Ok, I can't even begin to describe how awesome this whole experience was! Ever since I was a little girl, I have wanted to go dog sledding (just ask my Mom), and on this trip, I finally got the chance. We booked a 3 day tour with White Trail Adventures located in Kiruna, a small mining town in Swedish Lapland, 200 km north of the Arctic Circle. From the minute Aaron and I stepped off of the plane at the small airport, we knew we were going to love this place. It reminded us of our "other" home, and favorite place, in Michigan - Houghton - where Aaron and I went to university. The wind was blowing, the snow banks were taller than us, and the temperature was cold and crisp, refreshing after the damp, cool winters that Germany has.
The tour started the day after we arrived. An grandmotherly German named Evi picked up in a Toyota truck and took us from our hotel to their main base. When we got out of the truck, it was quiet despite the 70ish dogs they have living there. After getting our gear sorted out, and getting dressed for spending an extended period of time outside, our guide Nicole gave us our first lessons on operating the sled. It's not rocket science, but there are a few important parts that we needed to know: how to break, how to anchor it, to NEVER let go of the sled, and what to do should we tip over (a normal occurrence). After that, we grabbed the harnesses and started to get the dogs ready. At first, it was just a couple of dogs barking, but soon, they all were. It's like they were all saying, "Pick me! Pick me!!", but you, know, in husky speak.
The first day, we only rode an hour to the wilderness camp, but it was the most magical, exhilarating, and peaceful experiences I've ever had. The gentle swoosh of the skis on the snow, the quiet panting of the dogs as they ran, and the occasional pooping dog, all contributed to the experience.
Once we arrived at the camp, which has no electricity or running water and is heated by a wood burning stove, the dogs were unhooked and unharnessed, and led to their shelter for the night. We gave them some straw to make it more comfortable. Some dogs liked the straw, but others pushed it all out and didn't bother with it. Then it was time to get their dinner ready - chopped up ground meat, high energy dry kibble, and water to make a sort of stew. It looked and smelled pretty unappetizing, but the dogs went wild for it.
After the dogs ate, it was our turn, Nicole cooked an amazing dinner for us which was eaten by candlelight. We then gathered around the wood burning stove to relax and wait for the northern lights to make their appearance. Around 9:00, they finally came out and they were stunning! It was my first time really seeing them in all their glory and I can't believe how beautiful they are! Their slow shifting and shimmering are mesmerizing. I could have stayed out there all night had I not gotten cold. I'm so glad Aaron got some incredible pictures of them. Check them out in the gallery below.
That night, we crawled into our sleeping bags in a dark room lit only by the full moon outside and the gentle glow of the fire in the front room. We both slept like rocks.
The sun was shining bright the next morning and it was the barking of the dogs as they got their breakfast that woke us up. Overnight, the fire had burned itself out, and the cabin was cooler than the night before. We had a hearty breakfast before getting the dogs harnessed and hooked to the sled. We rode out of camp under a blue sky and full sun and into the forest. It was beautiful. In the morning, we manged to find some reindeer in the forest (too far away to get a picture of them), rode past a horse farm, across a lake and finally ended at an island where we stopped for lunch.
First order of business was to give the dogs a snack to get them through the afternoon: chicken fat sausage. Again, smelled sketchy, but they loved it. We then had our own lunch of potato leek soup with ground beef, Swedish bread, and coffee, all cooked over an open fire in a traditional Sami hut (looks similar to a teepee, but with a more permanent walls that were about 6 feet tall, if that makes any sense).
After lunch and a brief rest, we were back on our way. In the afternoon, we passed a small field covered with completely undisturbed snow. I don't know about you, but when I see snow like that, I just have to make a snow angle. We stopped the dogs and did just that. It was so deep that jumping into it or falling back into it was like falling into a cloud.
We ended the day back at the wilderness camp where we took care of the dogs and got the sauna going. The sauna has a wood fired stove that throws off an incredible amount of heat, a separate stove to heat water, and a dewar of cold water. We were able to wash up by pouring water over ourselves. Aaron even jumped into the snowbank outside the sauna (I was not that crazy). It was so hot though that both of us couldn't be in there for longer than about 10 minutes. I have to say though, taking a traditional sauna in the arctic was one of the most refreshing experiences I've ever had.
Unfortunately, the northern lights did make an appearance on our second night, but the sky was still clear and the stars were amazing.
The last day of our tour started much like the second - sunny and the sound of barking dogs, excited for their breakfast. We packed up our gear, harnessed the dogs, and were back on the trail. This day we rode through the forest before ending up back on the river. The dogs were fast, even after a long day before and fully loaded, so we were able to take a different, longer trail back to the base camp. This was the most beautiful of the trails we were on. It was a narrow trail with snow banks on either side, and wound through the forest. There were hills and sharp turns which made for a fun ride.
When we got back to the base camp, we unhooked the dogs and put them back in their kennels and unloaded our sleds. Then we got to play with puppies! Five or so weeks prior, one of the dogs had given birth to a litter of 6 puppies and they were absolutely adorable, especially since most of them had ice blue eyes! It was hard to not stuff one in my backpack to bring home with me.
On our way back to Kiruna, we made a stop at the world famous ICEHOTEL. Aaron and I are a little jaded after spending years building snow statues for Michigan Tech Winter Carnival (check out the pictures, those were built in a month, by full time students, pretty impressive), but we weren't all that impressed with the hotel. From the outside, it was only one story tall and kind of plain looking. You had to purchase a ticket to go inside, which we didn't do (our driver was waiting patiently for us while we looked around), but we did catch a glimpse though an open door. Admittedly, the ice carvings were impressive, but I'm not sure its worth the $360 the room rates start at. What was impressive were the ice blocks. They harvest the ice for next year's hotel out of the river at the beginning on March. They had pulled the ice the day before we were there and the blocks were giant! And so perfectly blue and clear. My college self that was responsible for the ice portion of the snow statues was drooling over it.
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I have to say, this is one experience I will always remember. I loved every minute of it and would do it again in a heart beat. There was only one problem with the whole thing - we only booked the 3 day tour and not a longer one. Next time, I would just bite the bullet and book the longer tour. We are even thinking about going back next winter if we can! Honestly, I loved Sweden and would move there in a heart beat. And if you're looking for a unique experience in northern Sweden, check out White Trail Adventures. They offer tours ranging from a couple of hour tour where you ride on the sled all the way to two week long excursions into the depths of the Swedish arctic. They were great to work with, responded to emails quickly, and it was clearly apparent that they loved and deeply cared for their dogs. Click through the gallery below for lots more pictures from our time in the Arctic Circle!
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