There is nothing like the Finnish Wilderness in winter. It’s silent. If there is any sound it is the gentle whoomp as snow from laden branches lands softly in the powdery snow covering the mosses and lichens beneath the trees. The silence is tangible as the blue zone approaches; a time around sunset when the air seems to take on a stunningly brittle icy electric blue colour.
To avoid disturbing this awesome silence with the cacophonous roar of a 1000cc engined snowmobile we decided to take a team of dogs and sledge into the wilderness of the old no-go zone close to the Russian border. The only sound would be the panting of the dogs and the hissing scrunch of metal runners on snow punctuated with an occasional call of a human issuing commands and encouragement to the dogs.
We headed out to a husky farm at an old border post long since deserted by the Finnish border police. Long before we drove into the clearing the dogs announced our arrival.
To start with the dogs made more noise than a snowmobile as they competed with one another in the excitement stakes. Ever eager to be out they yapped, howled and barked to draw attention to themselves in the hope that they would be chosen to pull the sledge. Home for them were kennels and a run at an old border station from which the Finnish army patrolled the western side of the iron curtain. They liked nothing better than to be out running with a sledge behind them
The Greenland huskies are used by because of their extra size and strength. A team of four can easily pull the light Finnish style sledge and a full grown man. Add two more and they can pull a sledge loaded with gear for an expedition lasting several days. With all that pent up energy and strength it is difficult to keep the team in check while clipping the dogs into their harnesses. To prevent them from running off into the forest once harnessed the sledge is tethered to a post.
When ready you stand hard on the toothed metal plate that acts as the brake and unclip the leash tethering the sledge. There is no gently letting the clutch out and easing the team forward. Four immensely strong dogs are straining against the harness and immediately you lift off the brake the whole ensemble shoots forward. With only extensions of the narrow sledge runners to stand on and a tenuous gloved grip on the “handlebar” it is very easy for the inexperienced to be separated from the team before even leaving base.
Clinging on desperately as the dogs madly accelerated from 0-30 in 2 seconds I suddenly realised that there did not appear to be any visible means by which to steer the sledge or the dogs. At the foot of a impossibly steep incline (actually hardly noticeable in the 4×4 we had arrived in but terrifying on a seemingly uncontrollable sledge pulled by a team of dogs on steroids) was a bend to the right. Logic told me the sledge would follow where the dogs went but how did I control the dogs? I recalled being told a few Finnish words to control the dogs but these seemed to involve stopping, starting and encouraging them to go faster.
Survival instinct told me to stand on the brake and slow the team down. At least any mishap would take place at slow speed. As we took the corner at about 15 mph with the brake sending a rooster tail of snow and ice behind us I naturally leant into the corner.
As we emerged from the corner and I lifted off the brake we picked up speed again. The dogs naturally followed the line of least resistance unless otherwise ordered and to a certain extent were followed by sledge. By adjusting your weight on the runners you have an element of control. A few bends later gave me enough practice and with it confidence to take the next bend without standing on the brake. Halfway through the bend I was beginning to wish I had not been so confident. It seemed terrifyingly fast but I came out the other end of the bend still intact; still attached to the sledge which was upright and still with a team of dogs racing madly on.
It was exhilarating.
Wild Taiga offer Husky sledging tours of varying length as part of their adventure programme.
Declaration: I stayed as a guest of the Kalevela Hotel, Kuhmo as part of a press trip from where the above activity was organised. However, I always maintain editorial control and write what I experience be it good or not so good.