Another festive season has passed and Father Christmas has once more packed up his red crushed velvet and headed off to – well, wherever he goes when he's not delivering presents to deserving children. Nevertheless, the lure of Lapland has never been stronger, not least with the potential for exceptional displays of the Northern Lights.
There's also no shortage of snow and it's that which drew me to the Arctic wilderness of Swedish Lapland, to try my hand at mushing my own team of dogs. I arrived in the village of Kauppinen, near Sweden's most northerly city, Kiruna, and was welcomed into the homely Mushers' Lodge, run by seasoned dog-sledder Jan Borinski. By mid-afternoon it was already pitch black and the temperature had plummeted to below -30C. My body was tricked into tiredness and by 8pm I was in bed, where I was serenaded by a cacophony of demonic sounding howls and wails emanating from the 70 rowdy huskies residing outside my window. So, less Santa's grotto, more Satan's grotto, then.
At first light, my two fellow mushers and I were introduced to our teams of dogs, which had been entrusted to transport us via the dense forests and frozen lakes of Jukkasjarvi to our wilderness basecamp, 50km to the east. Jenny, Ost, Bico and Jim were creatures possessed, tearing around their enclosure, baring their teeth, barking hysterically and bouncing up and down on the roofs of their kennels like trampolines. "Walkies!" I announced nervously, attempting to get on their good side. By nature, huskies are athletic and energetic dogs with thick coats and pale, piercing eyes.
The practice of using dogs to pull sledges dates backto at least 2000BC. Snow-mobiles present a more convenient mode of transportation these days but, thanks to the cultural significance of sled dogs, husky mushing remains common in Lapland.
My four dogs, having rested for the previous couple of days, slobbered and trembled uncontrollably in anticipation of the day's running.
Meanwhile, I battled with a jumble of ropes, legs and tongues and harnessed them up to the front of my sledge, before stepping on to the two skis attached to the back. Jan instructed me to move on to my brake plate as he tugged the anchor, which had been holding my dogs back out of the icy ground. While they strained to run forward, I tried to listen to Jan's brief, which was, well, brief: never let go of the sledge; stand on the brake plate when you need to stop; chances are you'll fall off a few times, but don't worry, the snow is soft; and watch out for splashback – the dogs like to go to the loo "on the run" and you'll be first in the firing line when their business flies back.
In our convoy of sledges I was positioned second, just behind Jan. Unable to contain themselves a moment longer, my dogs attempted to take flight prematurely – the fact that I had my full bodyweight pressed firmly on the brake plate did little to deter them. However, their bid for freedom was promptly halted by Jan's sledge, which was blocking their way and which they hurtled directly into.
Turning around to gesture it was time to set off, Jan must have detected a flash of terror in my eyes.
"Don't worry," he assured me, "it's as easy as riding a bike."
With that, he stepped off his brake plate and immediately disappeared into the distance.
"But… I can't ride a bike," I thought, starting to fret.
With my two fellow mushers waiting behind me, their dogs growling with impatience, I had no choice but to take a deep breath and tentatively step off my own brake too. Whoosh! The dogs shot off like a bullet, pounding through the snow, hot on the heels of Jan's leader pack. I quickly adjusted to the strange sensation of the ground sliding away beneath my feet and my confidence grew as I whizzed smoothly along the track. I had to swerve my body to keep my balance and at times had to duck to avoid the tree branches flying at my face, as the trail became more challenging the further we progressed, taking us along narrow paths, bumpy hills and increasingly tight corners.
"Mush!" I shouted jubilantly at my dogs, urging them forward, though this clearly wasn't necessary – there's little that would have stopped them, I soon realised.
The bright whiteness of the desolate landscape rushing past me was dazzling. It seemed as though I'd stepped into a black and white photograph: heavy blankets of pristine snow and ice stretched out endlessly in every direction, broken up only by the dark tree trunks poking out here and there.
Other than occasional reindeer tracks, there was absolutely no sign of life around me: it struck me that, if I were to be separated from Jan (which, given my dogs' propensity to swerve off in whichever direction they fancied, was a distinct possibility), I would be entirely at the mercy of the huskies, reliant on them to transport me to safety.
With icicles dangling from my eyelashes and hair and no feeling in my toes whatsoever, I finally reached the wilderness hut some four hours after our departure. Despite having no running water or electricity, an enormous fire gave it cosy character.
For dinner, mushers and dogs alike all tucked into a deliciously juicy reindeer stew. I put my exhausted dogs to bed in their outdoor kennels and, feeling completely exhausted myself, reflected upon Jan's bike analogy in front of the crackling fire.
I'm not sure what kind of bicycles he's been riding, but never before have I come across one which seemingly conspires to quarter its passenger by travelling forcefully in four opposing directions at once.
That said, it was the charm of these beautiful, drooling beasts that made my trip so exhilarating and memorable.
I'd never felt closer to nature than when they had been bounding through the icy forests, bringing me along with them for the ride. This was the kind of transportation I could get used to.
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