Northern Norway Part 2a – Alta Dog Sledding & The Northern Lights
A bus was waiting for us outside the hotel and John, our American expat guide from North Adventures, explained a little about what our afternoon and evening held in store. Apparently dog sledding can be undertaken throughout the year but in summer, sleds with suspension are used and the pace is far slower, but a unique experience nonetheless.
We drove around 30 minutes to a small holding, the home of Holden Huskies. The business was set up by Eirik Nilson, a lifelong musher and dog sled racer, as a means of funding his sport. We were given a tour of the buildings, including a collection of purpose-built bungalows, complete with log burners and cosy beds.
There was a larger building that housed a Northern Lights viewing window, showers and was the perfect place to relax after a day in the cold. A fire burned inside another teepee-shaped building, this was where guests were briefed on dog-sledding and the local culture.
Outside, the dogs made a racket, yelping for attention in the icy air, pleading to be taken out for a mush. After our tour, we thanked our guide and hopped back into the bus for a short journey to our next stop on the tour, Trasti & Trine, another dog sledding provider in the Alta valley.
There was immediately a different feel to Trasti & Trine, it felt more like we were entering someone’s backyard. The business was set up by a local couple, with Trine Lyrek (a competitive dog-sledder who had just returned from a 300km race a few days prior to our arrival) who ran the dog-sledding tours, and Johnny Trasti who runs one of the only professional kitchens in the valley which was housed within their beautiful home.
We were given industrial overalls and boots to wear, then shown to the dog yard where Trine explained her ethos of dog sledding and what we were about to do. She first showed us a sled, how to operate the two brakes, and how to position ourselves on the sled. Next we were introduced to the dogs who waited patiently (and quietly) to be chosen for the drive. They were all tethered by a chain to small wooden boxes with their name on a small plaque nailed to the front.
We gathered around Trine as she straddled Fiona (the dog) and taught us all how to put on a harness. We then split up into pairs and were given a card with the names of our four dogs on. I was paired up with Pam from Discover The World, we found our four dogs, harnessed them, unchained them from their kennels then attached them to our sled. As we made our way around the dog yard, each dog jumped up to us, pleading for a run out.
Pam was to take the reins first so I sat on the front of the sled on a reindeer rug. It was around -15°C and I knew that this would drop with wind chill. I waited patiently as the first dogs took off into the cold night. We were last and soon we were whizzing through the woods, dodging trees lit up by the headlight on Pam’s head.
It was exhilarating, with lumps and bumps, low-hanging branches, and the bitter cold on our faces. We stopped after 15 minutes or so as we came out of the woods. The next section would be negotiated without headtorches, using only the light of the moon. Once our eyes had adjusted, we realised how light our environment was without our artificial light. It was completely surreal, out on an open plateau of white with only the light of the moon to guide us and our dogs.
It was soon my turn at driving the sled. My fingers had gone numb as I’d taken the considerable risk of degloving them on several occasions to take photos and video.
When changing over the driver it was essential that one foot is on the main brake at all times, so Pam and I coordinated ourselves accordingly. The last thing we needed was our sled to zip off into the night without us on it!
I stood on the rear of the sled and gently raised my foot off the main brake.The dogs kicked into action, charging off into the night. I tested the efficiency of both brakes, cautiously experimenting with the speed as we sped along the frozen ground. Into the trees we raced, each corner I took at a slightly faster speed, leaning into the turn and trying to avoid using the brakes. Driving the sled was truly exciting, and whilst I’m sure there’s a whole world of skill, training and competency involved in racing at a higher level, I felt completely comfortable with each turn.
We approached the ranch and parked up in the yard. The dogs that had not been picked looked longingly and yapped at their friends who’d been out for a ride. I thanked our dogs as we de-harnessed and re-chained them to their kennels. Trine gathered the group around to reiterate their ethos, explaining that with some sled tour operators, clients turn up, get dressed, then are taken out on a dog sledding tour. Her approach was completely different and I could tell how passionate she was about having guests prepare the dogs, get to know them, and take turns in actually driving the sled too. I found this approach completely endearing and was thrilled to have experienced it. She was completely correct and I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.
After changing out of our thermal overalls and boots, we were guided into the main house for dinner and greeted by an English woman whom I recognised straight away. It was my friend Elaine who I’d worked with as an outdoor instructor for numerous companies over the years. I knew she was working with huskies in Norway over the past few winters and had followed her incredible images on social media, but hadn’t ever found out exactly where and for how long. Earlier that evening Trine explained her client’s expectations, using the analogy of an Everest summitteer, and I wondered whether she was referring to our mutual friend Jon. I wondered at the time whether this was the place that Elaine had been working – what a small world and a wonderful surprise.
We were shown to an elegantly laid table and Trasti, the husband of Trine explained what we would be having for our dinner.
Our three course meal was delightful, some of the finest food I’d ever eaten. All of the produce had been sourced locally and this was something that Trasti and Trine were extremely passionate about. We were shown the accommodation upstairs, an apartment-style area with plenty of room for adults and children, with a Northern Lights viewing balcony. Standard then…
We said our goodbyes to Trine, Trasti and Elaine, and made our way to the slate quarry at Pæskatun Northern Light Camp. Slat has been quarried for centuries in this area and the quality of the slate is claimed to be some of the best in the world. If slate was extracted using modern means at the maximum levels of mining, it would apparently be one thousand years before it would run out. Today there is far less slate being mined and the team at Pæskatun are focussing on developing tourism to the area with Northern Light Hunts. We were met by Trond and the team (all of which wore a red glowing armband), and herded into a wooden building that completely defied the -15°C temperature outside.
Whilst we drank coffee and ate cake, Ellinor explained a little about the Northern Lights, the historical and mythical stories, and some of the science behind this world-renowned phenomenon.
“Quick – come outside” hailed Ellinor’s brother Trond, the owner of this tourism enterprise.
We rushed to grab our coats and hats then out of the door to…THE NORTHERN LIGHTS!!! Flickering in the sky over the distant horizon, a streak of dark green hovered. An array of whoops, wows and ooohhhhs ensued as we stood in complete awe of this unearthly wonder.
We took plenty of photos as the enthusiastic TK (brother), guided us as the green moved and changed shape in the sky. Several times the green haze stretched from one horizon to the other, and danced with hues of purple and red like colourful fingers idly dangling in the darkness above.
I’d not brought my SLR camera as I hadn’t had the opportunity to pick it up after returning from the Alps, but I was quietly glad. I’ve often told students not to see life through your lens and was now practising what I preach, for me this was a phenomenon to gaze at, not to practice apertures. We were told by our guide Jon and Trond from Pæskatun that it was rare to see the lights actually dancing like they were which was a real treat.
We headed back into the warm hut for the remainder of the slideshow then were shown how slate is split and shaped, a small museum representing life as a slate miner years ago.. Today slate is used far less as a building material, but Pæskatun still produces souvenirs and trinkets in their small workshop. We head up onto the mountain plateau above, caught another faint glimpse of the Northern Lights, then headed back to our hotel. What an evening, and things were only just getting started….