Dog Sledding

From Novice to Natural: A Seven-Day Arctic Dog Sledding Adventure in Tromso, Norway

Confronting the rigors of an extended dog sledding expedition, an unseasoned explorer unearthed deep-seated insights into resilience, intercommunication, and versatility.

By Freesolo Design Staff


By Freesolo staff

TROMSO, NORWAY  –  Standing on the precipice of a vast, snow-covered expanse with a full-throated chorus of huskies filling the frosty air, I was an enthusiastic but novice dog sledder who had recently embarked from “The Gateway to the Arctic”. The icy wilderness that stretched out before me near Tromsø, Norway, was an immense canvas painted in hues of white and blue.

I had entered this world with a simple goal: to experience again the thrill of commanding a dog sled, to feel the exhilaration of gliding over snow-blanketed landscapes under the vast, open sky.  This trip was to be a seven day expedition and a major step up in commitment from an overnight trip two years before.

By the time I watched the ethereal green tendrils of the Northern Lights pirouetting across the Arctic sky on the last night of my trip, I appreciated that although my spirited four-legged companions had provided the most profound insights, there were many lessons woven into the fabric of our shared journey that I had underappreciated in the adrenaline rush of the ride.

Mastering Trust in Dog Sledding: Building a Bond with Your Husky Team

Whenever I stood amidst the team of Alaskan huskies, their breath crystallizing in the frosty air, I was struck by their palpable energy, their eager anticipation. These dogs, with their icy-blue eyes and strong, muscular bodies, weren’t just the engine of our sled. They were intelligent beings, each with a distinct personality, and each with a role that extended beyond mere transportation; they were partners, teachers, friends.

Their strength was formidable, their zeal undeniable.  The huskies, with their fur bristling against the cold, were eager to run, their bodies straining against the harnesses even before we set off. Their excitement was as contagious as it was intimidating.  I quickly understood that they were not passive participants in this journey but active contributors, capable of decision-making and problem-solving in ways that demanded my admiration and respect.

Building a relationship with these dogs, understanding their behaviors, responding to their needs, and forming an empathetic connection became the cornerstone of our shared journey. This realization fundamentally changed my approach to dog sledding. I learned to listen to the subtle cues of my dogs – a flick of the tail, a change in gait, a pricked ear. I learned to respond with compassion, respect, and patience.

Each dog was a unique individual, with its personality, quirks, and moods. There was Runa, the lead dog, whose confident gaze and strong stride set the pace for the team. Elska, on the other hand, was more reserved, her gentle nature belied by her remarkable strength. Then there was Loki, playful and energetic, his boundless enthusiasm never failing to bring a smile to my face.

This was not a one-sided relationship where the human holds the reins of absolute control. The dogs were not submissive creatures awaiting commands, but partners in this journey. It was a relationship based on mutual respect and understanding. The dogs looked to us for guidance, for the reassuring voice that would steer them through the wild, icy terrain, but they also demanded that we acknowledge their instincts, their intelligence, and their vital role in this expedition.

Endurance in Dog Sledding: Thriving in the Arctic Wilderness

In this unforgiving terrain, endurance was an essential virtue. The tundra was a testament to nature’s unyielding resilience, a landscape that persisted despite the relentless onslaught of the elements. The snowstorms that carved sculptures from ice, the merciless winds that scoured the earth, and the extreme cold that gripped every living being – all of these forces seemed to conspire against the survival of anything in this stark, frozen world.

Yet, life endured. It was embodied of course by the dogs, who were the epitome of endurance. They were built for this harsh environment, their bodies designed to withstand the cold and traverse the icy landscape with tireless zeal. Their thick fur insulated them against the biting winds, while their powerful muscles propelled them across the snow, leaving a trail of frosty breath in their wake.

Their physical endurance, though impressive, was just one aspect of their resilience. As the days passed and the miles stretched out behind us, I came to understand that endurance was also a mental attribute, a shared commitment between the dogs and the musher. The dogs needed to remain focused, responsive to my commands, and motivated to continue running, even when the monotony of the endless white terrain threatened to dull their senses.

As a musher, I too had to endure. The cold seeped through my layers of clothing, the wind stung my exposed skin, and the hours spent standing on the sled tested the limits of my physical stamina. But more than that, I needed to maintain my mental fortitude, to stay alert and attentive to the dogs and the environment around me, to be prepared to make decisions in the face of adversity.

In my recollections of my first adventure two years before, dog sledding was all about sitting on the sled while the huskies did the work under the direction of a guide. For this trip, I had envisioned myself cruising through the snowy landscapes, the sled gliding effortlessly behind the team of dogs. The reality of this multi-day expedition, however, was a stark contrast.  Physical fitness, was not just a recommendation it turned out; it was a prerequisite. And it wasn’t just about strength or endurance; it was about balance, agility, and coordination.

The undulating terrain around Tromsø, with its steep inclines and sharp turns, tested my endurance and agility. I found myself hopping off the sled to push on the uphill stretches, using my body weight to steer the sled around tight bends, and maintaining a precarious balance on the narrow runners as the sled jolted and bumped over uneven terrain.

These were physical demands that caught me off-guard and left me gasping for breath, quite literally. Beneath the serene veneer of the dog sledding expedition was a symphony of physical exertion that I had woefully underestimated.  It was a whole-body workout, my muscles working in unison to maintain stability and control over the sled’s momentum. Cardiovascular fitness too came into play, as I often found myself breathless after assisting the dogs uphill or running alongside the sled.

The guide service had encouraged regular cardio and strength training workouts before embarking on this more this more demanding itinerary.  They had particularly emphasized the importance of core strength and balance, which are crucial for maintaining stability on the sled.  My standard fitness routine of occasional jogs and a sporadic yoga session was going to be inadequate for the demands of this activity and I vowed to put in the right amount of work before my next trip.  Regular cardio and strength training workouts became crucial components of my preparation, better equipping me to meet the physical challenges of the journey.  Nonetheless, it was ultimately clear that being in the best shape of your life for this type of demanding trip was not strictly necessary, but it would make it even more enjoyable.

Dog Sledding Commands:  The Language of the Sled

Before I embarked on this journey, I was oblivious to this unique linguistic landscape. It didn’t take long for me to realize that understanding and using this language was instrumental in becoming a proficient and confident musher.  As with any subculture, dog sledding has its language, a unique set of terms and commands that are essential for communicating with the dogs and navigating the terrain.

As I grew more comfortable with this language, I noticed a change in my interaction with the dogs. My commands became more confident, my instructions clearer. The dogs responded better, their trust in my leadership growing with each successful command. It felt as though we were developing our own language, a secret code that strengthened our connection and understanding.

This linguistic lesson was not just about learning new words. It was about the power of effective communication, the importance of clear instructions, and the role of language in establishing leadership and trust. It taught me that words, when used wisely, can be tools of guidance and reassurance for the dogs, enhancing their performance and well-being.

The Language of the Sled, as I call this lesson, was a reminder of the intricacies of communication. It revealed to me the potential of language as a bridge between species, a means to transcend the barriers of communication and form a bond based on mutual respect and understanding. It was a lesson that I carry with me, a whisper that would echo in my interactions with animals and humans alike long after the Arctic snow had melted from my sled.

Embracing Arctic Silence: Experiencing Serenity in Dog Sledding

When we weren’t shouting commands to our dog teams, there were long stretches of time when my attention turned to sound.  With the vestiges of civilization behind, the usual clamor of city life — the incessant honking of cars, the restless chatter of crowds, the hum of technology — was replaced by the more primal sounds of our journey. The rhythmic crunching of snow beneath the dogs’ paws, the crisp swish of the sled gliding over the icy surface, the synchronized panting of our canine companions. These sounds, woven into the fabric of silence, became our symphony, the music that marked our progress through this frozen dreamscape.

The silence here was not the typical silence one associates with the absence of noise. It was not a void, but rather a presence, a living entity that seemed to breathe along with us. This silence, as I came to appreciate, was not oppressive, but liberating. It cleared my mind, stripping away the layers of noise that often cluttered my thoughts. The silence offered space for introspection, a chance to connect with the world around me on a deeper level. I found myself attuned to the subtle signs of life amidst the ice, the tracks of a lone Arctic fox, the distant call of a ptarmigan, the delicate formations of frost on the boughs of stunted shrubs, clinging to life in this harsh environment.

This silence also taught me to listen, truly listen, to the dogs. I heard the slight changes in their breathing, the soft sounds they made to communicate with one another, the rustle of their movement as they settled down for rest at the end of the day. I realized that silence is not the absence of sound, but the presence of an attentive listener.  In the stark, white expanse of the Arctic, silence was not just a lesson, it was a companion.

Adapting to Change: Navigating Weather Extremes in Dog Sledding

Before my first trip two years before, I had a somewhat abstract understanding of the cold. I’d seen images of snow-covered landscapes and read about the freezing temperatures, but experiencing the arctic chill firsthand was a different ballgame altogether. Even before the sled began to move on that first day, the icy wind cut through my clothing, seeping into my bones, and making me shiver.  My initial choice of clothing, I had soon realized, was ill-suited for the challenges the trip would present. I had worn what I thought would be enough – a heavy winter jacket, a pair of thermal leggings, wool socks, and a beanie. But as the wind whipped around me and the temperatures dropped, I quickly realized my mistake.

The guides on that expedition came to my rescue, lending me with the appropriate gear – layer upon layer of thermal clothing designed to insulate and protect. They explained the importance of the three-layer system: a moisture-wicking base layer to keep me dry, an insulating middle layer to retain body heat, and a waterproof outer layer to protect against snow and wind.

They also emphasized the importance of protecting extremities. A pair of insulated, waterproof gloves protected my hands from the biting cold, and thermal socks combined with quality winter boots ensured my feet remained warm and dry. A snug, windproof hat and a neck gaiter were essential to protect my head and neck from the chilly winds.

Here in the Norwegian wilderness, the weather can be unpredictable and harsh and the right clothing wasn’t just about comfort, but about safety and endurance. It is about being prepared, to not just survive, but to thrive and enjoy the dance with the elements.

Beyond the physical adaptations, there was also a mental component to this lesson. I had to learn to let go of rigid plans, to be flexible in my decision-making, and to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances. I had to learn to trust the dogs, to rely on their instincts as much as my own judgement. This was not a place for stubbornness or rigidity. It was a place where adaptability was the key to navigating the challenges we faced.

Maintaining Balance: Essential Signals for Arctic Expeditions

I came to learn on this Arctic expedition that “maintaining balance” was more than just a physical act; it was a fundamental principle that governed our journey. As the sled started its journey across the frozen tundra, I quickly realized the importance of maintaining physical equilibrium. The sled, while designed to skim effortlessly over the snow, was prone to tipping if not skillfully managed. The dogs, with their raw power and enthusiasm, relied on the musher to keep the sled steady, to navigate around the treacherous obstacles that occasionally surfaced on the otherwise smooth expanse of ice and snow.

But balance wasn’t just about preventing the sled from tipping over. It was also about managing the pace, ensuring the dogs weren’t overworked, knowing when to push forward and when to stop for rest. It was a delicate act, a dance between the need for speed and the need for preservation, between the thrill of the journey and the welfare of our canine companions.

The concept of balance also extended to our relationship with the dogs. It was a delicate equilibrium of authority and empathy. The dogs, while intelligent and capable, required clear and firm directions. They needed to know who was in command, who they could trust to guide them through the vast, white wilderness. But too much sternness could dampen their spirits, cause them to withdraw. On the other hand, too much lenience could lead to chaos, to a pack of dogs without direction.

Being a good musher, I discovered from observing and then imitating the expert guides, was much like being a good leader. It required the ability to balance authority and kindness, to be firm yet understanding, to guide without being dictatorial. It required acknowledging the strength and capabilities of the dogs, allowing them the freedom to run, to revel in their natural instincts, while also ensuring they stayed on course. It was about giving and taking and mutual respect.

Interconnectedness in Dog Sledding: Understanding the Arctic Ecosystem

The seventh and final lesson, “The Web of Interconnectedness,” was a revelation that dawned gradually over the course of our journey. As we traversed the ice and snow, forging our path through the Arctic expanse, I realized that we were not alone. Each of us – the dogs, the musher, the sled – were parts of a larger system, a network of life that extended far beyond our immediate perception.

The dogs were not just pulling the sled; they were part of the Arctic’s complex ecosystem. With every stride, every breath, they were interacting with their environment, leaving behind their footprints in the snow, their warmth in the freezing air. They were contributing to the cycle of life in the Arctic, a cycle that included everything from the microscopic organisms beneath the ice to the majestic polar bears roaming the tundra.

This interconnectedness extended to me as well. As a musher, I was not a passive observer, but an active participant in this journey. I was responsible for the welfare of the dogs, for navigating the terrain, for ensuring our survival in this harsh environment. I was a part of this Arctic world, if only for a brief period.

Beyond the physical connections, there was also an emotional interconnectedness that developed between us. The dogs, the guides, and I, we relied on each other. We communicated, we worked together, we shared the trials and triumphs of our journey. We developed a bond, a mutual understanding that transcended the barriers of species. It was a bond forged in the crucible of the Arctic, a bond that was a testament to our shared experiences.

This sense of interconnectedness, this realization that we are all part of a larger whole, was a profound lesson. It was a reminder of our place in the world, of the intricate web of life that binds us all. It was a lesson about the importance of respect, of understanding, of empathy. It was a lesson about the inherent value of every living creature, about the roles we all play in the grand tapestry of life.

The Freesolo writing staff covers all aspects of the adventure travel industry. They are passionate about adventure and the outdoors, and are adept at crafting engaging narratives that capture the excitement and challenges of adventure travel. Many are also skilled photographers or videographers, capable of documenting their experiences in visually striking ways. 

Explore more in dog sledding