Never having owned a dog, I’m not particularly au fait with the ins and outs of our obsession with “man’s best friend”. To me, all animals are equal, and all furry friends equally appealing, without preference or discrimination. I like one cuddly creature pretty much the same as the next. So when I wrote “dog-sledding in the Arctic” on my F*** It list, it wasn’t because of a particular love of dogs. It was more about how I anticipated the whole “experience” would be: something new, different, in a place unlike any I had ever been, with a satisfying amount of fresh air and time spent in the great outdoors. Blue skies, crisp white snow, endless pine forests and wagging tails. Essentially, a romantic ideal.
So having landed in the vast, grey, freezing, Arctic emptiness of Kiruna airfield in the far north of Sweden, and been swiftly transported into the literally barking mad world of a kennels that houses around 150 bouncing, howling, cobalt-eyed, needle-toothed, hairy beasts, the romance began to dwindle and a sense of apprehension set in. In fact, I must have turned visibly grey when it came to actually setting off on day 1. One moment I was happily chatting with a family that was waiting to take a day tour, the next, the barking volume became so great that we abandoned our conversation. As I took my place on the back of my sled, both feet on the brake, holding on for dear life, my heart thumping and all four dogs fully airborne, the Mum – who let’s face it, probably wasn’t much older than me – patted me on the shoulder, straightened my sunglasses, helped me put my mittens on, and whispered in my ear “don’t worry – I’m sure you’ll be fine”. I stepped away from the brake and off we shot into the Arctic wilderness.
It didn’t take long to realise that the bouncing, howling, barking and tooth-baring is all an expression of extreme excitement, eagerness and anticipation of the job these dogs have been bred to do. They are born to run. To the extent that, come hell or high water, they do not stop. They will run until they drop. I once spent a week in Iceland riding Icelandic horses, who are willing and forward-moving, noble, gentle and kind. But they don’t work to the point of collapse. They slow down. They stop. They know when they need a rest, and then, when they’ve persuaded you to stop for a coffee break, if you give them half a chance a warm, velvety nose will snaffle your custard cream biscuits.
Not so the brave (and slightly bonkers) husky.
Their enthusiasm for work is beyond anything we can imagine. We were advised (nay ordered) not to let go of the sled should we fall or lose our balance, because the sudden lightening of the load, rather than igniting a spark of concern or confusion in the minds of the dogs and causing them to stop, makes them bark a doggy “yippeeeee!” and – tails wagging – fly off over the horizon at great speed, potentially resulting in searches of up to several days before master, sled and team are reunited.
This innate desire to run means that the husky’s relationship with man is particularly intense. They are the most willing and reliable workforce one will ever encounter. Yet they depend on us to tell them when to stop and to ensure they refuel and get adequate rest. They rely on our respect, and in return they show enormous amounts of affection. They will leap up and lick your face in joyous morning greeting. They actively seek your attention and approval. Yet they are not pets as we know them. They function as a pack. There is a strict hierarchy. And while they fight and scrap, and growl and bite, they are a close-knit community. At certain times, day and night, the pack will emit a wolverine howl of communication, between themselves and with other packs elsewhere across the vast swathes of tundra, to check that everyone is present and correct, and that all is well in Huskyland.
And, just occasionally, one will sneak into the house at night and curl up for a snooze and a cuddle on the sofa.
But running with huskies is more than just running. It’s chopping enormous blocks of frozen dog food with an axe, building fires, fetching water from holes in frozen lakes, packing and unpacking sleds, harnessing dogs, making sandwiches, abandoning emails and Facebook and the other acoutrements of life in the city, and donning overalls and enormous boots in the middle of the night if you needed to pop out for a wee in sub-zero temperatures! And all that makes standing on the back of a sled, emerging from the forest onto an expanse of glittering white, frozen lake, under an endless blue sky, the horizon punctuated with black pine trees, and travelling – dogs running eagerly – into the bright sun and sparkling snow, even more incredible.
There were more highlights to the week’s experience than I can count: cuddling and feeding eager four-legged friends, easing aching muscles at the end of the day in a tiny sauna by a frozen lake and washing with a bucket of melted snow (brrr!), looking outside at night to see 30 pairs of gleaming eyes looking back at you through the darkness, sitting by the fire listening to stories of dogs and adventures told by our incredible guide, making friends – canine and human – and getting a glimpse into another world where man and dogs work together to achieve the otherwise unachievable in some of the harshest natural conditions imaginable.
A week was not enough. Yet out-of-the-comfort-zone, bucket list experiences are not meant to last forever. But those dogs are so very special, and we’d do well to learn from them. So, I have returned – grudgingly – to my normality, determined to be a little less human and a little more husky.