The dog sledding trip last year had a fair share of problems and didn't go quite as well as it could have. This year's trip started to look a bit worrying as well.
I wanted to stay a bit closer to home this time and instead of heading for Canada (as I had done for four dog sledding tours in the past), I had planned to go the Sweden instead.
Most dog sledding tours in Europe tend to be shorter tours. Often it's just a day trip or, at best, a three day tour consisting of one day training trip and then a two day trip, so you can have one 'outdoor' night. But there are some outfits that offer longer tours and I found one that had a tour that had nine days of actual dog sledding (with one rest day).
So I mailed them whether they would be willing to take me on the trip (not a given - some companies that do longer tours require that clients have been on a shorter tour with them, so both sides have a reasonable knowledge of what to expect). They said "yes, sure" and I booked.
And then waited.
Their web page mentioned "Minimum 2 people, maximum 4 people" for this trip and, after my booking, mentioned "3 places left". Which was still there about half a year later (yes, I do book early...) So in December, I sent them a slightly nervous mail, as I was about to book the rest of my trip (flight, hotel, rental car) and wanted to know whether the trip would happen, as it didn't quite look as if we'd reach the "2 people minimum". Luckily, I got a quick reply - "Yes the tour will happen".
(They had two other people interested in the trip, but for some scheduling reason, they didn't book it. So I ended up to be the only customer on the trip - my own private dog sledding tour, so to speak...)
So I booked the rest of the trip and waited for March.
Then, on a Friday, two days before the trip, I looked at their web site and there was a note: "The snow conditions this winter has been worse than ever before, and weŽll run tours this week, but from next week we need to suspend all tour until next year if we don't get a huge amount of snow in end of March."
So I sent them another worried mail, asking about the "suspend all tours" bit, but fortunately that turned out to mean "well, except yours".
At first, the plan was to start the tour at their base in Ekorrsele. But the trails around there were lacking as far as snow was concerned (they had +8°C and rain in the previous week). Snow conditions were much better towards the NW and the mountains (where we were heading).
So we would just put the dogs on a trailer and drive them up to the point where we would have started on the second day, skip one day of sledding on bad trails, and just start from there.
So no reason at all for any worries - everything would just work out somehow.
So I flew to Lycksele (nearest airport to Ekorrsele) and then to the guesthouse at their 'base', noticed that there was a nice full moon outside and went to sleep.
The first day was a day off, so I used the time to have a look at the "dog work sheet" (which, incidentally, has "Training Today" at the top, not "Raining Today") and figure out who 'my' team was.
Since it's usually good to know how the dogs' names and they happened to have pictures of most of their dogs on a web site, I then went and made me a 'rogues gallery'.
And then went back to the guest house, made some tea and tried to learn the names. And then later went out to the kennel and tried to see whether I could identify the actual dogs. (Not that hard, since they were usually fenced in as small groups (two or three dogs) and the names posted outside, so there was a better than one in three chance to identify the dogs by pure guessing. It got harder during 'play time' when the individual kennels were opened and the dogs got to play around in the yard...)
(That's Sitka sitting and one of her puppies doing a meerkat impersonation.)
I managed to get reasonably good at recalling the dogs in 'my' team, but I was also lucky that these two weren't in that team.
Not only do they look similar, they also strike pretty much identical poses on the pictures I have of them, so it's also hard to distinguish them based on their behaviour.
Besides learning dog names, I also used the day to ask a lot of questions.
One of the things I have learned on previous dog sledding trips was that every company has their own personal way of doing things. It's much better (for client and guide) to sort this out in advance, instead of doing something wrong or unexpected.
The most contradictory thing I had encountered so far was how to move dogs from their 'night line' to the gangline in front of the sled.
As dogs are good at pulling when they are standing on four legs (well, that's what they have been bred for...) and often quite enthusiastic when it's time to get moving, it can be sometimes difficult to get the dog to go where you want it to go. And there is a certain risk that the dog will go where it wants to go, dragging you behind (and they are good in dragging things - that's their day job). So the advice at that outfit was "if you handle the dogs, pull them up on their collar so they are on their hind legs. You got a lot more experience and strength walking on two legs than they have, so you're in control". When I did the same at another place some time later, I got a rather stern talking-to: "You're strangling my dogs! Don't you ever dare to do that to my dogs again!"
So the standard operating procedure of one company was a strict no-no for another.
Usually the differences aren't that severe, but there is rarely a common way of doing things, so it's better to ask a lot of questions. (Even simple things like putting on harnesses - Do you harness all dogs and then put them in front of the sled? Do you put all dogs on their necklines in front of the sled and harness them then? Do you harness each dog, put it in front of the sled and then harness the next dog? None of these things is more 'correct' than the other and I've seen all three methods of doing them.)
And some things were completely new to me.
So far, everyone had tuglines with bronze snaps for attaching the tugline to the harness (and, in most cases, the neckline to the collar as well). But here they had little plastic, boomerang-shaped 'sticks' that were just pulled through a loop in the tugline.
They look like it might just fall out any second when the line is not under tension, but there were never any problems with them coming loose. And, unlike snap fasteners, they never freeze up.
Here they can be seen in action:
Another difference in gear were the collar fasteners - just an oval shaped bit of plastic with a small cut in it.
These do sometimes come loose if a dog is pulling hard on it (for example when rolling in the snow during a break), but that is an intentional feature. A lot of the trails in Sweden go through forests and one of the defining features of forests (well, the defining feature) are trees. (Which rarely show up on frozen lakes, fjords or oceans, where previous tours took place.) And when, for example, both leaders decide to pass a tree on different sides, it is better to have the neckline between them break than their necks...
The sleds were also a bit different.
On other trips, the sleds were made for carrying sled bags, so there was a low hanging 'base' (usually some thick plastic piece with some stabilization underneath) to support the sled bag. Here is an example. Here is another one. The equipment box gives a good indication how low the sled base is in relation to the runners.
This is a nice and stable design for transporting stuff as the center of gravity is quite low and the sled is unlikely to tip over sideways.
On this trip, we had a wooden sled with a higher "wood bench" kind of platform. (Unfortunately I don't have any picture of the sled without the sled bag on it - the main part of it pretty much looks like a classic wooden children sled.) Which is good for short tours where multiple clients share a sled - it's much more fun to sit as a passenger on a wooden bench than to be tucked into a low hanging sled bag. But with the sled beg, the center of gravity looked high and I was wondering whether the sled would fall over a lot.
I shouldn't have worried - I didn't tip the sled a single time on the trip. (There were two close calls however, but those were from doing corners the wrong way [in one case hitting a drift on the inside of a corner, in the other case sliding over a slop on the outer side of a corner], but these were (my) drivers mistakes and not a problem with the sled. And it still did not tip over anyway.)
The runners were also much wider than those on other sleds (about twice as wide), which (to my surprise) made it a bit easier to steer the sled, as it was not sinking that deep into the snow, making it easier to give it a slight sideward push in corners. (The added friction caused by the wider runners turned out to be negligible in relation to the reduced 'sink in'.)
One ominous feature that was also mentioned (but luckily didn't need to be field tested) was that "unlike the metal sleds, we can repair most breaking damage to the wooden sleds while we're on the trail".
One more feature that I had read about, but never seen used (as it's useless on large open ice fields) was the quick release snap.
When you're about to start in the morning, you usually anchor the sled with the snow hook before hooking up the dogs. Which tends to work well when there's good layer of snow under the sled and reasonably well (if you hack at the ice a bit) on an icy surface.
But, when you start on (basically) a concrete parking spot with a small decorative layer of powder snow on top of it, the snow hook is mostly for show. It probably wouldn't even hold a single enthusiastic dog, much less eight of them.
Now, in theory, you can just hook the snow hook to a tree.
That will hold, but then you need to find a way to back up a bit when you want to start, just to be able the get the hook off the tree again.
Or you just use a rope with a quick release snap, wind it around the tree and hook the snap in. When you're about to go, you just put the snow hook away, pull on the quick release and off you go.
And on the next morning, it was finally time to do exactly that.
We loaded the dogs on a trailer, drove up about 80 km on the road next to the Vindel river, prepared the sleds, looked for a way down to the river (there was an obvious one, but that had some rocks and a tree stump in the path - and since you want to break a lot when you take off, but you don't want to slam the break into a tree stump, we took an alternative way down), harnessed and hooked up the dogs and off we went.
The sleds were (comparatively) light. As the trip was hut/B&B/hostel based, we didn't need to bring any camping or cooking equipment, and while we did carry a sleeping bag, it was a small 'spring camping' bag, not a heavy 'winter outdoor' bag, so it was light and easily stowed.
So while we did pack about all the dog and human food that we needed, the sled was still a lot lighter than it was on previous tours.
Weather on that fist day was overcast, but with a few breaks in the cloud layer, so the sun came through from time to time.
Around noon we stopped for a quick coffee break, some snacks for the dogs and a lot of telling the dogs that they've done well and were nice dogs...
And while the dogs were extremely well behaved, there were some odd quirks to get accustomed to. Most of the dogs like to lick faces (which is normally not a problem), but many people aren't too happy with that. So Nulli, one of my lead dogs, had a trick. She tended to keep her head down and then try a 'surprise face lick attack' by jerking the head up and trying to slobber across somebodies face before they could react and pull away. But if you had your head right above hers, she could suddenly bounce up her head and hit you in the face. (And it seems that she has given someone a bloody nose that way...)
So to avoid being headbutted by Nulli, it was always a good idea to keep the hands on her collar or shoulders and keep minding my own head.
Something else that is noticeable here was the reason for not starting in Ekorrsele. Even though we had driven about 80 km with the dog trailer and then about another 30km to the rest spot, there are still a lot of spots that have no snow at all. The trails and the river were fine, of course, but it would not have been a good idea to try to go another route without checking.
After the lunch break it was time to head on.
I tried playing around with a video camera and attached it to the bow of the sled, trying to get some 'sled point of view' images.
Something like this:
Donald (guide and co-owner of Aurora Borealis Adventures, the company I had booked the dogsledding tour with) did express some doubts about the wisdom of this. The next corner, right after start, would be a tight one and there was a tree on the side where the camera was attached, so there would be a high likelihood that, while the sled would closely miss the tree, the camera would smack right into it.
As it was a robust 'action' cam, I didn't mind much - the worst that was likely to happen was that the camera would shear off and I would have to stop the sled and go back to retrieve it, but the camera would probably be fine.
Both of us were right on all accounts...
But as a result I got a rather weird looking still-frame.
The camera has a 'rolling shutter' (it reads out the image sensor line by line). When it tumbles, it does not just give a smeared image, but an interesting 'vortex' view of the tree.
The rest of the day was uneventful (with lots of trees not being hit by a sled).
Being in a (compared to the northern parts of the Yukon) densely populated area made traveling by dog sled a bit different. Instead of being a long way from everything else, for most of the journey to Ammarnäs, we were rarely more than 500 meters away from the next road (which runs along the river we were on) and usually less than 5 km away from the next village. So when it transpired that I don't drink beer, but like cider, we just stopped at the next village and Donald went to the next supermarket to fetch a couple of cans of cider while I waited outside with the dogs.
(We pretty much stayed at the edge of the village - although it would have been cool to drive up to the parking lot of the supermarket and park with the sleds there...)
A bit later, we arrived at a hut, which was used as a fishing base during summer, but was mostly unused in wintertime.
After setting up the night-cable for the dogs and getting them out of their harnesses and to their sleeping spots, it was time to get some water. On previous trips, this has always meant to collect and melt some snow (which is quite time consuming, especially if you have to fetch some wood first and get a fire burning). But as we were on a river on this trip, we just used a big ice drill, bore a hole in the (reassuringly thick) ice and got fresh water from the Vindel River.
After feeding the dogs, it was time to go to the hut, have a look at the scenery and start our own dinner.
The hut was surprisingly comfortable - it was more a place to enjoy the weekend than an 'emergency shelter'. And while it didn't have running water (except for the river outside), it did have electric lights (courtesy of LED technology and a car battery in the cupboard), a stove and even a two-flame propane gas cooker.
Which was quite useful as that meant we didn't need to carry any sleeping pads on our sleds (which don't weigh much, but are bulky when you try to get them into the sled beg), so we could just unroll our sleeping bags and call it a day. (And that was the day where we were 'roughing it'.)
We had put down some straw for the dogs in the evening and it seems they had slept well.
According to the weather forecast, this would be the 'photo opportunity' day of the trip. Good temperatures (cold enough so that the dogs wouldn't get too hot and warm enough that it would be fun to stand on the back of the sled) and blue skies all day.
At that point, the weather forecast was a bit gloomy for the rest of the trip - we would have rather murky weather (with a bit of snowfall) the next day and then similar weather as on the first day - a couple of sunny spots, but mostly overcast. Luckily for us, long term forecasts are still a bit tricky and by the time the weekend came around, the forecast for the days of the return trip was much better (and turned out to be correct). We didn't know that at the time, so we tried to make the best out of, what we assumed to be, the 'best day of the trip'.
Time to get the sleds ready and harness the dogs again. ('Let sleeping dogs lie' is a proverb that doesn't really apply to dog sledding.)
The dogs are professional sled dogs and make it quite easy to put on the harnesses. Sitka is standing here and accepting the harness as if I would hang a medal around her neck. Luckily, she didn't try to do an acceptance speech...
The weather did hold up well and we were also getting into areas that had more snow, so there was good sledding.
And a lot of it.
Before the trip I had wondered a bit about the distances planned for the trip. We had about 70 km of distance to each new location. And on previous trips a 'typical' day trip was about 40 km (except for one mad dash of about 90 km in the previous year, but that was unplanned for - and there was a rest day planned for the next day). And in addition to planning nearly twice the 'normal' distance, we had to cover that distance. As we didn't have any tents and had fixed accommodations, we couldn't just stop somewhere and call it a day.
But the key to being able to do this were the fixed accommodations. A lot of time consuming stuff that we needed to do on previous tours (mainly related to setting up and striking camp) wasn't needed here. So when we got up at 7 am, we tended to have breakfast at 7:30, feed the dogs around 8 am, put our stuff on the sleds and be gone at about 8:30.
On previous tours, in most cases we didn't get on the trail until noon. And since we tended to stop around 4 pm, which meant about four hours of actual sledding. The dogs more or less run at 15 km/h, so with a couple of stops and breaks on the trail, the distance covered is effectively about 10 kilometers per hour, which quite nicely adds up to day trips of about 40 km length.
But if you can start around 8:30, this means that by noon you have covered about 35 km already so even allowing for a leisurely one hour lunch break, if you stop at 5 pm (and as you just check in and don't have to set up camp, there's no need to stop early), you can easily cover 75 kilometers a day. (And if you keep sledding until sunset, which was about 7 pm, it's easy to get another 20 kilometers done without having to worry about fading light.)
So the planned daily distances were realistic and we did cover them without any problems.
And while I didn't realize this when I booked the trip, what it meant was that I would spend much more time doing the stuff I came for (that is dogsledding).
There was, however, an emerging problem.
Sitka didn't pull much and her tugline was hanging low.
That's usually not an issue in itself - sometimes a dog doesn't want to pull and takes it easy for a while. On a previous trip, I had one dog that just walked along at the right speed so that neckline and tugline were hanging down and just enjoyed the walk. (As sometimes dogs just don't 'get along' with specific people, we switched him with a dog from another team. But he wouldn't pull there either; it wasn't just a case of him not taking me serious.) On another trip, there was a dog that I thought would be similar, as it wasn't pulling much at first, but that dog just didn't like flat terrain. Once we went uphill, the dog was pulling like crazy - it was a bit of a 'when the going gets tough...' attitude.
In short: Sometimes dogs don't pull. That's not a cause for worries ibn itself.
Sitka had been pulling normally the first day and wasn't pulling much on the second. But halfway through the day, she was having problems keeping the pace and instead of just running along without pulling, she started being pulled along by her neckline, which was unusual. (A dog that doesn't want to pull is one thing, but one that can't keep up is problematic, especially as the gait seemed to be normal - no limping or anything like that.) So I told the guide about it, he put Sitka in his team for a while to check on her, and after a while decided that there must be something wrong and put Sitka on the sled.
As all these dogs are well behaved/trained, I can't tell how easy it normally is to put one of them on a sled. When I tried to put a non-injured dog on a sled two years earlier (it was running in a very strange way - most likely it just had a cramp in a leg, which had already passed when I tried to put it on the sled and the dog was wondering what the fuss was all about) and getting a dog that wants to run onto the sled is a real struggle. (It took us two people to wrestle the dog down to the sled, secure collar and harness with multiple ropes and close the sled beg, only to have the dog wiggle out of the bag and hang beside the sled (due to being held by the ropes) in less than thirty seconds. At that point we decided that any dogs that puts up that much of a fight to be able to run is probably fit to do so.)
So, from that experience, I'd say that Sitka just went onto the sled without any complains, is a sign that she didn't feel much like running any further. But then, it might just be the case that these dogs just didn't mind riding on the sled.
It is hard to say what the problem was - most likely, Sitka just wasn't fit enough to run the distance. She had a previous injury and didn't do much running this season, so she might just not have enough strength for this trip. There weren't any noticeable injuries or leg problems and she did eat normally, so she didn't seem to feel ill, just weak.
Sitka riding on the sled explains the gap in the following pictures and why Tofslan is running on her own.
On the river we also encountered some 'modern wildlife'.
A couple of trucks were having a friendly race on an ice track on the river and some were attempting to do drifts as well.
There is a lot of winter car testing going on in that area of Sweden. And while most of the serious testing of new car models is done on closed tracks, you can sometimes see groups of new cars (sometimes with protective covers over some areas of the cars to keep them hidden from prying eyes).
And as the car manufacturers have a lot of personnel and infrastructure in that area anyway, they sometimes do more stuff, like driver training courses and 'incentive' events, which don't need secrecy, so they can be done 'out in the open'.
So after a nice day of dogsledding, we arrived at the stop for the night, a comfortable B&B place.
Time to set up the night lines for the dogs, feed them, provide them with some straw 'sleeping nests' and still have time for a cup of coffee and enjoying the evening sun.
As this was a regular B&B, this meant unprecedented luxury for a dogsledding trip - heating, electrical power, an equipped kitchen and warm showers...
Although the design of the bedrooms seems to be aimed a little more at families travelling with children.
The next day was potentially the hardest part of the trip.
With more 85 kilometers it was the longest section, the weather forecast was kind of bleak (all overcast with some snowfall in the afternoon) and the temperature had dropped to -25°C in the morning.
Usually I don't worry much about cold temperatures, but I know that my 'usual gear', i.e. a fleece shirt and a leather jacket, is fine down to about -20°C and if it gets colder than that, I switch to proper 'cold weather gear'. But I didn't bring any 'proper gear' with me, since at the start of the trip the weather forecast didn't go below -15°C for whole trip, so I left the stuff back at the guesthouse to lighten the sled.
I now know that a leather jacket and two fleece shirts will easily get you through -25°C as well, but I was a bit apprehensive about this that morning. (Though it is not quite as irresponsible to travel without the 'proper gear' as it sounds. It would have been a seriously stupid idea in Canada, but with the infrastructure in Sweden, if it got really cold, we could have just driven to the next village and have some warm drinks in the local cafe. It's not as if you need to be outside.)
Besides not having any nice 'blue sky' pictures, the day turned out to be quite pleasant.
We spotted some reindeer on the ice.
And a bit later on some more moose.
Though a moose is difficult to spot in the woods.
We could see it reasonably well as it was moving, but on a picture it's quite hard to see where it is, especially as the head is hidden mostly behind a tree.
Moose are a lot easier to spot when they are out in the open.
As we were travelling a bit longer on that day, we had two snack stops instead of just one, but otherwise just kept going.
It could have been a long and tiring day, but also a chance to find out whether I really enjoy dogsledding. Turned out that I do.
Even on a long day like that, I was having fun!
Though I have to admit that it helped that the trail became more interesting in the second half.
The first part was mostly on flat, frozen river. The second part was going along some forest trail over some hills, which needed a bit more attention to what I was doing, so there was a bit more alertness.
So only the last five kilometers or so got a bit boring.
It had started to snow and we needed to go across a final lake before reaching Ammarnäs.
Going was still good while we were along the shore (even though Nulli, one of my lead dogs, had was limping and had some problems with her front right leg). But when we had to turn away from the shore and cross the lake, heading for nothing but white nothingness, the dogs didn't seem happy to go that way and needed a bit of coaxing to keep going.
Probably to their relief, it was the final bit of trail for the day and less than half an hour later we arrived at the hostel in Ammarnäs. Just one final little ascent and they could stop for the day.
The next day was a rest day, so the dogs could just relax and enjoy the increasingly sunny weather.
We were staying at the hostel for four nights (originally only three were planned, but as we shortened the return trip by a day, we had an extra day in Ammarnäs), so there would be the rest day then two day trips before heading southeast again.
Continue to the next part of the Sweden 2014 trip.
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