Dog sledding must be one of the must-do activities if you come to Norway in the winter. You get to ‘mush’ through some of the best winter landscapes and experience one of Norway’s top sports that have been used for hunting and travel before the Viking Age. The energy of the dogs is very infectious and you can’t help but be buzzing after your ride.
Dog Sled Racing
Dog sledding uses a special sled that can be pulled by one dog but is more often pulled by a team. For dog sled racing, dogs are carefully selected for endurance, strength and speed. They are placed in certain positions in the team to ensure the fastest and easiest race. The team consists of lead dogs who have the intellect, point dogs who follow well and can back up the lead, swing dogs who can move well and wheel dogs who have the power to pull the sled.
Lead dogs have a kind of ‘intuition’ about where they are going. The Musher develops a strong relationship of trust with their lead dog because sometimes trust is what gets them through certain races. A trainer needs to keep a close eye on their dogs, especially the lead. As the dogs are trained to run for 50+ kilometres a day, if left unattended the dogs have a habit of running for the hills. Some dogs are trained in more than one position just in case the team needs to be rotated during a race due to injury or fatigue.
It is well known that Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, lead the expedition race to the South Pole. He cunningly used dog sleds and reached the South Pole first before Robert Falcon Scott, a Celebrated British explorer and Naval Officer.
Today Robert Sørlie is considered a national hero for his skill and dedication to dog sled racing. Sørlie has a long history of dog sled racing. Since 1991 he has won the Femundløpet four times and also Europe’s longest dog race, Finnmarksløpet (1985–1991, and 2001). He has also won the Norwegian long-distance championship twice (1993 and 1995), and the mid-distance championship once (1992).
However, it wasn’t until 2003 that Sørlie became a national hero and won the hearts of the Norwegian people through his love and dedication. To train a team takes an exhausting amount of time as the dogs need special attention every day. Even though Sørlie has a full time job as a fire fighter in a big city with a young family, he still managed to put a special dog team together to enter the Alaskan Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The ‘Iditarod’ is a high competitive dog sled race for teams of 16 dogs (plus musher) racing over a distance of 1,161 miles (1868 km) which takes between eight to fifteen days to complete. Entering for the first time in 2002, Sørlie came in 9th place winning the ‘Rookie of the Year’ award. In 2003 he was the first non-North American resident to win Iditarod coming in 9 days, 15 hours, 47 minutes, and 36 seconds. Sørlies was thinking of retirement, however, many challenged his 2003 win suggesting that the course was altered due to a lack of snow that year.
To prove he was a skilled musher with a great dog team, Sørlie decided to race again in 2005. The field was very competitive that year with five other previous Iditarod winners. The warmer weather also provided challenging conditions for the race. The race was very tight all the way but Sørlie won just 34 minutes in front of second place, proving that his first win was not beginner’s luck.
Dog Sledding Activities
Dog sledding is something that I have always wanted to do and last year I got my chance. I thoroughly recommend the experience!
We were in Alta at the time for the Easter holidays visiting family. Easter is a great time to enjoy winter sports in Norway. The sun is bright (wearing sunglasses is advised especially if you will be out in the snow a lot) and the light lasts all day. The snow is fluffy and thick and the weather is more stable at this time. We decided to take the dog sledding tour bus from the Rica Hotel in the city centre. When we arrived we suited up in warm jump-suits, hats and boots provided by the dog sled centre.
We were assigned a team of dogs (just five dogs – apparently the more you have the faster you will go). We were quickly trained in steering and stopping and instructed never to let go of the sled (remember that the dogs will run for the hills if they get the chance). And away we went, following each other along a scenic track through a forrest and along the Alta river (it was frozen over).
I sat in the sled (so I could take some pics) and Moose mushed. Halfway through we swapped. Even though everyone was following each other in a line, the dogs were very responsive to our steering. It was the best experience and quietly in my head I thought ‘I want to be able to do this every day for ever!’
Back at the ranch we got to thank our team with plenty of hugs and wagging tails. Us ‘mushers’ all piled into the lavvo (a Sami style teepee with an open fire right inside) for supper – cookies and warm berry drink. A trainer joined us and told us stories about the dogs training, famous Norwegian mushers and also about the world of racing.
The thing that impressed me most about this dog sledding ranch is that they cared for their dogs immensely. Dog sledding wasn’t just a business but a way of life. Dogs were chosen for their intellect and character, not for their coats. And if a dog isn’t quite up to the challenge of racing, they still get to enjoy what they love best – running in the snow – hence, the dog sledding tour. I was quite happy to find out that I was helping the dogs to get the exercise they need each day.
There are many dog sledding tours all over the country. You can get different tours, we went on a two hour tour, but there are also day tours, weekend tours and also whole week tours. It all depends on what part of the country you want to see and the time you have free (and your budget, of course). If you want to find out more go to a city tourist website. To do this simply type in ‘visit’ and the city you are looking for ‘Bergen’, ‘Trondheim’, ‘Tromsø’, ‘Alta’ etc in google search box, eg ‘Visit Tromso’. This will bring up specific tourist sites for that city which will have most of the tour guide operators in that area.