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  • Writer's pictureMaureen Pfaff

Dog-Sledding through Swedish Lapland

Updated: May 26, 2020

What better way to see a nature reserve than dog-sledding your way through it in the deepest winter. Racing across frozen lakes on sleds, watching snowflakes silently fall onto the ground, and observing the sun as it sets above the white treetops. Trip Plan here.

Vindelfjällen Nature Reserve is located in county Västerbotten and is, with an area of 5,628 square km, the largest Nature Reserve in Sweden. On top of that it's one of the largest protected areas in all of Europe. During the winter months temperatures plummet to around -20° Celsius, the perfect temperature to go dog-sledding.


Arrival

After spending a night in Stockholm on our lay-over, we arrived in Vilhelmina, a town of barely 4000 inhabitants. You can see the small plane we had just disembarked behind us.

Nature Travels was waiting for us at the pick up point, and once we had packed all of our luggage into the van the fours of us were off on a two hour road trip to the middle of nowhere, Vindelfjällen. Out of the window we could see nothing but white. White streets, trees and cars. It looked very peaceful. Upon arrival at the mountain hut, where we were going to spend the night, we met our guide, Noah, who took us to the dog-sledding kennel. I was so excited to see the huskies! The kennel belonged to Petter Karlsson. Petter is one of Europe’s top dog mushers. He competes at the highest level of the sport, driving a team of Alaskan huskies thousands of miles across some of the harshest terrain in the most brutal conditions on earth. He breeds and trains the world’s best Alaskan Huskies and won Europe’s toughest challenge: Norway’s 1200 km Finnmarksløpet in 2018.


Alaskan Huskies

There are two types of huskies. Wait what? Yep, there are differences between the two, besides the country of origin. The Siberian is a pure breed, whereas the Alaskan husky is a mixed breed, as it is bred for efficiency and speed (mainly for racing). They look very different from each other, as you can see in the image (not a photo). Alaskan huskies are smaller, less "poufy" and more agile than their Siberian cousins. The left one in the image is a Siberian, and the right one is an Alaskan husky.

We were shown around the kennel and got to know the 1-year olds that we would be sledding with over the next five days starting the next morning. It was pure bliss. I could see that the dogs here were living a great life, whilst we watched them chasing each other through the snow. Half a year earlier when we decided on a dog kennel and company to book this tour with, we found a lot of them that don’t care as much about the dogs sadly.

A lot of them are tourist attractions that shoot the dogs, once they are too old to run in front of the sleds. Petter Karlsson, however, was training them for races. Dog-Sledding tours were a side business for him. He also made sure to keep the older dogs, so they could spend the rest of their days in dignity once they weren’t able to run anymore. Some people might ask why these dogs are running in the first place and might argue that the running part is not animal friendly. I’d have to disagree with that, as these dogs are bred to run. They have so much energy, that the moment they are let out of their spacious cages they start running around the perimeter. They are driven by this inner urge to run and I would guess that their bodies give up before their mind tells them to stop.


The next morning we were back at the kennel in the early morning, and started prepping the sleds. Each one of us had their own sled and their own team of four huskies. The four quickly became my best friends and I didn’t want to stop playing with them.

Time passed a lot faster than expected and a couple of hours later, we had dog food, human food and luggage all strapped to the sleds. I wanted to wave goodbye to the others at the kennel, but the speed of the sled took me by surprise and my full concentration was required so I wouldn’t fall off. There’s a huge misconception that you’d have to encourage the huskies to run faster, but that’s not the case. In reality your job is to step on the break. ALL THE TIME. The only time when we’d go off the break was if there was an uphill path, which meant we would jump off and push the sled to help the team.


The clothes

During our week we spent in the Nature Reserve the temperature dropped to around -15 degrees celsius, which is the perfect temperature (so we were told) for dog-sledding. What to wear during weather like that, whilst going at around 15-20km/hour? A sleeping bag springs to mind and that’s exactly what we wore. It was essentially a onesie sleeping bag suit. Honestly, the best thing I have ever worn, as it was really soft and warm inside. This outer layer was above thermal underwear, fleece and sweater of course.


Not the easiest piece of clothing to go to the toilet with, especially for women and whilst walking through knee-deep snow.

I managed, somehow.

Apart from the onesie, we would wear snowboarding boots to protect our feet, a hat and ski goggles to protect the head and face and then there were the gloves. That was the best part. We were wearing THREE layers of gloves. The most inner layer were some quite thin gloves, for tasks that we needed a lot of dexterity for. However, we wouldn’t keep our hands out with just the base layer for long. The second layer were ski gloves. Quite thick, and this obviously reduced the dexterity. Normally you’d think that those two layers would be enough, but not for dog-sledding. Above the ski gloves we had another layer of huge overall gloves. This last layer consisted of huge gloves that we would only wear when holding on to the dog-sled. We had no dexterity at all in them, other than holding on. The moment we’d stop, we would take them off to make sure a clip wasn’t coming loose, or to get rid of the snow that had gotten in between the huskies’ toes and turned into sore spots. In order to avoid this, we made the little ones wear booties.


The huts

After sledding into the unknown and across frozen lakes for hours on end, we arrived at our hut for the night in the late afternoon. We were exhausted from standing on the sled all day and looking forward to a warm meal. The huts were as basic as you can imagine. They consisted of a stove area (where we had to make a fire to cook and keep warm) and a couple of bunk beds. No running water, no electricity and no bathroom. There was a toilet, but... it was in an outhouse, a couple of minutes walking distance from the hut. It’s fair to assume that I was way too scared than to venture into the woods

by myself at night, so I made sure to have my bodyguard, aka Lukas, go with me (much to his despair).


Our food consisted of a lot of stews, potatoes and sausages. We would either make it on the stoves in the huts or make a fire outside and roast them. This was our best meal, and I still remember it well! It was beef stroganoff with potatoes. What more can you ask for on a cold winter evening?


Daily routine

Our daily routine consisted of getting up in the morning to make breakfast and feed the dogs. The meat for the dogs was usually half frozen and we had to chop it (like wood) into small pieces to defrost and so they could eat it. Feeding the dogs took at least an hour. Once we all had our fill, we’d be off on our sleds for the next six to eight hours. We’d have one long stop over lunch where we would eat sandwiches and the dogs were fed sausages. In the evening when we got to our next hut, we would first take care of the dogs (i.e. chop the meat) and then make a fire and dinner for ourselves. The huts were ice cold when we got there, but with a fire they heated up relatively quickly.


The accident

The couple we were with weren’t as adventurous as us and I'm not sure they enjoyed themselves that much. This just shows that these kinds of trips really aren’t for everyone. On the 3rd day we were going through a relatively tight knit forest and had to help the dogs dodge some of the trees in our path. In a tight corner, the girl's sled fell over and she sprained her wrist. This meant that she was no longer able to hold onto the sled without being in pain. After stopping the dogs, our guide used his satellite phone to call the emergency services. We had to wait a couple of hours, but they finally arrived with a snowmobile and took her to the nearest doctor. It’s good to know that they were prepared for issues like these!


The landscape

During the day we wouldn’t communicate much with each other, as we were concentrating on not falling off the sled and the stunning views around us. It was difficult to snap photos whilst on the sled, but we managed a couple.


We were racing through this perfect and untouched winter wonderland, as far as we could see. My favourite part were the frozen lakes that we raced across. It was incredible to see such wide water masses completely frozen (or so we thought).


Some funny moments

On the last day, the temperatures rose overnight) and the lakes weren’t as frozen as expected anymore. Some of the surface layers were more slush and water than ice, and this was when our great boots came in handy. At least for me. Mine were water proof and wouldn’t let in a single drop. Not so with Lukas’ boot, that had a hole and one of his feet got soaked in ice cold water. As we weren’t able to change the boots and still had to go across one last lake before returning home, we came up with the idea to put a plastic bag around his foot before putting on the boot.

That way the water would get into the boot, but wouldn’t soak his socks. It was still very cold for his right foot, however, at least the plastic bag kept it dry!

Another moment to remember was us brushing our teeth in the nearby river. In the absence of running water, a sink or a bathroom this was the best option we had. It made us feel pretty badass! It was freezing cold, so I can't say that I enjoyed the experience very much. Disclaimer: the toothpaste was biodegradable.


Last but not least we had a great laugh when Lukas was the first one to jump off the sled during break time half way through the first day and sank knee deep into the snow.


We made it back to the dog kennel safe and sound after five days in the wilderness and said farewell to the dogs, so they could have a well deserved rest. The shower we took that night was the absolute best feeling ever.



Last fun fact: The light beam in the photo underneath is me sitting on a giant hay bale pointing up a head torch. The things we do for a good photo.

“Paradise doesn't have to be tropical.”
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