Dog Mushing in the Arctic

In the Svalbard arctic, where temperatures average between -13C and -20C in the winter, it’s important to keep warm. Luckily, there are many options for this: warm fires, winter clothes, heated bathroom floors, and puppies.

Of these possibilities, sitting in a kennel and allowing 10-15 puppies to pile on top of you is by far the most preferred.

If you make your way up to Svalbard, a must-do activity is dog mushing. I was debating whether or not I wanted to get involved in an organized activity since I’d come to Longyearbyen for solitude. After some thought, I came to this conclusion: When else would I be able to go dog mushing? And, if the opportunity arose again, would it be in a secluded arctic tundra halfway to the North Pole? Probably not. I signed up.

Maria noted that no one else was signed up for the 3:30 slot, informing me that they usually canceled if numbers were low.

At 3:15, she called the kennel. They didn’t cancel.

“That’s unusual,” she said. “You’re the only one going.”

YES.

At 3:30pm, Mia and Øivind, two guides from Svalbard Husky, retrieved me from my hotel. I learned that Mia was originally from Sweden and actually participates in dog sled races. Øivind, which is my best guess at what his name is, reminded me of my friend Cody in that he was passionate, knowledgeable, and friendly.

We drove to a lodge where they provided me with heavy duty, very warm coveralls, a fur hat, and gigantic mittens. While I crammed myself into the suit, Øivind told me about the Norwegian education system.

“I nearly failed English because I don’t speak with a British accent,” he told me. Then we both did our best British accents and had a bubble. (You all know my British accent is top notch.)

By the time I had suited up, I looked like the Stay Puft marshmallow man from Ghostbusters. But I was toasty.

Warm and plump, I waddled into the van where we hit the road to pick up an intern.

Which, let’s stop to think about this for a second. What an awesome internship. When I told Shar, she was beside herself.

“How do you get to intern at a dog kennel!?”

Nona, from mainland Norway, told me that the internship was part of a ten-day outdoors requirement she needed to fulfill. When we pulled up in front of the kennel, 70 fluffy Alaskan huskies leaping with excitement upon seeing the van, I wondered if “requirement” was really the best word.

My understanding of internship requirements is based solely on what I’ve seen in the movies. I imagine the dog mushing internship would stand out a bit:

Required: Shuttle coffee from Starbucks to CEO’s corner office.

Required: Make copies and fix hooptie printer.

Required: Cuddle all the puppies.

 

Of course, dog mushing requires more than giving the dogs a good cwtch, and the experience with Svalbard Husky gives a sense of what being a dog musher actually entails.

Upon arrival, I was told to wander around the kennel and pet the dogs while they got the harnesses ready for the sled. This was not difficult to do. Each dog had its own “house,” a wooden shelter on stilts, the dog’s name written over the doorway. All of the dogs were tethered to their houses and leaping in the air with excitement.

“To be successful, they need to be fed, trained, and cuddled,” Øivind told me. “I think the cuddling is the most important part.”

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Who wouldn’t want to cuddle this dog??

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Another dog in need of cuddling

And these dogs love to cuddle. I’d walk up to one and it would immediately stand up on its hind legs and lean into me, nuzzling its face against my puffy suit. I quickly felt obligated to hug every dog because my heart would break if one looked unloved.

When the guides were ready, they taught me how to harness the dogs. You approach the dog, straddle it with your legs on either side of its hips, slip the harness over its head, ensure the collar is above the harness, move its legs into the straps, and then unhook the dog from its chain and walk it to the sled, holding its upper body in the air.

I managed to get a whopping 3 dogs harnessed, while Mia swiftly harnessed the other 5.

She and Øivind explained how they arranged the dogs in front of the sled. The first two dogs are leaders, although only one needs to be a seasoned leader; the partner is often a trainee. The following two sets of dogs are the sprinters, and the two closest to the sled are stockier, since they pull most of the weight.

It’s like a rugby team.

Mia taught me how to drive the sled, or more accurately, how to not fall off. She drove us out of the kennel and down into the valley, and then we switched. I wasn’t sure what to expect from driving, but it was fun. We flew along through the snow, our headlamps illuminating the path. It was cloudy and some snow had begun to fall, but I was nice and steamy in my puffy suit.

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Where am I?

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Blurry photo from the sled.

We talked the entire way out, with Mia reassuring me about polar bears.

“There’s a 99% chance you won’t see one,” she said. “But we have protection just in case.”

The way back was more difficult. The wind had picked up and we were driving into the snow. I stopped trying to see in front of me, burying my face in my scarf. By the time we got back, I couldn’t feel my cheeks.

Unharnessing the dogs and returning them to their homes helped warm me up again, and then we had to feed them: a mixture of dry food, water, and chicken fat.

And just when I thought it was all over –

“Øivind will take you to see the puppies,” Mia told me.

If you’ve never stepped into a kennel teeming with fluffy husky puppies, you must. As soon as I was in the enclosure, the puppies had formed a furry little pile of warmth around me. Some of the smaller puppies could be picked up and cradled as they squirmed about and happily licked my face.

We repeated this in three other enclosures. I was no longer feeling frigid when we stepped back out onto the path to rejoin Mia and Nona. They shut the lights off at the kennel and we looked up at the sky in hopes of spotting an aurora. The snow had stopped and the sky had cleared – weather in Svalbard is unpredictable -but the lights weren’t visible. Øivind told us how to find the north star, which, because we were so far north, was almost directly overhead. I had to crane my neck to spot it.

I don’t know how long we stayed there staring at the stars and talking about constellations and about life in Svalbard, but I felt totally warm with them talking and listening to the dogs howling in the dark. Svalbard is good for moments like these.

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The power of reflective arm bands.

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