Siberian huskies are smart.
Hector, Pepe, Pave and Brun, my team for the day speak several different languages. Along with Husky their native tongue, they also understand ‘stop’, ‘go’, ‘right’ and ‘left’ in Finnish, English and German. Well that’s what Esa our guide told me as I stood on the back of my sled with all four of them baying like murder and straining against the ropes. Huskies love to run. It might seem a bit mean to tie them together and make them pull you and all your clobber along over the snow, but believe me, when they’re ready for the off you can’t hang around. I’m not sure how we all stayed on our sleds the first half mile or so as we careered out of the compound to a send-off symphony of barking from the other hundred or so who weren’t coming with us. Somehow we’d turned sharp left out of the gate, narrowly avoiding the guard dog on his chain, zoomed under a road tunnel and burst out into the frozen Finnish countryside. My huskies were tearing along. Do dogs gallop? I reckon huskies do.
Harriniva is 160 miles north of the Artic Circle in Finnish Lapland. During the month of December, the sun doesn’t really come up at all and the cold is incredible. The thermometer dropped to nearly minus 30 degrees C whilst I was there. That’s the kind of temperature you die in without the right kind of insulation. In late January we were treated to several hours of sunlight and an hour or so of strange twilight either side. But when the sun comes out all that white means its rays bounce around and dazzle like strobes. It is other-worldly and scything along on a husky sled, the boys and girls gambolling in front of you tails high, tongues out, it’s Christmas-card perfect.
The silence is splendid.
There’s just the pitter-patter of the dogs’ paws on the snow and the slither of the sled’s runners. The snow seems to add a layer of extra insulation to everything and, trussed up under balaclava and fur hat there’s a strange sense of detachment. Until you come to the next turn.
Husky sleds have a claw-shaped metal footbrake that digs into the snow. And you have to use it. If you’re on a downhill slope you start to catch your husky team up. Obviously the last thing you want to do is run them over. Going round corners isn’t too hard if you moderate the speed properly. You lean into the curve as you would on skis and the sled slides round following the line that the dogs have taken. If you’re going uphill it’s a good idea to give the dogs a hand by pushing a bit with your err, foot. There’s a real sense of being part of a team and that’s the fun of it. You have to participate. You can’t just stand there and plane along – you’re leaning into the curves, stepping on the brake, keeping an eye out front for low-hanging branches. This means you stay warm despite the cold. Of course you’re kitted out with full cold weather gear too – huge boots, hi-tech trousers and jacket, big mittens and all the head gear.
After half an hour or so Esa in front stuck his arm up in the air to signal we were stopping. This all four of us did quite successfully. To stop the dogs dashing off without you, you have an ice anchor that you chuck into the snow and stamp down hard on.
Over to the west the sun was peaking above the tops of the firs.
The sky glowed hyper-blue, the snow touched by its rays vibrated warm orange. After just 24 hours up here on the top of the world, I was already feeling sun starved. I closed my eyes and basked in the rays. Setting off again proved more of a challenge. Getting the ice anchor out whilst still standing hard on the brake isn’t easy. A vacant sled shot forward from behind me. The dogs got into an awful tangle and Jeannine the sled’s occupant ended up face down in the snow.
Dusted down and untangled we set off again into a fairytale kingdom of twisting trails and firs laden with fat puffs of snow. This was more challenging. Concentrating on the bumps and dips in the track, braking down the slopes and leaning into the corners was exhilarating and quite intense. I risked a few glances at the team behind. Heads down, eyes shining, tongues steaming, the dogs pattered along. Each dog can pull up to 30kg. A fully laden sled for a week’s expedition can weigh in at 200kg and eight to ten dogs are needed. My little team of four are doing just fine. And they really are a team. The trainer selects dogs that work well together. Often they are related. My gang are one big husky happy family. Brun is mum and she’s my lead dog. Smarter, smaller and often female, the lead dog understands the commands, pulls left or right when instructed to and keeps the team in check. Beside her is Hector, learning the lead-dog ropes. Pepe and Pave are behind providing the muscle. They’re known as speed dogs. On a heavier sled you’ll have at least one further row of huskies. The back row are the wheel dogs. They’re the old pros – a little older and wiser.
We round a steep corner on a patch of sheet ice and I just manage to cling on, one runner of the sled momentarily leaving the ground. Barry, two sleds back isn’t as fortunate and comes careering off. And dogs and empty sled coming charging up from behind. I and Esa chuck on the brakes and jump out to grab them. The sunlight is already fading. Behind us a small church steeple glows in the gentle golden light. Harnessed up again we plough deep into the forest and stop at a cabin for lunch. During the Christmas season Santa Claus hangs out here, but for now it’s just us, snug in front of an open fire eating stewed reindeer and malty black bread, washed down with sharp cloudberry juice. A couple of cups of strong coffee finish the meal and we hurry back outside into the fading light.
It’s time to make tracks. We have an hour or two’s sledding to go to get back before nightfall.
Fancy a husky safari?
Get There: Finnair flies daily from London to Helsinki with onward connections to Kittila.
Stay There: Book direct with Harriniva activity resort.
Do The Tour: Finland activity break specialist The White Circle has a range of packages to Harriniva. All cold weather gear is provided.
Find Out More: The official Finland Tourist Board website.