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Eight days dog sledding: the King’s Trail in Lapland

A couple of seasons ago I had done a 7-day mountain dog sledding tour in Jämtland in north-west Sweden. That tour had been extraordinary, and so I started this trip expectant and excited, but thinking that it would have to be special indeed to top my Jämtland experience.

We gathered at the base camp cabin on the Wednesday – a disparate mix of nationalities including British, German, Dutch and an American living in Columbia, united by a common interest in the beauty of the winter wilderness and the far north. Most of us had arrived by train or plane to Kiruna, but the German couple had undertaken a mammoth road trip, driving 2500km up through the endless Swedish forests, where you can drive for hours without meeting another soul, sleeping in the back of their converted estate car along the way.

The next morning was a flurry of activity and excitement and tripping over each other, as we hopped around in the equipment room trying on boots and snowmobile overalls until we were happy with our choices. We would be starting our tour 90km to the north-east at Abisko, and the huskies were yapping and jumping excitedly as we loaded them into the kennel boxes for transport. Those new to mushing are often surprised by how incredibly affectionate, loving and gentle the dogs are. Curled up two-to-a-box with their noses poking out into the chill winter air, they looked adorable and the urge to hug one was overpowering – but there would be plenty of time for that!

All participants drive their own sleds for the tour, which adds up to a lot of dogs. Six participants with four dogs per team, plus our guide Marcus’ sled with his six dogs (carrying more packing and breaking the trail through the heavy snow ahead of the others) – that’s thirty dogs in total. That’s a lot of fur, a lot of barking, a lot of food and, ummm, a lot of what comes out the other end.

A relatively easy stretch through birch forest and flattish terrain was ideal for our first day’s sledding. After a couple of squeals of alarm and minor spills, everyone slipped smoothly into their new mushing roles, finding their balance and confidence quickly, their shoulders dropping and the tight lines of concentration on their faces relaxing as everyone really began to enjoy themselves.

Our first stretch took us to Abiskojaure, simple but comfortable cabins nestling in the forest, where we had our first lesson in staking out the lines, unharnessing the dogs and clipping them onto the lines for the night. Our first attempts were not exactly streamlined – there was much falling into snowdrifts and getting tangled up in ropes while being smothered in warm furry husky kisses before the teams were all in order. But by the end of the trip this would all be running like clockwork.

The dogs always come first, and by the time the teams were fed and watered for the night, the light was almost gone and it was time to settle down for our first night on the trail.

By Day 4 we had reached the foot of the Tjäkkta pass and were really beginning to feel like proper mountain adventurers. We knew this day was going to be a toughie, so we filled up on extra porridge at the breakfast table in preparation. The Tjäkkta pass is the highest point on the route at 1100m, and as we snaked through the approach we could see the incline rising ahead of us. What’s more, this was the first mountain trip of the season and only a handful of ski tourers had been this way before us in recent days. Snowfall just before we had arrived and relatively mild temperatures meant the snow was heavy and trailblazing particularly tough for Marcus and his team at the front (and not that easy for the rest of us following behind!), and we had to backtrack and wind our way around before finding the best route up the hill.

Dog sledding, especially in the mountains and especially when gaining altitude, is not just a question of standing on the sled and admiring the scenery while the dogs do all the work. The success of a sled team depends on both its four-footed and two-footed members. Fail to (literally) pull (or push) your weight and the dogs will turn their heads and give you a “come-on-what-are-you-playing-at-I’m-not-doing-this-all-by-myself-you-know” look, and if that doesn’t galvanize you into action, they’ll just stand still in protest until you agree to help out.

In all senses of the word, this day was the high point of the tour for me. We struggled and battled and sweated and fought our way up the pass as the summit loomed tantalisingly, spurring our teams on with words of encouragement and at times almost crawling on our knees behind the sled as we sank into deep snow or pulling the sled out from a drift when we got stuck. As we approached the ridge, the sun was streaming through light cloud and the heavens parted to give us a stunning view down the valley on the other side, with what felt like the whole of creation laid out before us. Marcus informed us that we were particularly fortunate, as this was one of the rare occasions he’d cross the summit of the pass with clear weather, so we took time at the top both to recover from the exertion of the ascent and to savour the moment.

As with everything, what goes up must come down, and soon it was time to mount the sleds once more for a thrilling descent. Tired as we were and exhilarated by the view and our achievement of having reached the top, it would have been all too easy at this point to lose concentration.

Travelling down a steep incline by dogsled can be hazardous, especially for the dogs. A fully loaded sled is heavy and has significant momentum, and unchecked will easily pick up speed and can overtake or even run over the team, with nasty consequences. Marcus was therefore keen to ensure that we took the descent in a controlled and safe manner, spacing the sleds widely apart and taking the route in sections with regular stops. Nevertheless it was an exhilarating ride as we slid and slithered our way down to the valley floor to make our way to the cabins at Sälka, where a wood-fired sauna provided a much-appreciated chance to soothe our muscles and the perfect environment to chat over the exertions and adventures of the day. Plus of course a roll in the snow is obligatory!

The next morning our plan was to take a detour from the main route to the cabins at Hukejaure, up a valley to west. We sledded across a bewitchingly translucent lake and were soon climbing through a narrow and beautiful valley thick with soft new-fallen snow – providing a stunning landscape but making the going heavy. After an hour or so, we reached a particularly steep section, where we stopped behind Marcus while he and his team tried valiantly to break a trail up the slope. Time and again his team would make it about halfway before sliding back in the deep snow, and after half an hour or so it was decided that we would have to change plans as the going was just too heavy. Turning the sleds about in such a narrow gap was quite an operation. The dogs will primarily follow the lead sled, which meant that as Marcus turned about and headed back alongside us, all the other teams turned to follow at the same time, resulting in a major traffic jam of paws, lines and sleds for a while until we got everything untangled!

As we made our way back down the valley, the sky above us was changing fast. Huge, ominous storm clouds were gathering on all sides, while we remained bathed in sunlight from an ever-decreasing hole in the middle. It was one of the most dramatic skies I had ever seen, with the dark brooding storm clouds contrasting starkly with the bright sunshine on the snow.

With the storm closing in rapidly, we made our way as quickly as possible to the next cabins along the route at Singi, arriving just as the wind was picking up and the last sunlight disappearing through the closing iris of cloud. We had timed our arrival none too soon – by the time we had unharnessed the teams, staked all the dogs out along the lines and organised the sleds, the wind was slamming into us funnelled by the valley, the snow was blowing so hard you could hardly stand and speaking consisted mostly of yells of “Pardon? What?” – incredible to think that just half an hour before we had been standing in bright sunshine with whisper-calm winds.

Finally everything was in order and we retreated to the cabins as the dogs dug themselves into the snow for shelter. With the storm had come very mild weather and the temperature was only just below freezing. Within just a few minutes the curled up forms of the huskies were all but buried beneath the drifting snow, where each dog would be sheltered and insulated in its own miniature “snow cave”.

When we awoke the next morning the storm was still raging and it was clear that we were in for the day. Despite not being able to sled this day, the chance to experience a proper Arctic mountain storm in full swing was dramatic and exciting in itself, and made even the 30m walk to the toilets an adventure, while a trip to the water well about 100m from the cabin required major expedition planning and backup teams! We made the most of our down time and the day in the cabin was passed with much playing of cards, talking, swapping photos and generally eating too much.

We were in awe of the dogs’ ability to ride out the storm without protest and apparently without any discomfort. By the next morning, the weather was much improved, and our teams were even more enthusiastic than usual to be off for the day’s mushing after their unexpectedly long rest, yapping and jumping as we harnessed them to the sleds.

Today was the last part of our adventure, taking us past Kebnekaise Mountain Station with Sweden’s highest mountain in the background to end at Nikkaluokta, where the transport vehicles were waiting for us.

It had been a fantastic trip, and we were all justly proud of how our skills with the sled and our confidence had developed during our week in the mountains. We had formed a real bond with our dogs (of course everyone was convinced “their” team was the best!) and there was much choking back of lumps in the throat and surreptitious wiping of gloves across noses and eyes (must be the cold!) as we all hugged our teams and loaded them into the trucks. We’d seen many sides of what the mountains had to offer, from bright clear sunshine and stunning vistas to horizontal winds and dramatic skies. I’d started the tour thinking that it would take a very special week indeed to top my dogsled tour in Jämtland, and as I climbed into the minibus for the journey home I reflected that the last few days might just have done it after all.

Other information that may be of interest:

Bob’s tour was arranged by Nature Travels, the UK specialists for outdoor experiences in Sweden. Nature Travels offers a range of dogsled tours in Sweden, from family-friendly tours to challenging mountain expeditions. Husky Mountain Expedition in Lapland runs weekly in March and April. Price for 2012/2013 winter season £1645/person.

To travel to this tour, you fly first to Stockholm, from where you can travel to Kiruna either by night train (the recommended option) or domestic flight. Ryanair and EasyJet fly to Sweden for around £60 return, Norwegian £80 or BA and SAS £100-£140. Night train to Kiruna including shared sleeping compartment around £120.

Contact information for booking:
• Nature Travels Ltd
• Website:
• Tel: 01929 503080

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