An Authentic Dog Mushing Experience
Mon Jul 03 2017
After spending a couple of days recovering from the time change in Stockholm, enjoying local fare, and finding we were too brightly-dressed for Stockholm fashion, we caught a flight up to the South Lapland town of Vilhelmina. There, someone would meet us to drive us 1 hour and 45 minutes north to the small village of Slussfors to meet up with the Petter Karlsson Sleddogs kennel. As it turns out, it was Petter’s father, who, despite his poor command of English, proceeded to tell us many things about his son that made it clear he was very proud.
Petter and his family have lived in the area that is now Slussfors for generations. Despite the lack of a mushing tradition in the family or in the area, Petter decided at an early age that he wanted to be a dog musher. It started with skijoring with his dogs, then working with his brother to build a dog sled, and ultimately teaching himself how to be a musher. He never formally trained or mentored, he simply taught himself how to do it. By the time Michelle and I met him, he had a 90-dog kennel to support both his tour company and his competitive mushing. And he had just in the previous year won the Finnmarksloppet, a 1,000-kilometer race that begins in Alta, Norway, goes across the top of Scandinavia to the Russian border and back. He was the first non-Norwegian to ever win the race. And if you know about the longstanding tension between Norwegians and Swedes, you know that is a big deal.
We booked a four-night, five-day package. The standard setup for this package includes the first night in Slussfors at the guest house, the next two nights on the trail, and the fourth night back in Slussfors back at the guest house.
Petter Karlsson’s team does a really good job of suiting you up for the trail, providing good winter boots, a snow suit, head gear, heavy gloves – the works. The one thing I did bring for the trail that was quite helpful was a set of ski goggles. You still want to bring your own base layers underneath and bring clothing for the evenings, as recommended, but you really do not have to worry about the outdoor gear for the trail.
After a night at the guest house, the first morning is spent at the kennels, learning how to harness the dogs and the basics of how to handle the team. Along with Michelle and I, there were two older German gentlemen – long-time friends who travel together – who were along for the trip. We each were provided five dogs, carefully selected to have the right combination of skills, experience and temperament for the team. Each one of the dogs used for the tours are dogs that Petter has identified have potential to be good competitive racing dogs, and the tour operation provides opportunity for them to get experience and training.
Our guide was Helen, an England-born Irish woman who had been introduced to the world of mushing while unexpectedly taking work as a dog handler in Alaska. That chance experience was enough to introduce her to a world that quickly consumed her, developing in her the drive to not only mush but competitively as well. She led our group with four dogs, including a ten-year-old veteran as her lead dog.
After our dogs were all harnessed and clipped in to the lead and running lines, anchored and waiting, it was time to head out. Helen took off up the chute leading from the kennels to the trail, and one-by-one, we followed. I was in the third position and would hold that for the remainder of the trip.
Not long after we left, the snow started to fall. It added to previously fallen snow that had laid down a thick blanket on the landscape. Petter headed out ahead of us to help break trail and to get ahead to our first cabin to stoke the wood burning stove, and deliver some supplies. We would run about 30 kilometers that day, winding our way up and down some moderate hills, through thickly-wooded forest, with heavy snow sometimes pelting our faces. Again, the ski mask was a good item to bring.
Running your own dog team takes a lot of work. There are some “glam” dog mushing tours out there where all you do is run the dogs, and this is not one of those trips. In 30 kilometers, a lot can happen. Dogs can sometimes get tangled in their lead or run lines, get their harnesses out of place, and you need to stop and help them. But dogs don’t want to stop, so you have to take care to anchor your sled each time. Dogs are not meant to pull the full weight of the sled (which has good and gear) and you up hill, so you sometimes need to kick behind your or even get off the sled and run behind the time to relieve that weight and allow the team to move forward. When you stop for lunch, you need to unclip the run lines (the harness line remains attached) so the dogs can stretch out a little bit. And before you eat, they get to eat. When you arrive at camp, before you can relax, you need to set out hay for them to lay down on and prepare their evening meal, which consists of heated water mixed in with the same frozen meat you feed them for the lunch break. And they get a similar meal for breakfast. If the weather is really bad, like it was on our second night, you also need to fit them with their jackets. All in all, it takes about four hours of chores each day to take care of your team.
Each night we stayed in comfortable cabins, with a wood burning stove, bunk beds, and a table for dining. Even though within the Vindelfjallen Nature Preserve, these cabins are owned by the Karlsson family, having existed there before the nature preserve was created. Both are without power or running water. For the first night, the cabin was located on a river, so drawing water was easy. For our second night, Michelle and I had to wade through deep snow (no snow shoes available) about a quarter mile downhill to a spring. Our guide Helen took care of the meals at breakfast and dinner, and we all took turns to clean the cabin and do dishes. The food was fantastic, with moose on the menu the first night and a lentil soup the second, and porridge and pancakes for breakfast.
Over three days on the trail, we ran about 100 kilometers, through sometimes dense, large pine forest or thin taiga forest. While we were in a mountainous region, the mountains of the landscape were hidden to us because of the heavy snow and low clouds. In the three days of our trip, the storm dumped over a half a meter. Despite all of the challenges, it was a magnificent time out with the dogs. Petter’s operation provides comfort, good food, a glimpse at life in Swedish Lapland, and a chance to burn a few calories in a really awesome way.