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Friday, April 1, 2011

Going to the dogs: Sledging, skiing and Scandinavian serenity in remote Norway


Making tracks: Emily settles in to her first dog-sledding experience

Howling reaches fever pitch as the dogs sense lift-off. Nervously, I mount my sled.

Four gallant Alaskan huskies are strapped in up ahead. They are a cross between Siberian husky, pointer and greyhound, and they can reach speeds of 20km per hour.

Currently, they are yelping and leaping frantically, all wild eyes and wagging tails. I quietly hope that they will be more sedate once I let off the brake. As another howl comes from up the front, I realise that this is unlikely.

Paws for thought: Dogsledding Norway's dogs are an enthusiastic mix of husky, pointer and greyhound

I have never skied and the last time I moved rapidly through snow was as a child, sliding on a makeshift toboggan, before toppling off in front of my class. It is safe to say that I am not a natural-born athlete. And as for dogs, I have yet to go doe-eyed when presented with one. So why, I ask myself, am I doing this?

All around me, the landscape is a flat, sparse, white. I am in Rondablikk, on the edge of Norway’s first National Park, Rondane – a pristine expanse in the south-east of this long, winter-bound country. Its high mountain plateau, vast icy lakes and frosted meadows make it perfect for winter adventure. The snow is clean, and thick – a different beast to its inferior, sludgy equivalent in Britain – a gift from nature that is almost embraced. Certainly, the Norwegians find it as natural to ski as to walk. I’m hoping – but not expecting – that by the end of my trip, I will feel the same.

The white stuff: Rondablikk, in south-eastern Norway, offers endless terrain for dog-sledding

Our guides – Live Aasheim, a Norwegian dog-sled race champion, and her Scottish-born colleague Greg McColm – take no nonsense.

“This is not a McDonalds dog sledding trip,” Live says. “You will harness your own dogs and get involved with the whole process from start to finish. They will not hurt you, unless you hurt them.” Again, I wonder why, exactly, I am here.

There’s a hot stench of hound as we’re handed the harnesses. My team of dogs includes Sinatra, a striking white fellow with opal blue eyes. “We call him the son of the devil,” says Live. Greg tells me that I need to show these pooches who is boss. Silently, I think to myself that the dogs already know who the boss is. And it isn’t me. For starters, they don’t seem to know – or won’t acknowledge – the command for stop. Luckily, there is a plastic mat that can be thrown to the snow to slow them – or, as a last resort, a metal brake. Live is unconcerned. “I don’t have time to teach 40 dogs to respond to someone shouting ‘stop’,” she says.

Husky dog sledding in Norway

I usually cower from canines, preferring the indoorsy softness of cats. But for all the barking and howling, I soon realise that I am finding this particular set of dogs strangely endearing. Having to greet your team and coerce them into a harness is not easy. But the dogs have such varying personality: there are lazy ones, who lie on their backs when you so much as gesture towards them; wild, strong beasts who don’t take yes for an answer; loyal creatures eager to behave.

The tension builds as we prepare to leave. Hooting and screaming continues as each dog is attached to a sled. I am near the back of the group. Greg, the stern taskmaster is behind me. And then… we’re off. Immediately, as the sled in front lurches forward, my brain misplaces the instructions about braking and steering.

While the others whizz off stylishly, I keep my foot slightly on the brake, making my exit all stunted jolts. “Wheeeeee” I yell, unable to behave like anything but a small child. A burst into movement, and we push into the forest, winding through the trees. I try to anticipate when to brake and when to lean, so the sled won’t upturn.

The power in every limb of these creatures becomes clear as I lift my feet completely off the brake, and they pound the snow, pulling ever faster.

Crafty canines: Dog-sledding can offer an insight into truly wild terrain

“In Norway we have a lot of trolls,” she explains. “There are good trolls, and nasty trolls, and they come out at night. But the worst sort is the water trolls. They prey on tourists, pulling them through the snow to their underground lairs.”

She pauses for effect. But I am unfazed. After coming through my first attempts at dog-sledding and skiing unscathed, I fancy my chances against any troll.

Travel Facts

Exodus (0845 527 4364; www.exodus.co.uk) offers eight-day winter sports breaks in Rondablikk from £1,499 per person, including flights, transfers, most meals – and activities including cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and dog-sledding. Departures available in March and December.

Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) (0871 521 2772, www.flysas.co.uk) flies daily from Heathrow to Oslo for £225 return.

Dogsledding Norway (0047-41-853-733; www.dogsledding-norway.com) does half-day trips for 700 Norwegian Kroner (£78).

source: dailymail