Dogsledding in Finland: Silence Speaks Volumes
By Andy Buswell
The sound of silence is not only an inspiration for that 1960’s duo Simon and Garfunkel, but also to anyone with a team of huskies in their eyeline. Once the sled starts sliding, the only contact you should expect is a look of contempt from the leader of the pack, if you dare to put your foot on the brakes.
It is hard to know where the thick Finnish forests become Russian property but if you want to avoid a scene out of a Bond movie, you would be strongly advised to stamp down your authority with your dogs.
As the plane wheels touched down on the seemingly sugar-coated runway of Kuusamo Airport, there was already an air of mystery surrounding this magical adventure.
Despite the pittance of a meal (consisting of one apple, a slice of cake and some water), I and the six other members of the group managed to call upon some reserve strength as we were greeted by a man whose name translates into English as “Wilderness Wolf.”
Man by both name and nature, his attire was made of wolfskin and leather, and while sporting a beard jolly old Saint Nick would be proud of, like any sensible predator he carried a knife as self-defense.
One Giant Leap For Mankind
Choosing not to leave a tot of brandy and a selection of mince pies for Saint Nick, it was no surprise when I awoke presentless in my motel (in the bustling ski resort of Ruka) the next morning. However, our bearded guide “Era Susi” remedied that after a hearty breakfast when we were whisked up to Ruka, where our expedition gear was awaiting us.
After donning the thermal arctic suit, I felt like a cross between Neil Armstrong and the Michelin Man, but it was this padding that was to save me from frost bite throughout the next five days.
Our last stop as we left under the shadow of Rukatunturi, the highest fell in the area, was a delightful trip to a Husky Farm. While our teams were being assembled we received strict instructions on how to break up dogfights and win the daily battle of getting them into their harnesses. It seemed fairly simple – to stop the sled, press the foot brake and then fix the sled to a tree using a complicated knot system.
While I sweated in my space-suit, it appeared fighting would be the least of my worries, as one of my dogs was unable to control his friendliness to other members of my six-strong team. Three exhausted huskies later and I was poised to attack the pine forests and frozen lakes of Finnish Lapland.
It is a well-known fact that huskies perform better in the cold climate of the Arctic; however not so common knowledge is that their name stems from “Esky,” an ancient nickname for Eskimos.Mushing With The Eskys
It was the former that aided me in the first moments of this safari, as there was no need to yell “mush,” as is commonly presumed. No sooner had I let go of the foot brake, had the school-playground style barking turned into the pitter patter of satisfied feet, and the occasional yelp of joy.
Our dog soldiers were Siberian born and bred, particularly recognizable by their bushy coats, erect triangular ears and sickle tail. With a history of companionship or working life, they are an energetic and active breed devoted to their owners.
The enthusiasm of my gentle friends from the wilderness of eastern Russia allowed me to admire the surrounding winter wonderland, with my vision solely impaired by the blurry flurry of crystal snowflakes.
Our day was broken only by campfire sausages as we learnt the ropes of how to handle six dogs travelling at 20 kilometers per hour (12 mph). As we tackled the tight corners and narrow bridges of the Finnish forests, our bright white path eventually lead us to our sleeping pads for the night by the vast, frozen Lake Suininki.
Given the highlights of the first day it came as no surprise to discover that forested areas account for 75% of the country while a further 10% is covered by water bodies, including an incredible 180,000 lakes.
Steaming Our Way To Russia
Thankfully, Lake Suininki had a thick layer of ice as we left the Wolf Tail’s Cabin the following morning, for what was to be the toughest test of the week for the huskies.
Still fresh from my sauna session, I was comforted by the knowledge that another could not be too far away with a total of 1.8 million across the country. This momentary lapse of concentration caused me to be left for dead in the snow as my dogs shot off like a bolt of lightening, oblivious to all and sundry, having to be reined in by our experienced leaders.
Stopping for our campfire lunchbreak
This, unbeknownst to us at the time, was a warning sign of things to come as we headed east towards Russia battling our own personal cold war through deep snow and beyond endless peaks.
If we managed to maintain a consistent speed, master the art of cornering and keep the sled upright, then the dogs would calmly steer themselves along the fluffy trails. Obviously we did not always follow such advice, as was proved by a disastrous turn of events that saw one team prefer to fly solo by discovering a new trail and another enjoy the feeling of being driver-less.
With the advice of the “wilderness wolf” at the forefront of our minds, I compensated for the slower pace on the hills by dismounting and running side by side with my faithful dogs. As we returned to sea level, we were on our guard and holding on for dear life in order not to catch up with the dogs.
At some point all of us had been taunted as we lost control at a corner to then see the dogs ride off into the distance, as we were tantalizingly close to regaining control.
All this self-inflicted pain had its benefits as day turned to night and led by our beaming snowmobiles we enjoyed a spectacular sunset that began with a fiery orange before oozing a deep purple.
Undeterred by the 40-kilometer (25-mile) battle, I finally got to grips with another side of the adventure. The history of huskies dates back to a millennium ago when they were used for travel and the hunting trade. It was not until the gold rush in Alaska in the early 20th Century that races became a feature of the life of a husky.
Then on 3rd of February, 1925, when Gunnar Kaasen sledded 600 miles from Nenana to Nome, Alaska, to deliver a cure for diphtheria, the “Last Great Race on Earth” was born.
The annual Iditarod race commemorates Kaasen’s achievements by sledding 1150 miles from Anchorage to Nome through fierce mountains, frozen rivers and thick forests. All this is only possible if you take great care of your dogs, tending to their every need.
My strained muscles slowly began to learn the art of unharnessing an irritable husky, tying a sturdy knot for their overnight recovery and most important of all – feeding time. A simple slab of defrosted meat later and we were back on the road again, having spent the night just 2 km (1.2 mi) from the Russian border in the Isokenkaisten Klub.
Roughly translated as “club for the big shoe people” we were booted out, not by Russian army patrol officers but simply the front desk, and sent packing back to Lake Suininki and our cabin of two days earlier.
Finland was part of Sweden until 1809, when it fell under Russian control, but by 1919 it finally became an independent republic. Not that I would dare question such independence, but something in the back of my mind prevented me from straying past a simple yellow dot on a tree into “No Man’s Land” and the hands of the Kremlin.
It was this fourth day of the expedition that was to prove the importance of the once sweaty space-suit. Smooth riding from experienced sledders was the story of the day until we returned to the familiar frozen lake, where wind speeds of 60 miles per hour combined with a temperature of -30 to provide me with my toughest test.
With anything from icicles to snowflakes and dog muck thrown towards me, endurance was foremost in my thoughts and when I finally saw the rectangular shape of Wolf Tail’s Cabin, hope rushed through me. It wasn’t until an hour-long evening sauna session that the blood began to flow through my body again.
I learned my lesson for an albeit short final leg the next day and sandwiched some heat pads between my feet and the thermal socks.
A Tearful Goodbye
As we reached the end of our escapade and bid farewell to out faithful dogs it was quite fitting that we were welcomed back to the real world of the Husky Farm with a new born husky ready start a whole adventure of his own.
In a country with over 180,000 islands, it was the mainland that captured me and although I didn’t cross the Arctic Circle, it certainly felt like that sort of magical winter experience.
And dogsledding was not the only new activity I learnt, as I discovered the delights of Finnish cricket. It’s very simple – all you need is a dustpan, shovel and brush and fitness enough to be able to clean up the frozen excrement of seven dog teams. That’s one Finnish joke I won’t be importing back home.
Local operator – erasusi.com
UK operator – exodus.co.uk
Tourist info – visitfinland.com
Tourist info – kuusamo.fi
Husky Race – iditarod.com
Club for big shoe people – isokenkaistenklubi.com
Andy Buswell is a freelance travel writer whose inspiration for traveling sprouted from a young age, when family holidays ventured beyond the boundaries of Kent, taking exciting boat and coach journeys all over the mountains, valleys and cities of Europe. Read his blog.