Björkliden, Sweden – North of the Arctic Cirle
We stood in the snow, flakes speckling our faces with moisture, and absorbed the howling yelps of the sled dogs. Most were still in their cages when our van pulled into the yard. Empty leads lay neatly in the snow, stretching out from the wooden sleds like red and purple vines. Noses peaked from the dog trailers, puffing out steam in the cold air, and the dogs’ yowling grew louder as they sensed their future passengers approaching. We watched, bundled completely and still unused to the extra space we were taking up in our massive snowsuits. We’d brush up against each other by accident, or get thrown off by how our ankles kept knocking into each other due to the thickness of the Velcro bottoms of the legs.
We absorbed the smell of the dogs. Most of it was their breath and fur, filling the air with earthiness, sharp and sweet. Later you could smell their waste as they relieved themselves before the trip, but it was all quickly swept away by the wind and snow. A line of dogs was already out of the trailers, stakes down in their leads so they couldn’t run off with the sled, passengerless.
As soon as we’d been told that we could indeed give the dogs as much love as we wanted, we’d all fallen to our knees to obey. I tore off my mittens and sunk my fingers into the furry chests, after offering my hand, palm up under panting noses, to smell. They were all friendly, all desperate to run but also longing to rub their heads into human chests and hands. Nudging faces pushed up to be scratched on the forehead. I could sense when one of them longed to get closer and would move my face to be licked and nuzzled. Pure joy filled me, with a nagging drop of homesickness and longing for my Keeta, my Gaffer, my Diesel. Peace was the one I spent more time with, and she loved the “rubbies” – scrubbing her head into my nails and licking my face frantically.
One of the men working there had begun to pull more dogs from their trailer homes and brought them, straining at their harnesses, to their place on the sled leads. The dogs bucked and kicked like racehorses, so eager to run it seemed like they’d strain so much that their muscles would burst out of their skins and furs and go running off without them. They howled.
As the man headed back to the trailer for more dogs, he spotted me waiting with my fellow student travelers and said, “You’re going to help me, come with me.”
“Sure!” I said, and followed without questions.
In the suit I felt invincible. The cold that was writhing around me in the wind did not so much as brush my ribs. My boots were sturdy and thick, gripping the snow with confidence. I had a hat, a buff, and a scarf keeping me warm, and thick tough mittens. I was overwhelmed with the knowledge that yes, sure, I could do anything he needed me to. I was used to dogs. I was used to working in snow. Dragging hay off of a tractor. Hacking ice apart with an axe. Dragging a sick sheep to her feet. In that moment I was full of cockiness and pride at my experience. And looking back at it, I don’t blame myself for that. If you can’t be proud of roots like that, and if you can’t be thrilled to use that experience for something else, what’s the point?
“You’re going to help me bring out one of the dogs. He’s a strong one, and likes to twist. Don’t let go of him.”
He pulled the gray and white beast, about half the size of my Keeta, out of the trailer and pulled his wiry forelegs through the harness. The dog panted, chest heaving with excitement and sound pouring from between his canines like drool. I hung onto the dog, feeling him pull against me. I’d rooted myself, as if I was walking Keeta and realized she’d seen some potential prey scuttling through the trees. He tried to pull me towards his companions already howling ahead of us on the road, but I stayed grounded. He twisted around, as I’d been warned, but I didn’t let go even when his harness pulled my mitten into a knot and crushed my fingers. I ended up having to spin myself around, not wanting to risk trying to transfer the harness loop from the twisted mitten to my free one.
After only a minute or so, the guide had harnessed another dog and we walked together up to the sled that was second from the front. The man held a dog in each hand and walked quickly up the slight slope, not being dragged, but not pulling back on them either. I slid and stumbled several times as my beastie pulled and tried to gallop off to his spot on the line. It was hard, and I worried I’d face plant before we got there. But we got the three of them hooked up without problems and then turned to get more. At that moment the man who would be my sled driver in the adventure to follow asked if I could hold the lead dogs while they go the rest of the team. Otherwise, he explained, they’ll turn around and tangle the harnesses.
The sound was incredible, standing between the two leaders, holding the connecting strap with a mitten hand. They screamed their pleasure and excitement. Every so often one of them would jump up, and scramble up my stomach and side, begging me to release her. The suit meant that I didn’t feel her claws, just the pressure of her big snow-shoe paws. At one point of the lead dogs jumped over the other, triggering a deep growl that is always a cue for any human around to remove any appendages from interfering with the power struggle that was to come. However, these were well-behaved workers. They each wanted the same thing, each were willing to forgive the other for invading their personal space. As long as they could run.
I waited there in the howling darkness. I was blinded every so often by the glare of the guides’ headlamps. Looking back towards the vans and trailers I could see my friends waiting to the side, lit up by the headlights of a truck idling in the snow. More dogs were brought to their sleds. I was warm from having wrestled the bucking dog from before. I’d taken off my hat and buff and one of my mittens, trying not to overheat, but still I felt sweat beginning to form on my sides. Not a good sign. Sweat freezes and then you’re in trouble.
Finally the dogs were all in place, and the students were too – stacked together four to a sled. Everyone quivered with excitement. I was relieved from my post and was waved forward to the leading sled where I squeezed myself in at the back, my knees up around the hips of the person in front of me, my boots pressed into the wooden runners. I could feel the sled at my back, nudging gently at my spine. I was already beaming even before we set off, so stupidly happy at being chosen to help. We sat in thrilled silence, as there was no point to try to talk over the tirade of sound coming from the dogs all around us. I thought we could probably leave then and be happy, just from having doted on the dogs for half an hour or so. I had re-bundled, and later would be thankful that I’d thought to bring my buff with me to the north.
I felt my heart would literally burst when finally our guide stepped onto the back of the sled and gave the okay to his team.
Sudden silence. Every dog had stopped barking at once. Every dog had leapt forward and as one power sped us along the snow and into the trails that spread out through the woods. Our team was at the front, so nothing was ahead of us except the stain of light cast by our driver’s headlamp, and snowy forest. I peered around the backs of my friends and saw the dogs running ahead as if we weighted nothing.
The ride was smooth and silent. The padding of the paws ahead of us, the whoosh of the wind and snow of the blizzard that had just begun, and the occasional scrape of the metal break of the sled were the only noises besides our occasional questions and chatter with our driver. The only thing I can compare that feeling to is sailing. There was no jolting or bumping, aside from a couple humps in the trail that the dogs skillfully. It felt like going over the wake of a motorboat in my smooth sweet sailboat back in Maine. At the same time as the ride felt relaxing and meditative, it was also just so so so fun. Not fast enough to be scary, not slow enough to be boring, but a speed that made our hearts race with pleasure and utter contentment. I could feel the joy radiating from my companions through their blue and red suits, flying back to me in the air, mixed with the snow. We could breathe easy.
We stopped a couple times as our guide looked back to see if the four other sleds were still behind us. Responsibility came with leading. We took the moment to look around even more, through the hills and trees of the arctic landscape. Our driver said he’d often see moose walking through the woods, and often got spooked by the huge beasts. At one point we saw a sparkling reflector through the trees, and he thought that it could be light blinking from the large brown eye of a moose. We didn’t see another living thing, but we saw the tracks and there was no sense of emptiness as one might have thought. I could feel that the woods were full of energies, full of creatures besides our furry companions. The dogs could smell them, but none of us could see them.
Our driver announced the halfway point and I breathed in relief, knowing that it wasn’t going to be over too quickly. Nothing is worse than the sinking disappointment of an adventure cut off too soon.
I tried to take a video, but eventually put my camera back in the baggy chest of the suit, and let it sit against my ribs for the rest of the ride. I wanted to consume every second of this. Plus my camera skills on a moving dogsled were nonexistent, right along with my nonexistent low-light photography skills…
The snow looked like the animated trails of white dots that appeared in Christmas specials. The blizzard pushed against our sides and faces and was illuminated by the headlamps. My face stayed warm under my scarf and buff, but my eyes occasionally had to blink away a stinking snowflake that had pelted through my eyelashes to freeze my irises. What a thrill to be our on a dog sled as the wind rose and the snow got thicker.
It still ended too soon. We weren’t ready to leave, and were relieved when our driver said we could thank the dogs after we dismounted. We collapsed once more at their panting feet. This time they were quiet, exhausted with the thrill of the run and the fatigue that pulling us up the slopes of the trail had caused. They were affectionate still, but let it be more one sided this time. We planted kisses on their heads. We rubbed the folds of skin between their shoulders and necks. We worshipped them for the magic they’d provided us.
I thanked our driver and then found the man that had let me help at the beginning. He had his own team of students working for him now, and they staggered with their own dogs to bring them back to the kennel trailer. We shook hands and he said to have a good stay. He called me “farmer girl” and I beamed.