Dogsledding is one of those things that I always thought would be fun to do, but would likely never have the chance to actually do it. I grew up in West Texas, so it was an outdoor activity far removed from my own reality. Then suddenly, after returning from a trip to Norway, my boyfriend and I found ourselves buying tickets to fly right back two weeks later, but this time to Svalbard. Dogsledding was at the top of my list.
We joined two of our friends in the city of Longyearbyen and a few days later the 4 of us were ready for our very first dogsled expedition! Our tour was booked with Basecamp Explorer, a hotel that also hosts excursions at each of their locations working with locals to leave a positive and responsible impact. We were picked up right at our hotel and taken to our first stop where we would suit up! Donning each a snowmobile suit, snow boots, hats, balaclavas, and mittens all provided by the company, we settled back into our minibus (albeit much fluffier than before) and headed outside the city limits of Longyearbyen.
It was about 4:30pm and what little twilight was present earlier in the afternoon had long gone. It was still Polar Night and once outside the city limits darkness dominated. In the distance a few pinpricks of light shone from a few cabins along the way. Soon enough the darkness was broken by an oasis of light that was Basecamp’s dog yard, Trapper’s Station.
Pulling into the dog yard is a dream come true for any dog lover. About 100 Alaskan Huskies all sitting and lying outside their homes with their names pinned above the doors. They began lifting their eyes and ears curious as to the new arrivals. To make this dream even better, we were instructed to “hang out with the dogs and get to know them” while our guide prepared a few things. I didn’t need telling twice.
One of the traits considered when the dogs at Basecamp are bred is friendliness. Because the dogs are often interacting with strangers and each other, the owners want to be sure that each dog is friendly so that no person or animal is at risk of being harmed. Speaking from firsthand experience: they nailed it.
I have never been around so many loving and playful dogs at one time. We got to spend at least half an hour going from house to house greeting the dogs as eagerly as they greeted us. Tails wagging, big hugs, dog kisses - these dogs were quite simply, the most good boys and girls! As we continued to greet and play, the dogs began to get very excited. They live for running and the arrival of new people meant that some of them soon get to do what they love most - run.
We reconvened with our guide who then instructed us on how the sled works and how to harness the dogs. This was an unexpected yet very welcome surprise to find out we were going to harness our own team! In pairs, we were given a harness and a dogs name. Weaving through the houses, and feeling a slight pang of guilt passing each pup that realized it wasn’t going on this particular trip, we found our dogs one by one by the name plates above their doors. Loki, Draco, Blues, Spotify, were just a few of the well named dogs.
First, you had to greet the dog (if you hadn’t already) so they could get a sense of you, and you of them. After a few pets and hugs, the harness went on. The dogs are well trained so they were very patient with our inexperienced fumbling. Once harnessed, we had to walk the dog to the *sled ropes*. Since these dogs are bred to run and many of them are quite large, they need to be walked on their hind legs. Otherwise they would take off with or without you holding on. At the ropes, they are clipped in at the collar and back of the harness on to the anchored sled.
By this time all the dogs in the yard are beyond excited and showing it! Along with the howling and barking you hear snow being shuffled under their hurried paws. Even the dogs not going are riled up by all the excitement.
Finally we have our 5 dogs clipped in and ready to go. I take my first turn as the passenger while my boyfriend takes the driver’s stand. As soon as I sat down, I can immediately tell how powerful these dogs are. So eager are they to get going, I felt the sled jerk forward every couple of seconds realizing that a small anchor and my boyfriend’s weight on the breaks were the only things holding them back. Once settled in, we were ready, the dogs were ready, and it was time to go.
Anchor raised, break up, and boom! We were off. Rushed out of the lights of the dog yard and into the polar night, I realized how loud the dogyard had been. From the howling and barking of 100 dogs, to suddenly hearing the soft tush of snow beneath the sled and a pack of huffing dogs pulling us forward. A stillness set in that was emphasized by the darkness surrounding us. Only our headlamps provided some light to our dogs and immediate surroundings.
In reality, the dogs didn’t even need the light. Not only are they very familiar with the terrain and sled route, but their sense of smell is so fine tuned that even in complete darkness they could lead their sleds and passengers home to safety.
For an hour we rode through the dark snowy valley. Here and there the foot of a hill or mountain would appear. The snow was falling as we rushed along, dancing in the light from our lamps. Though we were moving quickly, it was incredibly peaceful.
Driving a dog sled came with a thrilling sense of freedom and companionship with the dogs. I had to trust them, and they had to trust me. They knew where they were going, and I had to help control their speed. Too fast and they would burn out.
Passing under Mine 7, the last coal mine operating in Longyearbyen, we approached the dog yard once again. The silence broken by the welcoming barks and howls of the dogs still at home. Gliding into place, our sled slowed as the dogs came to a halt. Immediately our leading ladies lay down, tails still wagging, happy but tired. The rest say quietly, ready to wind down. One pup, Loki, however was not finished. He did not want to be unharnessed and put up a good playful fight, but eventually we got him to his home where he sat happily panting already ready to run again.
After the expedition we entered into a small cabin with a long table spread with coffee, tea, hot chocolate and biscuits. We learned more about the dogs and dogsledding while sharing our thoughts and feelings on the whole experience. I was also thrilled to learn that when these dogs retire (i.e., are just done with running) they are available for adoption! Basecamp requests that you keep in touch however so when the dog passes on, they can retire the name in memoriam on their cabin walls. Needless to say, I will be keeping in touch because it has always been a dream of mine to have a Huskey!
Soon enough it was time to return to our hotel, and we bade farewell to the beautiful dogs that gave us the run of our lives!