BOB the Globe Trotter
It was in the first week of February when we planned to visit Lapland area of Sweden. One of our main activities during this tour was the dog sledding. I used to view the dog sledding videos on the National Geographic channel and always had a strong desire to experience such an exciting activity. We read in our geography books about how Roy Amundsen discovered the South Pole.
A dog sled is a sled pulled by one or more sled dogs called huskies, over ice and snow. Dog sledding is not a cruel act against the animals. It is proved by watching their wagging of tails and their ears pointed up. Dog sledding is sometimes called mushing and a person who drives the sled is called a “musher”. The dogs are tied by a long “gangline” (ropes) running between them. Dog sledding is an important mode of communication in some of the remote areas of the Arctic region. They are used to deliver mails, firewoods, mining & fishing equipment, and other necessary things. These huskies have an extra sense to judge any dangers ahead during the journey by preventing the sleds from getting damaged from sudden drop-offs or submerging icy water. Sled dogs are bred for their speed and endurance. Training starts when they are a couple of months old. They can run 100 miles at a stretch without any break.
Our travel group was divided into two for the dog sledding trip. One half will do the morning trip and the other half the afternoon trip. I was in the second lot. The day was a bright sunny day and the first group left our hotel around 10 am. They returned very happy and smiling. By this time the weather started turning gloomy. I felt very sad about the weather. Anyway, we left at 1.30 pm in a van to a remote village about 30 miles from Lulea. It was snow all around. I shared my feelings about the weather change with the van driver who was supposed to be our guide also. He cheered me up by saying that this is the ideal weather to have the extra thrill during the dog sledding tour.
When we reached the starting point of our tour I found it was a medium-sized hut in an isolated area of the village. At a distance, I could see a few houses and a thick jungle of coniferous trees. All around were snowfields.
I came to know that these tours here in Lulea are conducted by this family who own around 30-35 huskies. They are very specialized in organizing these tours.
The huskies greeted us with their continuous barking. The guides were busy arranging our sleds. Each sled of ours will be drawn by 9 huskies and 3 passengers can sit time in each sled. One musher will drive the sled. I was mentally prepared to be a musher but I knew nothing about how to drive a sled. I always had an attitude to venture something new. Obviously I had to judge the calculated risks involved. The guide cheered me up when I shared my thought. She wilfully took 15 mins driving lesson teaching me how to apply brakes to either slow down or making a dead stop. I learned how to take sharp turns, how to climb uphill, and how to behave in case of an emergency. So it is well understood the mercury of excitement shooting up through my nerves. One needs great courage to do it for the first time in life with a 15 minute course and on a completely unknown track. Our journey would be for 14 km and would last for 2 hours in different terrains- sometimes over a frozen river, sometimes on narrow lanes of thick jungles, sometimes over rocky grounds, uphill, downhill, and so on.
It was biting cold outside. The temperature recorded was minus 17° C but due to the cold breeze in the late afternoon made us feel the temperature to be around minus 20-degree centigrade. We were fully geared with warm clothes.
We had to walk initially around 200 meters over the snow from the hut to our starting point. A Snowmobile with two guides leads in front of us. Initially, when I took the driving seat I was feeling very nervous. Two of my friends who sat on my sled as passengers looked nervous as I was the driver. They seemed to carry their “life” in their hands which I could realize by looking at their faces. But they knew Bob will succeed to execute the ride safely.
We sped along the vast frozen fields to reach the thick woods with narrow tracks. The branches of the trees came haphazardly on our way so I had to dip my head and steer the sled accordingly. The track was completely unknown to me. My friends gradually gained confidence in me after 5 to 10 minutes of driving. I drove over the frozen river and climbed uphill several times. It was quite dangerous over the bumpy tracks when it was over the underlying huge boulders. I kept my nerves steady though I felt of losing control sometimes. My fingers were getting numbed, my face was drying up with the chilling breeze. Gradually darkness was creeping in. After about one and a half hours ‘ drive, it was already dark. Our way through the narrow tracks in the woods was lIt by the moon only. The moonlight was reflecting on the snows all around. The surroundings looked mesmerizing. It was really awesome.
Driving a sled through the Arctic snow expanses in dim vision, in biting cold weather, with the full moon in the sky, reflecting snowfields is indeed a lifetime experience.
Finally, we reached the hut from where we started. A woodfire was lit for us in a cozy tent to warm ourselves. iThe tent had a semi-circular sitting arrangement. We sat on reindeer skin mats. The tour guides served us a hot chocolate drink with some tasty Swedish snacks. We had a long chat with our new friends. I returned to our hotel in the late evening with high excitement and great feelings of joy achieving a new jewel in my travel career.
Dr. Sanjay Kumar Das