Having now seen the Northern Lights, we eagerly anticipated the next milestone on our Hurtigruten Voyage. As we came into Tromso at around 14:30 we saw the last of the daylight. Contrary to popular belief, the Arctic winter is not total darkness. There is some daylight between about 11:00 - 15:00 but the sun does not make it over the horizon. As can be seen in the photo below (which we promise is unedited), on a clear day the light is spectacular but once the light is gone it is inky black.
It was -12 degrees Celsius in the centre of town and we have five layers on. We hopped on the bus with our fellow sledders and drove 30 minutes to the Tromso Wilderness Centre on the outskirts of town. On the way, we got first hand experience of Norwegian engineering as we drove the tunnel between the centre of town and the airport. It's just a tunnel, right? How many tunnels do you know of that have a roundabout? This tunnel had at least two, with four different exits at each!
By the time we get to Villmarkssenter the temperature has dipped to -16. Tromso's record low is apparently -18, so we were glad for the extra layers. Inside, an Australian lad from Melbourne is handing out a thermal suit to everyone. Well, not everyone - the couple in front of decide they don't need the suit. "I'm just warning you," says the Australian, his accent sounding thick and unusual after all the Norwegian voices we've heard so far. "I've been here for six months and you *will* be cold. I'm just saying..." They decide to take the suit after all.
What's a good Aussie boy from Melbourne doing all the way over here above the Arctic Circle? "Have you looked at the scenery?" he exclaims. "Have you seen how beautiful the girls are?" He is right on both counts.
It takes us another 15 minutes to get the thermal suits on but we finally make it outside. One section of our party is already over by the sleds, where the dogs are barking madly. The rest of the dogs are sitting on top of the kennels much like Snoopy does and are adding to the noise. "Come on! Let's go! Why do I have to be chained up? It's not fair! Come on - what are we waiting for?!?"
Half of our group goes out on the track and as the torchlight of the mushers disappears over the hill the noise stops. The rest of us go visit the six month old puppies. These are Alaskan huskies, smaller and with less fur than the Siberian huskies and without the blue eyes (in Kirkenes the dog sledding tour uses Siberian huskies). The dogs are incredibly friendly and just like all puppies want to jump up, lick faces, pull on shoelaces and anything dangling within reach.
One of our Dutch friends has a scarf with knitted dog faces and the puppies take a keen liking to it - she is mobbed.
The staff are keen to socialise the dogs so they get used to being around people and we are encouraged to pat and even pick them up. It will be at least another six months before they are allowed to pull a sled as their ligaments are too soft and their muscles not developed enough.
We are ushered out of the puppy pen and suddenly the older dogs who were left behind are up on their kennels again, staring out into the darkness. Sure enough, a minute or two later we can see the torchlight of the mushers snaking down the hill. Then the barking starts again.
We make our way over to the sled, which is simple frame of birch lined with reindeer hide. We climb in and take a few minutes to get settled. The Navigator is at the back and the Navigatrix has to sit between his legs. With five layers on there's not much room! The dogs are anxious to be moving again. "Are we ready yet? Come on, I want to run! Ready now? Now?!? Come *on*!!!"
Now a blanket is draped over the Navigatrix's legs, our musher pulls up the snow anchor holding the dogs and we're off! Suddenly the barking stops and the only noise we hear is the sled scrubbing over the ice and snow, the gentle breeze of our movement and the occasional call of the musher. All it takes is the mention of a dog's name and the animal pulls back into line, or on the call of "Go" they all strain harder against the harness. For the first time we notice the little red booties that wrap the dog's feet. Every now and then a dog will snatch a mouthful of snow. Their tongues hang out and their saliva freezes on their whiskers.
There are three of us on the sled (including the musher) and the team of eight dogs pull us easily. Having said that, the dogs trot more than run but occasionally the team behind catches up with us and the lead dogs are right next to us, so close you can reach out and touch them. We continue into the wilderness for about 3 kilometers (15 minutes), with the torchlight just making it to the team in front. We're sure the dogs know the way to go as we wind our way between the birch saplings.
We had hoped to see the lights while we were on the sled but although it's pitch black it's probably too early in the evening. Apparently it's happened though. No matter, the torchlight makes the snow sparkle as if diamonds were scattered in amongst the drifts.
We have caught up with the rest of our party, their dogs restless and impatient to be running again. Some of them are rubbing their backs in the snow as they wait for us. No rest for our team though. As soon as we arrive the groups sets off again and we head back to the kennels.
On our way back we have a view of the lights from Tromso and before we know it we're heading down the hill on the last part of our journey. The dog relish the opportunity to have a proper run. As we approach the kennels the musher has to throw down the snow anchor to get them to stop, otherwise they would keep running... running... running.
We spoke to our musher - from Wales no less! He says the dogs have done four trips today, so about 24 kilometres. When we marvel at the distance, he tells us the owner of the centre is a professional racer, currently in Finland doing a 2 day race of 120 kilometres a day. More exclamations of wonder from us.
"That's nothing," he continues. "There's a race in February which is 250 kilometres in a day. Even then, the dogs still have energy to keep running. They'll do 300 - 350 kilometres in a day if you give them the chance."
"What happens then?" we ask.
"They just stop. And fall over."
Our musher frees the dogs from the harness and they all run back to their individual kennels for dinner. There are 300 dogs at the Centre and each animal has their own kennel paired with a partner but out in the open on the snow. When not on the harness, they are on a long chain which gives them enough room to visit their neighbours or hop up on the roof of their kennel. They are perfectly comfortable on the snow - we saw two dogs cuddled up next to each other and fast asleep lying in the snow, rather than in their kennel with a bed of straw.
It's too cold for us, even with our five layers and thermal suit. As soon as we've disposed the suit, we rush across to the yurt for hot tea and chocolate cake. Our fellow Australian travellers and us spend time talking to the musher from Melbourne. He says the team is very multicultural: Swedes, Finns, Latvians, Estonians, Poles and of course Australian and Welsh. He works in the winter and the summer (and he means work: up at 6, works until 8, then sleeps. No time to chase Viking princesses) and travels in the spring and the autumn. He's looking forward to visiting Estonia this spring.
Alas, our time is over and we're on the bus to be whisked back to the ship. Sledding at Tromso Villmarkssenter is an absolute blast. The dogs are a joy to be around and the ride through the snow filled forest was an unforgettable experience.