I hear them before I can see them. High pitched, frenetic, voices shooting into the air like the spicker spacker offshoots of a completely outraged fire.
My feet stumble across the squeaky snow and I try to ignore the suspicion that these shrieks reflect a whipping or a beating on my behalf.
Sunset comes early in the Arctic Circle, if it comes at all. The cheery folk who live here (and they do all seem cheery but I have a theory that explains that) seem pleased to see the sun at all. Emerging from a winter of darkness, the sun snuck across the horizon for the first time just a week or so ago. Come July and August it will never go away.
But today, there’s a race on, to cross the white-lipped tundra and back before the amber of the sun dies. It’s already one o’clock and we haven’t much time.
Related: Things to do in Lapland in Winter
Just past the bulky snice wall (a mix of snow and ice,) we see them.
Lean (and mean?) and leaping into the air, these arctic huskies aren’t at all what I’d had in mind. They’re light and sprightly with impatient eyes. And thankfully, there’s not a whip in sight.
My chariot is also somewhat more slender than anticipated. It creaks as I get on. All thin wooden slats with a sliver of metal touching the snow, it seems made for a three year old tobogganist being dragged by her dad rather than the spine-tingling dash across Sweden that it will become.
“Stand on the brake to stop, on the wood to go.”
And thus endeth my lesson in mushing.
The brake is a jagged spike of metal – and I’m standing on it now.
“Never let go,” says a member of our group “or they’ll be gone. I once got dragged for hundreds of metres before I managed to slow them down.”
This advice comes from a woman who spent a week on one of these baskets, dashing through the snow and sleeping in wooden huts.
“How likely am I to fall off?”
Our guide hops from one foot to the other.
“It’s impossible to tell,” he says, rubbing his hands together. “Sometimes the young men fall and fall and fall again, while some grannies pick it up first time.
“But in every group, there’s usually one.”
He offers one more tip before moving on. “Make sure you cover your nose.”
Related: Sleeping in an ice hotel
Words, as ever, depend upon context. At the time, I thought he referred to the weather. It’s an eye watering, eyelash freezing minus 40 degrees outside and frostnip, frostbite and frostravage await the unsuspecting. We’re fully decked out in ski gear plus a giant plasticised romper suit provided by the hotel that zips up across the whole ensemble. We walk in boots the size of backpacks and weevil around like a gaggle of plasticised penguins. It is this appearance, I suspect, that leads to the cheeriness of locals when we meet them. While we stumble and shuffle, hop and tumble to get everything on and off at the entrance to each warm reception room or restaurant, they seem to shimmy into skin tight snow wear and frolic out before you can say “please hold my gloves” or, as if it needs to be said “my god it’s cold.”
Noses are particularly at risk, sticking out as they do. I throw three decades of beauty insecurities out the window as I simultaneously yearn for more blubber all over and a spiky bump on the nose. All the better for holding the snood in place.
Later on, of course, another reason springs to mind. Huskies only eat reindeer meat. And after only three days in Sweden, the byproduct of that diet is a scent I will never forget. The huskies never stop once they get going and all manner of toiletary activities are undertaken on the run. Literally.
But scent aside, all other senses thrill.
We’re off within a heartbeat and I barely have the weight to slow these bad boys down. Whoosh! Across the snow, along the bumps and by the stream. We fly through narrow tracks that swerve through woods while snow laden pine brushes over my head.
It’s cold. Lung suckingly, eye dryingly, finger numbingly cold. So cold, in fact that the camera can’t cope even if I could free up a hand to prise it from where it presses against my chest.
But for every degree lost in heat, we gain a degree of beauty I could never have truly imagined.
The Swedish sun seems like golden syrup spreading across fields of sugared ice, the glide of the blades feels at one with the earth (once I realised it was a little like skiing. Keep your knees bent and all will be well.)
We thaw out over hot lingonberry juice in a remote wilderness lodge, then it’s back onto the snow to race across the sky.
My eyelashes twinkle in their snow-caked state and my fingers are long past numb.
My heart, on the other hand, the one that beats so fast as we glide past the setting sun has all the warmth I require. A cynic on occasions, I may be, but this moment, right here, right now, mushing my way across the Arctic landscape, is the kind of stuff that dreams are made from.
And above all else, I manage to hold on.
You can head out with the huskies from the Ice Hotel itself or as an airport transfer. I wouldn’t recommend the latter, though, as you won’t have enough warm clothes with/ on you and the view’s unlikely to be as good.
You can either mush (drive) or sit on an enlarged sled as a passenger. I would highly recommend mushing even though it’s more expensive (my husband rode as passenger and was practically blue by the time the trip came to an end. He’s the one responsible for the photo of the huskies pulling us along. I couldn’t let go to take a photo for a moment – and the batteries took only a moment to die.)
You can also go for a snowmobile ride along the same route (which we did too to watch the Northern Lights. More on those on another post.)
But for me, the huskies were the unmistakeable highlight.
Disclosure – We paid a reduced rate to travel to the Ice Hotel Sweden as a guest of Discover the World, the only UK company to offer direct flights from London to Kiruna, skipping the usual stopover in Stockholm. All opinions my own, as ever, as always, but they were very good indeed in case you’re thinking of travelling with them ;-)
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