'The first 100 metres of mushing are the most challenging,“ our guide, Christel Finne, briefed us. ”It's not 'if' you tip over, but 'when'. And you must cling on to the sled, even if it's dragging you along, or your dogs will run off into the mountains.“
It's fair to say the start of our husky safari on northern Norway's Finnmark Plateau was not my finest moment. With Christel on the front sled and mine tied in tandem behind, we were first to leave the yard on that crisp morning. Pulling three days' food supplies, our 12 restless huskies yelped and howled, eager to start. Waiting behind us were another four pairs of mushers with eight excited dogs each, barking incessantly to a deafening crescendo.
Nothing prepares you for that first jolt as the dogs are released from their tie-rope – it's the canine equivalent of a horizontal rocket launch. As we took off, I desperately tried to balance on my runners, like short skis behind the wooden sled. I suddenly saw a fencepost approaching at speed. Then came a slight uphill, then earth and ice where I'd anticipated smooth snow, then wham – I fell flat on the ground, dogs and sled surging ahead, just seven metres into our journey. Christel applied her brakes as quickly as I'd abandoned mine and I sheepishly staggered to my feet.
Our safari started from Engholm Husky, a beautiful lodge-come-dog-farm six kilometres outside Karasjok, and named after its owner, Sven Engholm. A mushing legend, he's won Europe's longest dog sledding race – the fearsome 1,000km Finnmarkslopet – an unprecedented 11 times. “It's like a religion,” Sven explained. “When I was 10, I felt a call to dogs and the outdoors. Racing's a drug; you get addicted.”
He's now channelling that addiction into preparing Christel, his partner, for her second Finnmarkslopet in March 2016.
This year marks Engholm Husky's 30th anniversary, with new luxury chalets creatively designed, built and furnished by Sven, using natural materials such as wood, slate and stone found on the trails. And a UK tour operator, Artisan Travel, is now focusing on adult-only trips, offering a spectacular winter wonderland adventure for grown-ups.
I joined a mixed group that included a 50- something Australian couple, a Belgian father and (adult) daughter, a German engineer and a Cambridge-based accountant. But we all shared a love of dogs and absolutely no experience of mushing. Before we left, Christel and fellow guide Peter taught us about harnessing huskies, steering sleds, braking, shifting our weight and crouching down on tight corners.
“Mushing is one part smooth meditation,” Christel said, “one part action and adrenalin.”
My trepidation waned as we sledded across the frozen Karasjohka River, through pretty pine forests to Assebakti Culture Trail, which in the summer months reveals the traditional lives of the Sami people. The only sound was the dogs swishing through snow, obeying occasional hushed commands from Christel. We weren't alone, however. Tracks revealed that wolverines, foxes, moose and ptarmigans were here too. This is also reindeer territory, central to Sami culture, but approaching spring they migrate to the coast.
After a picnic lunch around a campfire, another hour's sledding took us to Ravnastua, a terracotta-hued mountain cabin. Formerly lodging stations along postal routes from Alta to Karasjok, these cabins dot the countryside at convenient interludes, functional rather than fancy, with simple dorms. Our hearty dinner of reindeer stew was followed by suppertime for the dogs, as we distributed frozen fish and meat blocks that resembled house bricks. Thanking the huskies for their hard work, we doled out cuddles too, as integral to the experience as riding across the tundra.
Our second day took us above the treeline across Hundevidde. “It means Dog Plateau,” Christel shouted through a vicious blizzard. “When there's bad weather, not even dogs survive if they're stranded ...”
Everything – sky, ground, horizon – blurred into blustery, bleak grey. We pushed on for 20km before stopping for lunch, and we watched the dogs dig snow holes to shelter from the gales.
The afternoon brought brighter skies and, with confidence growing, I drove the front sled while Christel sat on it.
“Steer with your knees and your arse,” she instructed. I duly obliged, swaying in rhythm with the trail. From the front, you read the landscape more, moving instinctively, sensing the dogs' power and strength, feeling part of the team.
I was getting to know our huskies. Havet, the leading lady, was the strong silent type; tiny compared to her affectionate but boisterous running mate, Sno. Frost was gentle, honey-coloured with amber eyes, while Tiken, with striking silver-blue colouring, looked like a little old lady. Grus was at the back, hardworking and patient, frequently looking round as if questioning my steering. But my favourite was Tuton, white and fluffy like a baby seal, who loved having his tummy tickled.
We soon reached our second mountain cabin, Mollisjok, near a bubbling river that never freezes, and fed and fussed over the huskies. Snow fell softly, the wind abated and the sun set in vivid hues of purple, pink and gold.
In the morning, bright azure skies made for the perfect final day. We glided for hours in blissful tranquillity over the frozen Iesjavri Lake, vast and open, a glorious white wilderness. Now I truly sensed that “smooth meditation” Christel had described.
But the “action and adrenalin” returned for the final half-hour of our 92km journey. Like skiing off-piste, at speed in deep snow with steep cambers and bumps, I copied Christel's moves as she led, crouching down low, twisting and turning, or hurriedly shifting my weight to stop the sled from tipping. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes I'd end up with a face full of snow. Either way, feelings of sheer exhilaration had completely overcome that first-day trepidation.
Back at Engholm Husky, a well-earned sauna, dinner and wine soothed our aches and pains. At midnight, the waning Northern Lights made an unexpected late appearance, pale and wispy, like a white cloud dancing softly in the inky sky. For all the fading glory of the Aurora Borealis, however, the true stars of this trip were our huskies, beautiful, powerful, loyal – and utterly lovable.
Sue Watt travelled with Artisan Travel (01670 785 085; artisantravel.co.uk). The Karasjok Three Day Husky Safari trip costs from £1,795pp. The price includes flights from London, transfers, four nights' full board in a log cabin and wilderness cabin/camp. There is also a three-day husky safari, with guides, instructors, and cold weather clothing. Departures available from December through to April.
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