of departure, the more they started to howl and bark and jump and pull, out of pure happiness.
Driving them was quite easy. They start pulling by saying "Mennarvan Ok" (usually you didn't have to say those words as the dogs were so enthusiastically and eagerly pulling that they were pulling the cart even with breaks on), and releasing the break made you go forward. The dogs were always following the guide, so steering was barely necessary. Sometimes there were some very small hills that had to be taken at the right speed, and which needed quite some practice (even at the end of the four days, I couldn't always manage that). Finally, stopping was as easy as slowly increasing pressure on the breaks (unlike mongol horses).
During the ride, we only stopped for a couple of reasons: one break a day for a little snack and tea, a dog had to poop 10, Laura was waiting for the back of the group to catch up, or she had to switch some dogs because she noticed someone was too slow. The dogs themselves didn't need any food during the ride, and they drank by snapping at the snow, while running.
The ride itself was really cool, in both senses of the word. The views were so crazy, but unfortunately, I still had to pay some attention to the dogs, so I couldn't fully enjoy and watch the scenery unfold. I also was the slowest one, so the people behind me (everybody) had to break a lot. Especially when going uphill, I had to get off my sledge the whole time and help the dogs.
It was strange and a pity that the only way to control speed was to apply the break 11: the dogs were always in full-frenzy mode, but that was quite bad for unstretched muscles, or when going downhill 12
After our first day, we had to release the dogs, collect the tools, give them some snacks and ensure that they didn't steal from each other. And then we finally could have some food too. In a small, circular, heated hut, everyone came together to have some soup with sausage and crackers, and wait for the bus to take us back.
But we first had to give some more, real food to the dogs: huge blocks of frozen meat, in a single piece, of maybe 1kg that they were very eager to eat. I was also surprised to see that the dogs all slept outside, and that it was a reward to be able to not sleep inside the covered cage. It's easy to forget that these animals are built for this kind of weather (although sometimes I noticed they were shivering too)
At the hotel I took a shower, and had some nice dinner 13, and then we had to pack our stuff. Since we wouldn't come back, and the dogs had to carry all the stuff, we had to carefully select what to bring along. In the end it was just the most basic things. Not much was needed anyway.
The next day, after noticing my dogs were struggling 14, Laura made some changes in the configuration, and this time it was much more comfortable. The first day of our trek took us North-West 15, to the Northern part of Lake Kangosjärvi.
Like yesterday, it was amazing, and I found a new favourite sound: the pat pat patting of the dogs pats as they eagerly run over the hardened snow. It's this multitude of soft sounds that goes very well with the pondering and wondering that accompanies one on such a trek.
The ride was a bit tougher than yesterday. In length and duration, and there were quite some temperature swings (especially lakes were quite cold, due to their being very open and lower than the surroundings). During breaks, Zorro, one of my leader dogs, was always switching position when we were on a break, so I had to repeatedly move him back, only to see him triumphantilly stand at his erroneous position seconds later. ugh But worst of all, my sandwich was frozen :(
After some five hours of mushing, covering a bit more than 35km, we stopped at a lake, and Laura declared "here we stop for today". And through the trees one could barely see a small house, an outdoors toilet, storage for wood and a sauna. But we had to perform lots of jobs before we could have a rest: take care of the dogs, by releasing them from the harness, and give them some snacks. Then chop some wood, drill a hole in the lake to get some fresh water, make some fire inside and in the sauna, have a quick soup, and go to the sauna.
Afterwards we had to feed the dogs again some chunks of frozen meat, and then eat ourselves, do the dishes, and by then we were quite tired so we hit the hay.
At 7am, porridge was served, with a sun that was showing itself very slowly.
I prepared two slices of bread for our break, and then we had to do the chores, so the cabin was ready to use for the next group: clean everything, chop wood, fill the water reserves etc. And then back to preparing the dogs, for a new ride that took us back South over the lake and then up North 16.
Even though after a while you get used to the views, it was still a very special sensation, with the dogs 17 running tirelessly, making their pat pat pat pat sounds, made one go into a sort of trance and experience timelessness. In the morning it was very cold, and my hands and feet felt very frozen. After the brake it luckily got a bit better.
We passed quite some people, other mushers and also snowscooters, which the dogs didn't seem to trust much. The roads were sometimes sides by huge trees, and gave me the feeling I was passing the Argonath
And before I knew it, we had already arrived at our second place for the night 18, at Lake Torasjärvi. The cabin was very small: just 1 room containing all the beds and a kitchen. A small sauna was attached next to it. It was actually used mainly for summer, so it was very badly isolated and almost as cold as outside, and it took a while to get the fire going. The cold 19, lack of something to eat, lack of a place to sit quietly and a flaring ilness made me feel a bit down. But the realization it was only temporary state, and probably just the adaptation to quite a different life, made me already feel some better :)
Me and Felipe tried out the sauna, but it was a very cold one -- it needed constant addition of water, and the lower half of the sauna was almost as cold as outside. So this was quite of a letdown.20 By the time it was 6pm, we all felt almost as if it was midnight, and most took a small nap, only to wake up a little to eat salmon soup and feed the dogs.
During the night, the cabin was quite comfortable at the top, but at the bottom, where I was sleeping it was really cold (apparently there were extra sheets, Laura told me later), and I had to go pee at 3 am and again at 7am, in the cold at the pee tree that was 20m away from the cabin, so next morning I felt pretty horrible and had a headache, which was a bit softened by Wouter who had made some croques monsieurs.
Back to the morning chores. The wood chopping was quite hard -- it was a small axe, the wood was moist and frozen and hard to cleave, and I was tired. Ugh.
During the first part of the trip, we had a little snow, and passed a lot of other dogs and scooters. The views were stupendous, with shapes looking like dolphins and whales, and other unearthly sceneries with crazy lightning.
The ride ended quite early, south of our starting point, at the lake Kuusijärvi after about 35km.
By now, the routine had settled in: water, wood, sauna, eat. While sitting inside we played some President, and then had a great, hot sauna. Quite relaxed we continued our routine with our dinner (deer kebab and mashed potatoes), doing the dishes, feeding the dogs, stargaze a little (no Aurora Borealis snif) and then go to sleep.
After a great night (despite a small, short bed), it was our last mushing day 21.
We left over a really cold, windy lake, but after that everything went smooth, except for Onas biting Zorro sometimes. Midway, Laura wanted to do a race -- a 3km hilly track. I didn't run too much, and enjoyed the environment, now nobody was around :)
After about 38km, we suddenly were back at the dog camp. Pity it was already over, I could've gone for a couple more days :)
But, obviously I did enjoy the things we had to miss on the road -- a good shower, and a fancy dinner, together with our guide Laura (hmm, asparagus soup and salmon, pulled pork and apple pie). No more jobs to do, so we just hung out playing some card games, and hit the hay.
We had subscribed ourselves to some serious snowscootering, something I already had done before during my explorations of Finland. While waiting we tried to blow bubbles in the cold, but it was too warm to have any fun effect :(
At the dog camp, we got our instructions for the snowmobile: "Max speed is 40km/h, but you can go faster" :) Lift off!22
The first couple of minutes it was searching to get the throttle with the thumb right. Due to the cold and my breath, the glass of my helmet often froze. At some point, we suddenly slowed down to a trickle. As I was at the back, I couldn't quite figure out why. When we were at a curve, I could see a deer chilling in front of us. As the deer didn't like to go into the deep snow (it is quite dangerous), we had to stay behind it, until there was a cross road, and it went its own way.
Near the end of the 50km trip everybody was going like 60-70km/h. A wonderful feeling that was! The ride was a great experience (especially with the warmed steer), but the noise made it more about the speed, and less about enjoying the nature. Can't wait to ride an electric snowmobile!
At the kota we had some soup, before getting on the bus. In the hotel we chilled a bit, had dinner, and said goodbye to the two wonderful Dutch companions that were in our group, and went to sleep after playing some cards.
While we were waiting, our flight suddenly got delayed, and a bit later cancelled, without any reason or any other information 23. So, we had to wait a long time, then take the latest flight to Helsinki, stay the night there, and then in the morning take a flight to Brussels. An annoyance, but the marvellous company made it much better it sounded. :)
It was a trip I can only recommend to people who love outdoors and can stand a little bit of cold. Lapland is an amazing region to visit, with a still very pure nature. The Äkäskero Nature Resort has very good values regarding nature and their dogs, and the hotel itself was quite good. Mushing dogs is a very unique experience. And staying in simple huts, with no electricity, streaming water inside or internet will take you back to a more simply life and gives some peace of mind and an oft-desired but hardly ever attained disconnect from the outside world.
- It comes from the time when in French Canada of the 19th century the post and explorers used "Marche!", meaning go, to command the dogs to start pulling. The English Canadians changed it to "Mush!", hence the name
- English? No English.
- Pop. 2,375. Mainly known for its ski season
- Besides being the 8th biggest municipality in Lapland with 6,469 inhabitants, it is also a ski resort, and has a small airport, that is the fourth busiest airport of Finland, mainly due to it being a hub to Northern parts.
- These temperatures were measured in the city, I guess, as we encountered much more coldness than the minimal temperatures in the table
- Obviously, it’s all still there
- Soup, salmon, and blueberry pie, omnomnom
- Check the dark red route on the itineraries map
- There were quite a few of them too. Some simple back-of-the envelope calculations lead me to believe there were at least about 100 (= 3 groups * (6-7 persons per group * 4 dogs per person + 5 dogs for the guide)) dogs, not counting the sick dogs and dogs who still needed training. Their site mentions 20 huskies per kennel, and looking on a map, there seems to be around 5-7 kennels, so sounds about right :)
- Sometimes they look behind with a attention-seeking look, to inform you of their impending defecation. But sometimes they also just stop mid-run, trusting the sledge will stop in time. And then there’s also the times where they have diarrhoea, and don’t have the time to stop, and just keep on running
- There were two breaks. One was a sort of rubber surface that allowed for a finegrained control, and another metal object with spikes on for more harsh breaking
- The dogs always want the lines stretched -- then they feel safe, Laura had said. If they were loose when going downhil, the dogs feared the sledge would go over them, so they start running faster, making injury more probable), so the driver had to tame them the whole time.
- Sweet potato soup! Homemade moose lasagna! Chocolate ice dessert
- not because I was too heavy, but because it’s always a search for the right combination of dogs and finding out during training the most suitable position for a dog :)
- Check the green route on the itineraries map
- The dark blue route on the itineraries map
- My leaders were named Onas and Zorro (it was confusing, but Onas was the black one), and the two at the back were called Dakota and Cobra. All of them were males.
- A trip of 37km, with max speed of 16km/h, and averaging at about 10-12km/h
- My fully loaded tablet was at 1%, and my e-reader was soo cold that some pixels were only flipping half-assed, after being 2 hours inside the hut ...
- It was then I found out that I had a blister on my ear, due to my hat :(
- Yellow route on the itineraries map
- Check the cyan route on the itineraries map
- There was another flight to Munich, 20 minutes later that did go as planned, strangely enough. Only the first class from our flight could join that flight.