In 1925, a deadly outbreak of diphtheria threatened illness upon the people of a small town in northern Alaska. The anecdote needed to combat the illness lived more than 2 thousand miles away, at a lab in Seattle, Washington. U.S. officials knew that they needed to act fast and smart to save the people of Nome, a coastal town well-known for its gold prospecting opportunities. The only aircraft that was available was broken, and so the serum made its way by train from Seattle to Nenana, Alaska, then by sled dog the rest of the way northward to the coast of the Bering Sea. 20 mushers and 150 dogs crossed the Northern Territory, saving the town and surrounding towns from the outbreak. In the home stretch into Nome was a dog named Balto, who miraculously stayed on course amid whiteout conditions. He and his musher, Gunnear Kaasen, were celebrated in North America—and later the world—for their act of heroism in what is now called the “Great Race of Mercy.”
Growing up in Seattle, I’d learned this story early on; as an adult, I had the opportunity to learn the culture of dog sledding and its centuries-long history first hand. Long after the great race of Balto and partner dog teams to Nome—more than 40 years since the first race of the Iditarod—I learned how and why for hundreds of years, dog sled was the best and the only transitory method of bringing supplies, human communications, and people throughout the polar regions in both North America and Northern Europe.
My adventure wouldn’t take me to the Great White North of Alaska, but to the Lapland Wilderness in northern Sweden; it would not be a quest to deliver much needed goods or to save lives—I was going purely for sport.
In Lapland, I was all leashed up with my team of four Alaskan huskies – two in the front, born trailblazers trained to lead since puppyhood, and two in the back, the team dogs who follow the leads. Balto, Dixie, Tristan and Bella were ready to whisk me away, (one of my lead dogs was named Balto, imagine my luck!) Our guide led the train with eight dogs on her sled, there were eight other sledders on our team, and one other team with the same configuration was leashed up along our right-hand side. A Swedish outdoorsman driving a snowmobile with a trailer draped in reindeer hide cushioning our supplies brought up the rear.
When you are as far north as the Lapland Wilderness, high above the Arctic Circle, proper attire is heavy-duty, astronaut-worthy wear capable of shielding harsh weather for long periods of time (temperatures this time of year, March, hover around -11° Centigrade/12° Fahrenheit.) All sounds beyond the deranged thoughts of adventure that fly through your head and the sound of freezing wind gusts in your mind’s ear are deafened by the muffle of ski caps, balaclavas, hats and fur-lined hoods. Once those sounds fall silent is when the song begins.
The canine athletes start to get amped up. One lead starts pushing ahead with excitement, then his running mate joins, like two happy golden retrievers trying to break free of their leashes to chase a squirrel. The rest of the dogs start barking and howling and jumping forth then all of the dogs sing out. From the muffled sound created by my sturdy outfit is the most wonderful sound of wild dogs I have ever heard. They are ready but we are not, and as the last details are worked out by the guides — the tightening of loose ropes, the unravelling of tangled lines — the excitement has found a climactic crescendo in this tiny corridor of Arctic forest where we howl from. The final clicks of the harnesses on the last group of dogs ring and the tennis ball is thrown, the guide is their master and the snowy Lapland Wilderness is their lap pool.
You cannot hear the sound of the starting bell, you just see the fist rise up ahead and there goes our guide. One sled, two sleds ahead of me, I’m off, and hopefully, the rest of the team is behind me. As I kick up the steel brake that I have been forcefully leaning on, I secure a solid stance on my sled. The dogs take off and the song stops and then, total silence. There is whiteness everywhere.
For the first five minutes, I just laughed. No one would hear me, so I just kept laughing harder and louder until it felt really good inside. I was howling as loudly and excitedly as those dogs were just before took off. It felt so good.
After a few minutes of sledding, I felt pretty good, pretty solid. “I’ve got this!” I thought. I started getting a little cocky, took a little air over a bump, took one hand off the sled to pick up the secondary brake that allows slowing, rode on for a bit… then I bit it. I totally flew! I soared through the air like a flying Wallenda into a four feet snow bank. Instinct guided my gaze up the hill to make sure that another sled wasn’t about to run me over. Safe. My second thought was: “oh, no, no, NO — my dogs!!” Of course they kept running, as dogs like to do. Instinct of the sledder in front of me guided her to take her own sled with her right hand, grab my runaway sled with her left, and hang on for dear life, hoping that the dog teams would run together instead of in opposite directions. Our guide on the snowmobile flew by like an Arctic superman, just in time to make the rescue. You see, there are plenty of heroes while sledding — the snow, your team, the support of your dogs, your guides, yourself.
Later, I asked Stefan (the Arctic superman) if he still fell from his sled. “It’s like riding a bike,” he says, “once you know how, there is not much of a reason to fall off.” This candid segue seemed like a good time to ask other questions I had learned about the sport during preparation of leaving. I wanted to know everything about the dogs. We talked about the morning feeding of beef mixed with animal blood and commercial food that delivers enough fat to their system to give them energy, strength, immunity and warmth needed for hours (sometimes days) of running through harsh winter terrain. I wanted to know more about the guides who train the dogs and love them every day. They told us stories about their ancestors, the Sami people (who also span northern Finland and across Siberia); how the winter season meant each year that they could cover more ground at a faster pace by crossing over frozen lakes. Today, the Sami live in traditional homes, but rely on both snowmobiles and dogsleds, depending on the task. Mostly though, snowmobiles are used for utilitarian functions, while sleds are most commonly used for sport.
I broached the conversation about humanity softly, yet I felt compelled (and comfortable enough) to ask their opinions about a recent statement from PETA stacked with statistics about the inhumanity of the Iditarod. What I found, and the most simply I can repackage their responses, is that comparing the team dogs of the Iditarod to the Swedish sled dogs strung up next to us, is like comparing the life of a track-and-field star in the years leading up to the Olympic Games to the life of Forest Gump who just “wanted to run.” As we sat in the snow and dangled our frost-bitten feet over the fire, slurping fish soup from mugs to warm up and refuel, it seemed totally bizarre to question our guides about the humanity of dog sledding. In fact, to attribute the notion of “humanity” to their ancestral traditions sounded insulting in my head, so that’s where I left it. When tradition is part of the story, humanity isn’t always part of the story. The word “tradition” itself becomes moot. Like yak herders in the Himalaya, nomads in Mongolia, or cowboys in Wyoming, it is as much a part of the culture as it is the best way to do things with the resources at hand.
Again, I wasn’t there for politics, but just for sport.
And that is how my first taste of dogsledding came with a side of powerful joy—free from the noise of the city, completely alert to all that surrounded me, swooned by the song of the sled dogs in the snowy Arctic north, and a belly laugh that I’ll never forget.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention that we dog sledded to the Icehotel and stayed in the “Beam Me Up” room, adequately themed for a space geek like me. 🙂
Where: Lapland Wilderness, Northern Sweden
Outfit: National Geographic Adventures
Sweden: Dogsledding to the Icehotel
In-Country Operator: Fjellborg Arctic Journeys www.fjellborg.com
Trip Length: 9 Days
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