“Dogs have an instinct to follow,” the guide (originally from the Czech Republic) at Svalbard Vilmarkssenter said emphatically as he wheezed out commands in Norwegian which all the huskies obey. “They’re noisy now, but they’ll calm down and get up to a good speed when they set off.”
As continually amazed as I am that many people here don’t actually speak Norwegian as their native tongue, all thoughts of population diversity flew out of my mind the moment we took off across the frozen river towards Adventdalen with the dogs that strained to simply run. There were reindeer grazing along the banks of the frozen river and as the dogs rounded several rough corners, the mining detritus surrounding the place becoming evident as the lights of an abandoned mine came into view.
The huskies have beautiful names – like Silje, Stina, Biard – and each responds to his/her own as the guide speaks, a beautifully synchronous relationship of man and animal that I witnessed on this cloudy day (night?). They are trained together, a process that involves the older ones training the teenagers through the actual experience of sledding itself. Siblings are kept on the same sled to foster unity.
Preparing the dogs for sledding was hard work. The strength of an excited dog is considerable, amplified by their wild, drunken enthusiasm when they see the doors to their cages open. Like males tanked up on football night at their local pub, they celebrated their temporary freedom in less-than-graceful style.
A young, Norwegian couple and I were the only ones going sledding through Adventdalen on this very ‘fine’ day, according to the guide from the Czech Republic (shortened to GFCR), whose name I never managed to catch. This is his second season in Svalbard and before that, spent the last 5 years down ‘south’ in Tromsø, but surely nothing can quite get anyone used to this weather? With temperatures hovering at -20 degrees Celsius, GFCR simply said that the weather was nice unlike two days ago when it was freezing. Halfway through the ride, I all but ejected the guide from the driver’s seat, impatient to take the reins myself. With a little sheepishness, I confessed that I love speed in all forms, prompting GFCR to jokingly say that we could simply be drivers with ‘two other tourists far behind us’. I laughed and simply pushed the sled harder as I tried to ignore the smell of the dogs that lingered on my clothes and the spreading numbness of my fingers and toes. We finally stopped to rotate the dogs and having handed the guide my camera earlier, I found myself an unwitting subject of my own camera when he shone a light straight into my face and snapped an awkward portrait of me.
The last twenty minutes were the most tortuous when the winds from the sea blew in, covering the twilight sky with clouds and heavier air. I took my place back in the sled, borrowed the guide’s huge gloves to ward off the cold and prayed that the dogs got us back quickly. My cheeks were long flayed with the cold and later, I discovered that I have torn holes in my gloves as I desperately clenched my fists to keep the numbness from getting worse. Until now, the tingling remains and not in a good way.
It was only later that the Norwegians themselves confessed they had never been so cold in their lives (also during the last 20 minutes) that I felt loads better.