I nodded silently while the owners and guides of the husky safari tour showed us how to heat the smoky cabin with the little, cracked oven. “You’ll need to heat up the room as much as possible, let the fire go out completely, then close the chimney. If you close it too early, the room will be full of smoke. If you forget to close it, however, you’ll be sleeping at freezing point.” I kept on nodding confidently while looking at the shelves full of dusty books, candle stands and other curious items. For some reason, I had imagined the “Wilderness Cottage” to be a cozy place, but reality quickly caught up with me when we got a bucket of fresh water from the river nearby to wash ourselves – there was no running water and no electricity. It slowly got darker outside and I listened to the howling of all the wolf-dogs while feeding the fire with more wood. That’s all I did for about four hours, until I let the only source of heat slowly die. I crawled into my sleeping bag next to the thin, icy window, turned my face away from it and hoped for sunrise – for the start of our three-day Husky Safari Tour through Finnish Lapland.
Only a few hours later, I was actually just hoping that the 15-year old British girl sitting in the sled would realize that her mother who was standing behind her on the sled had fallen off immediately at the start and that she was now racing driverless over the frozen lake – pulled by eight eager and powerful huskies and wolf-dogs. I stopped biting my lips when instead my jaw slowly dropped: I watched the girl realize her situation, unexpectedly stand up and skillfully swing behind the sled to stop it by forcefully driving the metal hooks into the snow. I smiled at Julie (@JulErler): we both knew that with so much action already in the beginning, we would be in for quite a husky safari.
The huskies and wolf-dogs of our husky safari weren’t mere sled dogs – they were top athletes, probably the strongest in Finnish Lapland. The owners made sure that each of the roughly 80 dogs at the farm had ample rest between each husky safari tour and that they were only fed with the best dry food imported from Denmark, mixed together with water and reindeer leftovers from nearby slaughterhouses. All dogs were powerful, with insane stamina and driven by a single mission: to be selected as one of the sled dogs for a husky safari. Once tied to the sled, they would never stop running. No words, no falling off and no steep hill would make them stop. Only the team in front of you or getting the sled stuck in a tree or so would force them to stop. (In case you were wondering: unlike “normal” dogs, they simply poop while running.) But despite this shared life mission, every dog was still very unique: different races (Alaskan huskies, Siberian huskies, wolf-dogs, hybrids, etc.), some very shy, some always loud, some rather calm, some constantly biting their rope, some pulling the rope no matter what and some constantly looking back at you while running.
One the first day of our husky safari tour, we traveled about 50 kilometers into the Muotkan Ruokto Wilderness Area, which lies in the northwestern tip of Finland near the town of Inari. The surroundings were beautiful, peaceful and ever changing: many hills, greater flat lakes and small paths through little forests. Occasionally, we crossed a few snowmobiles, but most of the trip, we were on our own. Riding a husky sled is quickly taught in theory: always brake with both feet on the metal bar that will dig itself into the snow, work with your weight to help the sled go slightly more left and right and help the dogs during steep hills by also pushing. You didn’t have to set the path, even if the guides were out of sight, as the leaders in your group could smell the track and would simply follow it.
After roughly six hours, we had finally arrived in a tiny village with a few cottages. We tied our sled to a tree, released the dogs one by one from the sled and chained them right next to our cottage. Sleeping outside in the open was no issue for the huskies and wolf-dogs: around 0 °C is considered rather warm for them, as they prefer temperatures below freezing point (-20 to -10 °C). The guides of the husky safari brought some frozen reindeer meat, which they then prepared with warm water in our shower. We also removed all harnesses of the dogs and dried them in the bathroom, along with the reindeer fur we had on our sleds. The smell of wet dogs and reindeer meat was everywhere, but I assume that’s just part of normal husky sledging life.
The husky safari tour continued the next day with a round trip through the wilderness area. It had snowed all night and there were no snowmobile groups that could have paved some tracks for the dogs. This meant we had to make our own way through the deep, soft snow – demanding a lot of skill and energy. While the dogs and the sled were able to distribute their weight nicely on the deep snow, avoiding to sink in too much, as a driver, you always had to pay great attention to not fall off and get stuck. The snow was knee-deep and I repeatedly had to free my sled from all the snow that had amassed before my brakes. The guides seemed to have neither the patience nor the urge to help us follow them – a challenge that I was open to take on; learning by doing at its best.
Or was it more survival of the fittest? It sure got close to a disaster when the British mother-daughter team behind us fell off the sled in the very deep snow. I told Julie slightly amused to get off our sled and hold the brakes for me while I would prepare myself to catch the dogs when they would try to pass by us. The situation escalated quickly when I suddenly heard the girl desperately screaming for help: her leg got tangled up with the rope of the sled which was slowly, but forcefully dragging her like a medieval torture instrument through the deep snow. The mother was struggling far behind – it was impossible to catch up with the sled. It took me a few horrifying seconds to fight through the snow myself and finally block the path of their strong lead dogs. I was knee-deep in the snow, trying to maintain my balance so I wouldn’t get run over. I shouted at the girl so that she would take off her boot, but the rope from the sled to her leg was fully tightened and she had no chance of untangling it. A few moments later, the mother had caught up with us and freed her daughter. Fortunately, the girl wasn’t injured and got away with a scare. We shook it off, quickly caught up with the guides who had been waiting on the other side of the hill and continued with our husky safari – exhausted, earnest and adamant about getting back safely.
Did you enjoy our Husky Safari Tour adventure so far?
The Husky Safari Tour through Muotkan Ruoktu was a true challenge, which exceeded our expectations – both good and bad. I must say that the expectation management was poorly handled by the guides – we had no idea how tough it was going to be. While a day-long husky tour is usual done in an easier setting, traveling for three days deep into the wilderness demanded high endurance, a thick skin and the ability to quickly learn to control your dogs and navigate your sled confidently. Personally, I enjoyed the adventure, the need to work closely with a team of eight powerful dogs and the remoteness of such a husky safari. But now that I’ve experienced it all, next time, I think I’ll just take the sled out for a quick spin, enjoy an afternoon in the wild and get back in time to feed the wolf-dog puppies.