A Family Husky Adventure in Swedish Lapland
Will Gray, award-winning travel writer and photographer (and Cloud 9 editor) took his family to Swedish Lapland for a husky adventure.
It’s a dazzling Arctic morning: fresh snow sparkling in the sunshine, a gas-flame sky and the frozen River Torne spread below us like a freshly laundered sheet. Several of the huskies are stretched out in the sun, but when our guide Anna arrives with an armful of dog harnesses, ears prick alert and the barking begins.
Our eleven-year-old twins, Joe and Ellie, had their first taste of husky sledging the previous day. We’d flown to Kiruna (an easy, direct flight from London) and driven the short distance to Kenth Fjellborg’s husky base at Poikkijarvi, located across the river from the Icehotel and the village of Jukkasjarvi. Using a husky sledge towed behind a child’s snowmobile, the twins careered around the kennels, grappling with mushing basics, like using the footbrake and shifting their weight on the runners.
Now, kitted out in polar suits, balaclavas and thick mitts, we face the challenge of getting to grips with the huskies themselves. We have three sledges between us. Anna has the largest, pulled by eight dogs and loaded with food supplies for our overnight sojourn in the Lapland wilderness. Sally, my wife, and I have two smaller sledges, pulled by teams of four dogs. The plan is that we each have one of the children standing on the runners in front of us, effectively mushing in tandem.
They’re about to embark on a ride every bit as thrilling as anything a theme park can offer, only this rollercoaster is canine-powered…
First, however, we need to get acquainted with our dogs and learn how to harness them. Compared to our slightly neurotic and pampered Labrador back home, the squirming, slavering, trail-hardened huskies look like they’ve stepped straight from the local wolf pack. I detect a slight hesitation from Joe and Ellie as Anna begins hauling the dogs from their kennels. However, even the ‘leader of the pack’, a stocky black and white beast called Gusten, proves to be so gentle and affectionate that the twins are soon on the receiving end of waggy tails and sloppy kisses.
Anna shows us how to fit each husky with a harness by holding the dog firmly between our legs and sliding the padded webbing over its head and under its forelegs. Once each husky is harnessed and clipped into the running line attached to the front of each sledge, we’re ready to go. Thankfully, the sledges are not only equipped with two brakes (a rubber flap for gentle braking and a spiked metal one to really slow things down), but you also have an anchor rope attached to a grappling hook that can either be stamped into hard snow or wrapped around a tree trunk.
Such is the pent-up energy and excitement of the huskies prior to departure that every sinew in their bodies is stretched taut as they strain forwards. The anchored sledge creaks and quivers as the barking reaches a crescendo. Stepping onto the runners, it feels like you’re straddling an ignited firework rocket. I glance at Joe, standing in front of me, gripping the handlebars of our sledge. Big grin, glittering eyes. Ellie is the same. And no wonder: they’re about to embark on a ride every bit as thrilling as anything a theme park can offer, only this rollercoaster is canine-powered and travels through a spectacular wilderness of frozen lakes and snow-clad forests.
Anna checks we’re all ready, then bends down to release the anchor holding her sledge. Within seconds she’s whipped from view, her husky team charging through trees, down the slope beneath the kennels. Sally is next. I hear a brief ‘whoop’ from Ellie as their sledge careers after Anna’s. Then it’s our turn. Utter, Uffe, Daphne and Dixie are now hurling themselves, almost deliriously, into their traces. “Come on Dad!” Even Joe is getting impatient. With a short tug, the anchor comes free; I ease off the spiked footbrake and we’re sledging down the slope and onto the frozen River Torne.
Slightly bemused by the fact that we haven’t fallen off, I relax my grip on the handlebars. The open expanse of the frozen river is the perfect training ground for rookie mushers. Joe soon takes control of the footbrake, slowing the dogs on tight turns. All I can hear is the rasp of runners on snow, the rhythmic panting of the huskies and Joe calling out encouragement to our dogs. It’s an invigorating experience – like standing at the helm of a yacht racing across shallows.
After an hour or two, we stop at a small hut for salmon soup around an open fire. The afternoon’s mushing is more challenging, the sledges skipping off moguls on narrow forest trails. As a safety precaution, Anna asks Joe and Ellie to ride on her sledge during particularly steep sections. Breaking out of forested hills onto Lake Vakkara, we reach our overnight stop – a cluster of wooden cabins nuzzled in snowdrifts next to the frozen shore. A cosy wood-burning stove, leather sofas and a sauna await us, but first we must tend to our dogs. By now, Joe and Ellie have their favourites, fussing over Taiga, Ogla and Osp as they remove their harnesses and fill their food bowls with a well-earned meaty broth.
Our reward for the day’s mushing is a slap-up meal, prepared by Anna, of smoked reindeer fillet, Arctic char and a blueberry pie. After all the fresh air and excitement of the day, the kids are absolutely wacked. But an early night is out of the question when we peer outside after dinner to discover the sky awash with light. The aurora borealis is in full glow – sinuous banners of green, yellow and red rippling overhead. We slip-slide out onto the centre of the frozen lake for a better view of the spectacle and, not for the first time that day, feel pure exhilaration coursing through our bodies.
The following morning is sunny and breezy; fine snow blowing off the lake and fizzing through the trees around our wilderness hideout. Zipping up our parka hoods, we load the sledges and harness the huskies. Anna gives the signal and we set off, single-file, across the lake. “Feels like we could be in Antarctica!” Joe shouts as a gust of wind flings a sparkling haze of ice crystals across us. The dogs take it in their stride, long tongues lolling from their mouths, occasionally dipping their heads to scoop mouthfuls of snow from the trail.
By midday, we’re back at the kennels. Our family husky sledging adventure is over, but just across the River Torne, an equally exciting experience awaits – a night in the Icehotel with a chance to learn how to ice-sculpt, and even try our luck at another northern lights sighting during a late-night snowmobiling safari.