Bob from Nature Travels joined our Northern Lights Dog Sledding in Lapland tour for one of the first tours of the winter season in early December, during the deep “midwinter” period when the sun does not come above the horizon.
I was thrilled to be back in Swedish Lapland again, the first opportunity I’d had to visit the kennels since the dark days of the pandemic, and very much looking forward to a week of dog sledding. I’ve been fortunate to take part in most of our dogsled tours over the years, but had never done an extended dogsled tour during this deep Midwinter period, which has an atmosphere and magic all its own.
Converging from various corners of the planet, we assembled at the kennels for our first night, where we were greeted enthusiastically by Jul, the camp host.
There were to be five of us on the trip – myself, Paul from Australia, Shima and Gernod from Austria, and Lars from Switzerland.
We met Martin, our guide, for dinner and an introduction to what to expect from the week ahead and a short lesson in sled handling, before retiring to our cabins for the always-takes-longer-than-you-think task of organising for the trip. It was a beautiful, cold, clear night, with the huskies outside howling at the moon to supply a fitting soundtrack.
The adventure begins
And soon enough, it was time to begin. We hiked up the hill to where Martin had his dogs and set about getting everything ready. There’s a lot to think about at the start of a dogsled tour – you need to pack the sleds, meet your team for the first time and get them harnessed. I’ve harnessed many a husky in my time, but for some reason I still manage to get the legs through the wrong hole sometimes! After sorting out a few tangles, we were ready to go.
Each day when you begin sledding, and especially at the very start of a start of a tour (and even more especially at the very start of the winter), the dogs go absolutely berzerk.
Huskies want to run – there’s no doubt about that – and will spare no energy in letting you know it. They will jump, bark, and strain at their harnesses for all they’re worth, and the noise is deafening – a stark contrast with the tranquility and silence to come! But while it might be a bit difficult to get everything under control in the midst of such joyous enthusiasm, or even to hear yourself think, it’s also completely wonderful and life affirming.
Finally we were ready. We loosed the ropes, released the brakes, and shot off into the forest.
It wasn’t the easiest of starts – we would be getting fresh, new snow through the week which would make everything much easier, but for now the trail was hard and icy. Temperatures in the late autumn and early winter had been low, producing a good hard base and good ice conditions on the lakes, but the snow had been late arriving this season and there was much less snow cover than usual – not ideal conditions for novice mushers! But everyone did brilliantly, and before long we were all mushing along with growing confidence.
It was wonderful to be out sledding again, and I quickly relaxed into it, admiring the landscape and my team in front. Sled dogs are wonderful in every way – beautiful, affectionate, good-natured, but also incredibly athletic, resilient and full of personality. I never fail to be won over by their combination of adorability and toughness.
After a couple of hours, we stopped for our first wilderness lunch (more about those later). Being the first day, it had been a bit later than usual before we’d got going from the kennels. The light was already fading as we left the dying embers of the lunchtime fire behind to continue towards the wilderness camp, where we would be staying for the next two nights.
Such a fine and natural sight – everybody’s sleddin’ in the moonlight!
As we came out onto the lake for the last few hundred metres approaching the wilderness camp, it was properly dark now, despite being just 2.30 in the afternoon. The full moon was shining clear and bright from a cloudless sky, and a light mist hovered over the lake ice.
I’ve been lucky enough to go dog sledding in many different conditions over the years, from blazing sunshine to raging mountain snowstorms – but I’ve never sledded by moonlight through the mist before! Life allows you certain moments which are almost too beautiful too bear. They’re often only fleeting – our trip across the lake last only a few minutes – but it was utterly, utterly magical, and a great way to end our first day on the trail.
In the pecking order of a dogsled tour, the dogs come first
Except of course reaching your destination for the day is not the end – far from it! The hours you spend on the sled are wonderful, of course, but they are not the whole story. Perhaps they are not even the part of the story that will touch your heart the most and bring a smile to your face when you’re home again.
So once we had taken all the harnesses off and set our teams on their lines for the night, with the moonlight shining down on us, we set about making a dogs’ dinner.
The huskies are fed on a mix of high-energy kibble and meat, which comes in frozen blocks. The dogs actually usually prefer to eat the meat in frozen chunks, but making sure they get enough fluids during a tour is always a concern and so most of the meat is mixed with hot water and served as a stew. Even then, many of the dogs tip their bowls over and just eat the meat from the snow, which is a bit disappointing after the all the hard work that goes into making it – but you have to try!
From the outset, it was clear we had a true outdoorsman in our midst (his fire making prowess would be much in evidence as well in the days to come), as Paul grabbed an axe and set to chopping up the meat with gusto, while we put a large pot of water on to boil.
When all was ready, we left the stew to…um…well, stew, while we went for water.
Water, water everywhere – but you have to get to it!
The wilderness cabins have no running water, so to have water for drinking, cooking and for the sauna, a trip to the lake is usually required.
Although the hole in the ice is used regularly and covered to help keep it open, water doesn’t stay liquid for long when it’s -20 degrees, so it took a few minutes of concerted bashing to break through before we could begin filling the containers. Even then, it takes just a minute or so for the hole to start closing over again with new ice.
Once the containers are filled, you have to get the water back to the cabin. And since you’re at lake level, that means dragging it back up the hill.
It’s all very much part of the experience, of course, but there’s nothing like a dogsled tour to make you appreciate the luxury of being able to turn on a tap and have water come out as if by magic when you’re home again (or having a toilet that flushes – Shima joked later in the week that the first thing she’d do when she got home would be to spend 10 minutes flushing her toilet just because she could)!
But when you’re out on an adventure, where’s the fun in that? This is much better.
Usually during a tour like this, everyone will be involved in helping to prepare dinner and clean up afterwards. But for the next two nights, we were to be treated to a bit of relative luxury. While we were taking care of the dogs, camp host Michelle was busy cooking up a storm in the simple kitchen, and it wasn’t long before we were sitting down to a three-course wilderness feast. Arrangements would be simpler later in the week, but for now we took the opportunity to enjoy the pampering.
After dinner, I enjoyed some quiet time down on the lake watching a bit of Northern Lights. On a darker night, this might have been a good show. The skies were wonderfully clear and it was a stunningly beautiful night, but the very bright moon meant that it wasn’t the night for a spectacular Aurora. But while seeing the Northern Lights is of course wonderful, it’s not the reason to be here – there is so much more to appreciate and experience. After a thoroughly satisfying day, it was time to retire.
The rhythm of the night
For the rest of the week, we continued our adventure, with the days settling into a lovely rhythm. Up around 7am to gather with Martin out in the darkness. Say hello to our dogs and give them some cuddles before preparing their breakfast (the early start is necessary because, although we wouldn’t be on the trail until later in the morning, the dogs need to eat at least two hours or so before they run), then back inside for our own breakfast.
Then pack for the day, harness the teams, and out on the trail by around mid-morning as the darkness fadesand the landscape is revealed in the soft Midwinter daylight.
We were right at the start of the Polar Night period. At the start of the week, the sun still peeped above the horizon for a brief period each day, before setting for the last time towards the end of the tour not to be seen again until mid-January. When Paul’s phone informed him one day that the sun would rise then set again just a few minutes later, he joked, “Blimey, you have to quick to get everything done this time of year – breakfast, lunch, dinner, back to bed – GO!”
Of course, it’s by no means dark all the time, every during the deepest part of winter. The half-light of day lasts from around 10.00 in the morning until about 2.00 in the afternoon – then it’s time to get the headtorches out for the last stretch!
We experienced some wonderful, varied sledding during the week, covering a good amount of distance.
While your first impression of the Lapland landscape might be “it all looks the same”, this is far from the case. Over the next few days we snaked our way thrillingly through narrow forest trails, traversed frozen wetlands and meadows, mushed our way down the frozen Torne river and across great open expanses of frozen lake.
At one point, as we sledded with our teams along the outskirts of Kiruna on the way between connecting trails, we joked that Martin was taking us to the supermarket to top up on dog food! At other times, it felt like we were alone in the world, miles from anywhere, with the sound of the dogs panting and the sled runners moving through the snow, and the special still quality of the deep Arctic winter, our only companions.
Soup and simplicity
And punctuating each day, the lunch stop. It was immediately apparent that Paul was the fire master of the group, producing a blazing warmth in no time at all, round which we all gathered on foam mats to eat our sandwiches, drink our coffee and see what variety of soup Martin had brought for us today. Simple pleasures, but among the finest that life can offer.
For our last outdoor lunch, just as we were beginning to wonder if we’d tried every kind of dried soup ever made in Sweden by now, Martin pulled out a little surprise treat – hot dogs! We scoured the surroundings for suitable sausage sticks and, like eager children on a scout camp, perched delightedly round the fire to grill them. As the only vegetarian in the group, I had to endure a bit of teasing (“That’s not a sausage!”) and it’s true my veggie ones were a bit floppier than the “real thing”, but they survived the grilling nicely and tasted delicious!
Chilling in -20
In addition to our two nights at the kennels at the start and end of the tour, we used three different overnight locations during the week, which is quite typical for this tour (there are a number of different cabins in the area that may be used during the tours, depending on factors such as trail conditions and ice cover on the lakes).
Our first two nights we spent at the wilderness camp, being spoilt by Michelle. The third night took us to a very atmosphere cabin, “Järkyla”, by the lake, and the last two nights to the “Pump Station” cabin (which, luxury of luxuries, even had a sofa), where we fended for ourselves when it came to dinner, but still together managed to produce some very tasty meals, and Martin’s provisions box seemed to have a never-ending stash of biscuits and chocolate to fill any remaining gaps.
It’s very common for there to be extremes of temperature fluctuation during the winter – it can be -35 degrees one day and -2 the next – but temperatures over the next few days stayed at around -10 to -20 or so, which is ideal for sledding, and with no wind. We also got steady snowfall throughout the week, which was not only beautiful but also added some very welcome extra centimetres to the snow cover. New snow had been long overdue and meant that trail conditions improved every day.
We had started the week on icy, difficult trails, but ended on soft, fluffy snow that was a joy to sled through.
Though not usually available on all nights of the tour (depending on the cabins used), all cabins on our tour had sauna.
There really is nothing like perspiring quietly in a wood-fired sauna at the end of a day’s dog sledding, lit only by the glow from the stove and the reflections from the snowy landscape outside. Not only gloriously soothing, it’s a great chance for a relaxed chat with your fellow mushers, which is not always easy at other times, when you’re either sledding or involved in some other task.
But like everything in the outdoors, enjoyment doesn’t come without a bit of work first. The sauna takes a couple of hours to heat up, and you need to fetch lots of water for the water tank, which is then heated to wash afterwards. But there’s no doubt it’s worth the effort. No power shower in a luxury hotel room can make you feel as alive as sluicing yourself down with a bucket of hot water after rolling in the snow.
Everytime we say goodbye
And so my Midwinter week of dog sledding had come to an end, with the bittersweet pull on the heartstrings that comes from saying goodbye to all those you’ve shared the adventure with – the dogs, your guide, your fellow mushers. Sharing an experience like this with others is very special – you start as strangers, a little nervous, a little uncertain, and end as friends who might have known each other for years. It’s hard not to get to know someone reasonably well after shovelling poo and chopping dog food together for a week!
I had loved it, and I’d learned something. This isn’t the time of year to make your friends envious with glamorous, Instagrammable selfies set against a backdrop of glistening snow and shining blue sky – but a dogsled tour during the Polar Night offers something very different. A unique perspective, an other-worldly experience, almost like you’ve been let in on a secret or stepped through some sort of doorway in a children’s book. It may not be easy to capture with a camera, but the mental pictures I took during this trip will stay with me forever.