Alex and Julie, January 2016
The canine cacophony is way past the maximum volume for any safe recording. The chosen group of four legged athletes anticipate that soon they will be doing something which every fibre in their eager bodies demand of them. Run and pull. Some bark, others howl or snap and bicker with the animal next to them. For Emma and Morris the waiting is too much, they become ‘vertical take-off’ dogs propelling themselves skyward. Without their line and buckle which connects them to the sled these leaps would be of moonwalk proportions, mere gravity by itself would seem incapable of limiting this upward motion.
Excitement has been growing since the ‘Alpha female’ Anita, your host and mentor for this Swedish/Swiss jamboree of all things husky, had quietly walked between the two rows of kennels selecting her teams for the day. She carries out this task like all others she does, in a manner that reflects both her immense understanding and insight into the dogs, the trails, the countryside and the capacity of her human apprentices. Outside the kennel of those selected Anita lays a harness, or possibly two if both kennelmates are chosen. This is the first sign to these knowing beasts that soon some of them will be running.
Each selected dog has the harness fitted. Gently, but firmly, you position the dog between your legs, remembering to turn the harness upside down, slide it over the animal’s head, twist it so that their front legs can be lifted, mostly willingly, through the straps. Now one enthusiastic, muscular component of your ride’s power plant is ready to go. But, for those dogs not selected their world is not so full of the joys of anticipation. Their shoulders seem to drop; their walk alters as it seems to encompass a feeling of rejection. Some head to their wooden hut to sulk, others throw themselves against the wire fence in what seems to be one last pleading to be taken and to be allowed to run and pull. But then there’s ‘Pretty Boy Pottar’, the animal with all the looks of a Hollywood Husky and the accompanying attitude too: ‘If I must I will but l’ll only go so far…ok!’
The excitement of your team of between 4 to 8 dogs is of course mirrored by that of its human counterpart at the other end of the sled. You will be dressed in the warmest of overalls and waterproof boots. Forget your ski slope ‘haute couture’ here – be prepared to look like a blue Michelin man. But any feeling of awkwardness will dissipate with the increase in therms and protection provided by them against the Jämtland wind. Quickly your mind runs through what you have learnt and must remember to do. Your adrenaline pumps….
Then…. within a split second, the sled brakes are lifted. Dog muscle engages, paws press hard against the snow, momentum is found and you’re off, hurling majestically through a white wonderland. The snow beneath the sled runners crackles and the wind hums. In front of your speeding team runs Nala (the rabbit), the ‘retired’ house dog, there for no other reason than she, like her harnessed companions, is doing what her DNA tells her, to run. No compulsion or human forced activity this. Yes, of course, through breeding and nurturing, men and women have recognised and developed these traits in their dogs. But doing this is the essence of the husky soul.
You will speed through forests of pine trees and other northern vegetation, sometimes dressed in the delicate tailoring of Jack Frost’s frozen lace. Was that a troll or another mythic beast behind those brooding dark green conifers? But don’t worry the bears are asleep. Then in a flash it’s through the treeline on to a frozen lake. …There’s a bend coming, remember to lean, and then back on land… up a hill you go…help the dogs with a push of your boot. They rush downhill… stand hard on that brake... and then back into the woods again. All this happens under the beautifully clean, pale colours of a Scandinavian sky that turns to shades of yellow, orange and red as the sun’s departure marks the end of the day. All too soon the farm of the Wetter family comes back into view and the dog sledding adventure is over for another day.
The golden rule of this trip… the dogs must come first. Their harnesses are removed, and then they’re put back in their own kennels. Soon, if you wish, you serve a hearty, and well deserved, meal of meat soup and biscuit to these fantastic runners. There may be puppies to play with in the yard. Whoever is present, all that happens in this domain is dutifully watched over by the careful, and all-seeing eye of Tess, the sheep guard dog, work she does in the warmer months, and perhaps by Tilly, the cattle dog too.
Don’t think you need to be triathlon standard specimens to do this holiday. Far from it! My partner and I both, reluctantly, tick the 55-60 box on questionnaires. Certainly, we’re more at home in a comfy chair than on a treadmill. The great thing about the experience at Husky Holidays is the family’s willingness to be flexible and adapt to your needs. As a disabled person this was so welcome and meant I got the most from my time. I rode as a passenger in Anita’s sled armed with a camera while Julie experienced the whole gambit of the trainee musher, including more than once holding on to the sled in a kind of Superman meets snow plough posture after taking a tumble.
From the first handshake at the railway station to the last reluctant goodbye, we were made most welcome by all the Wetter family. You sleep in your own rustic cabin but are welcome to join the family for meals. If you do this, and I say you must, you will be seated at the heart of the family home, which is the big wooden dining table. Farmer cum chef, Manuel, prepares the excellent Swiss-inspired food. But, be prepared to dine and breakfast with Superman, a knight in armour or an intrepid dinosaur hunter…or whomever the three boys (Florian, Nico and Andri) choose to be that day. We were reassuringly told that “there are no crocodiles in the gherkin jar’’ so we felt safe to carry on eating. After the evening meal the conversation will flow across many topics ranging, in our case, from EU politics to ice hockey, but somehow you all seem to end up talk about huskies and dog sledding. Today or tomorrow’s run is often the starting point but Anita’s knowledge is broad. She will also lend you videos for your non-compulsory homework.
Husky Holidays is an experience that will keep rewarding you. The more you get involved at every level, for example: cleaning the kennels, feeding and caring for the dogs, the more fulfilling your experience will be.
Take the time to sample the wood fired hot tub as we did one evening whilst the snow steadily fell or take a sauna. The cabin is close enough to run back semi-clothed.
Sadly, there will come the day when tomorrow’s run will leave without you as you begin your journey home. But I hope that if you travel to meet Anita, the family and, of course the real superstars, the huskies, you will take that homeward journey as I did, minus a little piece of your heart, which in future will always be found behind a dog team in the sparkling snow of Föllinge.
We can’t wait to return.
Alex Robertson and Julie Hutchinson January 2016.