It was a noise like no other I’d heard before. The combined howling, barking and yapping of 100 excitable Siberian huskies was enough to surprise even an ardent dog-lover like me. The noise increased exponentially as I and my fellow mushers made our way to our sleds. It was a frosty but beautiful morning in Tromsø, Norway, and we were here to learn how to drive a team of huskies. We were all dressed up like Michelin men in huge red thermal suits and big boots but I wasn’t complaining. It might not have been glamorous but it was certainly necessary in the biting -5°C winds.
We had been picked up earlier in the morning by our guide, Per-Thore, from the centre of Tromsø, and driven for an hour out into the mountains. As we drove along we passed colourful wooden houses overlooking the sea, with snow covered mountains rising in the distance. Crossing the bridge we passed the Arctic Cathedral, one of the city’s most famous landmarks, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Sydney Opera House. Certainly an incongruous sight amongst the snowy surroundings.
Arriving at our destination, we were given a warm welcome by Per-Thore’s wife, Hege, and were introduced to the couple’s huge pack of eager husky dogs who knew that our arrival meant they would get to go for a run.
The safety briefing for my partner and me was certainly that – brief. The main point, we were told, was to always keep your foot on the brake otherwise you may well see your small wooden sled and its team of enthusiastic huskies disappearing into the distance. Other than that, we had to lean away from the corners to balance the sled, give the dogs a hand by pushing when going uphill and make sure that there was a decent distance between our sled and the one in front. It seemed fairly straightforward. What could possibly go wrong?
With a jolt we were off, whizzing along on a thick carpet of snow, our team of eight huskies powering along at a remarkable pace. Per-Thore was in the lead so we just needed to make sure our team of pups didn’t get too excitable and run into his sled. Zooming along in the heart of the Arctic Circle, past majestic mountains and snow-tipped pine forests, was both surreal and beautiful.
With my foot hovering anxiously over the brake at all times, we hurtled along through a well-honed path, curving round sharp bends that nearly threatened to tip us over. It was the kind of hair-raisingly exciting thrill that makes you laugh out loud with a mixture of exhilaration and mild terror. I’d highly recommend it if you’re the kind of person who likes to keep your adrenaline levels in the red zone.
Per-Thore was always mindful of how we were doing though, and stopped at frequent intervals to check that we were ok. Some of our fellow mushers struggled with their sleds and had to have some of their dogs taken away to slow them down. Secretly I longed to go just that little bit faster.
Before long I was completely absorbed in a fantasy world where this was my own pack of dogs and I was an expert musher. On the uphill stretch I was amused when a couple of our dogs turned round and gave me a look as if to say: “Come on! Give us a hand!”
After about an hour we came to the end of our 15km route, much to my sadness. However I was soon cheered up by the prospect of Hege’s homemade chocolate cake and tea, which was served in a traditional lavvu. This huge tipi-like structure is a traditional dwelling used by the Sami, Norway’s indigenous people. As our frozen hands and toes began to thaw, we were treated to a sight that would thaw even the hardest of hearts – four tiny husky puppies, just a few weeks old. We all took turns to cuddle them and coo over their bright blue eyes and tiny paws.
As we handed back our thermal suits and prepared to return to Tromsø, I fought the urge to smuggle a husky puppy in my bag. I’d loved every second of my brief time dog sledding but it was time for this Arctic adventure to come to an end.