By Stefanie Payne
My first taste of dog sledding came with a side of powerful joy -- one that I can only imagine is equivalent flying a plane for the first time or winning a large sum of cash -- yes, that joyful.
In the Lapland wilderness of northern Sweden, I was all leashed up with my team of four Alaskan huskies two in the front, born trailblazers trained to lead since puppyhood and two in back, the team dogs who follow the leads. Dixie, Balto, Tristan and Bella were ready to whisk me away. Our guide led the train with eight dogs on her sled and our group of eight sledders followed close behind. One other team with the same configuration was leashed up along our right hand side. A Swedish outdoorsman driving a snowmobile with a trailer, draped in reindeer hide cushioning our supplies, brought up the rear.
Sledders Suited for the Arctic Chill
When you are as far north as Lapland, the proper dress is heavy-duty, astronaut-like gear that can shield you from harsh weather for long periods of time (temperatures in March hover around -11 degrees Centigrade/12 degrees Fahrenheit). All sounds beyond the deranged thoughts of adventure that fly through your head, and the sound of freezing wind gusts in your mind's ear, are deafened by the muffle of ski caps, balaclavas, hats and fur-lined hoods. Once those sounds fall silent is when the song begins.
The North American breed of canine athletes starts to get amped up. One lead starts pushing ahead with excitement, then his running mate joins like happy golden retrievers trying to break free of their leashes to chase a squirrel. The rest of the dogs start barking and howling and jumping forth, all of the dogs sing out. From the quiet created by my sturdy outfit is the most powerful noise I have ever heard. The dogs are ready but we are not, and as the last details are worked out by the guides -- the tightening of loose ropes, the unraveling of tangled lines -- the excitement has found a climactic crescendo in this tiny corridor of arctic forest where we howl from. The final clicks of the harnesses on the last group of dogs rings and the tennis ball is thrown; the guide is their master and the snowy Lapland wilderness is their lap pool.
Sled Dogs Preparing to Take Off
You cannot hear the sound of the starting bell, you just see a fist rise and there goes our guide. One sled, two sleds ahead of me, I'm off, and hopefully, the rest of the team is behind me. As I kick up the steel brake that I have been forcefully leaning on, I secure a solid stance on my sled. The dogs take off and the song stops and then, total silence. There is whiteness everywhere.
For the first five minutes, I just laughed, no one would hear me, so I kept laughing harder and louder until it felt really good inside. I was howling as loudly and as excitedly as those dogs.
Crossing a Frozen Lake by Dog Sled
After a few minutes of sledding, I felt pretty good, solid. "I've got this!" I thought. I started getting a little cocky, took a little air over a bump and released one hand off the sled to pick up the secondary brake that allows slowing. I rode on for a bit, then I bit it. I totally flew! I soared through the air into a four feet snow bank. Instinct guided my gaze up the hill to make sure that another sled wasn't about to run me over. Safe. My second thought was, "Oh no, no, NO -- my dogs!" Of course they kept running, as dogs like to do. Instinct of the sledder in front of me guided her to take her own sled with her right hand, grab my runaway sled with her left and hang on for dear life, hoping that the dog teams would run together instead of in opposite directions. Our guide on the snowmobile came flying by like an Arctic superman, just in time to make the rescue. You see, there are plenty of heroes while sledding, the snow, your team, your dogs, your guides, yourself.
Sled Guide Feeding Dogs in Preparation of Morning Ride
I asked one of our guides if he ever (I meant recently) fell. "It's like riding a bike," he said. "Once you know how to sled, there is not much of a reason to fall." So much for my 'I've got this,' moment. This candid segue seemed like a good time to ask other questions I had about the sport. I wanted to know everything about these incredible dogs. We talked about the morning feeding of beef and blood and commercial food that delivers enough fat to their system to give them energy, strength, immunity and warmth needed for hours of running through harsh winter terrain. I wanted to know more about the guides who train the dogs and love them every day. They told us stories about their ancestors, the Sami people of the north (who also span northern Finland and across Siberia), and how they always looked forward to winter when they could cover more ground at a faster pace by crossing over frozen lakes. Today, they rely on both snowmobiles and dogsleds, depending on the task.
Sled Guides Giving Love to the Dogs
I wanted to ask questions regarding a statement from PETA that I read before I left Washington, DC, stacked with statistics about the inhumanity of the Iditarod -- a precarious subject that I broached softly. What I found, in the simplest terms, is that comparing the running dogs of the Iditarod with the Swedish sled dogs strung up next to us, is like comparing the training of an Olympic track and field star to Forest Gump who just "wanted to run." This topic is an article all its own, but as we sat in the snow and dangled our frost-bitten feet over the fire and slurped fish soup to warm up and refuel, it seemed silly in this moment to question our guides about the humanity of dog sledding. In fact, to attribute the notion of the humanity of sledding to their ancestral traditions seemed like an insult. When you are in this part of the world, humanity isn't part of the story. Like yak herders in the Himalaya, nomads in Mongolia, or cowboys in Wyoming, it is as much a part of the culture as it is the best way to do things with the resources at hand.
And that is how my first taste of dog sledding came with a side of powerful joy; free from the noise of the city, completely alert to all that surrounded me, swooned by the song of the sled dogs in the snowy Arctic north. And a belly laugh that I'll never forget.