The winter is finally over on the Northern hemisphere. To celebrate the winter gone and to make-up some of the quiet time in the blog, I will publish a three-part wrap up of my outdoor activities over the last winter. All the posts will be somewhat photo-heavy and lengthy (this one seems to be around 3000 words) so change your phone to a larger screen, take some time and grab a cup of coffee or tea with some cake to fully enjoy them.
As most of my winter was spent working with furry four-legged friends and guiding husky safaris at Taivalkoski in Northern Finland, it also makes a good topic for the first part of the series.
Home, chilly home
At the verge of the winter I was still supposed to work with snowscooter safaris at Luosto further North. But before heading there I was spending some time at the husky farm at Taivalkoski as my girlfriend N was working there for the season. I had done an internship period at the farm the previous winter and when the owner was faced with a sudden lack of quality guides he asked if I would be able to work there for the season.
Hmm… Living with my girlfriend and guiding long dogsled tours instead of short snowscooter safaris – plus a freedom to pursue my own guided ski tours in between… The decision wasn’t too hard!
So, instead of heading to Luosto I dumped the huge load of gear from the car to the backroom of a cafeteria building which became a home for me and N for the season. Living at your workplace has its advantages and disadvantages. In this case good things included very reasonable rent, possibility to use the cafeteria’s kitchen and feasting on the left-over food from safaris – and of course very short commute to work. Actually, on many mornings I was able to start working at the same time when I was munching my breakfast and if I happened to have a rare break during the day, I was able to spent it “at home”.
This is from the end of the season but the load is about the same…
The major disadvantage in living at your job is of course living at your job. This means often working also on your free time in the evenings or when having a day off. But as this sort of guiding work is more a lifestyle than work, it’s part of the deal. Other minor problems included for example:
- Very limited space which wasn’t quite enough for all the gear we had… But on the other hand, we didn’t spend that much time indoors anyway.
- Slightly inadequate insulation in the cafeteria building… But on the other hand, it helped getting acclimatized to the outdoor job.
- A 300 meter walk to the showers… But on the other hand, you don’t need to have a shower every day – or even every week – especially if it’s below -30C or there’s a raging blizzard!
A lovely December morning: outside -30C, inside +10C.
Despite the little shortcomings of our “backroom home” solution, living at the farm was cozy and convenient, a good solution.
Is that a husky?
“Are these all huskies?” and “Is that a husky?” were the standard questions through the whole winter. And the short answer was “Yes.”
Lempi (Alaskan husky)
We had around 70 dogs at Husky Center Kolmiloukko of which around 50 were working, few were retired and we had 15 puppies and youngsters from three different litters. Most of the dogs were Alaskan huskies which is actually not a race but a name for mixed breed working dogs. Dogs bred to be the most hard-working, fastest running, hardest pulling workers with incredible endurance, the ulra-athletes of the dog world. They don’t necessary look like your classic postcard husky (a Siberian husky) but they do damn good work. Most or our dogs were “arctic looking” Alaskans with thick fur and pointy ears but we also had some mix-breed hound crossings, a type of dog often used for speedy competition that usually comes with shorter fur, floppy ears and skinny tail, and unbelievable motivation to run in a team.
In addition to the aforementioned we had a few Siberian huskies as well. The previous season we also had two Greenland Dogs but they were too slow for our teams. They excel in different use.
Vilma (Siberian husky)
Blue (Alaskan husky)
Usain and Bowie (Alaskan huskies). The former naturally has a brother named Bolt…
Other typical short answers included: “Yes, they all have names”, “Yes, I know them all by name”, “No, they don’t usually fight” and “No, they don’t bite”.
The dogs are all individuals and to be able to work with them you have to know more than the name. For example:
- What place the dog runs in (lead, middle, last), how it normally behaves (to notice if somethings wrong)
- Does it have special strengths or shortcomings (for example being a good leader or being afraid of snowscooter)
- How does it cope with others and different situations, etc.
It takes some time to get to know the dogs and for example the character of young dogs also develops over the season when they get older and get more experience. This keeps the work interesting as you keep learning new things all the time. Though I guess you have to like dogs to find this interesting.
A team in work. Birk (hound cross-breed) in the lead.
Dogwise the season was very good one: the dogs did well even though they had to work a lot occasionally, the yearlings learned to work in a team and turned out to be very good runners (even leaders) and we had very few accidents and the dogs stayed healthy through the season.
Pile-of-poo – and other daily tasks
Guide’s work at a husky farm is actually very varied and includes a lot of things, especially as for the most of the season we were lacking an employee or two! Being out in the woods with the dogs and guests is only part of the package and most of the work and daily tasks done are somewhat to the guests.
One of the big daily tasks is of course taking care of the dogs. The dogs eat every day – and they eat a lot! They poo every day and the fences need to be cleaned every day – and that makes a mountain of poo over the season! (Sorry, no photo of the Mt Poo…) In addition the nails need to be clipped and fur in the paw’s trimmed regularly. And of course you have to monitor the dogs constantly and keep in mind how they are doing and take actions if problems arise. (For example: two dogs living in the same fence not coming along as the bitch in the next fence is in heat).
Diego having a massage at the cafeteria.
A typical day at the farm starts at 08:00 with watering the dogs. Each dog gets about one liter of water mixed with some dog food or fat every morning to keep them hydrated and give them some extra energy. The watering is actually quite a quick job but can be little unpleasant if it’s dark, temps are below -30C and the bowls are buried under a blanket of fresh snow – or the dogs have hidden them in a secret place…
After the watering it is time to clean the fences which takes little more time and effort. Depending on the snow conditions and the number of dogs at the farm the normal amount of poo shoveled out of the fences was from two to five over-loaded wheelbarrows. But cleaning the fences was actually nice when you were not in a hurry so you had time play with the dogs and let them play with each other in the running fence.
After the cleaning there was maybe time for a quick coffee break and then it was time to arrange the sleds for the day and start to build-up the teams: take a dog, harness the dog, take the dog to its place in the lines and repeat. Tell them not to fool around in the lines and repeat. And after enough of repetition keep an eye on the dogs and tell them to behave untill the guests arrive. In the early season dogs are over-enthusiastic and fool around a lot but towards the end of the season it goes like a dance.
After the days work the dogs are put back to the fences, usually with the help of the guests. And when the guests have left, after some coffee and pulla, it’s time to feed the dogs: Each dog gets 0,7-2 liters of soaked dog food (with plenty of fat when it was cold and/or they were working hard). Again quite a quick job with the above mentioned exceptions… After the feeding there is often some work to do with sleds and other equipment meaning that a typical day ended around 18:00 or so ensuring a healthy ten hours outside!
In the beginning of the season, when snow was scarce and guests were few, the daily tasks included also training the dogs for the upcoming season. First this was done with an ATV but when the big marsh plains were frozen and there was a bit of snow, it was time to start the sledding season. And the start is always bumpy! But driving a dog team is great fun so I didn’t mind the bumps. In addition to training the adults the three litters of puppies needed also some extra program and as they were cute and entertaining as hell I sometimes went for a walk with them even on my days off.
In addition to the dog related tasks there was a plethora of other things to do, mostly related to maintenance work and preparations for the upcoming safaris: trails need to be kept in reasonable shape, snow scooters and sleds need occasional maintaining, cafeteria has to be cleaned, groceries shopped and food prepared and gear packed for longer tours. One of the special tasks was warming up the sauna if there were guests staying at the farm. This was especially interesting on the occasions when a water pipe had leaked on the floor making it a nice indoor ice rink…
Out and about
Even though the dogs were awesome and the general outdoor work was nice the best part of the job were the safaris, especially the longer ones.
Going for a safari didn’t mean that I’d get to drive with a dog team. That was for the guests. At Kolmiloukko the guides usually drive with a snowscooter in the front opening the trail and towing food and equipment needed for the longer tours. There are pros and cons in using a snowscooter instead of a dog team and even though I don’t like the use of motorized transportation in the nature, as a guide I prefered to have the scooter.
Driving a scooter is a full-body activity.
Scooter makes the work a lot easier and the whole tour a lot safer for the guests and the dogs. For example we had around 250km of zigzagging and crossing trails on the area were we operated and scooter makes taking the right turns easy, even when routes are covered with snow. It also makes catching loose dog teams and picking up fallen guests possible. Not too easy to do with a dog team, especially if it would require U-turns in deep snow! And of course the snowscooter with sled would also make evacuation easy if needed. I think that the kind of safaris we did on the kind of trails we had, would not be possible to arrange safely without a snowscooter.
Learning happening the hard way…
And as the scooter was a necessary evil I actually learnt to like the driving, especially when conditions were difficult or you had to drive trough soft snow in dense forest. I’m not too interested in driving a snowscooter on hard track on my own free time but this was different. I think this was more about mastering useful tools and techniques: knots for climbing, chisels for woodcraft or code for programming. And I did learn a lot about snowscooter driving over the season, a skill I consider useful for all general winter outdoors professionals.
Guiding a safari in January, temps below -30C.
In the beginning of the season we did quite a lot of short 7km loops at Hanhilampi near Syöte National Park. This meant early wake-up, packing the dogs and sleds in a lorry and driving about an hour to Hanhilampi and putting the show together there. Usually the guests arrived from the nearby hotel with snowscooters, we gave them a driving lesson and then they drove the 7km loop with the dog sleds two in each sled, changing driver in the halfway. Driving the loop took only about half an hour but usually we did several loops every day meaning often long days.
The longest day at Hanhilampi was before Christmas when the lorry broke on the way and we spend the night at Hanhilampi with the dogs. Luckily, there is a huge kota shelter and we got some sausages and beers from the grocery so it wasn’t too bad.
Towards the end of the season we visited Hanhilampi only once a week or even less frequently. This was nice as the logistics are quite a hassle and long safaris are a lot more fun than the short loops!
Guests arriving to Syöte. Dogs waiting patiently.
The good stuff at Syöte on a good day.
The most typical safari was a full-day safari with lunch in the woods. The safaris started from the farm when guests arrived after the typical morning chores. The guests were given warm clothes, a driving lesson and then it was time to let the dogs out!
We drove along the tracks choosing a route appropriate for the conditions and for the guests. We stopped every now and then for photos and to change drivers (day tours were usually driven with “double sleds”) and after a few hours of driving we arrived to one of our lunch spots. There the sleds were fixed to trees, a fire was made and a lunch was prepared on the fire and enjoyed around it. After a one hour break or so we continued back to the farm. Normally the whole program took about six, seven hours and we covered from 25km to 40km. The dogs run actually quite fast (20km/h is easily achieved on good track with “single sleds”) but breaks and lunch take some time and it’s supposed to be holiday so usually we were not in a hurry.
Another typical tour, and one I liked even more than the full-day safaris, was an overnight safari. Basically it started like a full-day safari but guests where driving single sleds and at the end of the day we arrived to a wilderness hut in the forest and returned back to the farm the next day.
The guests took care of their own dogs and helped with the chores at the hut: poo scooping, making a whole in the ice, carrying firewood and water, warming the sauna, preparing dinner, etc. A longer tour is always more relaxed as you have more freedom to choose a suitable route and decide your own schedule, the guests also relax and learn to drive better and of course you learn to know the guests. Most of the guests were awesome and it was a blast to spent evenings at the hut with them: dinner, sauna, sitting by a fire with a nice dram… Most of the time guests slept in the hut and most of the time the huts were full so I had a good excuse to build quinzees and sleep outdoors (or in a sauna).
Jänisvaara hut in moonlight.
The longest safaris we guided were one-week safaris with the program fine tuned for each group. Usually the week included picking up the guests from an airport, a full-day safari as a training day followed with a three-day safari visiting two different wilderness huts and another full-day safari with dogs or snowscooters or some other activities and then taking the guests back to the airport. The longest tour of the season included six days of driving with the dogs and towards the end of the week the guests had become very good drivers and we were able to do some special routes.
As the tours get longer the relationships between the guide and guests and between the guests and their dogs develops and immerses. And in addition there is more freedom to choose what to do: you don’t have to pull the 7km loop in 30 minutes to be able to repeat it in time. The week-tours were probably the highlights of the season, in addition to some especially awesome full-day and overnight-tours.
Black grouses, quite a typical encounter on the tracks.
Excellent leader Iris teaching the yearling Alva the right route…
Jermi relaxing at one of the wilderness huts.
In addition to the husky tours we also helped the local hotel to provide safaris and outdoor activities for their customers as they didn’t have a guide of their own. During the season I guided also some snowshoeing, ice fishing, skiing and snowscooter safaris. It was nice variation for the husky safaris but I still consider the long husky tours the best. (Not counting guiding arctic ski expeditions covered later…)
Week-tour guests on a snowscooter safari.
The dogs were awesome.
The Northern nature in winter is awesome.
There is nothing quite like silently and effortlessly gliding trough winter wonderland wilderness with a dog team.
Driving snowscooter can also be fun – but don’t tell anyone!
Most of the guests are awesome.
I really liked my work.
Nature is just awesome.
PS. More photies! A selection of photos from the 2012-2013 husky safari season is available in my gallery: Click here to get there!