Do you fancy cutting through a brilliantly white snowscape on a sled pulled by a pack of huskies? It’s all a bit James Bond, isn’t it? But outdoor adventures above the Arctic Circle are becoming more popular. We’ve spoken to two tour operators. Jordana Widosuwito who is based in Sweden and John Kilbey who runs his tours from North Wales.
“It’s all about the dogs,” says John. “People have seen television programmes where famous people like David Cameron crossed Svalbard with a dog team and they’ve been inspired.” The trend for flights to Lapland around Christmas time has also offered many people a chance to try travelling with dogs and people then want a longer experience than the one they get on a short trip to see Santa. They might not even drive the sled themselves but they want to look after their own team of dogs and be in charge of their own travel.”
John says northern Scandinavia is a fair distance from London and it takes three to four hours flying time. Originally people came for a week but shorter two-day breaks are becoming more popular. “People either don’t have the money or, more likely, haven’t got the time to spend longer,” he reckons.
So what do you do? Do you go between two fixed points or just ride around through the terrain?
“We offer a host of itineraries adapted to the client’s interests because we get a buzz when they return and say they’ve had a good time,” says John. “I try and interrogate them first to find out what they want. On some trips you can stay in a hotel and go out on day tours. There are also packages where you can go on a mountain tour from hut to hut and trips where you stay in your own tent or a teepee. You can choose the type of landscape you cross, too – from flat to mountainous or forested terrain.
So how does the day pan out?
“By the time everybody has had breakfast and the dogs are being fed you will start moving at around 10am. It’s likely that you will travel for a couple of hours, depending on whether you have a long distance to go,” says John. “You’ll stop for lunch after three hours and the guide will light a fire to cook a hot meal.”
As soon as you rest, the dogs do too. “It’s incredible how the dogs just switch off. They go from being incredibly mad to asleep. As soon as the dogs see movement and realise something is happening, it’s like a switch – they come alive again.”
“The trek continues until around 4pm, which can be quite dark in the middle of December. Then the party go into the cabin and the guide tends to the dogs, puts them in kennels and feeds them. The dogs eat first, which is fair enough. They’ve done all the work!” says John.
Does the number of dogs used vary with each trip?
“You need the weight and power in your legs to stop the dogs. So the guide will just look at someone and guess how many dogs they will need. If you’re travelling as a couple then you will have six. For solo travellers, it will vary between four and six dogs depending on the power of the dogs and the route. If it is mountainous they need five and if the client is heavier there could be six. Strength is important. A small person will have trouble stopping six dogs when they want to apply the brake.”
John runs tours in Lapland, Canada, Sweden and Norway, so I asked him how the approach differs in each country?
“The Finnish guides are the best in the world in my opinion,” says John. “They are very organised but they are also very quiet. You do have to engage them in conversation. They’re quite understated. The Swedes can be off-the-wall and the Norwegians are very English in outlook. They like British humour and UK travellers will probably find them easiest to converse with. If, however, you go to Canada, the guides tend to be more upfront, open, talkative and American.”
The weather differs in each destination, too. “The terrain in Norway is mountainous and is open to the Atlantic so the weather can be more variable – like Scotland. If you wait an hour the weather can change,” says John. “Finland and Sweden are behind the mountain ranges and tend to have more settled weather and clearer skies. The weather is not so violent as Norway.”
John has a word of warning for anybody expecting to view the Northern Lights. You can’t guarantee to see them. But the setting offers potential. “There are open skies and with just 4% population density it’s unusual to get light pollution north of Helsinki or Stockholm.” John says if you go hoping to see them you’re likely to be disappointed. “I’ve been out there many times and I’ve only seen the Northern Lights on five occasions. It’s better if it’s a nice surprise that you weren’t banking on!”
So when is John’s peak period?
“New Year is really popular and January and February are the best times to go.”
You can find out more about John’s tours at dogsledding.co.uk.
Husky Tours.com operates from 200km above the Arctic Circle in Sweden. As I spoke with Jordana Widosuwito I could hear the huskies howling in the background!
“We offer a day trip where guests can sit in a sledge driven by a guide either in the morning or, if they want to see the Northern Lights, in the evening. We also give you a chance to drive your own sled with four dogs and if you want the best of both worlds, you can both sit and drive. If you decide to come as a couple you can share driving duties and swap over halfway through the trip.”
“How does it feel to control the dogs?” I asked Jordana. “I guess it’s very different from walking your pet.”
“People are usually surprised by the energy and power that the dogs have,” she replies. They’re not very big, usually around 25 to 30kg, but some guests are scared and anxious at first. Some are sweating even though it’s -35°C, because the dogs are very excited. But once our guests have had instruction they are thrilled. Once they set off, you can’t put the sense of freedom into words.”
Jordana’s company offers overnight stays in their cabins. “We like lodges that give a perspective of wilderness,” Jordana says. They have no electricity or running water, but they are very comfortable and warm inside with a woodstove. There is a kitchen and even a sauna!”
“The lodges are in a beautiful area right on the edge of a lake. You have a chance to walk on it when it’s frozen too,” Jordana says. “You can walk out onto it and, hopefully, look up and see the Aurora Borealis. There are no other companies operating in the area so you won’t see any other tourists and that’s a bit rare these days,” she adds.
“Is everything white and do you need sunglasses?” I asked.
“Well from the middle of winter we don’t have any sunlight so it’s pretty dark. You probably won’t need shades until March,” she laughs.
So when do they operate?
“The snow can arrive at the end of October but in general there isn’t enough to drive a sled until the end of November. Snow can reach a couple of metres in depth. When it arrives, it stays until the middle of April. After then it becomes slushy. The first sled tour begins on November 14th and they keep going until the first week of April.”
You can find out about Jordana’s company at huskytours.com.