(Part of a series on Finland)
One of the activities I looked forward to the most while in Finland was a two-day dog-sledding adventure, taking off from the Harriniva Holiday Centre, about 45 minutes out of Kittela. In turn, Kittela is a 90-minute plane ride from Helsinki, so it’s a fair bit of effort to get to this region, located well inside the Arctic Circle.
Harraniva is a multi-purpose, multi-season resort run by the grandchildren of the family that founded it in 1973. As such, it boasts a true home-style atmosphere. At any point you might be approached by one of the brothers or sisters that currently run this jewel of a resort and asked about how your stay is going.
If you love cold weather activities, Harraniva is one of the top places to go in Finland, offering cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, dog-sledding, reindeer sledding and more. While I was there, it was filled with families, mostly Finns and Swedes. Harraniva is located on the Muonio River that borders Sweden and is one of several vacation properties the family owns.
The Adventure Begins
Just as soon as I arrived, I was escorted to the equipment building, where a group of other mushers was already being outfitted. Since I frequent extreme cold weather places, I already had all the gear I needed with me. Had I known what Harraniva offered, I would gladly have left my extra bag at home. As is, I decided to try their outer gear, which proved to be excellent.
As part of their tours, Harraniva supplies woolen socks, insulated boots, insulated overalls and parka, gloves, mittens, scarves, hats and balaclavas (sort of like a high-tech sock that fits over your head, protecting everything but your eyes). Outfitting the group of us took a while, but the staff insisted on everything fitting properly. If there is one thing I’ve learned in my cold weather jaunts, it’s to have the right equipment, properly fitted.
Outfitted, we then walked a few hundred yards to the kennels where 430 sled dogs are born, bred and maintained for the sledding tours. The dogs are divided into eight packs, each one supervised by a master musher and his assistants.
Basically, there are two types of sled dogs. One is, of course, the purebred Siberian husky. The other is the Alaskan husky, which is the term applied to any sled dog of mixed husky breed. If you’ve never heard the eagerness of sled dogs ready to run, you’re in for a surprise. These dogs are happiest when they are on the trail, doing what it is they were bred for. Here, for example, is a short video of them waiting to pull the sled during one of our stops.
After some preliminary instructions, we were off, divided into two groups, each with its own professional guide. My group was guided by Raikka (pronounced “Reekee” with a rolling R). The other was guided by Markko. Each turned out to be a unique and colorful character.
On the Trail
No sooner had we left Harraniva lodge, then we ran into a snowstorm. Fortunately, the terrain was flat for the first few kilometers, allowing the novice mushers a chance to get a feel for maneuvering their sleds. These dogs didn’t change their pace by voice command. They simply run, either quickly while going downhill, or slowly while pulling their sleds uphill. The trick is learning to maneuver the sled. That involves leaning one way or the other into turns, deftly applying the brakes as needed and jumping off the sled and walking behind it while going up steep grades.
With the snow coming down heavily and the temperatures dropping, we entered the snowy woods. There is nothing that can quite compare with the flat, crystal fairyland forests of Lapland (watch this short video I took on the back of my sled)). They are strikingly gorgeous, the trees covered as they are with thick layers of snow and ice. When the dogs are running, the only sounds you hear are their panting and the swoosh of the sled over the snow.
Our goal that first day was to run an easy 25 km (15 miles), although the going was made more difficult by the sometimes blinding snow. The added wind from traveling lowered the chill factor and nearly everyone was battened down, with only eyes exposed. It’s virtually impossible to wear goggles under these conditions because they fog up and are covered in melting snowflakes.
In the far north (we were about 200 km above the Arctic Circle), the sun- when it is out- hangs low in the sky the entire day, providing a soft, warm glow to the snow. Sunglasses are rarely needed.
In about two hours, Raikka stopped our group next to a wooden teepee. There were outhouses available and while we staked our teams to prevent them from running off, Raikka and Markko started a roaring log fire in the middle of the large teepee and prepared us a hot meal of pan-fried salmon served on potato bread, hot tea or coffee and cookies. Refreshed, we were back on the trail an hour later.
So the rest of the day went, with Raikka using hand signals indicating when we needed to slow down, stop or just plain be cautious due to trail conditions. In another few hours, as dusk fell, we arrived at our cabin for the night.
The Cabin Experience
In dogsledding, the adventure includes dog care, so as soon as we reached camp we unhitched the dogs, tied them to stakes for the night, fed and watered them, while Raikka and Markko made sure they were in good health. Only when that was done did we move our gear into the cabins.
Some of the cabins along the five-day safaris have no electricity. Ours did, allowing the guides to cook us a scrumptious dinner, with a large wood stove keeping us very warm. Cabin time is a chance to get to know everyone, and our geographic diversity was amazing, including Italy, Germany, Holland, Finland, Spain, Russia and the U.S.A. Fortunately for me, everyone spoke at least some English. Since Finnish is only spoken in Finland, Finns learn at least two other languages in school. Most everyone chooses English as one of those languages, so travel in Finland is easy for English speakers.
Immediately after dinner, we went separately as groups of men and women to the sauna that was a few yards from the cabin. When the men were done, we came out just as the Northern lights were making a feeble attempt to appear. Within minutes the skies clouded over. Another photographer and I stayed up until 3:00AM hoping in vain for their return.
The women bedded down in one room, while the men went upstairs to the loft to sleep. In about five minutes, everyone was asleep in the sleeping bags we were issued. It probably took me all of a minute to doze off once I crawled into my sleeping bag at 3:00.
The Final Clicks
After a hearty breakfast, and dog care, we were off again.
The route back covered 35 km (22 miles). Given that the group had gained experience, we made better time coming back. But, confidence sometimes breeds carelessness. On a steep downhill run, a slightly built, 61-year old woman in our group lost control of her sled and it crashed into a tree. She had the wind knocked out of her, but after 30 minutes she was back on her sled, a real trooper in our collective opinion.
Our sledding ended back at Harriniva just as the sun was setting. What we did not know then is that a real aurora light show would greet us once we washed up and did the obligatory sauna.