Finland: Paws in the snow
There is nothing like the Finnish Wilderness in winter. It’s silent and the silence is tangible.
I have shattered this silence with the cacophonous roar of a 1000cc engine as I powered a snowmobile across the snow of Finland’s wilderness. This time I wanted a quieter experience so decided to take a team of dogs and sledge into the wilderness of the old no-go zone close to the Russian border. The only sound would be the panting of the dogs and the hissing scrunch of metal runners on snow.
I took a 4×4 out to a husky farm in an old border post long since deserted by the Finnish border police who patrolled the western side of the Iron Curtain. My arrival was announced by one of the most effective early warning systems; every dog at the border post began barking.
Initially the dogs made more noise than a snowmobile as they competed with one another in the excitement stakes. Ever eager to be out they yapped, howled and barked to draw attention to themselves in the hope that they would be chosen to pull the sledge. They liked nothing better than to be out running with a sledge behind them.
Greenland huskies are used because of their superior size and strength. A team of four can easily pull the light Finnish style sledge and a full-grown man. Add two more dogs and you can load the sledge with enough gear and supplies for an expedition lasting several days.
With all that pent up energy and strength it was difficult to keep the dog team in check while clipping them into their harnesses. I stood on the toothed metal plate that acts as the brake unclipped the leash tethering the sledge. There is no gently letting the clutch out and easing the team forward. Four immensely strong dogs were straining against the harnesses and immediately I lifted off the brake the sledge and me shot forward. With only extensions of the narrow sledge runners to stand on and a tenuous gloved grip on the “handlebar” I could easily have been separated from my team before I even left the base.
The dogs madly accelerated from 0-30 in 2 seconds with me clinging on. It was at this point that I realised there did not appear to be any visible means by which to steer the sledge or the dogs. At the foot of a steep incline there was a bend to the right.
Survival instinct told me to stand on the brake and slow the team down. At least any mishap would take place at a slower pace.
Somehow I emerged from the corner still on the sledge. I lifted off the brake we picked up speed again. The dogs naturally follow the line of least resistance unless otherwise ordered. Generally the sledge followed. By adjusting your weight on the runners you have an element of control.
A few bends later and I felt confident enough to take a bend without standing on the brake. Halfway through the bend my confidence meter reached zero. It seemed terrifyingly fast. I dared not lift a foot off the runner to apply the brake. My survival plan was simply to hang on. Eventually the track straightened. I survived, still intact; still attached to the sledge; and still with a team of dogs racing madly on. It was exhilarating.
By the end of the day I had mastered sledge control and to some extent could control the dogs.
There are other options for dog sledging that do not involve mushing your own team. You can sit in the sledge, wrapped up warm, and be taken for a ride through the snow-covered wilderness of Finland. A professional guide will control both dogs and sledge leaving you to enjoy the wilderness experience without the white-knuckle experience.
Wild Taiga offer Husky sledging tours of varying length as part of their adventure programme.
If you are planning a trip to Finland don’t forget your travel insurance. Our Single Trip travel insurance is packed with features and benefits and will provide you with ideal cover for your travels.
Gordon Lethbridge is a travel blogger over at www.travelunpacked.co.uk