Saltoluokta, the starting point of this year's dog sledding tour is not easy to reach.
It's roughly 120 km from the next supermarket (in Gällivare) and also 120 km from the next place that has more than 500 inhabitants (Gällivare), though in a pinch, at least the next petrol station is only 85 km away in Porjus.
Most people travel to Saltoluokta by bus, which runs once a day from Gällivare. Though the bus doesn't actually take you to Saltoluokta. It stops at Kebnats, which is essentially nothing but a bus stop. (There's not even a village named Kebnats or anything like that in that area.)
It feels a bit like that scene from the old Hitchcock movie North by Northwest, where Cary Grant is standing next to a road in the middle of nowhere and a man mysteriously stands nearby and claims he's waiting for the bus that is due any minute. Which seems a bit unlikely, except that a minute later a bus shows up and he gets in and leaves. And the viewer wonders "Why did they put a bus stop in the middle of nowhere?" (To be fair, it's implied that here's a farm somewhere in the distance with a dust road branching off from the main road to it.)
And Kebnats is like that. No apparent reason to have a bus stop there (although there is a little dust road leading down to a lake). Simply a place where a bus stop once a day. (Well, technically twice a day, as it stops on its way back as well.)
And the little dust road does not even lead to Saltoluokta.
Because Saltoluokta is on the other side of the lake.
In summer, there's a boat transfer. In winter, there's a snowmobile transfer that comes to pick up people that arrived with the bus.
I didn't go to Kebnats with the bus. Partly, because I didn't want to sit almost two hours in a bus, but also because I had a rental car available and it seemed silly to leave it parked in Gällivare and take the bus, instead of using it to drive to Kebnats myself.
But I wanted to be there in time for the bus arrival, so I could make use of the snowmobile transfer to Saltoluokta. (It is also possible to ask for a snowmobile transfer at other times, but that's a bit pricey.)
To be on the safe side, I left Gällivare early - about an hour before the bus did.
As there were no problems, I arrived at Kebnats an hour to early, which gave me the chance to make a quick detour to Naturum Laponia. It's a visitor's center for the Laponia (Lapland) region. Mostly it's a small cafe in an interesting looking building. There's also a bit of an info display about the area and the local culture, but that's about three posters and a shelves of stuff somewhere next to the cafe.
I had seen pictures of the building, which is circular and clad with rough hewn looking long wooden blocks and it was only 10 km from Kebnats, so it seemed worth a detour to have a quick look at it. (The whole thing was closed in any case. I was there to early in the season (it wouldn't open until a week later), too early in the day (I was there at 9:30 and it opening times are 10:00-17:30) and on the wrong day (a Tuesday, while the place only opens Thursday to Sunday).)
The building does indeed look unusual and it is located in a scenic location, so I didn't regret having driven there to see it.
What did worry me a bit was the sight behind it. The lake wasn't a covered by a thick ice layer (there weren't even broken bits on ice floating on it), but open water.
As that was the same lake on which Saltoluokta is located (only 10 km away), I wasn't sure how well the snowmobile transfer would work under these conditions. And, more relevant, this was also the lake that we were planning to cross on the next day by dogsled.
I drove back to Kebnats, parked the car there and walked down to the lake side.
Thinks looked a bit better there - at least there was some ice on the lake, but there was also a large area of open water to be seen.
But at least there was a frozen way over to Saltoluokta. It wasn't along the most direct way (it was about twice as long as that), and followed the coast for a while until reaching a narrower section near a 'bent' in the lake, where the ice still connected to the other side.
While I was waiting for the snowmobile transfer, I distantly met Stina.
Stina and Matti are the own a dog sledding business and I would be going on tour with their dogs and Matti as a guide.
Stina brought a trailer with some 'replacement' dogs for the dogs that had problems on the previous tours and also the food we would be taking with us (mainly dog food, but some human food as well).
Though I didn't exchange much more than a distant "Hello!" with her. She had tested positive for Corona, so she didn't want to run the risk to infect anyone on the tour.
Side remark: We were lucky in our timing in that respect. Corona did hit Saltoluokta about three weeks earlier, so everyone there, including Matti, had recently recovered from it and wasn't carrying it anymore. And the same was true for most of the cabins that we went to (except for Aktse, where they had two different cabins, so they made one a 'quarantine' cabin and had us stay in the other one). So, basically, Covid had recently left the area we were travelling through and didn't bother us.
Then the bus arrived and it was time for the snowmobile transfer to Saltoluokta.
Constanze, who has been by now on quite a few of the same dog sledding tours I've been on (I think this was the eighth dog sledding tour we shared) had arrived with the bus and was using the snowmobile transfer as well.
During the day we got to meet Matti (the tour guide) as well as Vincent and Magnus (the other clients on the tour), but the proper 'Rivendell meeting', where the 'fellowship' of the tour came together for the first time (well, excluding the dogs, but then Elrond didn't invite the ponies either...) was during dinner, where Matti outlined the (change of) plans.
While we could go across the lake towards the north (the same way the snowmobile did), there wouldn't be any good trails there. (Part of the original plan was also to follow the north side of the lake Langas, which was the section of open water that I had seen earlier today.) And then heading onwards to Vista Valley, we would probably have either no or bad trails.
So instead of heading north, we would be heading south, where there had been at least some traffic on the trails, so we would mostly be on snow that had been packed down a bit. Which is easier on the dogs than having to break trail on their own.
An added convenience was that there would be more nights spent in cabins.
The original plan had about half of the nights spent in tents, potentially even more, depending on trail conditions. However, the reasons why we would likely encounter more 'used' trails on the way south was that more people were likely to travel that way, as there were more cabins along the way. So the tour would be a tiny bit 'softer' than expected. In the end we were 'roughing it' by staying in tents during only two nights.
'Going south' gave us an approximate route for the next three days (as there's a limited set of options that way) and after that, we'd see what the weather was like then and decide where we would go next.
Everything was settled and we were trying to get a good night's sleep before heading out the same day.
Although we got a bit less sleep than expected, as there was an impressive aurora borealis that night and I spent some time outside taking pictures.
It was also a bit windy that night, which is the reason why the trees in the images look blurred. Exposure times for rhe photos were a minute or two and the tree branches moved a lot in that time.
So next morning we made our sleds ready and left.
Which, of course, is easier said than it was done.
We had an interesting mix of skills and experiences on this tour.
Constanze and I had the most experience with dog sledding tours in general (for me, this was the fourteenth year where I spent my main vacation on a dog sled), but we didn't have any experience with Matti's tours. Vincent, on the other hand, had done fewer dog sledding tours, but he had done a number of tours with Matti, so he knew what to do on these tours. Magnus was (sort of) representing the other end of the spectrum, with never having been on a dog sledding tour before. (He decided to get in at the 'deep end', so to speak, by starting out with a long tour, to find out whether he would enjoy the activity. It was an attitude I could strongly relate to, as the first dogsledding tour I ever did had been a long tour as well. The underlying idea is that on a two or three day tour, while you might learn some basic skills, you probably won't reach the point where you go from initial excitement to routine. So you still won't know whether it's something you like. A long tour is the best way to find that out.)
First we needed to distribute all the gear to the sleds.
As we didn't have any depots along the way (and if Matti had arranged depots, they would be along the wrong route now anyhow), so we had to carry all the dog food for the ten day trip with us. That usually is about one kilogram per dog per day, so for the ten day tour and the 32+1 dogs, we needed to carry roughly 330 kg of dog food with us.
And as we would be camping some days, we also needed tents and heavy winter sleeping bags. Plus assorted stuff like cooking equipment and gas/petrol to run it.
So, at the start of the tour, the sleds were quite heavy (for example, I was carrying two bags of dry food (20 kg each) and two boxes of dog food sausages (15 kg each)). And while the sleds were surprisingly roomy, the amount of private gear we could take with us was limited.
I should probably explain the 32+1 dogs (instead of writing 33 dogs).
Each of us four clients had six dogs in front of the sled and Matti had eight dogs. (His sled was a lot heavier than ours, as he also had a 'trailer' attached to it.) So that's 32 dogs.
And then there was Annie. (Full name "Annie Lennox" for some reason. I don't know why, because Matti didn't know either, since he got the dog from another breeder and the dog was already named that way. But she has a brother named Johnny (full name "Johnny Cash"), so the litter had some musical theme.)
Annie isn't a sled dog. Neither by breed nor by job description.
Annie is a border collie, which essentially means she's a bundle of energy wrapped in a fur cover.
Her job is mainly to act as a kind of unleashed lead dog (which seems to be called "loose leader"), running ahead of the teams and looking for the best trail.
As my sled was the last one in the running order, I usually was far behind Matti's sled (and quite often far behind everyone's sled...), so I didn't see much of her during the trip, but when I did see Annie, she was running back and forth in front of Matti's team like some black and white lightning. (While I didn't get to see that, Annie is also a big fan of snowmobiles, as they go faster than dog sleds and she really enjoys running along with them.)
Though, as a border collie, she also tended to make up her own job description, mostly by 'herding' clients.
At some point during the trip (more later), we met another dog sledding team and I walked over to where they were located to take a couple of pictures of them leaving in the morning.
When I was done, I noticed Annie had walked around me and was lying on the trail on the side away from the cabin.
She didn't actually do anything - she didn't bark at me or made any move towards me (when herding sheep, sheep dogs aren't supposed to upset the sheep, I assume), but when I walked back towards the cabin, she kept following me and got back to lying on the trail every few steps, 'blocking' (in a friendly, non-threatening way) my path away from the cabin. Obviously, from her point of view, one of her 'flock' had dared to go astray and she did see it as her job to bring everyone back together to one place. (That also happened a few times when I went to an outdoor toilet building.)
Annie is also a big fan of 'fetch the stick'. So much, in fact, that she's not allowed to do it. We all got warned not to throw sticks for her, as she get s a bit overexcited and there's a chance that she'll bit someone's fingers when going for the stick. Which seems to be a constant source of frustration for her, as she often came running to people, dropping a stick in front of them (but everyone knew not to throw it). And when people ignored her and walked away, she picked up the stick, ran a bit ahead and dropped the stick in front of them again. (Possibly being rather annoyed that (from her point of view) we didn't understand what she expected from us - after all, throwing a stick for the 'cute little doggie' must be one of the easiest things for humans to learn. So she presumably thought we were all a bit stupid. Bit then, as a border collie, that's what she likely thought of us in any case.)
So Annie had a bit of a special role on that trip, which is why I don't put her in the same category with the other dogs, but give her the '+1' status.
Harnessing and putting the dogs in front of the sled went without problems, even for Magnus, who had basically got a five minute introduction to harnessing and operating a sled.
As expected, the procedures were a bit different from the ones that Kenneth uses. For example, we were using a front anchor while putting the dogs on the gangline. And while we would attach the harnesses of the dogs we put to the gangline on their tuglines, we would leave the necklines unattached until we were about to start. (So the last thing we did before starting in the morning would be to walk down the gangline, clip in the necklines of the dogs, take the front anchor off and put it back on the sled while standing on the break and getting ready to take the back anchor out.)
There were also some differences in the gear used - instead of using brass snaps to attach the harnesses to the tuglines, there were plastic balls. It's one of the things that look completely impractical and will get loose almost immediately, but surprisingly it works and there wasn't a single case of a tugline becoming loose during the trip.
But, in any case, while there were differences in style and handling, the underlying procedures were familiar, so it wasn't hard to adapt to Matti's style. (Essentially, every dog sledding company has its own ways of doing things - there's not really a 'standard' way of dogsledding. For every guide I have been with in the past, I had to learn how to do things their way. So I expected it on this trip as well. But I had been with Kenneth for the six dog sledding tours, so I had been worried that I had gotten a bit too accustomed to doing it that specific way. But that turned out not to be a problem.)
The start was tricky (and quite hard on Magnus, as he hadn't ever done that before and probably would have deserved an easier start), as we were located 'below' the cabins at Saltoluokta and needed to drive the sleds around the main cabin, with some 90°C turns, buildings to avoid and some snowless sections to get stuck on.
There were some minor issues - for example, after needing to stop before a corner, my dogs did take a 'shortcut' and my sled got onto a patch of open ground with some plants growing on it, where it got stuck for a moment. It wasn't that difficult to push it over to the parts with snow on it and continue, and everything went smoothly (no team running loose or sled falling over), so, given the conditions, it worked surprisingly well.
Then we were on the proper trail - the dogsledding tour had begun.
The first section was an uphill part through a (mostly) birch forest, but we soon came to the treeline and could look back down towards the lake.
While it is not that obvious on the picture due to the lack of sunshine, it was a bit worrying to see how small the connecting strip between the two sides of the lake was (visible on the right side of the picture) and how much of it was 'wet'. While that didn't necessarily mean open water (parts of it might have been meltwater on top of the ice), it didn't look confidence inspiring and it left me contemplating what the situation might be like on the way back. If we made it back here at all...
Usually it's not much of in issue to end a tour at a place that wasn't the one initially planned. But in those cases my 'civilization gear' (all the stuff I didn't need on the dog sled) had been stored in Umnäs (or, on other tours, at the dog kennel there). But if, at this tour, we would end up in, for example, Kvikkjokk and we would go with a dog trailer (with, not in...) to Jokkmokk, it would be a challenge to get back to the rental car (parked at Kebnats) or my gear (stored at Saltoluokta).
In the end, we made it back and everything was fine, but, obviously, I didn't know it then.
Once we got up beyond the treeline, we were on a mountain plateau and followed a snowmobile (and ski) track almost due south towards the cabin at Sitojaure.
The trail was well marked and well travelled, so it didn't pose much of a problem to any of us, including Magnus (who generally did well on uphills and flat sections from the beginning, but struggled a while until he got the hang of downhill sections, where he was often braking too much, which, when dog sledding, often leads to more problems than being a bit too fast).
On thing that is already noticeable here was that my team was significantly lagging behind everyone else...
There were some sections, though, that had patches without snow and where the undergrowth came through.
Mostly the sections were small enough to drive the sled through without it getting stuck, but it sometimes looked a bit odd. There were some berries growing there and the sleds running over them left red smear marks on the snow behind them, so at some points it looked more like we had run over a dead rabbit or something similar.
After a while we stopped for a lunch break.
And this was very different from previous tours.
On those tours, breaks were mostly for the dogs.
We usually had a sandwich prepared and ate that while drinking some tea from a thermos, but the main focus was giving the dogs a chance to cool down and snack them. (Though 'snack' makes that sound like a minor treat - in fact a 'snack' usually meant giving each dog about a pound of meat.)
Here, breaks were a lot longer and more aimed at human comfort.
After stopping the sleds, we unclipped the dog's necklines, so they had a bit more freedom of movement (which unfortunately included the ability to walk back and pee on the sled...) and secured the front end of the tugline with an anchor.
Then we walked to a nice spot nearby and Matti started at least to brew some fresh coffee, but in most cases, started a fire to do enable us to do some barbequing as well.
As a consequence, a lunch break was a comparatively long rest instead of a quick breather and it usually lasted an hour or more.
Continuing to Sitojaure was reasonably straightforward. We were on the mountain plateau almost all the way and Sitojaure is on a higher altitude than Saltoluokta, so there wasn't much of a downhill at the end of they day and the trail was (mostly) level after the ascent up from Saltoluokta.
While on the sled, I was still trying to memorize the names of the dogs on 'my team'.
Matti (jokingly) had said that he would make a spot check and that all dogs that we could not remember the names of would be taken away from our teams. While that wasn't a serious remark, I still like to be able to know and recognize the dogs on my team.
Although 'recognize' did take a couple of days. I knew that I had Gus and Nenana on my team (Nenana being the mother of Gus) but both look similar and it took me a while to distinguish them for a couple of meters away. [Yes, Gus is a male dog and Nenana a female one, so there are some obvious ways to distinguish them, but that's not always practical if you stand in front of them.])
So here's a short rundown on the dog team:
My two lead dogs were Chrille and Dolly. Both of them run well together, although they are a bit mismatched in size - Chrille is a far bit larger then Dolly. But they make a good team.
My two middle dogs were for most of the trip Fenja and Bettan (Bettan was my wheel dog, next to Gus, on the first day, but then switched places with Nenana.) Of these two, Fenja was dependable and 'the quiet one'. (Not so much because she didn't make much noise - none of them did - but more because she's the reliable one that doesn't draw much attentions.)
Bettan, however, was a lot more noticeable, mainly because she seemingly finds everything interesting, except for dogsledding.
It's not as if she wouldn't pull properly - as a sled dog, she did her job.
But she clearly gets bored by the view she has as a dog in the middle (or as a wheel dog). As the old saying goes: "If you ain't the lead dog, the view never changes." So she often looks at a nearby tree. Or a distant mountain. Or back at the sled. Anywhere but where we were heading.
While the next picture is from a couple of days later down the trail - guess who's Bettan?
Finally, as already mentioned, my two wheel dogs (from day wo onwards) were Gus and Nenana.
Going down to Sitojaure was among the shorter distances and, as already mentioned, once beyond the initial ascent, mostly straight and level, so was a good destination for the first day.
At Sitojaure, we 'parked' the dog in a birch forest 'behind' the cabin.
While this would make the start a bit more complicated the next day (but then, all starts from huts turned out to be tricky on this tour), as there was no path running through the forest where the dogs were, it gave the dogs some protection from the wind.
And, in some cases, something to chew on...
So at least some dogs wanted to have something to eat. As it had been a short trip, most of them didn't seem to be hungry and did ignore their food, even though Constanze put some effort in and cut the food into smaller, easier to chew pieces.
Next morning, we needed to find a line between the trees to get back on the trail. Or, more specifically, onto Lake Sitojaure, after which the cabin is named.
Nobody ran their sled into a tree, which surprised me, as the trees weren't particularly straight and a lot of them (or large branches) were leaning right into our path.
But we needed to do a 90° turn to get onto the path down to the lake and somewhat unexpectedly, it was only Matti who had some problems with it.
The unusual thing here is not that Matti got stuck for a moment (this can happen to anyone - the skill is in sorting things out and getting going again quickly), but that this didn't have follow up effects.
Quite often, when a sled has difficulties at some place, the next sleds will run into problems as well.
This doesn't have that much to do with the problem spot itself (the sleds in front of the sled getting stuck often got past easily) or the mentality of the driver behind (getting so nervous about the spot that he'll crash as well), but more with where the dogs are pointing.
When running normally, the dogs go where the dogs in front of them were going. If the dogs in front run around a corner, the dogs on the sled behind will run around the corner the same way.
But if a sled gets stopped in or after a corner (for example by strafing a tree on the inside of the corner), the dogs in front of the next team will, while stopped, align themselves to point at the sled in front of them, thereby cutting the corner. And once the sled in front has cleared the obstacle, the dogs behind will be running much closer by the obstacle than they would if they had rounded the corner normally, making it much more likely that the next sled will run into the obstacle as well.
So, in most cases, when one sled has problems at some specific point, the following sleds will have the same problem.
And that's why I found it unusual that Matti had an issue running around the corner, but the other sleds did manage not to.
Starting the day by going across a lake is always nice.
Lakes are easy. The trail across is straight, and, obviously, flat. There's nothing to run into. So it allows everyone (dogs and drivers) to settle in and calm down (after the start, which is often a bit hectic) before doing complicated parts of the trail.
Side note: On the first few days I'll be somewhat sparse with 'landscape pictures', as the sky was overcast and we travelled back the same way about a week later, when the sun was out more often. So there'll be more images from travelling back later on.
Travelling to the cabin at Aktse, we took the long way round.
According to the sign post, the distance, following the Kungsleden trail, is 13 km.
But that trail goes straight up a mountain side. While that can be done with a dog sled (and Vincent and Matti had done it that on a previous tour), it's not much fun going that way. (Neither up, nor down.)
So we'd rather be coming 'round the mountain (and while we were not riding six white horses, at least we had six furry huskies each) than going across it.
That also allowed us to have a comparatively easy day, even though it was three times the distance. While it was the longest daily distance we had on the trip, we were mostly on a lake, along a river and along a lake shore, so we didn't have any big uphill sections.
We had a big lunch break, though.
After roughly half the distance, we stopped and Matti collected some wood from the forest and started a fire.
Time for having an outdoor barbecue and heating up some sausages!
As a 'side attraction' Matti also threw a few bread crumbs onto the snow and attracted a couple of Siberian Jays, who are common in that area. (Obscure fact: The German name of that bird "Unglückshäher" means "Misfortune Jay", as it lives in cold climates and was only seen only in Germany in unusually cold winters.)
After the lunch break our trail took us down along the shore of Lake Laitaure towards Aktse. The first few kilometers we were still separated from the lake by some trees along the shoreline, but closer to Aktse we travelled on the lake itself, talking care to stay as close to the shore as possible, as the ice towards the middle of the lake didn't look trustworthy.
While we usually 'parked' the dog on flat ground, Aktse was different. Aktse is a bit uphill from the lake and while there is a (mostly) flat area a bit closer to the lake, this is a fair bit away from the cabin we were staying in (Aktse has multiple buildings). Also, the lower area had already been taken by the dogs from another dog sledding company.
This made the approach to 'our' parking spot slightly tricky, as we not only had to pass the other dogs (which, however, except for some excitement and barking, went with few problems than I had assumed), but also needed to drive around another building to get where we wanted from the right direction. But things worked out surprisingly well and we lined our dogs up in a row down the hill.
As the weather was still a bit too warm (there had even been some rain in the preceding days), the snow was too soft for our liking and walking was difficult, as the boots sank deep into the snow with almost every step. We tried to trample down a usable path, but that only partly worked. At least the dogs were close to some trees, which served as shelter from the wind.
Of course, one of the dogs didn't have to worry about wind protection. Annie (the border collie) doesn't have the proper fur for sleeping outside, so she usually was allowed to be inside for the night. Most cabins either generally allow dogs in the rooms or have one designated room for people with dogs. (In one cabin, although I am not sure which one, but I think it was the first night at Sitojaure) the room in which dogs were allowed were already occupied, so Matti put up his tent outside and to provide a place for Annie to sleep. I think he was staying out there as well, as Annie otherwise would be likely to go exploring on her own, but I am not sure.)
But usually Annie went inside the cabin and picked a bed of her own liking.
Which is usually next to Matti, but not always. One night I went to bed after dinner, only to find that it already had been occupied. And as Annie likes to take up some space, it's difficult to fit in there as well (I tried for a while sleeping on the wooden board on the side of the bed, hoping, she might move a bit to the side, or at least to the foot of the bed, but that didn't happen. So I moved out and went to sleep in another bed, which seemed to make Annie a bit grumpy, as she then left my bed and went to visit Matti instead. But at least I got my bed back...
Next morning the other dog sledding tour started out before we did, so I walked down to where they were located and took a couple of pictures.
Their set-up and routine differed slightly from ours, which was to be expected, as every dog sledding guide has his own preferences. For example, when they started some of the clients had their anchors out even before the guide started. (When we started, the anchor stayed in the ground until our sled was ready to go, the idea being that the team doesn't start running the moment the team in front starts and then runs into that team if that stops for any reason. So the anchor stays in until the sled in front has left and the path is clear.)
It all comes down to personal preferences. If you are heavy enough and the dog team is small enough, it is sufficient to stand on the brake to keep the dogs from running. And in some cases leaving the anchor in may cause problems by itself, especially if it hadn't been properly 'loosened' before the start. Then you can't get the anchor out and in the hectic moments of starting, you are tempted to step with one foot on the ground to get the leverage to get the anchor out. And if you then lift the anchor, you only have one foot on the sled, which is not enough for braking (especially as you just transferred most of your weight on the other foot) and the sled will take off with you not being in control and trying to hold on to it.
So lifting the anchor early or at the last moment avoids (and potentially causes) specific sets of problems. And depending on what issues the guide feels less worried about, he might tell clients to do one or the other.
Another difference was that their start was quite noisy. The dogs were excited about getting to go in the morning, so they kept barking, jumping and pulling on their harnesses.
Matti's dogs don't do that. Not because they are not motivated to get going, but because he specifically trains them not to get too excited about it. In the months leading up to the dog sledding season, he sometimes harnesses them and puts them in front of a sled (or in autumn more likely a quad). And then takes them off again and puts them back into the kennel. Of feeds them. Of has a coffee break. All with the intention to keep the dogs guessing whether they will be running soon. Or not. So they don't get overly excited when it is actually time to go. (Although I am not sure whether that works that way. As the dogs aren't stupid, they will probably figure out at some point that, when they are out on tour and there are clients operating the sleds, we will always start after putting them in front of the sled. Maybe they assume that Matti is punishing them for barking by not going on a run with them and keep quiet on tours to avoid having to stand and wait for another hour. But then, I don't know anything about dog psychology. And I have now idea what the dogs may be thinking. But it doesn't matter, why it works, as long as it does. And Matti's dogs (as well as Kenneth/Catte's dogs - there was a reason why their company was called 'Silent Way') are definitely a lot less noisy than the other dogs were.
While I was taking pictures, Annie hat noticed that I had gone missing from the 'flock' and came down to 'herd' me back to the cabin. But I already described that earlier.
When it was time for us to go, we did something unusual - a 'soft start'.
Running in deep, soft snow is always a risk. A dog might step straight on a bit of snow and the leg might sink right in. Not a problem with a free running dog, as the dog can simply pull the leg out, but a dog in front of a dog sled is attached with the neckline and the harness and will be pulled along by the rest of the team. And if the leg is still stuck in the snow, it will be pulled forward, which is not pleasant for the dog and can cause injuries.
Usually, when going through soft patches of snow, we stand on the brake and slow the sled down as much as possible, allowing the dogs to step slowly and give the enough time to get their legs up on top of the snow again.
But when starting in the morning, the dogs have too much energy and enthusiasm to slow them down effectively for the first few hundred meters. And going downhill doesn't help matters either.
So Matti handed out carabiners to all of us and instead of attaching the end of the harnesses to the tuglines, we attached them only by the collars (except for the two lead dogs - they were attached as usual). This not only reduced the pulling power (as a dog can not pull as hard with the neck as with the harness), it also allowed them more freedom of movement. So if they stepped into deep snow, they would not be pulled along for at least two dog lengths (by which time, hopefully, the driver would have gotten the sled to stop).
Everyone made it to the bottom of the hill without any issues, so we clipped the dogs back to the gangline the usual way and were ready to go.
The destination that day was Pårte - another easy run.
The first 2.5 km were across Lake Laitaure (luckily, close to the Aktse cabin, the ice cover across the lake was stable), followed by an easy 4 km run along a valley between the mountains.
After that came my favourite scenery of the whole trip - a 'broken' lake.
In general, ice on top of lakes is obviously flat.
The surface freezes in winter and (unless it gets too warm) stays frozen. While there are some tbings to look out for (due to differences in sunlight intensity, mostly due to shadows from nearby mountains, and how much parts are exposed to the wind, depending on the landscape surrounding it), they mostly concern how thick the ice is in different parts of a lake.
In winter, there's not much evaporation on the lakes, but also not much rain water coming in from rivers (as most of the 'rain' will fall as snow and remain lying around somewhere until spring), so the water level on lakes remains essentially unchanged.
Unless...the water is intentionally 'let out' of the lake.
And this is what happens at Lake Tjaktjajaure. It is a 'regulated' lake due that has a dam and a power plant at the south-east end. As power is generated all year (and, actually, there's more energy generated in winter than in summer), this means that, during winter, there's a constant (possibly even increasing) flow out of the lake, but only a reduced flow into it.
Which means the water level of the lake is sinking in winter. By up to 30 meters (though probably only about 5-10 meters when we were there).
If that happens after an ice layer has built on the surface and the water level sinks, the ice will break in interesting patterns and, near the shore, rest on the lake floor, following its shape.
This results in an 'alien' landscape that looks unlike any other place I've seen.
Driving a dog sled over it feels a bit like being on a broken plate of glass, magnified by a factor of 300 or so.
Getting across there with a dog sled requires attentive driving.
It's not difficult driving there - essentially it's a straight line on flat ground - but there are cracks in the ice and when a dog gets a leg in there and get pulled along, it can cause a leg injury.
The risk of that happening is lower than in deep snow, as the dogs can see the cracks in the ice and take care to step over them, but if something goes wrong, it is likely to cause more damage.
To avoid that, you try to move slowly when going over such a surface.
Although that doesn't work well. The mat is near useless for slowing down on an ice surface. And while the brake is a bit more efficient, you really want to avoid hitting a break in the ice when standing on the brake. For one thing, this can cause the sled to stop abruptly, causing a sudden jerk on the gangline and the harnesses, which are unpleasant for the dog. And the brake will be driven upwards and can hurt your own foot, which is unpleasant for the human.
So you try to pay attention to the ground, try to notice if a dogs puts a leg in the wrong place and go easy on the brake when you are crossing a break in the ice.
As I said - it's not difficult. But it requires attention.
Once the lake is crossed, it's a comfortable run by the side of the lake and then a bit along a river bed before reaching the cabin at Pårte.
A short while after we had crossed the lake, we stopped for a lunch break.
Not much to tell about that, but I took a picture of my whole team, which allows me to put names to the individual dogs.
(The colour of the names represents their harness size. Red harnesses are the smallest ones, yellow ones are medium and blue ones are large (the harness size is also reflected by the colour of the ball that is at the end of the harness to attach it to the tugline). There was also a green-coded harness, but that's XL size and none of my dogs was that large.)
After lunch it was onwards to the cabin at Pårte.
By then, the sky was fully overcast and it had started to snow, so there wasn't much to see of the (if you can see it) amazing landscape around us.
I like that kind of sledding a lot, though.
Unlike the previous days, even that parking was easy that day.
There is a small 'bay' next to the cabin at Pårte, so we drove in there and put the stake-out lines right along the shore. And as they were not out on the main lake, the dogs were protected a bit from the wind. (The snow was, unfortunately, still soft and unstable and we sank in deeply with our boots when walking around.)
So far, we have been pretty much on the 'obvious' trail down from Saltoluokta. There would have been alternatives, but if you start out from there and decide to go south, Sitojaure, Aktse and Pårte are the cabins along the way. That's mostly because the Kungsleden, a popular long distance hiking trail maintained by the STF (Svenska Turistföreningen - Swedish Tourism Association) goes that way. And as a result, the larger STF cabins are along it - usually at about the distance a walker in summer or a skier in winter can cover in a day.
There are many other STF huts in places in northern Sweden that are not at the Kungsleden, but those tend to be smaller huts (such as Laisstugan, to which I went with a snowmobile earlier in the vacation).
The obvious 'next stop' along the Kungsleden would have been Kvikkjokk, but with about 15 km to go, it would have been a bit to close for a day of dogsledding.
Also, it would have been another easy day - half of the distance along a lake and then through a forest with only minor elevation changes.
By now, we had three days of relatively easy dogsledding (after the initial ascent from Saltoluokta up onto the mountain plateau) and part of the group wanted to go for something a bit more challenging than travelling across lakes. (Not me, though. I could have gone back and forth between Aktse and Pårte for the rest of the trip.)
And there was one 'sightseeing route' leading almost straight south across the mountains.
There would be a rather steep ascent at the beginning, but the view from the top would be worth the effort.
(And from there we could continue further south and either find a camping spot next to a stream in the mountains or, if we had been making good progress, cross the lake on the other side of the mountain and look for a camp spot on the other side.)
But, and that was rather clear, this only made sense if there was a view from the top. It's not worth going up more than 400 meters up a mountain to see fog.
Looking at fog can be easier done from a lake and with a lot less effort.
So we decided to make next day's route dependent on the weather. (Which it ultimately was - but not the way we had planned it.) If the weather was fine, we would head for the mountain, otherwise we would go the easy way to Kvikkjokk, but not stop there, but head down the lake on the other side of the mountain. We would probably end up (more or less) at the same place, but instead of going the short and difficult route of about 20 km over the mountains, we would take the long and easy route of about 35 km around them.
When we had breakfast and looked out of the window, the sky was overcast and the mountains were hidden in the clouds.
It was an easy decision - we would not go over the mountain.
Somewhat surprisingly, we kept that decision, even though, by the time we finished breakfast and got ready to leave, the weather had cleared up and there probably would have been a view from the mountains. (Although some clouds were still around - the weather could change back to overcast as quickly as the skies cleared.)
The middle image gives a good impression how soft the snow was and how many boot holes got into it.
Even though we were now on an open lake, the start was again a bit tricky. We needed to get out of the little bay that we had been driven into the previous day and that meant a somewhat tight 180° turn.
Tight turns are always an issue, as there's always the risk that the dogs go directly to where the other dogs are instead of following the trail they took, so it's necessary to stay as close as possible behind the team in front of you.
Here it was complicated by a mixture of soft/hard snow at the turning point, with hard snow on the shore-side and soft snow on the lake-side. Going on either was fine, but getting one runner on the soft snow and the other on hard snow can cause the sled to tip over.
This happened to me. The sleds in front had taken the 'outer' line near the shore and got by with no or few problems, but my team tried to so a shortcut and went further in (but not enough that both runners were on the soft snow) and the sled got stuck.
Fortunately the soft snow was not too deep and had a hard surface below, so I could stand there and push that side of the sled up. It's somewhat risky, as you are not standing on the sled at that moment, so when the sled starts moving again, you need to get back onto it somehow. But it worked and soon we were all lined up in the right direction to cross the lake.
The weather remained nice and sunny, and I enjoyed the prospect having an easy day on the sled, putting in headphones, listening to some music, relaxing, looking at the scenery and having a good time.
And I had.
Until we were almost in Kvikkjokk.
Matti had gotten a phone call from Jorge (at least I think that's his name - I've only heard it spoken, so it might be George or Jorges or something similar), who was the guide from the other dogsledding company I had photographed leaving from Aktse the previous morning.
He was at Kvikkjokk with his dogs and his clients and had trouble getting away.
On the lake in front of Kvikkjokk the water was standing about 30 cm high on the ice and a number of snowmobiles had already gotten stuck on the lake. While it is, in an emergency, possible to run dogs through water that high, it's no fun for either human or dog. And it's not healthy for the dogs either.
We had run on previous tours over lakes that had about 5-10 centimeter of water on top (one of them was the same lake on which Kvikkjokk is located, on our way to Årrenjarka in 2018), but that had been doable, but no fun. Going through water more than three times as high did not seem a good idea.
Going via Kvikkjokk suddenly didn't seem like a good idea.
But there's a snowmobile track from Kvikkjokk going up into the mountains.
About a kilometer before we reached Kvikkjokk we turned onto a connecting trail and after another kilometer and a rather tight 90° turn (with a massive wooden sign on the inside corner, which, fortunately, everyone got around without issues), we went onto that snowmobile track.
It's a bit steep (going up 400 meters on about 4 km distance), but it's a along a wide, well maintained and used track, so it was without doubt preferable to going over the lake. And the original tour plan (when the idea was going north from Saltoluokta) noted that "a significant climb awaits us, 2 kilometres with 300 meters altitude". So this wasn't that different from what we had expected to do on the tour.
Still, even then, I found it hard going, especially as the dogs stopped again and again and I had to push the sled to get it going again - it's a lot easier when the sled stays in motion and you simply push and peddle while it moves.
So when we had a lunch break about a quarter up the mountain, I really appreciated that we had long breaks, especially as I spent a large part of it lying on the snow and trying to breathe normally again.
Oddly enough, the second part of the climb, even though it was three times as long and equally steep, didn't exhaust me as much as the first section (even though the time to ascent a hundred meters remained constant). It was still exhausting and I was glad (but too much out of breath to properly enjoy it) when we reached the highest point, but not as grueling as the first part. Maybe I had found a better rhythm for pushing the sled up. Maybe it was grumpiness because I had expected an easy day on the lake and now suddenly had to do something hard. Maybe I was simply to exhausted to complain and concentrated on getting up there somehow.
At least I am now sure (as I had been before that anyway), that I don't find the view from the top worth the effort getting there...
Afterwards things were easy again.
The trail on the mountain plateau was fun and the weather kept being sunny with good views all around.
We quickly lost most of the altitude gained on three steep downhill sections, with flat sections in between. (There are a number of mountain lakes on this plateau, so we travelled along one lake, went downhill, crossed the next lake, went down hill and then the same again.)
The first descent one was cool and I regret not having a short video of going down there (and it would have been a short video, as we descended 70 meter in roughly 2 minutes). The trail was gently winding a bit and had packed snow banks on both sides, so it felt like going down a bobsled chute with a dog sled.
The other two descents were not quite as steep and looked a bit less unusual, going through small forests, but were fun as well.
The previous image doesn't show a crash. There was a short section circled around a tree further down. And to avoid any follow-up problems in case of a crash (as the next sled would not be able to stop), we descended that section one-by-one. And Vincent and Constanze had secured their sleds to see how Magnus was doing (he was doing fine on that section) before walking back to their sleds.
After the last descent we were looking for a good place to camp. So we circled around a lake (following the shore to try to find a place at least slightly protected from the wind) before following a small stream for a kilometer to find convenient place that had at least some trees for protection).
Time to put up the tents.
Everyone had snowshoes on their sleds, so the first thing to do was to trample down the snow on some spots before putting the tents there. Otherwise can be a bit annoying to go to sleep in a tent that has been put on the snow and then have parts of the floor sink down.
Constanze and I had individual tents, Magnus and Vincent were sharing a larger one and Matti and Annie were sharing the 'community tent'.
I immediately liked my tent.
Some 'expedition' tents have 'cloth tunnels' through which you need to put the tent poles.
In theory, you take the pole, push it through the tunnel and it comes out on the other side.
In reality, this also works well in showrooms and in summer camping.
In winter camping, however, the cloth tunnel isn't as flexible as in summer. It tends to be frozen stiff, has a kink in it and, possibly, frozen shit as well.
You stick in the tent pole, it doesn't go through, you pull the tent pole back, the parts of the tent pole separate, you try to pull them out, trying not to break the rubber band that connect them. The piece in the cloth tunnel gets stuck, you try to push it out by pressing on the cloth from the outside, but you can't do that with your gloved fingers, so you take your gloves off, freeze your fingers to the tent pole while trying to pull it out...
And that's setting the tent up.
Pulling it down will be worse, since then everything on the tent will be colder, wetter, stiffer and more clammy. And instead of pushing the tent pole through the cloth tunnel, you need to pull it out, which makes separating it and getting stuck even more likely.
I really dislike that sort of tent. The only thing that they are good for is to serve as an example of horrible user interface design. (Or for summer camping...)
But this tent didn't have any cloth tunnels. You have small plastic clips with which you attach the tent to the poles. You put the poles in their 'sockets' near the tent floor, so they make an arc and then you go along the wall of the tent and attach it with plastic clips to the poles. Then you put the tent 'roof' over it and attach that at with hooks as well. And you're done. And all these clips can be easily attached and removed with gloves on. And the plastic clips don't freeze.
I had this kind of tent on the first dog sledding trip I've done in 2009 and liked how easy it was to set up or take down, and got grumpy on every tour after it (that used tents) when they had the other type of tent.
So it was great to have the clip-on type of tent on this trip.
What was also comfortable, but a bit of work was the 'air mattress'.
On previous trips that included camping, we used a foam sleeping mat.
They are easy to deal with (simply unroll it) and serve well as insulation from the cold snow below, but they take a lot of room on the sled and are a bit hard (as they're for thermal insulation, not for comfort).
We used inflatable sleeping pads on this trip. They are equally good at keeping you separated from the cold, but they are comfortable to lie on and pack down to a small bag.
The only downside is that inflating them takes some time. You can't blow air into them, as you get too much moisture into the mattress that way, which you will regret the next evening, after you carried the deflated mattress on your sled for a day and it is a frozen clump. And a foot pump would be too unstable on snow and carrying one would also negate some of the size advantage of having a deflateable mattress. So we had a little hand pump, looking like a small air bladder that you squeezed with your hands to inflate the mattress.
It worked well, but it was a bit tiring on the hand and arm muscles.
But I got a soft mattress to sleep on as a prize for that effort, so it was worth it.
Our client tents were used only for sleeping.
Matti had set up a larger tent as a cooking / eating tent.
While all our tents had a floor (and we had trampled the snow below the tent flat), his set-up was different.
His (tunnel-)tent consisted only of the upper shell. And he had dug a trench along the middle of it, creating 'benches' on the side to sit on.
Which made sitting in there surprisingly comfortable. (Sitting on a flat floor and eating while sitting cross-legged or squatting gets tiresome quickly.)
One side was used as a cooking area, the other side and one head end for client seating and the other head end for Matti and Annie to sit and sleep on. (At least while the tent was used as a community tent. I don't know whether he also slept along the head end or whether he put his mattress down along the middle trench when he went to sleep.)
(Note: In the second picture, Annie can be spotted resting under Matti's jacket.)
(Other note: Everyone seems to look a bit grumpy in the third picture - but it has been a long an somewhat exhausting day.)
In cold climates, clear skies often go hand in hand with low temperatures.
And after a couple of overcast days with temperatures barely dropping below freezing during the night, on this night, after a sunny day, it got cold again, with temperatures down to about -20°C.
While that might not sound like good news (especially when spending the night in a tent instead of a cabin), it was. It made for much better snow and ice conditions along the trail for the next days. No more worries about flooded lake surfaces or sinking into soft snow.
It in the tent, the temperature didn't matter that much. A frozen tent is often less uncomfortable than a wet and damp one and the sleeping bags were warm and comfortable. (And this time I checked the zipper of the sleeping bag while there was still light outside - I had unpleasant memories of a night in a sleeping bag where the zipper could be fully opened (probably to allow couples to zip two sleeping bags together) and I was sitting there in the middle of the night with freezing hands, trying to get the two sides of the zipper properly aligned to close it again. So this time I made sure that I only needed to crawl into the sleeping bag and pull the zipper close.)
The next morning, it was overcast again.
We had about eight kilometers to go to Årrenjarka, where we would stay two nights later.
But eight kilometers is not much of a day tour and even less two day tours, so we went through Årrenjarka, crossing the road between Kvikkjokk and Jokkmokk on the way and then continued across the lake to the opposite shore, where we continued a bit until we reached another lake, crossed that as well and then selected another camp spot in a small forest.
During the lunch break, Gus, Nenana and Bettan posed for a group picture. Nice dogs...
It was only after I took the pictures that I noticed they were sitting that close together because their harnesses go tangled somehow.
Setting up camp went surprisingly fast and we were soon ready to spend out second night in tents.
As it was overcast during the day, temperatures didn't drop as much during the night as the previous night. Probably only down to about -5°C. Which made sleeping slightly warmer (though not much, as the sleeping bag was insulating well), but in the morning everything was more damp. Nothing critical - we could have easily continued camping out under either condition for more nights - but things got a bit clammy.
The second camp also marked the turning point of the tour.
Not only had we been dogsledding for five days by then and would be dogsledding for another five days, so it was in the middle of the trip, but it was also where we physically turned around and (with a small detour) would head almost exactly the way we came.
Initially the idea had been to do a somewhat wider loop that day, by pushing on towards the next lake and then cross that lake and drive along another one, before turning onto a trail towards drive along to Årrenjarka.
It would have been interesting for me and Constanze to do that. (Well, it would probably have been interesting to the other as well, but there was of special interest for us.) We had been down that trail back in 2018, but hadn't seen much of it, except what was illuminated by our head lamps. Back then, it had been a long and unusual day and we had arrived at Årrenjarka late (around half an hour past midnight). So while we had driven dog sleds along that trail, we weren't in any state to appreciate it. (Mostly because it was dark, but also because it was at the end of an 80 km run. It had been a long day. And also on soft snow, followed by lakes with water standing on it.)
But it had snowed in the night and no snowmobiles had passed us, so we would be breaking trail for most, if not all, of the loop. And Årrenjarka lured with electricity, showers and indoor toilets.
So we took some time in the morning to get going, had a late and long breakfast, then turned around to head straight back to Årrenjarka on the trail we had used the day before.
By then, I spent most of the day feeling like I was a musher out there in the wood with his dogs. And not so much part of a tour.
My team was lagging so far behind the other teams that most of the time I lost sight of them. Which is something I liked. I wasn't in a hurry and the track was easy enough that I didn't expect (or encounter) any problems, like crashing or losing my team, so I took it easy and enjoyed it.
My only worry was that there might be a fork in the trail at some point and the dogs might decide to go the wrong way. (They probably wouldn't listen to any 'gee' or 'haw' commands from me and stopping the sled and pulling the lead dogs over to the correct trail is always tricky.) But whenever the terrain changed, like going on a lake or leaving a forest, Matti stopped or a while and everyone waited until I managed to catch up.
But it didn't take long before there was again a noticeable gap between me and the teams in front of me.
At least on the lakes I didn't lose sight of them.
Even though this was the day with the latest start time (we didn't get going before one o'clock - although that partly had to do with the fact that the daylight saving time had started during our first camp night and it still felt an hour earlier for us), it was also the day with the earliest arrival time - we were out there with the sleds for only a bit more than an hour. I think after two nights out there in a tent and six days without a shower, everyone was looking forward to some comfort.
While all the other cabins we stayed in were STF huts, which provide shelter and basic utilities, but no luxuries, Årrenjarka is a private tourist facility with hotel rooms and cottages for rental.
It caters mostly for people on snowmobile vacations and they have snowmobiles for hire there as well as their own petrol pump to refuel snowmobiles. They also have a good restaurant there. We didn't go there (as we had out own food with us and the cabin we were staying in ad a fully equipped kitchen), but we had eaten there in 2018, when we got (kind of) 'stranded' there for a few days.
As the cabin was aimed at people spending their day on snowmobiles, the cabin even had its own 'drying cabinet', so we could get the dampness out of our gear, the harnesses and our boots overnight.
So everyone was eager to have a warm shower, be able to use the indoor toilet and to (unexpectedly) charge their camera and phones again. (There was no electricity in any of the cabins on the way, so most of our technical stuff was running low on power. So the ability to top the rechargeable batteries up again was appreciated.)
There's also a (supposedly) nice sauna at Årrenjarka, which some uf us used, but I didn't go there, so I don't know firsthand.
The 'parking arrangement' for the dogs was differed here from all other places.
Instead of having the dogs all in one line, we had them 'parallel' parked,
This provided a good opportunity to watch Annie acting as a herding dog.
While we were getting the sled ready, Annie took up position in front of Matti's team and positioned herself on the path it would be taking.
She was crouched down on the snow and kept watching the 'herd' to make sure nobody would 'leave the fold' before it was time for everyone to go.
(Yes, she changed position when I walked aver to take some photos. I'm not quite sure whether she would have done so in any case or whether that was a reaction to me moving onto the snowmobile trail, as it was easier to keep track of where I was going than it was at the previous place, further in on the snow. But I'm likely to over-interpret her behavior.)
I assume she did something like this every morning, but as I was on the last sled and she usually was in front of the first sled, on most days she was too far ahead of me to see what she was doing. But with the 'parallel parking' it was obvious.
The start was easy, but unusual. Matti was the furthest from the trail, but obviously he needed to go first, so it was important that everyone would be well anchored and braking to ensure that the other teams wouldn't start when he did, but only once he was gone.
For me, there was another possible issue.
The other teams could follow Matti more or less directly (coming onto his trail from slightly different angles), but I was too far to the side, so that if my team tried to follow Constanze directly, it would have gone right around a tree, likely to wrap the gangline around it and pull the sled into it.
So in this one case, I was supposed to let Constanze go well ahead and then the dogs were supposed to go to where the team in front of them was standing, instead of following the trail it has taken. Normally, that's exactly what you don't want the dogs to do (they should follow the trail and not attempt their own shortcuts), so it was a bit of a worry what the dogs would actually do.
To encourage them to take the direct way towards where Constanze's team would be located after the start, Matti trampled a trail in front of my team into the snow, showing them the way they were supposed to go.
When it was time to start, there wasn't any problem at all. But not the way we had expected.
The dogs figured out that everyone else was on the snowmobile trail, so they followed neither the Constanze, nor the trail that Matti had provided, but turned directly toward the snowmobile track. Not what anyone thought would happen, but it was making things easy.
From Årrenjarka we headed along the lake to Kvikkjokk.
This was the trail that we had planned to come down three days earlier, when it turned out that there was a lot of water standing on the lake and we turned from our intended path up along the mountain trail.
After the cold night two nights ago and also the current weather (even with the comparatively warm day during the second night in the tent), open water wasn't a problem now.
It was windy that day and there wasn't any shelter from the wind while we were exposed on the lake, so the 15 km along the lake were probably the coldest dogsledding we did this year. But that's simply an issue of having the right equipment. After pulling the face mask (that's a face mask against the cold, not one against Corona) up a bit (and listening to some music - after all, I had been able to recharge the MP3 player at Årrenjarka), it was cozy and warm on the sled.
But we didn't want to have a lunch break out there on the lake, so we waited until we were nearly at Kvikkjokk and we came to a short, protected section along a small river.
I think this was the lunch where we appreciated having something warm for lunch the most. And the dogs seemed also happy to be out of the wind.
One of them (and this time it's not Annie, who was curled up next to Matti at that time) however decided to 'keep watch', while all other dogs were resting, which might be a good picture for the "Who farted?" meme. But then again, maybe not...
At Kvikkjokk we revisited (for about 500 meters) a section of the trail that Constanze and I already knew from our 2019 dogsledding tour.
Back then, we had (after sitting out two days with storm warnings) skipped a part of our tour and taken the trailer up to Kvikkjokk, to go to Såmmarlappa and Staloluokta from there. We had parked the trailer at the parking lot near the STF in Kvikkjokk and then gone down the trail from there (turning right once we reached the lake). This time we were coming from the other side of the lake, but used the same trail from the lake, passing the STF Kvikkjokk on the left and the parking lot on the right.
Instead of stopping at the parking lot (as we did when we returned in 2019), we continued on to Pårte, and it was only a short section that we overlapped with the one we had already done, but nevertheless, there was a moment of memories and nostalgia. (Especially as, by now, 2019 feels like a long time ago...)
A couple of hundred meter further, we did see the branch in the path that we had taken three days earlier to take us to our first camp site. After that we were back on the same trail that we had taken from Saltoluokta and which we would follow back all the way back there.
So everything we would see from now on, we had seen before. But this time it was with better weather and sunshine.
Arriving in Pårte, we took the same 'parking slot' in the little bay next to the cabins. The dogs clearly enjoyed being able to rest in the sun and stretched out a bit.
The snow cover was much better than a couple of days earlier. While there were still the boot holes from the previous visit, the snow around the dogs was now firmer and more flatly packed around the dogs, so they had a more level (and less wet) surface to sleep on.
It was also easier for us to get water from the lake. No more sinking in with every step of the way.
The start next morning went without any issues - even though we had the same tight turn with the track being sloped to the side near the turning point, everyone get around without issues.
Matti and Annie had been preparing the track we would use out of the bay by snowshoeing along it, but I have no idea whether that improved our start that morning.
That day we crossed the 'broken lake' again, which I had liked so much the first time we crossed it.
I still liked it.
Once we had crossed the lake, it was time for a lunch break on the shore with a barbecue over an open fire.
Rarely idle, Annie went out and checked the perimeter of our lunch site.
Heading on to Aktse afterwards, we had an impressive view of the mountain panorama from the lake at Aktse. We hadn't seen much of it on the way out, as it was foggy and we had only small glimpses of the mountains.
Arriving at Aktse, we parked again down the hillside, even though there was no other team blocking the more horizontal lower area. In the end, the convenience of having a closer way to the dogs did beat the easier starting position we would have had further down.
The dogs enjoyed being on the sunny hillside. And, in one case, also enjoyed an impromptu food massage...
By now the temperature remained at least somewhat cold. Not as cold as we would have liked (temperatures at night probably didn't go down below -10°C, probably mostly around -5°C), but it was still better for dog sledding than on the first half of the trip, with firmer snow on the trails.
As there was no longer a significant risks of the dogs stepping onto soft snow, we started the next morning 'normally' (with the dogs clipped into their tuglines and necklines as usual) and didn't need to do a 'soft start' for safety reasons.
Following a couple of last looks across the lake and towards the mountains at Aktse, we headed back to Sitojaure.
As on the way out, we didn't use the direct, steep, way (that skiers tended to use). but took the longer route around the mountain.
We also did a campfire and barbecue at the same spot we had used on the way out, although this time we didn't spot any birds in the vicinity.
And, once again we used the little birch forest beside the cabin as the 'parking area' for our dogs.
And, as before, the first thing some dogs did was to attack the local plant life.
That evening, we had great hopes for the night. Matti had checked the aurora forecast and there was a high probability of northern lights that night. It would have been nice to have that. We had northern lights before our first day of dogsledding, so having some more before the last day of dog sledding would have been oddly appropriate. And we had clear skies that night and a wide open view from the cabin across the lake, so we would have a good view. (And a good photo opportunity. Everyone had their camera(s) ready that night.) But 'high probability' does not mean 'guaranteed'. So the only thing we did see that night were stars. (A lot of them. With good visibility. After all, there's no stray light from nearby cities. Or anything that's nearby at all. I didn't take any photos of that, though.)
Next morning it was already time to start our last day of dog sledding.
We intentionally started later than usual, as we didn't want to arrive in Saltoluokta too early.
As it was sunny again, I had put on a bit more sunscreen.
It turned out that at least Nenana and Gus like the taste of sunscreen a lot, so there was some slobbering going on that morning.
Starting out from Sitojaure was problematic again.
While getting onto the proper trail to Saltoluokta wasn't difficult this time, as turning to the left was easier then the turn right towards Aktse, which was at a steeper angle and had a tree at the inside corner, trouble occurred even earlier.
There wasn't any obvious path towards the trail, so the dogs needed to somehow go through the forest, avoiding the trees.
This, in most cases, isn't a problem.
The dogs are well aware how wide the sled is (and, running side by side, a pair of dogs is almost as wide as the sled in any case), so they won't run between two trees that are too close to each other for the sled to pass. They will (in most cases, unless they have stopped and try to run directly towards the team in front of them) not pass by a tree close enough that the sled will hit it. They are also experienced enough not to run between trees in a zig-zag line that has curves that are too tight for the sled to follow.
They are experienced sled dogs and they know what they are doing. (At least Matti's dogs do. All other dogs simply follow the sled ahead of them. But the principle is the same. They are experienced dogs and know what to do.)
But what can cause problems is that dogs do things at 'dog level'.
If there's a tree with an overhanging branch, the dogs don't care. From their point of view, literally, the branch isn't in the way, so they run straight under it.
But the handle bar of the sled is a bit higher then the dog's heads (so is the person standing on the sled, but a person can duck or lean aside - the sled won't). And if the branch is strong enough, low enough and hanging far enough into the path, there's a chance that the handle bar will hit the branch.
And that's what happened to Magnus here. (Though it is difficult to see, as there are trees in the way.)
His sled got caught by a protruding tree branch and, as far as I could tell, the handle bar got stuck on it.
This is something difficult to get out of, as this means that you need to pull the sled back a bit to get it off the branch, which, in turn, is hard to do as the dogs are trying to pull it forward. In the best case, they will simply be standing there. But they won't walk backwards.
So Vincent had secured his sled to help Magnus get his sled moving again, while Constanze kept an eye on Vincent's team.
Usually I don't take pictures in problem situations, but as this was taking a while and I had nothing to do but to ensure that my team stayed were it was, I had time to quickly take out the camera.
After a while everything was sorted out and Magnus was moving again. We followed carefully. making sure that we pushed or leaned our sled away from any tree or tree branch in our way.
The rest of the day was easy after that.
While there were still patches of ground without snow along the trail, they had gotten smaller, fewer and were mostly beside the trail, not on it.
We were heading back to Saltoluokta on a Friday and it was obvious that the mountains had gotten more crowded.
Due to the good weather forecast (after a period of not-so-great weather) many people had decided to spend a long weekend skiing or snowmobiling.
Although it needs to be said that 'crowded' in that region means that you're likely to meet twenty people during a day along the trail instead of four.
Not only humans made an appearance that day - a small group of reindeer showed up on the hills as well.
Before heading down the final descent to Saltoluokta, we stopped near a small hill and walked up there to have a lunch with a view.
For the fourth picture, I had walked a couple of meters away to be able to show our group, the dogs below and the landscape around us.
Not surprisingly, when I turned around, I did see Annie behind me, 'blocking' the way further on. From her point of view, I had wandered off the herd and it was her job to make sure that I didn't stray too far or get lost...
After lunch we stepped onto our sleds for the final time and drove to the end of the mountain plateau and the start of the downhill trail through the woods.
While there were still areas of open water in the lake, they had gotten much smaller since we had left ten days earlier.
The final two kilometers down to the cabins at Saltoluokta were a fast run, even for my team.
For once, my dogs decided not to slowly tag behind a long way behind everyone else, but were as eager to run down the trail at speed as all other teams were. (Or, uncharitably, maybe that was because I was a lot heavier than everyone else on the sled and when running downhill, the weight on the sled doesn't matter to the dogs.)
A few final turns around the buildings at Saltoluokta and we were back where we started out.
The tour was over.
We put the dogs on the stake out lines that Matti had fixed next to his cabin, emptied the sled, sorted our gear - the usual post-tour activities and met in the evening for dinner, where we were already joined by the clients for the next tour. (Due to slightly unfortunate scheduling, the dinner was the same as on the evening before we left. Saltoluokta has a dinner plan that resets every five days. And as it was a ten day tour, we happened to be on the same spot in the plan as we had been the day before we started. Not a problem, as the dinner was good, but it would have fun trying something else.)
|27.03.2022||Campsite 1||Campsite 2||12:17||15:48||03:31||01:03||02:28||22.78||6.48||9.23||299||544||451||501|
Here is a zipped KML file (for viewing in Google Earth) of the trail we took: sweden2022_dogsledding_tour.zip
And here is a map of the trail:
Next day, I left Saltoluokta a bit earlier than the other clients. (Matti stayed at Saltoluokta with his dogs to be ready for the next tour, although he went to the other shore later to met up with Stina and replace some of the dogs.
The bus wouldn't leave until the late afternoon and I didn't want to risk to take the same snowmobile transfer as anyone else, find out, once everyone had left on the bus, that there was some problem with starting the car and then have nobody around in case of troubles. And, assuming there would be someone coming over from Gällivare to help with the car, that would be more than an hour until help would arrive.
So I played it safe and paid for a separate snowmobile transfer over to where the car was parked.
If anything went wrong, there was enough of the day left to sort out problems before it got dark. And in the worst case, I could abandon the car, take the bus to Gällivare with everyone else and come back the next morning with help.
My snowmobile transfer turned out to be in one of these small trailers attached to the back of a snowmobile, but I was happy having it.
My worries had been unfounded. After brushing some loose snow away from the car and disconnecting the car from the ground (it was attached to the ground by a number of large icicles, but they could be easily kicked away), the car started immediately and I was on my way.
The street was empty and snow free. I had the impression that most of the days the only cars on the street were the snow plow and the bus.
I was a little surprised when I did see something blocking the street ahead.
At first I could only see something shimmering across the street and couldn't clearly make out what it was. At home I would have assumed that it was some police control point or a group of protesters on the road ahead, but both didn't make much sense out here.
Only when I got closer, I did see what kind of (typical northern Sweden) 'road block' it was.
It's nice though, that Swedish reindeer are friendly and accustomed to cars. I was wondering what do do about them blocking the road and whether they would keep standing there like a flock of sheep. But they calmly walked to the side of the road and let me pass.
I checked into the hotel and later met with the others after the bus arrived, so we could have a final meal together (pizza) before Magnus and Vincent had to catch their train to Stockholm. Constanze followed by train the next day.
As I needed to return the car at Hemavan airport a couple of days later (and in this case actually at the airport in Hemavan and not at the car rental place in Tärnaby), I drove slowly back toward Umnäs. Not quite as slowly as on the way up, where I used three days for it, but this time in only two days, stopping in Arjeplog for the night (no specific reason for going via Arjeplog - I simply wanted to go somewhere where I hadn't been on the drive up north).
And that's nearly the end of the vacation.
I had one full day left in Umnäs at the end, which was mainly intended to be a buffer day, in case there had been any delays somewhere. As the skis were still waiting for me there, I went to Slussfors in the morning and did two circuits on the beginner's track there on my own.
And in the afternoon, I did a little round trip with the car through Dikanäs and Matsdal, two small villages south of Umnäs. Once again, there wasn't any real reason for going there, except for 'why not'? It is unlikely that I will return to Umnäs, so I thought I'd better use the opportunity to see the area (as I had never been there with a car at my disposal).
On that day, there wasn't much to see.
The area should be interesting.
It is (more or less) the landscape on the far side of the lake. (Although a bit more to the left, so it's more at the foot of the mountains than in the mountains.)
But on that day, the landscape looked like that:
(The picture was taken across a lake near Matsdal, which is about 20 km closer to the mountains than Umnäs is.)
There were occasional glimpses of the mountains when the clouds moved a bit, but not many of those.
But it was (kind of) nice to have a bit of a farewell drive and the dull weather might have fitted my possible melancholic mood.
If I had been able to relax and get melancholic, that is.
But the road to Matsdal is only a smaller side road and one of the roads where the snow is not removed, but only pressed down. It's a good surface to drive on, if you can figure out where the road is.
The light was diffuse and everything between the trees at the side of the road looked mostly the same. So there was a bit of guesswork which of the white surface represented the street. "The thing in the middle" seemed like a reasonable approach, but I kept worrying that one side of it might be a snowmobile track or a ditch and the road might be towards one side. Ultimately there wasn't any problem, but I rarely have driven a car with that amount of paying attention to the road.
And that's it.
I drove to Hemavan the next day, took the flight back home (and after two years with many flight changes, the flights and flight connections went without a hitch this time). And the vacation was over.
Click here to go back to other travels