Dog Sledding on the Finnmark Plateau

Dog Sledding On the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.

Bob from the Nature Travels team joined our 5-day Aurora Husky Adventure in Finnmark tour in March for some wonderful days’ dog sledding exploring the wilderness of Northern Norway.

Day 1 – A very special place

I’d been waiting for a long time to visit Finnmark again and have a chance to take part in our Aurora Husky Adventure in Finnmark tour. Originally planned for late April 2020, I remember thinking (naively of course, as it turned out) as the COVID saga unfolded in early March 2020 that, “perhaps it’ll all be over in a few weeks and I’ll still be be able to go”…..ummmm, no.

Dog Sledding On the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
My wonderful cabin – inside. Photo: Nature Travels.

But better late than never, and it was with anticipation and excitement that I arrived in Alta in the far north of Norway at the end of March in bright sunshine and a balmy -4 degrees C.

The kennels are located just outside Karasjok, an inland village which is the location of the Sami Parliament, the administrative hub for the local indigenous Sami people.

There are three ways to travel here – by flight to Lakselv, from where it’s about an hour by bus, to Alta, about four hours away by bus, or via Ivalo in Finland, from where cross border buses take about two and half hours.

Dog Sledding On the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
…and out. Photo: Nature Travels.

I’d chosen to come via Alta which, although further from Karasjok, has the advantage of sometimes better and often more affordable flight connections. I’d arrived the day before to have a relaxing start to the trip.

From Alta airport, the airport bus takes just 6 minutes (cost 60 NOK, about £5*) and leaves from right outside the terminal building. I was staying at the Thon Hotel – a good choice, since it’s just 50m from Alta Sentrum bus terminal and the breakfast was great!

*Money Saving Tip: Download the Snelandia Mobillett app and purchase your ticket through that rather than by card on board the bus. This offers a considerable saving on standard fares – reducing the cost of the airport bus, for example, from 60 NOK to 37 NOK and the fare from Alta to Karasjok from 463 NOK to 296 NOK.

Fully refreshed after the journey of the day before and nourished by the Thon breakfast buffet, I boarded bus 62 for the trip to the kennels (if you need any last-minute supplies before heading to the wilderness, the Rema supermarket just opposite the bus station is open 07.00-23.00). The bus to Karasjok takes just over 4 hours and requires a change to bus 63 in Olderfjord, but you can buy a ticket all the way through (fare at time of writing 463 NOK, but see Money Saving Tip above).

The journey to Karasjok may take a while, but there’s plenty to look at. The scenery is glorious. The pine forest and rocky canyons close to Alta give way to mile upon mile of mountain birch. The trees may be small, but they’re old – the growing season here in the high Arctic is very short.

The forest in turn opens up as you climb towards the moon-like (if the moon were covered in snow), treeless expanse of the tundra, with rolling snowfields extending to the horizon, before dropping again into the forest. From Olderfjord, the bus follows the coast before turning inland and down towards the pine forests that surround Karasjok.

Lighweight, minimalist sleds let you fun fast and light. Photo: Nature Travels.

The kennels are truly unique. There is an air of calm here which envelops you completely. It is of course a place where guests come to stay and take part in dogsled tours, but it is much, much more than that. It’s a way of living, a very, very special place, a labour of love that has taken 40 years and counting to craft by hand.

Apart from the dog yard, equipment room, dining cabin and staff accommodation, there is a selection of hand-built log cabins dotted around the property, each with their own design, which are your accommodation for the first and last night of the tour.

Dog Sledding On the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
Suited and booted – ready to go! Photo: Nature Travels.

Open the door of your cabin and you enter another world. Almost everything that could possibly be handmade has been handmade from local materials – the bed you will sleep on, the chairs you will sit (and swing) on, the lampshades hanging from the ceiling, the curtains, the bookcase, even the shower mat! I could go on…..but it’s better if you come and see for yourself. I can pretty much guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it.

Meals also have a local focus, with lingonberries picked from the surrounding forests, reindeer from the local Sami herders, home-baked bread from the oven and rhubarb grown in the kennel’s greenhouses.

After dinner we headed into the dog yard to meet the dogs and get our equipment. The dogs, like all sled dogs, are utterly adorable – affectionate, very huggable, bursting with life and energy, and I was immediately smitten with every one of them. But the main event would have to wait until tomorrow – now it was time to get our clothing and sleeping bags.

The boots, gloves, musher’s hat and ski pants issued for the tours are familiar enough, but the overlayer for your upper body here is, like so much in this place, unique. Made from reindeer leather, it is incredibly warm, very soft and comfortable, extremely durable, and also, if you’re into Polar Explorer Chic, makes you look really cool. Loaded up with all our stuff, we waddled back to our cabins to get everything ready for morning.

Day 2 – Into the wild

After breakfast, where we made a packed lunch of sandwiches from the freshly baked bread to toast later over the fire (I opted for smoked salmon and blue cheese), we assembled in the dog yard for instruction.

The main take-away from the instruction was the golden rule of all dogsled tours – “don’t let go”. When (as our guide, Sven, put it, “when not if”), you fall over, it’s very important to hang on. Why? Because sled dogs love to pull. And pull they will, regardless of whether you’re on the sled or not. In open, treeless terrain like the Finnmark Plateau, where we’d be sledding on this tour, it’s very easy to “lose a team” – let go of your sled and, if someone in front can’t catch your dogs as they go past, they will just keep going without you until some kind of obstacle (such as getting caught in a reindeer fence or tangled in the sled lines) stops them, which might be hours later*. That’s a situation that you want to avoid at all costs, most importantly for the dogs’ safety.

*Don’t worry – this is a very rare occurrence, but still, don’t let go!!!

Dog Sledding On the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
Everyone’s paying close attention to the instruction meeting. Photo: Nature Travels.

So with this in mind, these tours always begin by using tandem sleds. This is not “driver and passenger”, but rather both persons sharing control of the team. Two teams of four huskies are harnessed together. It’s really fun to run with a larger team of eight like this – but keep your wits about you and your foot on the brake, because they will PULL when it’s time to go! Two sleds are coupled to the back. Both drivers have control of the braking. The advantage is that, should one person fall off, or if there’s a minor issue such as one of the lines becoming tangled, one driver can remain with the team and keep the brake on while the other sorts out the problem (or hauls themselves out of a snowdrift).

Dog Sledding On the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
Starting off down on the river. Photo: Nature Travels.

As the tour goes on and your confidence grows, you can either continue with the tandem arrangement or de-couple the sleds to each drive your own team of four.

So with our instruction complete and the teams harnessed, we were almost ready to go.

Although thankfully colder again now, in the week prior to our arrival there had been some very mild weather, with temperatures above zero for a few days in succession. This had partially melted the snow, which had then refrozen as the colder weather returned, forming a layer of hard ice on the surface. This was not only creating a big problem for the local Sami herders, as the reindeer could not break through the ice layer to graze and so needed daily feed supplements driven out by snowmobile, but was far from ideal sledding conditions for novice mushers. Despite fresh snow in the last couple of days making the trail much better further on, the track starting from the kennels was still hard-packed, very slippery and full of twists and turns, so the decision was taken to transport the sleds and dogs the first 300m from the kennels and for us to start our tour down on the river, where it would be less of a baptism of fire!

And so at last we were off, with our husky teams pulling us over the frozen Alta river. New snow had fallen the day before, making the rest of the trail much softer and much nicer, and from here on our trail conditions would be wonderful – fresh, fluffy snow which was a joy to sled on.

After a while we turned off the river and entered the mountain birch forest, as we began our gradual ascent towards the Finnmark Plateau. The gradients here are generally very shallow, but once in a while some “scooting” or a bit of a push would be needed to help our teams up the hills – the dogs do much, but not all, of the work, and will look over their shoulders at you with an accusatory stare if they think you’re not doing your bit.

Dog Sledding On the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
Getting the fire ready to toast some sandwiches out in the wilderness. Photo: Nature Travels.

I was elated. It was utterly wonderful to be out dog sledding again, and the trials and tribulations of running a travel business during COVID just fell away as if they’d never existed. As we were five participants in total on the tour, I was driving a single sled at the back, which gave me a great view of the sleds and teams spread out in front but meant that no-one could see the big grin on my face.

Today’s route would take us about 24km to the mountain cabin Ravnastua Fjellstue. About halfway, Emma (our second guide also accompanying us for the tour) saw a dead birch tree and stopped to collect firewood for our lunch stop. A few hundred metres further on and we came to the lunch place, where reindeer skins were laid out on the snow and we spent a happy half an hour toasting our sandwiches over the open fire. Such things are simple pleasures, but are among the very best experiences that life can offer. I would swap a fancy restaurant meal for a smokey sandwich toasted over a campfire in the wilderness and surrounded by panting sled dogs any day.

Dog Sledding On the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
Our cabin for the first night at Ravnastua. Photo: Nature Travels.

We continued, climbing steadily, and reached Ravnastua in the mid-afternoon. The first task was to unharness the dogs and clip them onto the static lines for the night. Then each dog got a snack of frozen meat and, of course, an avalanche of cuddles. Sled dogs may be incredibly tough, athletic and hard-working, but they are also complete softies and most of them love nothing (except pulling a sled) better than being petted.

The cabin is one of a few in the area of the Finnmark Plateau which are owned by the Norwegian state. Simple but comfortable, Ravnastua has its own small hydro facility providing enough power to offer electric lighting and sockets for charging appliances. The cabins are heated with wood-burning stoves and food is prepared on gas cookers. Like all such cabins, toilets are dry outside toilets, but there is a tap for collecting drinking water (the first running water I’d encountered at a cabin on a dogsled tour! – normally a trip to a hole in the lake ice is needed).

We settled into the smaller of the two cabins for the night, had dinner, and went out to feed the dogs. Dog food supplies are stored at the cabins, reducing the amount of weight which needs to be carried on the sleds during the tours, with some extra packs of food brought up with the tour sleds when necessary. Feeding and caring for your dog team is as much a part of any dogsled tour as the sledding itself, and we enjoyed distributing the hunks of meat to our teams and watching anxiously to make sure they ate properly (you would think that with all their exertion, sled dogs would be constantly ravenous, but actually some are surprisingly picky eaters and some have a better appetite than others, so you need to check carefully that all the dogs are getting what they need).

Then it was time to settle in for the night. A brief look at the overcast sky told us it probably wasn’t worth staying up late to try to see the Northern Lights.

Day 3 – Onto the plateau

Today we would be taking a day tour from Ravnastua, heading up on the Finnmark Plateau to explore the vast tundra landscape above the treeline. We’d be moving to one of the other cabins at the same location when we got back, which would give us a bit of extra space, so we packed our things in preparation for the move, but didn’t need to load the sleds. We impressed Sven and Emma with our enthusiasm and organisation and were already ready to go by 9am!

Getting the dogs ready for the trip up to the plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.

Normally quiet and calm when on the lines and resting, when the dogs know it’s time to go, they erupt into a joyous cacophony of barking, howling and wagging tails. We were already becoming slicker with harnessing our dog teams and getting the sleds ready, and it wasn’t long before we set off for the day. More snow had fallen in the night and the trail fresh as we climbed through the mountain birch forest. When the snow is deep, it isn’t always easy to help your team up hill – step off the sled and you sink to your knees! – but it wasn’t too long before we came out above the tree line and the mind-boggling expanse of the Finnmark Plateau opened up before us.

Dog Sledding On the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
Climbing above the treeline and onto the plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.

It really is an awesome landscape – complete wilderness stretching in all directions as far as the eye can see. Despite being almost April, it was cold up here – a hard wind chilled us from the side and loose snow was blowing horizontally, but we were fortunate that the visibility was still good and we could really appreciate the scale of the landscape we were sledding in.

As well as a wonderful location for dog sledding, the Finnmark Plateau is also a classic ski touring route. We passed a couple of skiers with pulks making their way the 30km from Ravnastua to the next cabin at Mollisjok and decided to offer them a lift, which was gratefully received. We towed them up the hill for a few kilometres and then with a grateful wave they were gone, gliding slowly under their own steam into the distance.

Dog Sledding On the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
Andrew in Arctic Explorer mode during the lunchbreak. Photo: Nature Travels.

We stopped for lunch at one of the very few clumps of trees on the plateau, which provided ideal mooring posts for the sled. With the wind still blowing hard, and no fire this time, lunch was a short and rather shivery affair.

Dog Sledding On the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
Cold? It’s not cold – this is perfect snoozing weather. Photo: Nature Travels.

But the sun came out briefly and the light reflecting on the icy crust (the wind removes most of the loose snow and freezes the surface) and snowy powder blowing in beautiful shifting waves across its surface made the mild discomfort more than worth it. “It looks like a David Attenborough film” as Natalie, one of our guests in the group, put it.

Dog Sledding On the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
Natalie enjoying the view as the visibility improves. Photo: Nature Travels.

And then it was time to turn about, heading slowing downwards and coming into the trees once more. Pretty well refrigerated by the time we reached the cabin again after our trip (we’d covered about 30km or so in total), we were nevertheless exhilarated by the day.

Dog Sledding On the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
Gliding back down toward the shelter of the trees. Photo: Nature Travels.

After a warm-up in the cabin and with the skies clearing promisingly, we took an afternoon walk back onto the plateau to marvel anew at the landscape.

Enjoying the afternoon sun back up on the plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.

The evening passed with conversation and laughter, including a surprise visit from a Sami reindeer herder. Despite being 83 years old and very deaf, he was in indomitably good health and irrepressibly delighted to find some people to talk to, having been up on the plateau camping out by himself with his reindeer herd for the last few weeks. He was a real character who added some local colour to our group for an hour or so.

Dog Sledding On the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
Our cabin for the second night at Ravnastua. Photo: Nature Travels.

Day 4 – Sledding in the sun

Our last day of sledding had arrived, and we all remarked how this was going by far too quickly – but in some ways, the best was yet to come. Once more a super-efficient group, we surprised Sven and Emma by being ready to go rather earlier than expected, but we departed in bright sunshine and beautiful soft snow, with the plan to make a longer loop of around 34km back towards the kennels.

Dog Sledding On the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
Getting the dogs ready to head for home. Photo: Nature Travels.

Today’s route was, it was universally agreed, absolutely fantastic. Whether it was the sunshine, the variety of the terrain, our new-found confidence in our mushing skills, or the “flying-through-icing-sugar” feeling of the exciting downhill sections, it was a day to remember.

Dog Sledding On the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
Life is good! Photo: Nature Travels.

We sledded steadily downwards, snaking through the birch forest, making virgin tracks across fairytale lakes, swooshing down short hills to pop out of the trees into the open. The dogs were loving it, and so were we. I’ve been lucky enough to take part in most of our dogsled tours over the years, and they’ve all been wonderful, but for perfect trail conditions and sheer joie de vivre, today was a real highlight.

Dog Sledding On the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
Life is very good indeed! Photo: Nature Travels.

We stopped at a different lunch spot about two thirds of the way home, and with the sun shining and the prospect of our sledding coming to an end soon, we took our time to enjoy the view and savour our toasted sandwiches (except that I dropped mine in the fire, so mine was more of a charcoal sandwich).

Dog Sledding on the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
Our final outdoor lunch in the sunshine. Photo: Nature Travels.

As we approached the last few hundred metres towards the kennels, we were on the hard forest tracks that we’d bypassed on the first day. We were all grateful that we were doing this part after a few days’ experience with our teams, as it was hairy! With the trail still very hard and slippery despite the fresh snowfall, the dogs sensed home and their canine companions who’d been left behind at the kennels (including some of the bitches who were on heat), and they went for it! We almost flew into the dog yard, holding on to our sleds for dear life, but it was a testament to how much everyone had learned over the previous days that there wasn’t a single spill. We were justly proud of ourselves as we stepped off our sleds for the last time and gave some grateful hugs and fuss to our teams before letting the dogs run loose in the yard for a while as we packed away the equipment.

Dog Sledding On the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
Few things make me happier than a day of dog sledding! Photo: Nature Travels.

After our exertions, it was time for a bit of pampering to round off the day, and Maria and Karl from the kennels made an appearance bearing waffles, which we munched through eagerly, slathering on sour cream, homemade jam and Norwegian brown cheese.

Me and my boys. Max endures a hug while Tvakwa plays it cool. Photo: Nature Travels.

Nothing soothes tired muscles like a sauna, and next on the list was a wood-fired sauna. Like every building at the kennels, the sauna has an original, cosy charm. I’m not normally a huge fan of saunas, but I found this one difficult to leave and ended up spending more than an hour perspiring quietly bathed in candlelight, interspersed with quick rolls in the snow outside before plunging back into the heat.

An absolutely wonderful way to end the day which, to my surprise given the number of waffles I’d manage to eat earlier, left me feeling hungry enough to enjoy the evening dinner too!

Day 5 – Saying goodbye

After a last evening spent re-packing, enjoying the ambience of the cabins for the last time and going round the kennels giving the dogs a hug with a lump in my throat (I’m pretty sure they won’t miss me nearly as much as I miss them), it was time to board the bus once more for the return journey to Alta.

Dog Sledding on the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
Ain’t no hug like a husky hug. Photo: Nature Travels.

It had been a great trip – no Northern Lights this time round (then we have a reason to return!), but one of real contrasts.

Dog Sledding On the Finnmark Plateau. Photo: Nature Travels.
Until next time… Photo: Nature Travels.

From the relative “wilderness luxury” of the cabins/waffles/sauna at the kennels to the simplicity of the mountain cabins, from driving wind and horizontal snow battering our cheeks to the warmth of the spring sunshine on our faces, from the softer, more welcoming landscape of the birch forest to the harsh, unforgiving wild of the tundra.

Will you miss me, guys? I know I miss you. Photo: Nature Travels.

And through it all, the real stars of the show, as always, were our wonderful sled dogs. Tvakva, Max, Olden, Mango – maybe you’re missing me just a little bit, too? I like to think so.

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