Over three weeks ago we got back above the polar circle, unpacked all the wool we could find and started up at another kennel for a new winter season of dog sled guiding. This year it will only be the two of us taking care of a small pack of 36 dogs, with whom we will move out into the woods in the near future. We’re moving into a wilderness camp, where we will greet, host and guide tourists making their way over for 3-day dog sledding tours. At the camp we have no running water, an outhouse for a toilet, and a small generator with which we can power the small cabin we will live in for a few hours a day. Pretty much everyone we know down south declared us entirely mental, yet here we are, feeling that we are winning at life once again.
Coming back to Lapland was a difficult choice for us to make, and one that we doubted until the very minute we arrived in Kiruna again. We had a hard winter season last year. We had a very difficult working situation, for reasons I will not elaborate on here. The cabin we lived in was not up for winter conditions, so when it was -30 to -40 midwinter we’d have two to five degrees inside. We worked outside for 12-15 hours almost every day, but had no refuge where it was warm and we could relax. We sat inside huddled in our sleeping bags, hoping that we did not have to go to the toilet (that too, was outside). We had very limited access to hot water showers. We both lost enormous amounts of weight over the course of a few months because of the tremendous energy we used for the work, and simply to stay warm. We had no reserves left, and got ill several times.
Our working situation in Flåm is the entire opposite, as we have a comfortable room to live in, a private bathroom, we work for max 9,5 hours every day, have plenty of days off and barely do any physical work. We have energy on our spare time to go hiking, paddling, climbing and cycling. It wasn’t until we were back into a somewhat normal situation that we realized how much the winter had worn down on us. But before we drove out of Kiruna, we had agreed to take this job, and at that moment felt very excited for it. The longer we thought about it, and the more used we became to our comfort, the more we feared the return, life at the camp, the long working hours and days, some people we’d have to face again. We almost changed our minds several times but every time our new employer came up with solutions that lightened our concerns. In the end, we felt that we made a promise, and we just had to gamble for it.
As we do every year we got a horrible thermoshock, going straight from 20-25 degrees in Belgium/Oslo down to 5 and even -10 soon after we embraced our 67º north surroundings. All those muscles that rested, relaxed and were even replaced with some fat during summer cracked and sighed under a new load of backbreaking work for long hours a day. When I tell some people that I work as a husky guide they seem to imagine that this job is somewhat of an extended paid holiday where you get to cuddle dogs all day and enjoy the beautiful scenery. We call them “the dreamers”. Mushing is a tough sport, that no matter what involves hard physical labour in extreme conditions, long hours, and little free time.
You’d maybe wonder how anyone gets it into their minds: standing outside all day at -40 or below, and do it with a happy face. The single reason I can give are the dogs. Sled dogs are incredible creatures, unlike any other. And now that we have become used again to the rhythm, now that those muscles are growing back (and we don’t run around looking like 60 year old people anymore), we fiercely remember why we came back: because we want to get to know them, and learn. Really honestly said, we are still nothing but humble amateurs. For 10 days we had a companion, Jonas, who helped us get into training and taught us many things to look out for and focus on. We went to a veterinary seminar for 3 days learning about dog wellbeing, stretching, massaging etc. We still have an incredible amount to learn on nutrition and general dog behaviour. Yet over the crash course our confidence went up at the same speed as our enthusiasm. We can do this. This season will be great.
So every morning at 7 we feed them, we clean out their cages, we say hello, we give medication to those who need it. We start training around 9 with teams consisting of 9-10 dogs each pulling a four-wheel drive cart. We drive them for 7,5 to 12 kilometers a round, depending on their current state-of-being and weather conditions. Every day we get to know a little bit more about their character, about their behavior, about how each dog performs and what that dog might need to perform better. We put straw in their houses so they feel warm at night, we give them water and snacks, we feed them again in the evening so they go to bed with a full stomach they can digest overnight to build muscles and fat. We work for 12 hours every day, and though we could do it differently we don’t, because we want to do it the way that benefits the dogs the most. And in between we build, we drive loads in and out of the forest to prepare our season home.
Maybe our minds were clouded after last winter and we had both forgotten why we once moved up in the first place. Though we are tired, though work is hard, we are ready for what this season will bring.