Dog-sledding in a Winter Landscape (EH)

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edwardhancox_dlThe dogs continually pull hard, straining and making it look effortless at the same time. Four pairs, they lean into their harnesses and pull me through the snow bound landscape. Their feet rasp through the frozen crystals, and tongues hang from lopsided mouths.

We dodge obstacles, and the only sounds to be heard are the sled on the ice and excited breathless yelps of my team of eight. The cold continues to creep in through my double insulated coat, and fur-lined hood, but is held off, my own excitement and the adrenaline coursing through my veins.

We travel through mile after mile of crisp snow, and picturesque winter landscapes. The dogs work hard, but clearly this is what they live for. They are in control, and my words of command are followed by the lead dog but she could disregard them if she chose to. The lead dog acknowledges my words by just tilting her head slightly, as if to prove that she is listening intently, and the pace momentarily slackens before she makes that decision and we are charging off again.

The sky was perfectly blue, without a cloud in sight. The white landscape stretched out from us in every direction, and we strode on towards the horizon where the two colours met.

Earlier in the day, much earlier in fact, when my head was still asleep and the cold still had all of its bite, I had been collected by a local girl who had set up her own excursion company. Seemingly made for the role, she chirpily introduces herself whilst simultaneously thrusting a bagel into one of my mittened hands and a hot chocolate complete with a meter-high cone of whipped cream into the other.

We arrived at a large farm, which has been partially converted to become a dog compound. Each pooch has its own wooden little home and is tethered to the front of it. At least, I assume they are tethered that way, but can’t see due to the amount of snow that has fallen and hidden the base from view.

The dogs are not purebreds, but just bred to maintain the best characteristics of both parents. Out here it counts less if your head tilts at the correct angle and more if you can pull, are highly intelligent and can withstand the bitter cold. My favourite clutch of puppies were those named after cheese—brie, stilton, edam, cheddar etc.

After a brief lecture about dog sledding, and yet more hot chocolate, we head outside to the yard. A team is selected for me, and they are all fitted snugly in a harness before being attached to the sled via a main rope (sorry, I don’t know the technical terminology). The dogs have, by this time, reached fever pitch. The noise is deafening, despite my myriad headwear.

The full range of dog noises are all present, from high pitched howl to gruff baritone growling. Those selected few are all facing forward, pulling enthusiastically. So enthusiastically, I have all my weight on the two pronged brake that is jammed into the ice compacted snow, yet it is still creeping forward. I know that if I let go, I will either be thrown off and will lose my team, or will be forced to endure the ride of a lifetime, which will undoubtedly cut that same lifetime short.

My guide jumps on behind me, reassuringly he has a full beard and a weather-beaten face that suggests this isn’t his first trip. And then we are off. Thoughts of traditional English Christmas Carols would have played in my mind, if I wasn’t so intent on just holding on. My fingers gripped the bar; I would have seen a full set of white knuckles if it wasn’t for the layers of gloves and mittens. This was more a winter Olympics luge event than a winter wonderland.

There is reason I’m disappointed though. My heart and thoughts are somewhere else. I’ve travelled miles for this, and don’t get me wrong, it was a truly fantastic experience, but my heart is not in it. It doesn’t feel right.

For a while, I struggle to work out what’s wrong, where these intrusive thoughts are coming from. It’s not just handing the dogs back, or not being able to take a husky home with me. And then I get it. It’s not Iceland. I think I need to go back to Iceland. And you don’t hear that said very often, especially from an English lad stood in Willow, Alaska, U.S.A.

Dog sledding is available in Iceland too, of course. Day trips, or longer, are available from a number of companies promising trips across Langjökull (Iceland’s second largest glacier), whilst gazing at the sunset, or if you are very lucky, the northern lights.

You could even be a musher for the day. Summer, of course, is now approaching. This can affect the snow on the glaciers and make mushing hard work or impossible. Don’t worry, though. One Icelandic company offers a snow free alternative, where dog teams pull their cargo (you!) on the back of a trolley with wheels. It makes me want to reach for my worn out credit card.

Icelandair will start direct flights from Iceland to Anchorage, Alaska this summer. There is a part of me that wants to go back to Alaska, but my heart belongs to Iceland. It seems that there is nothing I can do about that.

Edward Hancox - edhancox@live.co.uk

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.