Learn­ing the ropes

The thrills of a high-speed dogsled ride through Nor­way’s frozen north

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION EUROPE - LAURA IVILL

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

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