I wasn't given much time to think about going to Northern Norway to spend five days as a dog-musher... thank goodness. Because I honestly think if I had been given more time, I probably wouldn't have gone and I wouldn't be sitting here, writing about an experience that changed my life... for the better.
Changed my life for the better... you know what's funny about that statement? If I went on the most luxurious 5-star holiday in the most paradise-perfect place, I don't think it would leave me coming to the same conclusion. It's a little perverse, isn't it, that the journeys that are the toughest are the ones that make us better people? Or maybe that's just very, very obvious.
Because I did not find this "holiday" easy. But I'll say it again, it did change me for the better.
After spending over a month in Nordic Europe in January and February last year, I was prepared for the temperatures and the lack of daylight. Thanks to the extensive packing list and advice given by tour operators Magnetic North Travel, I was equipped for the activities I would have to undertake. And because I'd read the itinerary, I already knew what was to come... we would be sleeping in a traditional Sami lavvu tent in thermal sleeping bags. We would have limited washing facilities and the toilet wouldn't flush. We would be expected to get up early and spend full days working because that's what dog-mushers do; they don't just wake up when they want and hop on a dog sledge. These animals need very special care and attention and that is an almost 24 hour job and we were expected to pull our weight in assisting with this.
So, I knew all this... but I wasn't really ready . I can imagine it's the same way you're never really ready to do a bungee jump or walk on the edge of a very tall building. There is always a small part of you that doesn't want to do this, but you do it anyway. That's a very clumsy but almost accurate way to describe how I felt about winter camping and not showering for five days. And of course, somewhere along the way after you've jumped or learned how to sleep in temperatures below freezing - you start to enjoy yourself... But I'll come to that in Chaper Three.
We were assigned teams of five husky dogs almost immediately after arriving in Northern Norway. We six guests waited in the small cabin our hosts lived in with mugs of tea in our hands and Norwegian Christmas cookies in front of us as Stian and Nieske, the real dog-mushers, discussed which dogs would be best suited to which people. They were also joined by Amalie, their dog-handler, which is the name they give to those doing a sort of internship in dog-mushing. When Stian and Nieske are participating in races, it's Amalie's job to support them and the dogs, though she must follow strict rules and guidelines on how to do this (she is not allowed to touch the dogs). It's a remarkable job for a young 20 year old woman to undertake, but Amalie is no ordinary young woman and maybe I'll come to that in Chapter Three too.
So, yes. Dog-mushing. Do you even know what it is? Well, I didn't really before I got to Norway and what I thought it was, certainly wasn't what I learned it to be after five days shadowing, living and working as a sort of temporary dog-musher with Magnetic North. Effectively, a dog-musher is responsible for training, racing, caring for and ensuring the full well-being of husky dogs. The races are long (500 - 1000km) and the dogs follow an intensive regime, diet and lifestyle that is as well-thought out and well-executed as those followed by a professional athlete; because that's what these dogs are.
It's only hindsight that has made me realise the importance of that conversation in the cosy cabin in the woods near a National Park, about two hours inland from Tromsø . As they chatted in Norwegian I wondered how closely they were analysing our personality types - "Well, that Frankie one, she looks a little out of her depth..." (I was!) - but now I know that we, the humans, were not the main priority. They were more concerned with the dogs and how well they could ensure their welfare over the next five days.
Not that we weren't cared for. Never before have I felt so well looked after and catered for. I was listened to, I was encouraged and I was thanked for my efforts. Dare I say it, raising and training dogs have taught Stian, Nieske and Amalie manners and paternal instincts that many humans lack.
Now I've learned hands on what being a dog musher entails, requires and demands of a person, it's hard to recall what I thought it used to be. Tourism paints this picture of husky dog-sledding being a one or two hour excursion beginning and ending with a coach or minibus transfer. What I now know is that dog-mushing is a lifestyle. It's a full-time job and a full-time commitment; you place yourself in charge of the welfare of several animals; intelligent creatures who have needs and instincts that can't be communicated in words. (They joked about Stian being a bit of a "dog whisperer" but it's not to be scoffed at - you can see it at work, he listens to the dogs though they're not talking and he communicates with them without knowing their language.) I haven't researched it extensively but I haven't found anywhere else where you can experience the lifestyle of a dog-musher so completely as on this tour and Magnetic North Travel should be applauded for their bravery and insight in offering this unique experience to intrigued travellers.
What I also learned is that while professional dog-mushing, particularly in Europe, is a full-time job, it doesn't provide a full-time income, which is why Nieske and Stian have part-time jobs in addition to also running the tour groups put on by Magnetic North T ravel. They are supported (fantastically) by Amalie who often looks after the dogs on her own when Stian is working (with children who have entered the welfare system for any number of awful reasons) and Nieske is in Tromsø s tudying.
After hearing about their tiring schedule - and experiencing it myself - I had to ask "Why?"
"We do it for the dogs... to know that they are looked after and are pulling and racing as best they can - because that's what they love to do."
You can see this... the selfless acts a dog-musher must do on a daily basis (early mornings, late nights, poop-scooping twice a day) aren't all for the personal glory of winning a race. But I also think that there's more to it, for Stian and Nieske both clearly love this lifestyle they have adopted; and as somebody who recently(ish) changed their own lifestyle drastically... but for the better (yes, that again) I really do understand and I'm honoured they shared theirs with me.
Read more... Chapter Two: Our Five Husky Dogs and Chapter Three: Travelling Outside of my Comfort Zone
Disclosure: My dog-mushing adventures were supported by Magnetic North Travel who run these unique dog-mushing tours. For more information visit their website and if you have any questions about the tour (or any of their other arctic adventures), I know they'll be happy to answer them.
All photos by Frankie except the lavvu tent and snowy dogs by Emma Sleight.
Frances M. Thompson
Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.