Our first morning in Abisko, we woke up to sunshine and blue skies and enough snow on the ground that when they pushed it back to clear the pathways at the Abisko Turiststation, it reached about mid-way up the downstairs windows of our cabin, giving us that delightful feeling of being snowed in without actually being trapped, which would be scary and not at all delightful. We spent the morning playing outside in the snow, something Lexie only gets to do once every year since London has decided to be stingy with wintry inclement weather the past two years. The snow was so fine, almost more like ice crystals than the usual powdery snow that we’re used to in Tennessee, that building a snowman was impossible. It just wouldn’t hold. So instead, we built the next best thing – a snow turtle.
We hadn’t gone to bed until after 2am the night before thanks to our first sighting of the northern lights in Abisko, so we were getting a late start. By the time we got too cold to play in the snow anymore, it was time for lunch. And right after lunch we had plans to do something I’ve always dreamed of doing – be pulled by a team of huskies across a frozen tundra! Okay, that’s not entirely truthful. I never dream of doing anything in the cold, but since we were there already, I certainly wasn’t going to pass up the chance to go dogsledding in Abisko National Park!
We had a couple of choices for dogsledding in Abisko. There were excursions where we could drive a small team of dogs ourselves, but that takes quite a bit of strength and I didn’t figure Lexie would be up to that task (nor did I think she would be allowed to at only 12 years old), so instead we went on a 2-hour dogsledding tour with Abisko Dogsled where all that was required of us was just to sit back and enjoy the ride.
We started out at the kennels located near the Turiststation grounds where we were able to meet some of the dogs and see where they live. While we were here, we got suited up once again in heavy-duty coveralls. Emphasis on heavy. I think these suits add about ten pounds of weight, but I would soon be very grateful for every bit of that added padding. After we were dressed, we hopped in a car and headed a short distance away to where the teams of dogs were being harnessed up for our tour. There were three teams going out together, each with around a dozen dogs pulling a sled with a maximum of four people plus the guide.
It felt a little chaotic on our arrival. I used to volunteer in an animal shelter where sometimes I was confident the noise level in the kennels was going to burst my ear drums, but the dogs at the shelter have nothing on these sled dogs. Holy moly. All 30+ dogs were barking excitedly and chomping at the bit to get going. The guides were busy strapping everyone in place and breaking up snarling fights between some of the dogs on opposing teams. I wasn’t sure what we were supposed to be doing, so I just stood in place for a bit, trying to take in all the madness, when one of the guides told me not to be shy and go introduce myself. I looked back at him with an expression I hoped said, ‘You mean approach these dogs that are snarling and snapping at each other?’ No, thank you. He just smiled at me and told me I’d be fine. And I was all, ‘Okay. Hope you’re right. At any rate, I’m wearing like 23 layers of clothing. Good luck chewing through that, ferocious dogs!’ Except these dogs weren’t ferocious at all. They were a bunch of tail-wagging, belly-rub-enjoying, people-loving softies. I fell in love with every single one of them. Their slightly scary behavior amongst themselves must have just been a little friendly competition!
It took about a half hour for everything to get set up. We got seated onto our sled by weight – heaviest at the back, me at the front because I wanted Lexie protected on both sides by me and Cory. I wasn’t quite sure how often kids fell off dogsleds, but I didn’t want to find out. By this time, the dogs were practically airborne with excitement. There was a thick cloud of what I thought was smoke over their heads, but I quickly realized it was their breath from all the barking! They knew it was time to go! All of the dogs on our team kept periodically looking behind them, just begging for the cue from our guide, and then they got it. A minor dose of whiplash and we were off!
I couldn’t help but scream a little as we took off. These dogs go from a resting state to full speed in like 1.3 seconds, and man are they fast when they’re all working together. The other shock came from the sudden onset of complete silence. The only noise coming from these dogs was the sound of their feet pounding through the snow, and the only noise from us was the sound of our sled as it swished along the path behind them. It was so peaceful.
We rode through forests and across frozen lakes (my first time seeing one!) and in front of the mountains. I had never seen so much snow! Abisko National Park was absolutely stunning this time of year, and probably is anytime, regardless of season. The sun was beginning to set about mid-way through our tour, casting such a beautiful light over the scenery in front of us. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. I just wish my body were better adapted to the cold, because cold does not adequately describe how I felt on this tour. The temperature was only reaching -19°C without the wind chill and since we were flying through an open landscape with nothing to break the wind hitting our bodies, especially mine at the front, I could have sworn we were colder than anyone else in the entire world at that moment. I had to be careful not to blink too long or my top and bottom eyelashes would freeze together. And the state of the inside of my balaclava? Well, let’s just say I now know what it feels like to have snot freeze to my face.
Luckily there were plenty of things to distract from the fact that everything far from my heart, especially my fingers and toes, was going numb – the scenery for one, but we also got to see some wild animals, even moose a few times. They were too far away for me to photograph, but I can now say I’ve seen one in the wild, and they are much bigger than I realized. Kind of glad they were so far away, actually. And then, almost as we finished the first half of our ride, something happened. One of the dogs, er, took care of his business en route. Poops were flying, and I was terrified one was going to get kicked back and smack me in the forehead like a clump of ice had earlier in the ride! Of course, Cory and Lex could see none of this happening, but they could smell it, so both of them assumed I had ripped one. The whole thing was kind of hilarious, but can we take a moment to appreciate how difficult it must be to do your business while running full throttle through the Arctic tundra? Respect.
Just when I didn’t think I could possibly handle the cold any longer, our sled pulled up outside of a Sami tipi where a team who had reached the tipi before us were getting the beginnings of a fire going. Before we headed inside where it was warm, I wanted to get some pictures of the dogs and tell each of them thank you for pulling us so far. With my bulky ski gloves on, I might as well have been trying to take photos while wearing potholders over my hands, so I took them off and within ten minutes I truly could not feel my fingers, which is all just as well because around the same time, I noticed something wasn’t right with my camera – my buttons were frozen in place. I didn’t even know that could happen. I took it as a sign and hightailed it inside where a fire and warm blueberry juice were awaiting my arrival.
This was the first opportunity we really had to chat with our guides and I doubt they’ve ever had a visitor ask as many questions as I did. I wanted to know everything about these dogs – how they’re paired up (experienced dog with newer dog), when they start training (about a year old), what determines their position in the line-up (ability to follow orders + personality + strength), what they do during the summer (play, stay in shape, rest up for the season), and has anyone ever been hit in the face with flying poo? They were so kind to answer all my questions (except that last one which I actually didn’t ask) and were some of the friendliest bunch of folks. I tell you what, though, I was not ready to leave that tipi when the time came, but the sun had set and we needed to make it back before dark.
On the way back, I didn’t take any photos because I didn’t want to risk hurting my camera even more than I already feared I had (it was fine once the buttons unfroze later) so I just sat back and enjoyed the ride. By the time we arrived at the Turiststation, I was a hot mess – mascara pooled under my eyes, snot caked to my face, and there were parts of my body I was afraid I’d never feel again, but it was worth it. Oh, so totally worth it. I think the only ones who liked it more than us were the dogs! I’ve never seen happier dogs – they are definitely born to run! Dogsledding in Abisko doesn’t come cheap, but sometimes you’ve got to splurge. I don’t miss that money one bit, but I’d have definitely missed out on one of the coolest experiences of my life if we’d skipped it!