“Yip! Yip! Yip!” There goes the cry and suddenly there is silence as the dogs fly off, their eager whines and howls quietened now that they’re doing what they love best. The landscape is still, the only sound the drag of the sled, and the muffled rhythm of canine feet running. On the horizon, the dark shapes of evergreens stand sentinel, frosted with snow. Stern mountains ring us, and as we crest a small rise, I see, far away in the distance, the hazy shapes of Tromso, Norway’s northernmost city, at 70° north.
The night before, we’d rolled into the Aurora Camp for an over night stay in a traditional Sami tent – a structure made from wood poles and hide – in the hopes of seeing the Northern Lights. The excitement was tangible; even on the bus; as people talked excitedly about the activities to come. We filed into the main building, which smelled a little like wet dog. Snowsuits and boots hung behind a counter and one by one, we each got given a suitably sized suit. The suits are blue and black and incredibly unfashionable, but in minus 12°C, I’m happy to be wearing them.
Our guide divided us up into a two groups – those who were taking an evening dog sled ride and those who were staying over night and dog sledding in the morning. The latter group was so large they had to be split into two. While the first batch of dog sledders assembled and prepared to ride off, I headed to the dog kennels. There are over 300 huskies here at Villmarkssenter, and all of them want a cuddle. As the first of the sleds rode off, the remaining huskies started to howl.
We retreated to the main dining hall, built in the traditional lavvu, or Sami tent, style. This is where we will have all our meals and it is, mercifully, heated. The crackling, roaring fire in the middle of the tent adds a cheerful ambience. Dinner was bidos, or reindeer stew, washed down with hunks of heavy bread and finished with tea and cake. Once we’d eaten we head back out. There are puppies in the kennels, and we were taken to meet them. All the dogs here are socialised from the time they are pups, so by adulthood they are unfazed by strangers.
The night was clear and there were stars out. The last of the evening dog sleds finally returned, and after the other visitors piled back into the bus, there remained only us, a French couple and 300 huskies. Our accommodation for the night is a smaller lavvu, with a smoke opening. A fire was crackling in the centre, and reindeer hides strewn along the benches and on the floor. Sleeping bags and blankets have been piled up and votive candles flickered on rough hewn logs, serving as stools. The whole place looked magical, and it almost made the cold bearable.
The guides have shown us where the snow benches are – packed snow in the form of reclining chairs, heaped with reindeer skin. They’d built a fire there too, and so we filled up our thermos flasks with hot coffee, pulled on our hoods and set our feet towards the fire, eyes on the sky. It’s late, and the clouds have rolled in. Light pollution from Tromso city blights the horizon. Still, we waited, scanning the sky.
By 2am, the fire’s burned down and the clouds have crept across the night. I slumped back to our lavvu in snowfall, defeated. Later, I heard that there had been aurora activity that night, but because of where we were located, it was impossible to see it. At the time though, all I wanted was my warm sleeping bag on top the soft reindeer skins. Sadly, the cold kept waking me up and I had to creep out of my warm cocoon to put more wood on the fire, almost every hour. The smoke stung my eyes, but that was preferable to the cold, if I let the fire die down. It was a long, cold, smoky night, interspersed with short naps.
When morning stole through, we woke to a snowy, quiet landscape. Long, swordlike icicles hung from the ledges of our lavvu. All sound was muffled, except for the barking of the dogs, who greeted us with mad, grinning eyes and lolling tongues. We did the rounds, walking by the kennels to say hello. Most of the dogs wanted attention; a few were curled up nose-to-tail, sleeping in the snow. We quickly pick a favourite, a young, reddish brown husky called Brutus – their names are written on the front of their kennels. He’s affectionate, boisterous and beautiful, and we spend most of the morning with him.
The morning, by ourselves, just us with the huskies and the sound of snow, was magic.
Soon though, there was the roar of buses bringing another dog sled group. As the guides worked, pulling out sleds, untangling harnesses, strapping dogs into their traces, the huskies were all attention. Every one of them, you could see, wanted to run. As the guide walked down in between the kennels, they strained at the end of their leashes, barking, whining, howling, begging to be picked.
We had requested, the night before, to drive our own sled, so we got a light little two seater, pulled by a team of five dogs. They were eager to be off, but while they clearly knew what to do, we had to get a crash course in dog sledding, Norwegian style.
“Okay, it’s easy, because the dogs know where to go. And all they want to do, is run. All you have to do is know how to use the brakes.”
The brakes are located at the back of the sled, a counterweight that drags into the snow. As soon as the dogs feel that weight increasing, they’re trained to slow down and stop. We nod. Easy. I climb into the sled – I’m riding for the first half, then I’ll take over as driver for the second half of the trip.
At the shout, the dogs fly off, all focus on working the sled, all traces of impatience gone. They know the route well, so all I have to do is sit back, and enjoy the view. The sky is leaden grey with cloud and soon, it starts to snow. The dogs keep at it, but we can feel it when they hit a gradient – this is where the driver is meant to jump off the sled and run, to help the dogs. It’s surprisingly hard, hot work and by the time we call a halt, I’ve unzipped three layers and taken off my outer gloves.
The dogs are panting happily. Our main muscle, a brown husky in the middle of our traces, rolls around in the snow to cool off and accepts our pats graciously. It’s all over, all too soon. As we give the dogs one last hug and troop back on to the bus that will bring us back to the city, I glance back at the kennels, where Brutus is, straining at his lead – another sled has just been assembled, and he’s watching it, all eyes and ears. You can see that all he wants to do, is run.