My recent article covered the cruise of the MS Kong Harald, The Coastal Express, sailing from Bergen to Kirkenes and back to Bergen. Since the ship had a long stay in Tromsø, there was a chance for Mrs B and me to go a few miles outside the town to visit the husky centre.
It had long been an ambition of ours to ride on a sledge hauled by a team of huskies. It was an experience we shall not forget, an exhilarating memory of Norway since the ride was out in the open country under deep snow with wonderful views of mountains and woods. We also love dogs, which for us was a major consideration.
Our eight-dog sled was owned and led by Einár, a Sami of great character and experience. He is devoted to his dogs and they to him. He introduced us to his dogs and also showed us the brake or anchor on the sled. Huskies are enormously enthusiastic to get running and, without the anchor, might easily disappear over the horizon. With huskies, your anchor is also your trusty friend!
Einár, and his dogs compete in the Finnmarksløpet which includes both a 1200 and a 500-kilometre dog sled race, starting in Alta, crossing the Finnmark county of Norway as far as Kirkenes and then back to Alta. Around 160 dog sled teams compete in the Finnmarksløpet, with about half of those taking in the full 1200 kilometre race and the rest choosing the short (!) 500-kilometre race.
The long race requires a rotation of 14 dogs for each sled while the shorter race requires eight dogs
There are no stages and no stopping in the races apart from designated rest breaks. The winner completes the 1200 kilometre race in under five and a half days. When racing, the Alaskan husky requires 10,000 calories a day and, in the race, all dogs are always pulling.
In fact, the leader knows that a dog is in trouble if it ever stops pulling, in which case that dog is taken out of the harness to ride on the sledge under a blanket to the next checkpoint. The races are covered by full veterinary supervision but these amazing dogs are far too valuable to mistreat.
It would be good to say that Mrs B and I both took command of the sled and the dogs obeyed our every command. Nothing could have been further from the truth – which is that we were more than happy to sit in the sled, covered by a lovely warm blanket, more akin to out-of-sorts huskies riding to the next checkpoint than intrepid Arctic adventurers.
The Husky Sled Centre
After our sled ride, we toured the sledding centre itself which is home to hundreds of huskies, sleds and all their associated equipment. This gave us an unrivalled chance to get close to as many huskies as desired. Since they are all born and reared in close human contact, they are invariably friendly and can be petted at will. Dog lovers will appreciate the thrill of this experience, others perhaps less so!
It is notable that all the dogs spend ten months of the year working, going out for regular sled hauling excursions for tourists and visitors, or racing, and the other two months of the year resting at the centre without any major exercise. This is a time of recuperation but there is no doubt that a husky is at his/her happiest when hauling a sled at breakneck speed through the woods and over the snowy ridges and hill plateaus.
The Sami People
The Sami (or Saami) are an indigenous people of northern Europe who live in parts of northern Sweden, northern Norway, northern Finland and Russia’s Kola Peninsula. The Sami language is part of the Uralic group, alongside Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian and 34 others.
In Norway, reindeer herding and farming are reserved exclusively for the Sami. Politically, the Sami have had a tough history of being neglected and overrun, not least in the devastation of the far north by the Nazis during the Second World War.
However, the Sami lot is slowly improving. By 1996 there were Sami parliaments in Norway, Finland and Sweden. Then, in 2008, the Kola Saami Assembly was established in Murmansk but, unsurprisingly, in Russia, it falls even further short of a proper parliament than the parliaments in the other three countries. It is however encouraging that all four countries with a Sami population are now at long last recognising their proper political, cultural and economic needs.