Learning the ropes
The thrills of a high-speed dogsled ride through Norway’s frozen north
I like dogs. It was one of the reasons I wanted to take the bull by the horns, to mix my metaphors, and sign up to a three-day adventure in the frozen north, flying to the very tip of Norway in the dead of winter to go husky-sledding in the wilderness. And because I like dogs, I am absolutely mortified as my team of five eager hounds pulls me and my sled out of the kennels in a cacophony of barks and yowls, only to run another one over.
It all happens so fast. The crunchy snow track is narrow, lined by silver birch and pine trees, and we four mushers are on our respective sleds in single file. The dogs are strong and my novice’s instinct is to look down to work out the (rather simple) braking system between my feet. I tip, I right, but in the split second of slowing, the team behind catches up.
Suddenly there are dogs everywhere, all seemingly in a tangle of strings, and poor Smash from the team behind (you can see how they get their names) is squished into the snow under the front of my sled. His little face pops up as I speed onwards, and, not daring to turn round lest I tip again, all I can think is that if anything bad has happened I’ll know about it shortly.
As it turns out, these Alaskan huskies are tough as old boots, much like their owners. Not only are they seemingly invincible but they are fast. I am impressed that five dogs can pull me, my sled and all the gear in it along the flat and even uphill, but they love to race.
Every time they nose up to the sled of our leader, Roger Dahl, three-time champion of the Finnmarkslopet 1000km endurance dogsled race, they shoot to the side to overtake, their long tongues flapping and their little paws padding like pistons. Not long out of the start point we stop so Roger can haul 20kg of ballast out of his sled and drop it into mine to slow me down.
The golden rules are that you never, ever let go and you never allow your dogs to get in front of the leader, unless you fancy a terrifying ride into oblivion. Secretly I want to open the throttle and see what they can do, but I don’t risk it. Sledding is an amazing experience, especially if you get to harness, feed, water and tend the dogs, as we do, but really this is a sport for the mad, bad and dangerous to know.
Which brings us to Trasti and Trine, passionate about huskies, who have been running dogsledding tours for a decade. In a thoroughly modern marriage, Trine is the musher, having spent years in Alaska and competed in one of the world’s toughest races, the 1610km Iditarod dogsled endurance. Her husband, Johnny Trasti, is a fine chef and an ice sculptor.
I don’t get to meet him on my visit but I do see one of his giant swans inside the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel where I sleep in a monkish cell made of blocks of ice, furnished only with a LED nightlight, reindeer skins and a simple wooden platform for a bed resting on a pure-white floor of snow. I take two sleeping bags to bed in -4C, and wake in the morning in complete darkness, a 70km round-trip by dogsled ahead of me. This is certainly a break from the norm. I come to appreciate the extremes of Norway. It’s all about snowmobiles, salmon fishing, northern lights, dogs and hectares and tracts of wilderness.
The midwinter temperatures are severe. The sun doesn’t rise above the horizon between late November
Husky sled teams heading out into the frozen wilderness, top; Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, above