On 2-6 of January, I was up in Finnmark, Norway with Christian Monaghan and Alex Prokop for a few days of dogsledding.
The serenity, the feeling of oneness you experience gliding through the soft, white, crunchy desolation with the dogs is nothing like I’ve ever experienced. The deafening quiet, the unwavering untouched snowfields, the full inch of hoarfrost forming on the dwarf birches and reindeer fences, the single ptarmigan pecking at berries, and of course, the team of powerful, friendly, empathic huskies that become at once your family, your engine, and your link and protection with and from your mostly inhospitable surroundings.
Speaking of the dogs, they are all Alaskan huskies, which are not a pure breed per se, but instead a mix of a variety of high latitude dogs (Siberian huskies, malamutes), occasionally bred with other breeds like pointers, hounds, and shepherd for speed and trainability. They have relatively dense, but short hair to keep cool while running, and have peak metabolism and comfort at around -15ºC. They are unbelievably lean and muscular.
For our sled teams, we had eight dogs per team, pulling two sleds. On lakes, rivers, and other tree-less flats, the going was easy — just need do a few dozen squats every so often to stay warm. In hilly or brushy terrain, things were a bit more interesting. On uphill, and especially in less compacted snow, the dogs usually need a bit of help getting up, which I was more than happy to oblige via some running and pushing of the sled; it was a great way to stay warm. When I fail to notice the dogs struggling uphill, they would make it obviously known by looking back at me cheekily, as if saying “Hey man, you gonna help or not?” In downhills and brush, the sledding took a surprising amount of athleticism — staying balanced mostly on one foot while stepping on a spiked metal bar that acts as a brake with just enough pressure to keep tension on the line — around the same amount of effort as skiing down a bumpy green slope. In forested areas, you have the added problem that the train can be overgrown, so not infrequently a large branch threatens to clothesline you at head or torso height, leaving you still trying to balance and keep your foot gently on the brake, but now also squatting at the same time.
We started our journey from Engholm Husky Lodge, and then stayed two nights at the Ravnastua mountain outpost for two nights. Both of these locations have souls and are stories in and of themselves — I’ll go into that later.
As you can see, there are no driving directions from Engholm Husky Lodge to Ravnastua:
In fact, to even get to the Engholm Lodge, we flew into Oslo, stayed there overnight, took another flight to Alta, then took a 4 hour bus, followed by a pickup from Kenny (who works at Engholm) for the last 7km. The return ended up being significantly more convoluted.
I didn’t even realize what was happening at first — a thin white vertical stream of light was off in the distance, approximately in the direction of Karasjok, so I assumed it was a spotlight. But after a few minutes of staring, I realized that it was dancing, that it was bending. Another string of light appeared alongside it immediately after, and within a few more minutes, it was as if an invisible force has stretched out the fibers of the string so it was now a hundred thin strands shooting up into the sky. A whole wispy blueish-green band was emerging from the other stream, like a dream-like green rain.
I stayed out until I could no longer feel my hands. It was only -11ºC at the time (which the locals would pronounce “eleven” — no need for the minus sign), and couldn’t quite comprehend how it could get another 28 degrees colder by the next evening.
We then got equipped with homemade reindeer skin jackets, military surplus polar gloves, polar boots, and various other items. A common refrain from Christel was “What did you bring?” “Uhh…these jackets/socks/gloves” “Oh that’s rubbish — here, use these.” I threw a small mental celebration when my Patagonia mountaineering pants passed the test.
The next morning, after we harnessed our dog teams, with all the dogs excitedly yipping and howling in a mass cacophony of joy and anticipation (except for the dozen or so left behind who were whining and barking saying “Pick me! Pick me!”), we get a short lesson about how to drive a dog team. I was honestly a combination of excited given Christel’s highly encouraging words, and anxious given that she also said “the first 500m has everything — speed, tight corners, downhill, trees.”
The group of 10 of us (8 starry-eyed visitors and 2 guides) set off at around 10AM, just as the sky ignited from midnight blue to manganese pinkish-purple. “People believe the wrong thing about us; that we don’t see sun in the winter,” stated Christel emphatically. “But there is more than enough light to go out every day. And you can only see this amazing sky on the coldest winter days.” It was dusk by 2PM.
We stopped at around 1PM for a quick lunch. Christel and Ingrid, our two guides, built the fire from some fallen wood that they stripped with their knives for kindling, and subsequently lit with a single match. “It would be too embarrassing to use a second match.”
We sat on reindeer skins, thawed out our frozen sandwiches, thawed out our hands and feet, had some hot water, and remarked to each other, as our eyes were watering from the smoke from being too close to the fire, that we were actually in the remote wilderness, dogsledding.
At around this time you start developing a personal bond with each of your dogs as well. You feel the pull of their intent stares, and they come to you when you’re near, to pull off the ice on their faces, to play, or just for a hug.
A sad part of this is that some dogs have blood on their faces by the end of the day. The dogs are strapped in with a body harness (synthetic fibers), and a neck line (either metal, or natural fibers). As the dogs heat up when running, some of the dogs will start hanging their tongues out, and, inevitably, their tongue will swing into the path of the metal neck line. The schoolyard prank of licking the frozen flagpole is real. And this is no different. The tongue will get stuck, and upon pulling it away, the dog will get a surface wound. This is what causes dogs to end the day looking like this (it looks far worse than it actually is).
By the time it’s starting to get to headlamp territory, we arrive at Ravnastua, the remote outpost/cabin where we’d stay for the next two nights.
Ravnastua is maintained by Oskar, a quiet, friend, but eccentric man who was born in this remote outpost, and whose family has maintained this outpost for many generations. His main modes of transportation are snowmobile (or, “scooter” if you’re Scandinavian, and “snow machine” if you’re Alaskan), and the gyrocopter. He powers everything via hydroelectric generator he installed under the river ice himself, and also built the web site linked above. He likes interesting visitors and a good whisky, and jokes that we should fill in interesting professions like “astronaut” in the guestbook for fun. He also has that arctic Nordic spirit and work ethic — each day, he would light and stoke our five wood-burning stoves so that our cabin would be warm by the time we arrived (and we did regard -5ºC as warm by that evening).
And by 5PM, after we’d given the dogs a snack, put on their jackets, taken them out of their harnesses, and pushed our gear to the cabin, we walked outside to the pitch black. Except as soon as our eyes adjusted, we realized it was far from black.
I stared until my camera succumbed to the cold. It took only an hour. It was another hour before it warmed up enough to view again.
In the small cabin, our bedroom became the dining room and communal room, and we had a dinner of poached salmon and boiled greens. And, of course, plenty of crackers with enormous amounts of butter, brown cheese, and lingonberry jam. Best way to stay warm.
After dinner, we feed the dogs. We have several 20kg bricks of frozen meat (frozen because of the ambient temperature, not because we necessarily want it frozen). We chop it with an axe into 16 portions and feed these to the dogs (these photos are from the next morning when there was enough light for photos).
But once again, the cold got to me (I wasn’t wearing my reindeer skin by that point), and I retreated to the relative warmth of the cabin. 30 minutes of conversation and 30 pages of writing later, I fall asleep.
Handwarmer packets freeze, and only manage to heat things up to around -25ºC. My phone charger cable froze and snapped. Both my camera and phone died within an hour of being outside. I only got three photos that day. Here’s the reindeer fence.
But I had learned a valuable lesson–if I kept my sandwiches in my innermost fleece layer (I had 3), it would only be partially frozen by the time I took it out.
We got home past dark that evening. I fell into the role of keeping everyone’s fires going to warm up the place. Eventually, the centimeter of ice on the triple-paned windows defrosted, and I declared my work a success. And so we had a dinner of reindeer heart stew, made by Christian, Christel, and Ingrid.
And later that evening, we got a spectacular show. The entire sky filled with light — greens and blues and magentas — all billowing in ribbons, or streaming down like fireworks. You could stand and look up and spin in circles and see ten different patterns all surrounding you, enveloping you, playfully pricking you with a thousand intertwining threads of green silver.
The aurora continued so vividly that I decided to sleep outside. Two skins and a mummy bag (and 3 layers of wool pants, 4 layers of tops, a hat, and 3 socks) kept me reasonably warm throughout the night. The dogs would howl in unison every hour or two, which would wake me up, and upon waking up (and blinking a few times to get the ice crystals off my eyelashes and contacts), I’d see the northern lights still keeping watch on the glistening landscape. This was perhaps my personal highlight.
We were back to the Engholm Husky lodge after sunset. After some cleanup, unharnessing of the dogs, and playing with the dogs, we went into the workshop where we were treated to hot waffles make by Kenny.
The workshop, perhaps more than any other building, symbolized the dedication, resourcefulness, and love that permeates this place. The workshop is built by hand. To hang up your jackets, you put your jacket on this handbuilt pulley system. There, on the wall is stored every hand tool you can imagine, and jars of every odd screw, nut, and bolt you could need. And in one corner, hanging and on a tackboard, various odds and ends from Sven Engholm’s illustrious dogsledding career.
Incredibly, Sven has won the European equivalent of the Iditarod, the Finnmarksløpet, 11 times. He is a legend. He started working on these lodges back in 1979, and has designed and built each one of the cabins himself. Every nook and cranny has significant thought and effort put into it by Sven and Christel. The wine glass hangers are made from twine and knots. The clock is handmade. The lampshade is stretched…stomach? The kitchens are all reclaimed wood and angle ground river rock. Used sleds and old animal skins dot the place. It’s incredibly inviting and natural.
Even their training with the dogs can be highly non-traditional. They take the dogs on an island dog vacation every year, where they can roam free, and also go through swim training.
I walk out of the workshop to our cabin amazed.
So, in our last evening there, we relax, sit in the sauna, make 2-3 half-naked snow angels in the bitter cold, run screaming into the sauna again, then eventually retire to our soft beds in the cabin, luxuriating in the warm -5ºC air, and dream of the last few days of mystical greenish-silver tranquility, of the blank snowy canvas so even and surreal that you can’t help but think about how the world got so full. And as the dogs howl again, I experience a wave of nostalgia of the present, wishing that I could stay here for a few more days, weeks, months.
It was an unforgettable adventure in the taiga.
I will return.