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Hang on to your huskies from a sled safari in Sweden

Within twenty minutes of the village centre, the taxi turned off the main road and headed down a narrow track to a clearing in the woods, which was where Tommy and his wife’s small holding was located. The small holding could be best described as a compound surrounded, as it was, by timber posts and high wire fencing. As we pulled up at the gates and slowed to a halt, the dogs started to bark. I couldn’t see any but could hear lots of them, the echoes of their barking bounced back at us off the trees so the volume and number of barks was amplified. I sensed my heart rate increase as I anticipated the gates being opened and being driven in, just like Daniel entering the lion’s den – although he wouldn’t have been in the safety of a VW taxi van of course.

Tommy soon attended to the gates, swinging one of them open so that we could drive in. He closed it quickly behind us, I noticed. John took great pleasure in winding me up now, knowing I was trapped inside the compound whilst the guests we had with us did their best to reassure me. After all, we wouldn’t be doing this if the dogs were dangerous, would we?

Snow Business coverThe taxi drove on towards the main house and now I could see kennels full of dogs running around yelping, and yet more dogs dotted here and there out in the open tied with chains to tree stumps or wooden kennels. The little wooden boxes were elevated about a foot off the snow on stilts. The dogs were jumping up and down and barking their heads off, all wanting to have a piece of me. Once we had stopped, Tommy pulled back the sliding door, motioning for us to get out, and welcomed each one of us with a big smile through his grizzly ragged beard. He seemed friendly enough, I thought, as I jumped down onto the snow. Kerstin, a friend of ours, had come with us for the experience. She worked in the resort teaching disabled people to ski on specially adapted frames with hand skis and, although she had worked for a few seasons and even owned a husky herself, she had never done any dog sledding.

Whilst we stood by the side of the minibus, Tommy formally introduced himself whilst his wife, Ulla, dragged four basic-looking wooden sleds into position. Each seating area was covered with three reindeer skins for comfort and some degree of warmth.

Tommy and his wife were in their mid-thirties, I guessed both clad in a mix of modern North Face gear, accessorised with more traditional Sami clothing.

Thankfully, the dogs had quietened down a bit now our vehicle had come to a halt and we remained stationary. Just the occasional bark or howl interrupted his welcome chat, explaining what we were going to do and where we were going to go.

Tommy gave a barely perceptible nod to Ulla, which every single dog must have been waiting for because absolute pandemonium broke out. They all went completely berserk. Ulla smiled at us and explained that every dog wanted to go out for a run and they were all crying out, “Pick me! Pick Me! Oh pleeease… pick me!” The dogs were running up and down their cages with great excitement, barking and howling as she went about them, searching for a particular dog whilst the ones tied up were leaping up to stand on their back legs, as if to make themselves taller and more noticeable than the next one.

Tommy explained that they had to select certain dogs to lead up at the front of the team and others to follow. Some of the dogs didn’t work well with others and didn’t like being alongside others. He explained further that the dogs were bred to do this and simply lived for this moment; they absolutely loved pulling the sleds. The Alaskan Husky is slightly larger and leaner than the Siberian Husky. Having greater stamina than the Siberian, they were the preferred dog of choice for pulling sleds. On the big races, his best dogs can cover a hundred miles a day in sub-zero temperatures for seven days in a row. I was staggered by this and instantly developed a big respect for them, no longer regarding them as potential attack dogs. Tommy reassured us that they were actually very friendly as a breed. These were happy, excited dogs, desperate to go out on a long run, eager to please their master. We learned that when they retire from racing and can no longer pull the sled, they often die quite quickly as they no longer possess the will to carry on with life.

One by one, they selected the teams and led each dog to its place in the harness. There must have been over forty dogs here but Tommy and Ulla knew each dog by their distinctive individual black and white markings across their heads. I was surprised at the variety of the dogs’ colouring. Some were black and white; others black and tan, there were all white ones and many were a mix of everything. Once fastened, the dogs calmly stood very still in their positions, looking quite pleased with themselves, honoured almost, to have been picked. We got a chance to make a closer inspection, John of course pointing out one of them which had his eyes fixed on me. Feeling brave, since the dog was securely tethered in his position, I returned his gaze looking directly into his iridescent pale blue unblinking eyes. He turned his head on one side as he inspected me. These creatures were truly beautiful. Kerstin fell immediately in love with all of them. Every now and again, one of the dogs not selected would give out a loud howl or bark, the sound echoing back from the surrounding trees before fading into the forest.

Ulla joined the presentation and asked us to divide up into four groups. As we shuffled about in the snow, she said, “Now who wants to drive?”

There was a stony silence and we looked around at each other. She encouraged us by adding: “You don’t have to say left or right because Tommy will be in the lead and the dogs will follow him, but someone needs to be standing on the back of the sled to help steer and to brake.”

John, having done it before put his hand up and stepped forward.

“Good. Any more?” and she looked my way.

“OK, yes” and for some reason I stepped forward too, as if bravely volunteering to go on some dangerous mission. No one else wanted to take command of a sled so Ulla selected one man to steer the fourth one and the remaining guests breathed an audible sigh of relief.

Ulla stepped onto the back of a sled, one foot on a runner on each side and held onto the rear bar with both hands. “You stand like this and you never, never, never get off.”
Looking down at a large metal cheese grater about the size and shape of a brick that was fixed between the runners, she added, placing one booted foot firmly on it, bringing it down into contact with the snow: “And this is the brake and you have to brake very hard in the beginning, especially in the start, because the dogs are very strong. And also, you have to brake because you need to have distance between the sleds and always the dogs will want to run up to the next team in front of them. And also, when you have to go downhill you need to brake because you have to keep it tight,” and she pointed to all the connecting leads. “It’s like to tow a car, it’s the same kind of thing, and you can’t go too fast then because his legs can’t keep up,” and she pointed to the dog closest to her at the back of one of the lines.

Snow Business coverI missed the rest of the instruction as one of the selected dogs cried out and that set a few of the others off again, as if they were being taunted for not being picked.

“And that’s about it really,” she concluded, I heard as the din died down. “Just when we go off, as the snow is quite soft, we may have to push like this…” She demonstrated pushing along with one foot whilst the other was on the runner and then she encouraged us all to have a go standing on the back and pulling the brake down with one foot.

Tommy had moved up the entrance and the moment he pulled open one of the gates the barking and howling started again. One of the dogs on the last sled began a repetitive bark that sounded like a horn on an old veteran car. It was more like a honk, honk, honk, honk, honk, honk. He was a very excited boy.

We all clambered aboard our respective sleds and I took up position on the back of one of them with Kerstin sat directly in front of me and two guests ahead of her. One of the sleds had only two guests and just four dogs to pull them. With a final check on us from Tommy, and Ulla making some final adjustments and telling a couple of people to keep their feet up, he waved his arm in the air and we took off out of the compound, gaining speed remarkably quickly. No need for a push off, then, I thought, and I watched the harnesses and leads tighten and relax and flap about under the pulling efforts of the team of dogs.

Ahead of me were ten dogs running fast, ten fluffy tails waving about in the air, ten dark bottom holes bobbing up and down, contrasting with ten lightly coloured pairs of furry buttocks. With all those bouncing bottoms, we were fortunate it was a morning’s sled ride. Our noses were at the exact same height as the dogs’ bottoms and we had learned that enjoyment of the post lunch-rides was slightly tainted by following closely behind the ten bouncing bottoms of ten farting hounds.

As soon as we were clear of the gates and on our way, all the dogs were quiet again, happy to be pulling us along and saving all their energy and strength for the job in hand or, more accurately, paw. Every now and again, one of them would dart its head out to one side and take a bite out of the snow. We headed along a stretch of open ground before pitching off to the left in front of a large, straggly-branched bush. Descending down a bank, the dogs dragging us over some smaller branches poking out of the snow as they ran through the gap, the sled was forced to cut the corner. We executed a sharp right turn, really having to lean our bodies over to one side to keep the sled from tipping over, and headed up a slight incline to where Tommy had stopped on the ridge. I hastily jammed on the cheese grater brake to prevent us crashing into the sled team ahead of us and brought the sled to a halt.

Tommy checked we were all OK and all still aboard our respective sleds, and then we headed across a track and joined another that lead us further up hill, levelling out into a sparsely forested area. Dainty timber poles, with red painted diagonal crosses about two metres high, marked our route through the snow at intervals of five hundred metres or so. The dogs probably knew where they were headed anyhow as previous sled tracks were still visible.

After a while we popped out onto a wide open flat plain. The dogs really dug their feet into the snow, heaving their shoulders hard against the restraining harnesses as they accelerated across the big white expanse with obvious enthusiasm. After taking in the new surroundings and noticing the “plain” area was edged with dark low-lying tree covered hills flecked with whiteness, I realised we were riding across another frozen lake. Tommy brought his team to a halt in the middle of the lake and signalled for the following teams to do the same. The dogs wanted to run on so, holding onto the back of his sled, he called out and motioned with his free arm, “Höger, höger! (right, right!)” and they obeyed him, coming to a stop almost parallel to his sled so that all the teams lined up in a vague fan shape.

Snow Business coverThis halt brought me to my senses, as I had begun to ignore the brightly coloured ski jackets dotted about the sleds and had been imagining that I was racing across the tundra in an epic adventure; just my team of trusty huskies and me in sub-zero temperatures. I was manfully hanging onto the back of my sled, guiding it around deep crevasses by standing all my weight on one of the rear runners and calling out to my dogs.

Once we had stopped, all that could be heard was the dogs’ panting. Tommy moved away a little to re-position his sled and then they all started barking again but held their positions. I felt that, at any moment, they could just charge off if they really felt like it. Suddenly, amongst the barking, I heard what sounded spookily like many human voices crying out and shrieking from the trees surrounding the lake’s perimeter. It was very eerie but then Kerstin reassured me; it was just the echoes from the dogs’ barking.

We got going again, soon heading for the shoreline, which we hugged for a while before making a big arc around the lake and got a glimpse of a distant grey Åreskutan on the horizon, returning to the gap in the trees where we had arrived. The dogs pulled us back to the compound just as eagerly and as swiftly as they had on the outward leg, and I wondered how fast they would go with just me as a passenger, rather than four of us. Tommy said he usually had twelve dogs to pull him when he was competing so the answer was very fast. The hour ride was over too soon and, having enjoyed it so much, I vowed to try to sell this excursion as best I could and to accompany guests as often as I could.

Extracted from Snow Business, an excellent account of a year as a ski rep, by Andrew Reed.

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