A memorable journey is often more about the people you meet than the things you see, and when I went dogsledding with Arctic Husky Adventures in Jokkmokk, Swedish Lapland, last week I met quite possibly the most welcoming people I have ever met on my travels.
I had booked a surprise dog-sledding trip as a late 60th birthday present for my mum. When we stepped off the bus, having told my mum that we were going shopping in Jokkmokk (thankfully, she didn’t know beforehand that there are only about 6 shops in the town), Karin approached us with a large smile. She was very excited to discover that the trip was a surprise, and from that moment on dedicated the whole experience to making it even more amazing.
The kennels are 11 km out of Jokkmokk and Karin drove us there, all the time chatting happily about life in the Arctic north. Originally from Norway, she loves her life and her job, and is immediately likeable.
When we arrived at her house, the Arctic Husky Adventures base, her finnish husband Juha came and sang Happy Birthday to my mum in finnish. Karin looked us over in order to make adjustments to our clothing—offering warmer coats, boots or hats if needed. Thankfully, we passed her test and we were ready to unleash the dogs.
Karin and Juha have around 30 dogs, all different colours and ages. They were kennelled and watching us eagerly as Karin and her husband picked the team of 10 dogs that would pull our sledge. This process seemed very technical, taking around 15 minutes as they picked strong running dogs for the front, as well as an inexperienced puppy of 9 months old who is currently being trained by the older dogs. It is important to select dogs that work well together, and it was clear that Karin and Juha knew the personality and mood of every single dog.
As each dog was released from its kennel it bounded enthusiastically towards us, but these dogs were mild-mannered and exceptionally well behaved; there was no unwanted face licking or jumping up. Sensing my mum’s love of dogs they quickly befriended her and before long she had one dog, Gubben, devotedly following her every footstep. They gambolled around and threw themselves into deep snowdrifts, but when called to the harness there was no objection at all—they couldn’t wait to get out running!
Once the dogs were harnessed we got into the sledge, we had chosen a 3-hour ride with a coffee break and Karin would be steering the sled. You can choose to steer the sled yourself, and there is an option of a lunch trip. For the more adventurous, you can choose longer trips that include overnight stays. Karin and Juha also have a sled for the physically impaired. Our sled was a basic wooden construction, bound tightly with ropes, not nails, and covered with a reindeer skin. The ropes holding it together allow more give, so it is not as rigid as if nails had been used. It was a more comfortable ride than I expected.
Raring to go, the dogs sprang forward as soon as the gates were opened. They were in the mood for running and went fast, Karin told us that sometimes they choose to ‘take it easy’, but we had them at their most energetic. We were not sad about this, and looked forward to an exciting ride.
Whizzing through the Arctic wilderness behind a team of dogs is an exhilarating experience; ice kicked up by the dogs’ pounding feet whizzed past us, some catching my cheek as it flew past (note: wear sunglasses if you take this trip!) and the frozen landscape became a blur. Across lakes and islands we went, the terrain all hardened ice compacted from 6 months of heavy snowfall. Karin needed not to call out too many instructions to the dogs, they knew what they were doing. Occasionally a dog will run to the side to lick up a mouthful of snow, this keeps them cool and doesn’t disturb the balance of the sled at all. Teamwork does not get better than a pack of huskies in action.
At our half-way point we stopped at an isolated cabin by a snow-covered river, too fast-moving to freeze over completely. The only sound was the gushing of glacial-cold water and the howl of the dogs when they spot a reindeer or moose lurking nearby. The dogs settled down and waited with a patience that I would never have expected from 10 active dogs. Karin handed us hot chocolate from a thermos and set about lighting a fire by the cabin, chatting all the time as we eagerly asked her about the dogs, the terrain, the climate, and life in the Arctic. She was easy to talk to, funny and knowledgeable—everything you want in a host. Before long she felt like a friend. She loves what she does, but says that sometimes guests on the tour want a guide, and only a guide. They make orders of her in the way that she might call orders to her dogs. It seems a shame that some people are so intent on ticking off items from their bucket list that they miss the people who make it possible.
Once the fire was burning brightly Karin put some homemade kanelbullar (cinnamon rolls) in a pan to warm over the fire. They were delicious when served with hot, strong coffee or lingonberry juice. As we ate Karin talked of when she worked in Kiruna, home of the Ice Hotel, and nearby Abisko Sky Station. Kiruna is a large tourist attraction and the place that most people go for their Northern Lights/Dogsledding tours in Sweden. But it has lost the personal touch, Karin says. She was sad that the buns provided there were shop-bought and often not fresh, having been left in the cabin sometimes for days between tour groups. The dogs were not always cared for in the right way. She and Juha left to work in a more intimate environment. Serving kanelbullar freshly baked by herself for each group is a matter of principle. We appreciated them so much we had seconds!
When we went on our dogsledding trip, we didn’t see a single other person. We were truly alone in the arctic wilderness with a wonderful woman whose sole objective was to give us the best experience possible.
All this time our dogs had been waiting, quiet and still. The puppy, a little impatient by now, started howling but soon calmed down after a word from the older dogs and he sat down to wait quietly—his training will not take long. At Karin’s word they were up and ready, now they can be excited again and we pulled away to a cacophony of enthusiastic barking and howling.
To my surprise when we got back to the kennels, the dogs sprang to their own kennel, tails wagging and looking expectantly at Karin until the door was opened. I had expected that 10 young, excited dogs might be difficult to get back inside. They were tired and happy dogs.
Our trip had ended but Karin and Juha were driving to Gällivare to buy dog food so they offered to save us the bus journey and dropped us home to Porjus on their way past. The were truly wonderful people, even making an offer to my parents of a trip up to their mountain cabin should they ever return to Sweden, an offer I have no doubt they would deliver should my parents ever go back—they were simply that kind.
On the website Arctic Husky Adventures says: “Arctic Husky Adventures has one goal…To ensure your trip is truly captivating.” They succeeded.
Have you ever met a wonderful person like Karin on your travels? Do you think it is important to have a good relationship with guides when travelling? Feel free to share in the comments below.