Earlier this month I had the opportunity to check something off of my bucket list: dog sledding. Growing up in Ontario, Canada I knew many people that had traveled to the northern tip of the province for dog sledding adventures, but I never had the opportunity to do it myself.
My boyfriend and I found ourselves living in Europe, and after doing some research on the best areas in Europe for dog sledding, settled on Norway. For one, it was convenient for us to get to, and secondly, the country’s landscape and abundance of snow make for the perfect dog sledding conditions.
We read some online reviews and picked a company based out of Sjusjøen. Located about two and a half hours north of Oslo, this tiny community is a popular outdoor sporting destination with forest and mountain terrain.
After a quick flight to Oslo we hopped on a train and headed north to Lillehammer, Norway. From Lillehammer we caught a bus to Sjusjøen with a route that can only be described as breathtaking. Looking out the window as we weaved through the mountains and forests was like watching a nature documentary.
When we arrived in Sjusjøen, it was officially the furthest north I had ever been, and that’s saying something for a Canadian born in Alberta! With snowdrifts taller than I am, there was no shortage of snow for our dogsledding adventure. Arriving at the sled dog site, the first thing we heard was the sound of excited dogs. Another group was just heading out for their tour and the dogs were going wild. I have never seen such a large group of dogs jumping and barking and wagging their tails all at once.
With the first group of dogs on their way, the remaining dogs calmed down and went back to sleeping and playing. This gave us the perfect opportunity to go and hang out with the dogs that would be pulling our sleds. Some were purebred Malamutes and Siberian huskies, but others appeared to be husky-shepherd mixes. Each dog we greeted was incredibly friendly and obviously well-socialized. They loved the attention we gave them as much as our own pet dogs do.
Before we knew it, it was time to learn how to drive the sled. It seemed easy enough and our instructor assured us that as long as we could control the dogs, we would be fine. The sled had three different braking systems: a light brake that looked like a car floor mat, a stronger metal break, and an anchor.
The dogs follow a well-trodden and packed down route, so we didn’t have to worry too much about directing them. Even so, while the trail was already made, we did have to know how to navigate the sled on it. Apparently it’s not uncommon for sleds to flip over if they go off the trail as the snow is much more uneven when it hasn’t been ridden on. Obviously flipping a sled being pulled by six excited dogs isn’t ideal, so we learned how to shift our weight to make small changes in direction to keep us on the path.
After our crash course in sled driving was done, we divided into pairs and chose a sled. The dogs were already assigned to their sleds, based on skill, position, and relationship with the other dogs. We chose our sled because we had spent some time with one of the lead dogs who, as it turns out, had quite the personality.
Each pair had the chance to ride in the sled and drive, so I started the trip as the passenger. Each time we applied the break, our favorite lead dog would turn around and give us a “guys, what are you doing?” face. If it had been up to him, I think we would have ditched the trail and overtaken the entire group.
When we hit the halfway mark, it was my turn to drive. As easy as our instructor made steering the sled look, it was a whole different story when the time came to actually do it. Before we started, I naively assumed that I would be able to communicate with the dogs using vocal commands, completely forgetting the fact that these dogs understand Norwegian, not English. Fortunately, as long as your tone is right the dogs can figure out what you want from them. I quickly learned that as long as I said something in a short, excited tone, the dogs would begin to run.
I also quickly learned that as soon as they start to run, they pretty much tune out all vocal commands. This means that if you want to stop, you have to physically show them by applying the brake. Even with my full body weight on the brake, I could barely get the dogs to stop, often needing to rely on the anchor as an additional brake.
As soon as I felt like I was finally getting the hang of driving a sled, we had arrived back at the camp. After our sled was secured, we said goodbye to our little team and headed inside the camp’s yurt to warm up by the fire with some hot drinks and homemade bread.
Before our trip, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from our dog sledding adventure. I was hoping for the best, but part of me was worried that my feelings about the entire thing would change if the dogs didn’t seem to enjoy what they were doing. Thankfully, it was obvious how happy the dogs were to be doing their jobs. Each dog in their pack looked healthy and well cared for and their amazing personalities showed that their owners treated these dogs like family, taking the time to train and socialize them.
So, did dog sledding in Norway live up to my expectations? It actually surpassed them. And would I do it again? Absolutely! As long as the dogs are well cared for and seem to genuinely enjoy their jobs, I would jump on the chance to experience dog sledding again in Norway or a different corner of the world.