Rule one of husky sledding? Don’t let go of the sled. Whatever happens – you don’t let go of the sled. How did that work out on my recent husky sledding adventure in Finland? I’ll get to that shortly. Let’s rewind a bit first.
As you might know, I grew up in a warm place. The Seychelles to be precise. And I normally do my best to escape cold places for Winter if I can.
So when I decided to head to Finland for a Winter experience, friends and family were a little surprised.
To be honest, I was a bit surprised too.
But, being a big fan of new experiences, I very much wanted to see how I coped with the cold. I also wanted to experience the northern lights, which was the main reason I chose Finland and more specifically Lapland for my Winter get away.
So it was that I found myself in January 2015 flying up to Rovaniemi from Helsinki, right on the edge of the Arctic Circle and in Finnish Lapland. The first item on the agenda was a two day husky safari including an overnight stay in a rustic wooden cabin in the forests – nothing like getting in at the deep end!
I’m not going to lie, it was damn cold. Leaving the warm confines of the airport into temperatures of around –15, as the darkness started to set in (sunset at this time of year being around 2pm!), was a little nerve wracking. I started to seriously worry that I hadn’t brought anywhere near enough clothes, and certainly not the kind of clothes that would keep me warm enough. I mean, look at this place. Does it look warm?
I needn’t have worried though. After a short transfer from Rovaniemi airport I was being welcomed to Bear Hill Husky Safaris by Valentijn, the Dutch owner of the company, who kitted me out with warm overalls, boots and a balaclava. I felt somewhat more prepared.
Then it was down in the gathering gloom to the huskies, who were already harnessed to their sleds and ready for a 30km trek.
A few things surprised me. One, how excited the huskies were to get going. These guys weren’t chilling out or bored – they were pushing against their harnesses, desperate for the off. Of the 70 or so huskies at the farm, we were taking 24, and those being left behind were clearly sad about the prospect of missing a nice long run.
I was also surprised by how different the huskies looked to the traditional blue eyed white and grey furred huskies that you might expect. These fellows were short haired and generally a darker colour, although they came in all shapes and sizes. Valentijn later explained that longer hair means that the dogs can get too hot, so a shorter haired husky often has better stamina and can go for longer. The things you learn.
We were given instruction as to how to drive a husky sled, which, I suspect, was largely to make us feel like we had some kind of control. Other than the brake though, the main thing we were told was to hold on and not let go. This was very much re-iterated – whatever happens, you don’t let go. This didn’t go so well for me, and even less well for my passenger, which we’re going to get to shortly.
Anyway, driving instruction over, it was time for the off. Rule 2 involved the brake, in that we needed to use it when starting, and also to keep the dogs under control. Sleds were for two people, one driver who stood behind the sled on the runners, and one passenger, who was wrapped up in blankets inside the compartment. It was cozy looking, but temperatures below –20C have a tendency to seep in!
The “off” was quite easy. I was in charge of driving for the first half of the run, and as the lead sled went off, with our dogs joyously leaping into action right behind them. I had to use the brake just to stop us from careening into them – I quickly learnt that I had been given the supercar version of a husky sledding team.
I had been a bit concerned over the general lack of directions given in terms of steering and so on, but I needn’t have worried, the dogs knew where they were going and how to get there, and the trail was clearly laid out and easy to follow. All I had to do was hold on and depress the brake every now and again to keep everything in check.
And so the kilometres started to clock by. This being the middle of Winter, darkness had already set in by the time we left, so we zoomed along with the trail lit only by our head torches and the ambient light reflecting off the snow, which was quite bright.
We went up and down hills, across frozen lakes and through forests. Three hours in total across a distance of 30km our dogs pulled us, never wavering or faltering, in fact even when we arrived at our destination they seemed to be capable of doing the whole trip all over again.
I couldn’t quite say the same for myself. The temperatures had fallen somewhat, so we were close to minus 30C, and the second half of the trail had involved me being the passenger in the sled. Despite the many layers of clothing I was wearing and the multiple blankets, the cold was biting, and managed to seep in. So I was more than happy to reach our destination – a warm cabin deep in the forest.
Of course, arrival didn’t mean relaxing. The priority was the huskies, who had to be de-harnessed, fed, wrapped in cosy dog coats and generally set up for the night on beds of straw. This took a while, although the exertion certainly warmed me up.
Then it was time for dinner and, this being Finland, a sauna! This wasn’t my first sauna, but it was certainly the first one with outside temperatures dipping below –30C, which made for quite the temperature difference.
Tired out from all that, it was time for bed, with another full day of sledding ahead. Here’s that sauna incidentally.
The next day dawned clear and blue, with unbelievable light. With a sunrise time of around 10.30am and sunset at somewhere just after 2pm, you don’t get many hours of light, but those hours are truly spectacular.
I have never seen such a phenomenal blue hour, followed by a golden hour that lasted for the entire time the sun was up. Pink never looked so good.
Rapturous colours aside, let’s get back to the day, and my inability to follow simple instructions.
We had a fine breakfast, followed by a good half hour of work harnessing up the dogs and getting ready for the off. I was back in charge of the driving, and this time I had a GoPro on my head to capture all the moments.
Once we were all set up, it was time for the off!
And I made it at least twenty metres before the dogs decided to take a slightly shorter route through a low hanging tree branch.
Now, normally this would be fine, but as we ripped through the branches I became concerned that my GoPro, mounted on my head, might have come loose. So I wisely put up both hands to check on it. Of course, at that moment we bounced out of the tree and the sled turned sharply left.
As the sled went left, I carried straight on, suddenly no longer standing on the sled runners but instead lying in the snow facing up. The dogs, now towing a load that was about half as heavy and with no-one on the brake, stepped the speed up a notch, and accelerated away.
Unfortunately, the sled hadn’t recovered from its sudden cornering, and quietly lost its battle with gravity, tipping over to the side, and rather unceremoniously dumping my passenger into the snow with some momentum.
A photo montage comprising eight seconds of time might be suitable at this juncture. See that tree to the left of the dogs? Yes, that’s where it all went wrong.
Anyway, the good thing was that the only thing to be damaged was my pride. Our guide, Valentijn, was more than wonderful, despite my having broken the first rule of husky sledding quite spectacularly.
In fact, his demeanour throughout the entire trip was nothing short of spectacular – this was not a man prone to becoming vexed. He treated everything with great humour and clearly enjoyed his chosen life tremendously. I suspect it is no co-incidence that the tours they offer have a 100% TripAdvisor rating.
I am pleased to report that after this little mishap, I didn’t break rule 1 again. Which isn’t to say my trip was accident free. Oh no. I had three more incidents, each perhaps more exciting than the last, with the final adventure involving me being dragged through the snow on my knees for a couple of hundred metres.
But I didn’t let go.
And that’s the main thing.
I can thoroughly recommend Bear Hill Husky if you’re up in Lapland and looking for an incredible outdoors experience. We did a two day “into the wilderness” safari, which included everything from food to clothes to transfers from Rovaniemi, and I was absolutely delighted by the experience, in particular how involved you get with your dog team right from the start.
I was also hugely impressed by Valentijn and his team, who clearly knew a great deal about husky sledding and helping people to get the most from their experience. If you’re up in Finnish Lapland, don’t miss it!
Looking for more ideas for your trip to Finland in Winter? Check out this post Jess wrote, that details the top 15 Winter Activities in Finland you have to try!
My trip to Rovaniemi and Husky Sledding experience was as part of the Nordic Bloggers Experience. Falling into the snow and expressing opinions about that remains a skill of my very own.