This was the one tour of my Hurtigruten voyage that I was more psyched up for than any other. I had visions of whooshing silently through a landscape of pristine, virgin snow as the skis sliced a path through deep pine forests, the sky above my head packed with stars on a crisp, clear night…..
Nice imagery, but the reality was to be somewhat different.
My first sight was of a massive block of kennels, squatting amid a vast, low lying snow encampment. Three hundred and eight huskies reside at the Tromso husky encampment in all. The barking, howling and crying that filled the air everywhere reminded me of first rehearsals for the latest season of the X Factor.
Small fires flickered hungrily in the ink black fastness of late afternoon. Small, round huts speckled the vast, rolling snow plains. The scale of the entire operation was massive.
The dogs themselves are wonderful, friendly and very fond of affection. Lean and wiry, their strength is nothing short of incredible. Typically, each of the two person sleds was pulled by a team of eight dogs.
Often as not, they will sleep outside at night on the kennel roof, rather than staying inside. The breed is, perhaps uniquely, attuned and adapted to the harsh realities of the frigid Norwegian winter.
Far more than yours truly, that’s for sure.
Despite being wrapped up better than any Egyptian mummy, I shivered involuntarily in the -17 degree cold as we were given a safety drill, one that was somewhat padded out to facilitate the return of the sleds that had taken the first group out. But eventually it was our turn, and a mixture of excitement and trepidation took hold of me.
The sled itself is a two man affair, made entirely of wood, with standing space for the driver at the rear. The total width is roughly akin to that of an aircraft seat in economy class. Offered front seat, I shoehorned myself somewhat nervously into pole position, pun wholly intentional.
An increasingly welcome blanket covered my lower body; the advice from our calmly competent driver to ‘keep my hands well inside’ was happily complied with.
And we are off. Our eight strong team of straining huskies limbers slowly into gear. The sled lurches and bumps forward lethargically at first, feeling oddly heavy and ponderous. Perhaps it was the weight of three fully grown humans, who knows?
We gather speed by turns and canter through a meandering, mesmeric hinterland of rolling snow dunes and sparse, stripped tree branches. The sled bumps, heels and slews along an obviously well ploughed track as we roll left and right like a destroyer caught in a Force Ten storm.. The odd abrupt command from our guide elicits an instant response from the dog team but, to my mind, they seem to have the whole thing under control by themselves.
This is no sedate, dreamy sojourn with sleigh bells ringing and tinkling in unison. This is a shuddering, rocking and rolling, adrenaline fuelled joy ride that twists, turns and, at turns almost flies along and through a winding sea of snow that both dogs and driver know by heart. Any feelings of cold have long since gone.
In the ink black Tromso sky, a ghostly ribbon of spectral green bands briefly flit across the ether, winding and unwinding like some sinuously coiled snake. It ends as quickly as it begins, as the Northern Lights, after that brief, electrifying debut, are swallowed by a rolling mass of dense, low cloud.
We shudder, thump and lurch at a stately clip across this expanse of scrub studded snow, my breath coming in short gasps. For what seems like an eternity, this eight engine fairground ride whooshes and whirls through this frigid, pristine wasteland until finally- and, by now thankfully- we slew to a halt near one of those round tents at the heart of the encampment.
Inside, a central, wood fuelled fire crackles and splutters a reassuring welcome as hot coffee and chocolate cake combine to bring me slowly, gratefully, back to earth. That fire is almost bewitching. Outside, the dogs bay, howl and paw the ground impatiently as the next part of their human cargo is loaded up. More coffee? Don’t mind if I do.
Sledding at night, in the depths of a Norwegian winter, is unlike anything that I have ever experienced. If you are only ever going to Norway once- especially in winter- then doing it is a no brainer. But if you have mobility problems or are nervous in any way, I would definitely seek advice first.
It was an exhilarating adrenaline surge from first to last, a thrilling fairground ride set amid one of the most spectacular natural tableaux on the planet. Heading back to the Nordnorge that night, I found myself still grinning like an idiot from ear to ear.
In the interests of clarity….
The three middle pictures of Husky teams on the move are actually screen grabs from the on board Hurtigruten promotional DVD. We simply couldn’t have got out of the sleds to get such shots. Thus, they remain the copyright of Hurtigruten.