Snow is falling steadily. It’s -15c, my hands are frozen and the icy windburn is cutting into my face. But I’m having the time of my life driving a sled hauled by six husky dogs across classic Arctic terrain.
In front of us is a large frozen lake. Our instructor is far ahead on his snowmobile. Much can go wrong, but the dogs follow the track and then head into a large pine forest, with darkness descending.
If you want to get a fix of real winter – and when travel restrictions allow – then head north to Swedish Lapland. My wife Zsuzsanna and I arrive here after a 15-hour train and coach journey from the ski resort of Are, as the third leg of our ten-day tour of Sweden. But you can, if you wish, take a faster route by plane.
Dog sledding across the Arctic terrain in Swedish Lapland is the ultimate winter activity
A husky sits in the snow – these dogs are strong, alert and always ready to spring into action
The hiking and cross-country skiing around Kiruna, a town 90 miles north of the Arctic Circle, are terrific, but the highlight for us is the four-hour dogsled expedition.
‘There are three main things to remember,’ our instructor Beranger tells us, after we are kitted out in special overalls and given two extra pairs of gloves.
‘First, hold on to the sled with both hands at all times – no selfies. When you want the dogs to slow down, put your foot on the drag mat brake. When I shout “Stop”, first use the drag mat and then put both feet on to the metal brake. Keep a good distance between the sleds.’
We are then taken to meet our team of huskies. Our lead dogs are Jack and Pau, who look strong and alert. Zen, one of the ‘team dogs’ in midfield appears ‘zenned-out’, but is no doubt ready to spring into action.
As Zsuzsanna takes first turn at being ‘musher’ (the driver), I hold Jack while the other dogs, barking away, are put into the harness. ‘Keep the brake on for the first minute or so as the dogs will be very excited and will want to go too fast,’ says Beranger.
Then we’re off. All goes smoothly until we have to make an unexpected turn in open ground and the sled ends up stuck sideways in the heavy snow. As I slide off, Zsuzsanna, with one leg about a metre deep in the snow, becomes detached from the sled’s runners.
A beautiful sunrise over Swedish Lapland in the Arctic Circle, which is full of great scenery
The dogs speed away, dragging her along on her knees and lower legs unable to reach either of the brakes, but still hanging on for dear life to the handlebar, as instructed. If she lets go, the dogs will disappear into the white horizon and we could be in serious trouble. From my perspective, it looks a fairly scary sight, and Zsuzsanna later reveals that the plight of Messala, who was thrown from his chariot and dragged along behind with fatal consequences in the famous chariot race in Ben-Hur, had passed fleetingly through her mind. Fortunately, though, the snow is soft and fresh and no harm is done.
My wife manages to manoeuvre her upper arm on to the main brake, the dogs stop and soon we are back in position, ready to start again. Ten minutes later, it’s my turn to be the musher.
My glasses are fully frozen up by now and have to be put away. There is another anxious moment when I struggle to find the brakes with my feet and have to scrape off considerable amounts of snow.
Working husky dogs in their harnesses pull a sled through the snow
Even with the warm overalls provided, I am chilled to the bone. But as soon as the dogs get going, the exhilaration takes over and the cold is forgotten. Zsuzsanna, after the earlier drama, thoroughly enjoys her ride, sitting comfortably on the sled as it runs across the lake and into the forest. As night falls there is an even-greater sense of excitement about where we are and what we are doing.
On finally returning to base, we help feed the dogs with meat blocks and give them a well-deserved massage. We’ve only been with them four hours but can understand perfectly how a special bond between drivers and their huskies develops.
A hot cauldron-cooked soup – and glogg (Swedish mulled wine) – is waiting in the cosy, wooden cabin.
It was the great American director Elia Kazan who said you have to risk your life every six months to stay alive. Well, perhaps that’s overstating it. But dog sledding in Sweden is a fantastic experience and now we’ve ‘broken the ice’, we can’t wait to do it all again. Only next time, we’ll bring balaclavas.