A published folklorist, Pollyanna enjoys writing about hidden histories, folk customs, and things that go bump in the night.
Having wrapped up warm, we embarked on a short trip from Luosto to reach our destination: the Arctic Husky Farm located on the edge of the Pyhä-Luosto National Park in Finnish Lapland.
An area of vast pine and birch forest, the area is bordered by the Pyhätunturi hills, which include some of the oldest rocks in the world. Once home to the indigenous nomadic forest Sámi, the place holds a certain mysticism about it.
Visible from the forest, the Pyhätunturi hills were considered by the Sámi to be a seita, meaning a home of the gods. The Sámi called the hills ‘pyhä', which means ‘holy' or ‘sacred'. Luosto itself is believed to be named after the word for a reindeer with light-coloured stripes; luostâg in Inari Sámi or luosttat in North Sámi languages.
Many of the people in the area are of Sámi descent or mixed-heritage, and make a living from sharing their way of life with visitors to the region. Today I would be learning about huskies and riding a sled.
We were welcomed by one of the Husky Farm's kennel workers who ushered us inside a warm wooden cabin where we were given mugs of hot berry juice and thin spiced biscuits.
She explained the work of the dogs and how the kennels operate though the year. Home to around 240 dogs, the majority of the huskies are of the Alaskan variety. These are not a pedigree, but are bred to create the ultimate sled-dog for Lapland's terrain. Breeding Greyhounds, Lurchers, and Collies with Siberian Huskies, the kennels have been able to produce an optimal dog that is rapid, with excellent stamina, and resilience to the cold. Whilst the kennels have a large number of breeding dogs to prevent a genetic bottle-neck, they do purchase in or sell out dogs from the kennels to ensure the animals continue to be healthy and robust. Good health and the welfare of the dogs is the most important thing to the owners of the Arctic Husky Farm.
When they are too old to work, each of the dogs is rehomed.
The dogs are bred to have different jobs within the team. At the head of the train are a pair of intelligent Huskies who guide the rest of their pack along the trail. Closest to the sledge are a pair of broad shouldered muscular dogs, known as pullers, who do the brunt of the work. Between these pairs are two more dogs; a veteran dog, and a youngster who is learning how to work as part of the team.
All of them are working animals, who love running and pulling a sled. You can see this in them, as they bark and howl with excitement at the prospect of going on a run.
Once the dogs have been trained, their work starts when the first snows come - usually around the end of November. To ensure they are not worked too hard, each dog has one or two days off each week, and enjoy a summer break that starts in May and lasts for four months. During this time they can rest and play and enjoy the sun. The kennel keepers make sure their accommodation is clean and well tended, and regular visits by the local vet make sure they are in top health.
The dogs have thick coats, and so live outdoors through the entire year with an individual kennel for each dog which is cleaned every day.
During the summer the dogs only need to be fed once a day, which consists of a meal of high-quality of dry food, and a supply of fresh, cold water. In the winter months, the dogs will require more calories to give them energy. Not only are they burning calories though their work, but the cold itself is challenging, and so they need more meals. Each morning they are given a meaty drink which they prefer to water, and are given snacks throughout the day between their runs. Then at the end of the day, they are fed a hearty meal of dry food dissolved in water and mixed with fresh, raw, fat-rich meat. You might also see them scooping up mouthfuls of snow, which they swallow to keep hydrated whilst they run.
We were then instructed on how to steer our sleds. The driver would be standing on the runners at the rear of the sledge. It was their job to steer the sled by leaning into the bends with the dog team, and push when going uphill by jumping off their runners and pushing the sled along the forest path.
When descending, it was of vital importance that the brake was used at all times. This was a wooden bar with two metal spikes descending from it, which would dig into the snow and slow the sled down. Without this, there would be a real danger that the sled would go faster than the dog team, and may crash into them. It was explained that throughout the course, the ropes from the dogs must be taut whether going up or downhill so that the sled is constantly under control.
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The Head Musher would be at the head of the dog teams, riding a snowmobile to monitor our progress and keep an eye on the Huskies. If he raised his left fist in the air we must stop. Waving his left hand up and down would mean that we had to slow, whilst pumping a left hand up and down would mean "go".
As we approached the sleds and dog teams at the start of the trail, the Huskies began to prance and bark, tails wagging. Their faces were eager and excited. They live to run and are at their happiest when working with their "pack" to dash through the snow.
The Head Musher made some final checks, warning sled passengers to sit tight within the sled and not to put arms or legs out of the frame at any time, lest we got caught on a tree. By now the dogs were going crazy, eager to go. The Head Musher took a look over each of the Huskies, some of which had tangled themselves around their ropes as they jumped and pulled with excitement. He carefully untangled them, and then made his way to the snowmobile.
With a call to the dogs, he raised his left hand and pumped it in the air, and with a jolt we were off.
As a passenger in the sled, it was my husband who had the task of steering the team of Huskies. Used to the trail, the dogs knew the way, and few commands were required in order to steer them. I was surprised by the speed, and the exhilaration of travelling so fast through the snow at near ground level was quite the adrenaline rush. There were times that were frankly, a little unnerving; the dogs would run wide into the bends along the trail so as not to lose their momentum, and I feared that we would career into a drift or straight into a tree. Then at the last moment the dogs would pull back to the centre of the snowy path and keep us clear of any obstacles.
We came to the first of the hills and the dog team began to slow, struggling under the weight of their passengers. Jumping off the runners, my husband gripped the bar tight and pushed forwards at a fast jog. No mean feat considering this was in Arctic temperatures in snow and ice, at a speed of between 15 and 20 miles per hour. No room for slackers! - He had to push through and continue until the sled reached the brow of the hill.
Then more hard work. The sled began to slide forwards towards the dogs. Quickly my husband jumped onto the brake which dug into the ground. He described how it was quite uncomfortable at times, should the brakes strike a stone or other obstacle buried beneath the ice.
This continued around the track, which was approximately 3 miles long. Thankfully the hills were low and there were plenty of times when we were on the flat, and the dogs could run freely whilst the driver took a break.
Whilst enjoying the beauty of the deep forest, it struck me how much these dogs loved their work. Bright eyed and eager, they ran as an experienced team. The sleds behind us formed a line along the track, with a safe distance of many metres kept between the dog sleds to allow room to slow or maneuver without risking them colliding with each other.
The Head Musher would frequently turn and check to make sure none of us were in trouble, and would gesture instructions or call out when needed.
When we finally reached the end of the trail, the dogs slowed and the train was tethered whilst we climbed off our sleds. Still prancing and barking, the dogs were wagging their tails and behaving playfully, clearly having enjoyed their run as much as we had.
An opportunity was given to warm ourselves at a fire within a lavvu, but this certainly was not needed; particularly for my husband who had just run around 1.5 miles whilst wearing insulated Arctic clothing! He was tired, but his smile was from ear-to-ear having just made a lifelong dream come true.
If you want to drive a sled yourself, make sure that you are prepared for this, as it would otherwise come as a shock for those who are not particularly fit!
We were led around the kennels to see for ourselves how well kept they were and observe the welfare of the dogs. As these are working animals, we were told not to make a fuss of or approach any of the dogs leading our sleds. However at this part of the tour, our guide ventured into the kennel enclosure and returned with one of the dogs.
She was very friendly with people, and so the children were each invited to make a fuss of her. A striking blue merl Husky with one blue eye and one brown, she stood there enjoying the attention.
Finally our visit to the Husky Farm had come to an end. With the barks and howls of the dogs lingering on the icy wind, we made our way back to our coach as we bade them farewell. Perhaps next time we visit, a longer trek will be in order. Better start the jogging training now then..!
Located roughly halfway between Pyhä and Luosto, the Arctic Husky Farm is open from the end of November to the end of April, as long as there is snow. You can find out more about the kennels, care of the dogs, and arranging visits and various sled adventures by looking at their website.
Toilet facilities and refreshments are available, but due to the speed and physicality of this activity, it is not suitable for the frail or those with mobility problems. Children are welcome to sit in the sled with an adult.
All photographs not credited to Pollyanna Jones are courtesy of the Arctic Husky Farm website.
Dogsledding in Pyhä-Luosto
Finding the Arctic Husky Farm
© 2018 Pollyanna Jones