5-6 December 2019
Thursday – feeling surprisingly good for being dragged 50’ by a pack of huskies
We meet this morning at 9:30, just at the dawn of civil twilight. The southeastern sky is a palette of pinks, reds and golds. The terrain is white as far as I can see. Trees are sculpted and boughs laden with snow. The road is one white path edged by tall berms. Snowy white ptarmigan blend into their equally white environment. The occasional group of reindeer dig in the drifts for food or wander across the road appearing very unconcerned about automobiles.
The sky becomes blue, temperatures are in the mid 20s, the day, and night, looks promising.
We drive south practically to Inari and enter a privately owned husky farm. We are here to learn about dogs and dog sledding. We each get a sled where one can sit while the other ‘drives’ the huskies. These dogs are howling, barking, leaping in excitement. They are Alaskan huskies for the most part and much smaller than I expected. But our five eager dogs are capable of dragging a sled and two people, perhaps 400 pounds, with ease.
We are given brief instructions on hand signals, braking, leaning and speaking to the dogs. It is important to keep the lines taunt. Yelling commands like “mush, go, and stop!” to dogs who are not bilingual is useless. The dogs are extremely friendly and attention-seeking. They seem over-eager to drag this sled and its two septuagenarians through the snow and across the tundra. I step inside the sled, Nancy takes command of the driving and at the go signal, she steps off the brake onto the runners and we are off like a bolt of lightening. Yikes!
Our team is made up of a motley crew of Alaskan huskies. A female almost always leads and supplies the brains while the males follow supplying the brawn. Our path leads into the surrounding forest, through open fields of deep snow, around too-tight corners and scrapping past bare tree branches. The blue skies are streaked with brilliant colors of pinks and golds, announcing a rising sun that does not come. It is gorgeous out here. The dogs are color blind and could care less as they race us to the next curve.
The leaning is to make the corners and avoid the branches and this should work in theory. In reality it does not. The dogs easily clear the corner, we, apparently, will not. “Lean left!” shouts Nancy. Our dogs speed around the corner. The sled follows, lines slacken then the sled begins to tilt right. “Brake, brake, brake” I shout. I rudely spill from the capsizing sled as the unconcerned, exuberant huskies race on. Looking up from the snow, I see I have no brake woman. Nancy is 20 yards back pushing up out of the snow and out of the path of the following dog team.
We are scrappy women and refuse to let a bunch of dogs defeat us. Ahead, the guides have stopped the team, otherwise they would continue to run all the way to Helsinki. We board our sled, grip the sled’s handle, release the brake and speed ahead.
Dog sledding is hard work. Not only must one lean to help steer an otherwise unsteerable vehicle, but hold on to the sled for dear life. Hand signals are to be given by driver and rider as they are essential for those following us. Feet are firmly, hopefully, placed on the two icy runners. When braking, one must remove one of said feet to slow the dogs. Replacing that foot back on the runner is essential, unless you want to kick the path to help the dogs along a particularly rough patch or uphill. Presently, our unkindly feeling is to let the dogs do the work.
Most of our path is clear. We proceed at great speed bouncing over moguls, learning there is nothing but canvas and a reindeer skin between the snow and our butts. One also learns that dogs can pull and poop at the same time. That is a time to lean right and duck.
At the half way point, we switch positions. Nancy climbs in the sled, snug in the reindeer skins, and I board the runners and cling to the sled’s bar. We are off!
The dogs, thankfully, are a tiny bit tired. I learn quickly this sled driving is much more difficult than imagined, and I know from Nancy’s experience I should imagine it as tough. One must use strength, leaning and bending of knees and body, and hold on. Keep those lines taunt, give those hand signals! A lot of multitasking for a novice. It is not long before my foot leaves the brake and misses it’s spot on the runner. Thereafter, disaster strikes. I realize very quickly I cannot run as fast as the dogs. I find myself holding on and being dragged behind the sled. I have a snowball’s chance in Hell of stopping the dogs. I unsuccessfully try to grab the thick blue rope dragging behind, hoping to what? Finally, after about 50 feet, I realize perhaps I need to let go. “I’m off! I’m off!” I yell to an oblivious Nancy.
The huskies and Nancy merrily rush ahead until a guide grabs hold of the leader. Holy crap on a cracker this is fun!
Our dogs are friendly and happy. At stops, the nearest comes back to check on us. Is he asking “How was it for you?” The dogs roll and bury their heads in the snow as they are hot. Tired? Not so much. Our lead husky misses a turn, perhaps on purpose. Who knows what she was thinking as she sped into deep snow. Quickly the sled bogs down. The dogs are in snow over their heads.
I am predisposed to let the dogs correct it. They got us into this – let them get us out of it. Not so. Nancy climbs out and I push the sled forward, snow above my knees. Once the dogs are again on the path, we climb aboard and the team happily does the rest. Pulling is their life and running their joy.
We near the end of our journey, signaled by the howling of those left behind. I get the impression every dog is jealous of not being chosen for our team. Our five huskies would still be pulling if the handlers did not grab the lead and tightly tie that blue rope to a tree. I have gained huge respect for the dogs and racers of the Iditarod. This has been hard work and I am glad to be able to walk under my own power to a teepee for grilled sausages and hot berry juice around a roaring fire.
After lunch, I am able to meet the dogs up close and personal. I don’t hold a grudge. They just want to have fun.
As we drive back north to Utsjoki, the sky holds promise for Aurora sightings. After a wonderful meal of sautéed reindeer sausage with shiitake mushrooms and wild rice, we once again go through the exhausting process of layering up for what promises to be a very cold evening. I pride myself on packing light and wearing everything I pack. This is the first time I have worn every article of clothing in my suitcase at the same time!
At 7.30pm, we board our van and head back south to the area of Petsikko where the skies are clear, the quarter moon is rising in the south, and land is flat for miles. The Big Dipper and North Star are due north towards Utsjoki. And directly below them are the waving green clouds of Aurora! She has blessed us with a show as a huge 90° arc of green sweeps across the black sky. Fading in and out, moving here and there, Aurora flows across the horizon like a scarf of fine silk waving in the wind. It is beautiful and captivating to behold. Slight curtains form and disappear; dark green shimmers for moments before fading away. Even this simple one-hour show is breathtaking. I can only imagine how stunning a corona or other glowing colors would be. The Aurora Borealis in Lapland is something one does not forget.
Friday – Finland Independence Day
Angus drives us through a monochrome landscape back to Ivalo. Again, white, white, white. Black stalks of trees protrude from the snow, branches delicately draped in snow. Reindeer cross the road hoping for better food. Our important red and black markers define the perimeters of the road. My mouth waters for a reprise of Escarcots with a blue cheese gratin and bits of reindeer; a dish of sautéed reindeer with lingonberry jam and pickled cucumber. A nice Riesling will wash it down.
It has taken me a couple days to truly appreciate the beauty of Lapland. Snow does a magnificent job of decorating the land; Aurora paints its skies. One learns to live with the cold and darkness as a price to pay for sharing its beauty with the Sámi, reindeer, huskies, and maybe even Santa. Perhaps I will heed the signs and suggestions encouraging me to “Please come back.”