The end of the dark season is a tough time, every season again. After the sun has officially risen above the horizon it still takes an undefined amount of time before one can actually see the yellow ball of joy, depending on where you are and how many obstacles are to be found towards the horizon. Besides of a lack of sunlight we found ourselves becoming claustrophobic in the woods, which certainly didn’t help to keep the spirits up during those final dark days.
Missing the sun does funny things to people. For our bodies to function properly we need Vitamin D, an important vitamin for among others strong bones, teeth, the heart etc. Vitamin D has also been linked to autoimmune diseases and depression. The prime source of Vitamin D is the sun. So no sun, no good. After a while we humans find ourselves longing for that feeling of sunshine on our faces, of rays of sun touching our skin. Even though we never experience 24 hours of darkness here (this happens on Spitsbergen, for example) there is always something missing in those sunless daylight hours of December.
The sun rises during the first days of January in Kiruna. Because we live in the valley of the Torne River, a deep ditch with many hills around, it takes longer for us to actually see it again. It normally happens sometime around the middle of January. This year the event would happen to coincide with my first seven-day husky tour and hence double joy was booked on the agenda.
Driving multiday tours has always been a guiding ambition of mine, though I did not expect to be guiding any week tours any time soon. PJ showed no interest in the project: he said he is content with 3-day tours, and he wanted me to take it on. So I happily did.
I got lucky and only had two guests on this tour, which makes everything a lot less stressful. Though taking care of 6 people instead of 2 is not that big a deal, keeping an overview of and being responsible for 6 sleds instead of 2 makes a big difference. It takes a lot more on the guide who much more often has to stop and wait and has triple the amount of dogs to care for. The sixth sled is often out of sight (and if something goes wrong with one of them, 9 out of 10 times it will be the invisible one in the back). For every company I have worked for, six sleds behind one guide is the maximum.
The two guests, Jenny and Kiv, also turned out to have a keen interest in dogs and photography so we had a lot to talk about from start to finish. It makes a huge difference whether we have the kind of people who’ve just come to “tick the box” or out of genuine interest for the area and the dogs. The former can’t leave soon enough while it’s always sad to see the latter go.
From the forecast I expected some pretty rough days at the start. Half a meter of snow was predicted to fall over the course of the first two days and more was to come towards the end of the tour. But there was a beacon of hope: in the middle of it temperatures would plummet and the sky would clear. That was it. That was going to be the time to see the sun. I told Jenny and Kiv that I was vividly hoping for it, both for myself and for them. Nothing beats sledding during those first days of intense, colorful sunlight.
The forecast held and for two days we were out in a blizzard.We kicked and kicked and kicked our way over the swamps, the lakes, the river. The heavy snowfall in combination with wind had created enough snowdrift to obliterate the tracks on any open space. Sometimes the dogs would disappear entirely under the fresh powder, only for a pair of ears to resurface and be followed by the rest of them. Though it was great training for our younger leader dogs they were visibly tired after the effort of having to find their own track. But I have to give it to them again: these dogs are champions. Not once did they hesitate or stop. While we kicked and ran they tirelessly plowed their way back home through the snow.
The weather appeased as we prepared to move cabins on the third day. Though still cloudy it was calmer, and the fresh snow had hardened and compacted. This time we could put the snow ankers down to make some pictures. In the night, it cleared. In the morning, it was still clear. I told the couple we’d take it easy in the morning: we only had fourteen dogs to feed and with rock hard tracks there was no need to stress to come back before dark. But when I saw the sun hitting the hills in the distance I could not hold back anymore. We had to go up the hill to the swamps and see the sun. ASAP.
After half an hour we stopped at a beautiful spot where the trees were spectacularly lit by the low sun. I was so happy I took about 15 pictures of the sun and I kept telling Jenny and Kiv how amazing it was. “This is so nice! This is such a good day!” Kiv had to laugh and petted me on the back. “God look at you, you’re so happy! You’re like a kid who just got a Christmas present!”
One thing is for sure: seeing the sun again after 6 weeks of absence beats opening Christmas presents any day. It’s hard to describe the feeling of it, the relief, the sensation of the first rays touching my face. I almost cried. PJ saw it the day after and also almost cried. It’s as if life suddenly falls off your shoulders and whatever seemed to be a problem the day before is now no more. Business can continue as usual, everything is alright again.
I’m not sure whether or not it affected the dogs in a likewise, euphoric way but they broke all speed records that day. After a staggering hour and 15 minutes that included 35 kilometers we had come back to camp. I looked at Jenny and Kiv and felt slightly embarrassed. “Now, I know you might think I’m ripping you off, but that was actually a full day tour of 35 kilometers.” Jenny laughed and replied: “Oh no, I believe you. I held on for dear life out there.”
We had two more absolutely stunning days of sledding on new and known tracks. Because so much snow had fallen in the beginning of the tour the landscape was surreal: tall, snow-covered birches and pines with orange glowing tops. Exactly these days are my favorite of the entire season. It’s often very cold but everything is just stunning. Every little twig, every little branch on every tree is frozen and backlit by that warm orange-red glow from the sun, just high enough to peep over the horizon. It doesn’t matter if it’s cold. It’s so good you just have to go out there.
As the days become longer our jobs become much easier. Things simply go faster when you can see what you are doing, when you don’t need a headlight to guide you around all the time. When we arrived back at camp we could put the dogs back in daylight, clean up the sleds in daylight, fetch the water in daylight. Piece of cake.
The final day of the tour was a dark and stormy one so we took it on a relaxing pace. For a grand finale the northern lights appeared during that final evening. Perfect ending to one of the best tours I’ve ever had.