So I bet you didn't expect a blog post about husky-dog sledding from me? Well, the truth is you're not getting one from me, you're getting it from my good friend Emma who I met in northern Norway nearly two-and-a-half years ago during a trip that truly changed me. It was a five-day experience that pushed me so far out of comfort zone I still call upon it to get me through testing times and to remind myself that "uncomfortable" is not the same as "impossible".
If you want to read about my own dog-mushing journey, I wrote it up in three chapters: Chapter One explains what dog-mushing actually is, Chapter Two shares the dogs' stories and Chapter Three explains why the trip pushed me further than most.
Once upon a time in Norway...
My first trip to Norway more than two years ago was full of recklessness and fizzing with the threat of adventure. Travel in the dead of winter to sleep in a tent with a bunch of strangers? Sure! Master the art of mushing and wield a dogsled in the snow-covered wilderness of Tromso with no prior experience? Great!
It was and always will be one of the best and singularly most terrifying things I have ever done; a numb-fingered, bitter cold, early morning, broken bodied, frozen tears and whipping wind sort of a thing, but one of the best nonetheless. Not least because I met a certain Bird by the name of Frankie who experienced it all with me.
So when Stian Hasfjord, the man and professional musher behind my original Scandinavian escape contacted me out of the blue a few months ago asking if I’d like to come back again, the answer was, unsurprisingly: “Sure, great.” And I got to bring my best friend Imogen along for the ride, too.
A few things had changed since the last time I’d visited, however. Stian and his partner, Nieske, had moved from the quiet isolation of Tromso in Norway’s frozen north to just outside of Roros and they'd also acquired a new addition to their family in Sverre, their gurgling, painfully cute 6-month-old son, along the way.
If I was feeling anything when we landed in Oslo and climbed on the train for the five-hour journey to the wooden houses and grey cobblestones of Roros, it wasn’t recklessness or adventurous, it was jittery. I’d almost forgotten how much I fell in love with Stian’s dogs the last time, and I’d be lying if I didn’t, oddly, want them to remember me. It was a bit like meeting up with old school mates after years apart and worrying about them still wanting to be your friend.
That’s the lovely thing about these dogs though, despite half of the ones I remembered being absent from the yard, is that they still fell over themselves to greet us when we arrived: a sea of cold noses pressed against their pens and swishing tails. If you’re ever feeling down, I can’t honestly think of better therapy than 14 dogs tumbling and climbing over each other to be the first to say hello.
Some of the old dogs remained and were, comfortingly, still exactly the same - Snow White was still a bundle of nerves until you lashed her to a sled and she morphed into a full-blown wolf, Gus still bites through enough snow to make his gums bleed, and Rambo still eats his own poop. But it was an entirely different little shit altogether that stole my heart this time round. It was a new dog, Runde, with her knack for wiggling out of having her legs massaged and who ate all the caster oil and licked it all over your trousers before you could smear it on her frozen paws. It was the littlest dog with her shiny colly pelt and perpetually wet nose ramming into my face every time I came within lunging distance that got me. But, I suppose having a favourite in this pack of happy hounds is as inevitable as that first fall out of the sled when you try to remember how to drive a hulk of wood and canvas and rope with a set of very much alive engines streaking ahead in front.
Ready, sled, go
Sledding should be like skiing really, as both involve balancing and shifting your weight on sticks... except that it isn’t. When you’re waiting to start, one hand on the anchor and the other clutching the sled until your knuckles turn white under your gloves as the dogs jump and whine and strain to run, will send - and you can trust me on this - a slice of pure fear shuddering through you. Fear spiked with adrenalin because you’re not just in control of a boat-sized piece of wood, you’re supposed to be in charge of a fleet of highly trained animals that have put their trust in you. And believe me, they look back at you and they know it.
Stian told us that sledding is mostly instinct; you have to rely on your body to know when you should crouch, when you should lean and when you should stamp down on the brake mat or step off to help the dogs push. According to him, you either have the instinct to let go (the smarter option, although the incorrect one for sledding) or one to cling on.
“Don’t let go of the sled.”
And that’s what I had thrumming in my ears as my legs careened off the brakes, dragged behind the pull of the skinny hounds, my face blinded equally by the canvas stretched over the sled’s wooden skeleton and the flying branches scratching past.
“Don’t let go of the sled.”
It was the first thing Stian told me and the only thing I ever seemed to remember when I was clinging on for dear life as Snow White, Runde, Harral and Veber clawed their way up the hill from the house to the start of the trail. It was my mantra, bellowed, squeaked and whispered as we wound our way through the slalom of pine trees, up icy slopes and scything through the slushy skin of Spring’s last snow. It was even my mantra when I slammed shoulder first into a tree on the first day and crashlanded in a ditch on the last, but (and I was embarrassingly pleased with my silly self) I still didn't let go.
As we climbed up further and further each day, where the trees thinned out and the snow thickened and I had to tuck my nose into my scarf against the lashing winter air and squint at sunlight expanse of white, I remembered exactly why I fell in love with sledding in the first place. For me, it’s an almost mindless activity that you can let your body sink into and let your mind drift. For me, it feels something like freedom...
There’re no tents to sleep in here anymore. Visitors at Varghiet Sleddogs get to stay in Stian and Nieske’s lovely guest lodge, which has a proper kitchen, a hot shower and its own fireplace. There’s still no WIFI down at the lodge (although you can get online up at the main house where Stian and his family live) and there’re still enough early starts and bucket carrying to feed the dogs to make it feel like a digital detox from the real world.
You can do as much or as little as you feel like here. We seemed to alternate between stretching out our sore bones on rugs in front of the hiss and spit of a freshly stoked fire and taking Stian up on his offer of borrowed cross country skis and snowshoes and striding (more often than not, slipping) through the surrounding woodland, which is as crisp, white and as utterly silent as a fairytale. Full of the sort of silence that makes you pause and catch your breath, counting down the seconds until it’s broken by the dart of a hare or the crash of a bird launching or the crunch and slide of your own footsteps. It’s the sort of silence that makes you want to cry, because you know that just a few hundred metres away there’s a road and cars and the house and, a few hundred thousand of metres further away there’s London and home and the end of this particular brand of calm.
The last goodbye...
“You have to howl, otherwise they won’t be able to.” Stian commanded on our last night. He lets his dogs release their inner wolves once a day, after their final feed and while it had become normal throughout the week, the thought if initiating the ritual ourselves was impossibly daunting. It seems ridiculous, thinking about it now. Letting yourself be loud is such a small, seemingly insignificant thing, but it’s also not something most of us get to do in our daily lives. We were both adverse to looking stupid, to doing it wrong, to not being loud enough. We were both worried that the dogs wouldn’t join in.
But Stian is alpha dog in this set up, so we howled.
I felt, well.... honestly, in all my Englishness and stiffness, I felt like a bloody idiot. But, roaring into the cut crystal of a Norwegian sky, Stian laughing to my left and Imogen screaming to my right and a whole chorus crying and yelping out into the approaching gloom, all I could hear was that persistent mantra again...don’t let go, don’t let go, don’t let go. And I really didn’t want to.
Five things to do in Roros
Stay at the Solheim Pensjonat
I don’t think I’ve ever stayed anywhere that felt more like visiting my grandmother’s house than this retro B&B; right down to the lace-covered single beds and the vague, comforting smell of baking bread. If you’ve got an early start back on the train, ask them to make you a packed breakfast - you won’t regret it.
Visit Lysgaard Keramikk
Wandering down the alleyway from Kjerkata (one of Roros’ main streets) and into the courtyard of Lysgaard Keramikk feel like you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole. Fall for the glazed blue mosaics covered in twining snakes, huge columns studded with golden stars, mounted plates in ochre yellow and sunshine orange and look up to catch the suspended statues hanging from the tree line.
Have a beer
Roros brews its own beer produces some pretty wonderful pale ale and blond varieties that you can also buy to take home. Try the An-Magriit - spicy, citrusy and named after a character from Johan Falkberget’s novels.
Buy a jumper
Roros has countless knitwear shops selling everything from traditional Scandinavian jumpers to the raw materials you need to make your own. You can also buy one second hand, which I recommend as these jumpers never loose their shape or style.
Go door spotting
Roros has a lot of very photogenic doors. So much so that there’s a whole series of posters dedicated to them at the tourism office. Grab your camera and seek them all out.
How do I sign up for this myself?
All the information you need about experiencing life as a dog-musher is on the Varghiet Sleddogs' website: http://www.varghiet.com/en/. But to give you an idea of what you can expect for a trip also at the same time of year the following is all included in the Life of a musher, Spring experience which was priced at €580 in 2016.
- 4 days with 8 hours of activity and 1 day with 4 hours of activity.
- 4 days of mushing, with trips of 20k - 60k.
- 2 nights sleeping in a tent or outside.
- Instruction og training.
- Necessary clothes and equipment.
- Food and accommodation.
- Transport from Røros and back.
Thank you so much Emma. This article really did make me itch to go back to see those dogs and to see Stian, Nieske and their little man who is almost the same age as Baby Bird. Maybe one day they will play in the snow together. If you'd like to read more of Emma's wonderful words (many of which are about food!) you can find her blogging at The Edible Woman and taking beautiful photos on Instagram.
Frances M. Thompson
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