By Christopher Ludgate
GoNOMAD Senior Travel Writer
The howl of the dogs could be heard before even reaching the base camp. After climbing deep into the elaborate range of Norway’s Lyngen Alps, our wheels turned onto the crunchy, icy gravel of the lot, and our headlights quickly crossed the trees of the grounds, before idling near a Tipi-like Sámi lavvu.
Outside, it was twenty below, and I felt the chill in my lungs as we disembarked.
The eyeshine of the Huskies glowed fiercely and bright as their bizarre song-like howls elevated with excitement upon seeing us. Julia and I locked eyes for a moment.
It was one of the most primal and wild sounds we’d ever heard. There must have been thirty of them each chained near a collection of doghouses there at the Aurora Alps base located within the Arctic Circle.
Thrill-ride with the Wolves
Manager of the facility, Asbjørn Rygh, met us with an excited look in his eye and led us all into a room inside the brightly-lit lodge.
He began sizing each of us up picking suits and boots from the abundant aisles of giant-sized gear which our crew comically struggled to stuff ourselves into while also still garnering the woolen layers and parkas we had arrived bundled in.
Visit Lapland was integral in planning all of our amazing Arctic adventures and excursions. Our trusty excursion guide, Mark Hayward, wisely advised that “If you can fit two layers of gloves, I would even do that.”
Asbjørn agreed adding, “You don’t want to discover you should have prepared better when you’re far out with no extra gear.”
Getting in Gear!
Seriously, when you go dog-sledding in Lapland wilderness in the middle of the night – which, by the way, lasts two months during the polar nights in these parts – dress the part.
Asbjørn led us out onto the grounds to introduce us to Tomas for a brief orientation and to assign us sleds – and our pack of huskies – all of whom do indeed have real passports. I loved that these were authentic Sámi Iditarod type sleds rather than a painted-up convoluted tourist version. There was no coddling here.
No sooner did we get our drill of how to harness the speed of the pack with various claw-brake and posture maneuvers did Ashleigh take the driver’s position behind me while I secured myself into the cargo bed, close to the ground, behind the restless but harmless howling pack. There were no reigns. I switched my headlamp on.
With very little easing into it, our immersion quickly accelerated ahead onto a winding snowy path deeper into the woods, whipping past tall frosted trees and ducking from shrubs whose crystal rime sparkled from my headlight.
I could hear the grunts and gasping of Ash behind me, wielding the sleigh with the relentless barking packs. We both knew this was the real deal, now. Pretty far from the base, the adrenaline took hold as did the pure enchantment, and I gripped tighter.
We suddenly entered a wide-open plane where the white peaks of the 90-kilometer long mountain range surrounded us, glowing with snow and moonlight. The striking details of the Milky Way spun above us with just the naked eye. There was no electrical effluence to compete with nature’s pureness here.
I don’t remember even hearing the Huskies at this point. It was like time slowed down, and I turned my headlamp off and just surrendered to the moment and the rush.
I drove on the way back. It’s a workout, for sure. Frozen lakes to one side of the path, drop-offs to the other, and a particularly steep hill to navigate ahead, this winter wonderland thrill-ride was an unexpected and most unforgettable thing.
In the Lavvu
We were invited into a nearby lavvu by local Sámi, Radu, who offered the crew coffee and hot chocolate served in traditional blonde birch kuksas (carved mugs) by a wood burning stove.
Dressed in the traditional Sámi garb of layered, colorful and puffy fabrics and adornments that these indigenous people are known for, the young-looking blonde, blued-eyed Radu was warm and friendly.
Their language and sounds were quite different than anything I’d heard in person before. But he spoke conversational English well with us. The Sámi culture is native to the Lapland territory or province, which spreads across parts of Arctic Scandinavia and Russia.
“We are storytellers and pass things on that way …that is how we share knowledge with our children. We do not give up our way of life and tradition, but we have peaceful relationships with those around us and nature. We do have houses with electricity. And we use modern technology sometimes,” Radu explained inside the lavvu, which is built to withstand extreme environments.
The base offers an overnight experience, for more insight into the culture.
Occupation can also be passed down among the tribes, one major being reindeer husbandry. “The Sámi people are the only people who own reindeer. There are strict rules and laws. Others are not allowed any control over them, but they can roam [on state land]. It is our culture and that is accepted by everyone,” he explained.
Social and economic customs notwithstanding, the culture embraces a spiritual acceptance of love. Radu explained how his brother married a Norwegian Christian girl, and that she is wholeheartedly considered family now.
Dreaming with the Sámi
Offering to share a song, which is a big part of their storytelling culture, Radu filled the air with a love song in his native language before leading us to visit his reindeer and offering us a ride on his sleigh.
It began to flurry as the reindeer sauntered up to us beside our Sámi guides. They were much larger than I expected. Their majestic and peaceful presence made me want to not put them to the task of pulling me around.
And with the elfin-like vibe of Radu, I kind of wanted to look around for Santa somewhere in the distance.
More otherworldly and magical than I imagined, I could see how coming to these parts is like a pilgrimage for many.
Whether it is the Japanese tourists who come to conceive beneath the northern lights dancing above for blessings or to experience an escape from the annoying buzz of our modern urban lives, it was soon easy to glean how this journey can be an intimate and personal experience.
I climbed into the large sleigh, and Rudu tucked me and Ashleigh in beneath a heavy woolen blanket. Having purposely left my headlamp inside, we absorbed just the natural ambient glow around us.
The gentle Sámi and his reindeer guided us into the fields of snow gliding further into the flurry of dream light.
Cloud Nine at the Lyngen Fjord
After crossing over via ferry, we ate together, nestled by the views extending beyond the sandy shore of the Lyngen Fjord at the cozy lodge of the ideal Lyngen Experience, who graciously accommodated our group.
The Polar Nights challenged my concept of time by this point in the journey, and I kind of liked it, really. It helped put me in tune with my body.
Looking forward to some traditional Nordic therapy at their facility later, we sat by the fireplace beneath the northern lights, comfortably sipping red wine and enjoying our brown butter cake with caramel hazelnuts and cloudberries, a heavenly Nordic delight.
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Senior Travel Writer Christopher Ludgate is a travel & culture journalist based out of his native New York City. Chris combines his multi-faceted professions and is ever drawn to adventure and creative outlets. His travel writing pursuits have lead to working with publications such as Passport Magazine, LAX in-flight, AIR Chicago, FLY Washington, and, of course, GoNOMAD.com. Chris is an award-winning filmmaker with films in distribution and screenings around the globe.