One of the most memorable experiences of our trip to Svalbard was hiking with the Alaskan huskies across the frozen Arctic tundra. As it happened, our lodging was right next to the dog pen, so that our dreams that night were interspersed with the howling of huskies.
It was a crisp October morning the next day; the previous night’s wine and cake pre-birthday celebrations had kept us up till quite late, and we slept uncharacteristically through the alarm. Luckily, we happened to check our watch while still somnolently rolling in the warmth of our sleeping bags. To our horror, it was 7:50 am and we were to meet our hiking guide at 8.
We scampered out of bed and made it out of our cottage in the nick of time. Our guide, an athletic French woman, was waiting for us in the pen. She had moved to Svalbard as she loved dogs and wanted to work with them; Svalbard served as an ideal setting due to the sheer empty spaces it offered for dogs to go crazy. She had also brought over her own husky from France, who looked a lot more pet-like and genteel compared to the big, excited, lupine tykes.
Svalbard with its sheer empty spaces offers an ideal setting for dogs to roam wild.
We got into the pen and we were welcomed by 50 howling huskies on all sides eager to go for a walk. All of them had their individual kennels with their names written on it. They were of various sizes and our guide let out Kara and Sally to accompany us on the hike. They were both grey Alaskan huskies, reasonably small, so as not to make our walk too taxing. We put the harness around them, with reasonable difficulty, while the other end went around our waist like a belt.
We started our ramble admiring the scenes. Su was so lost in the beauty around that she underestimated Kara’s strength and fell flat on the ground at the very beginning of the hike. That’s when we realised that the dogs meant business, they were working dogs trained to pull heavy sleds, not pets going for the casual evening stroll. From then on, we held the leash firm, focusing on the trail ahead and letting the dogs lead the way.
Husky hikes are an environmentally friendly way to experience the high Arctic
We soon reached the famous polar bear warning sign. Beyond this point, the laws forbid you to proceed without a gun and a firearm licence. Unless you have them, you cannot venture out on your own and have to take tours which are usually expensive. Our guide had a rifle and she said that the dogs would warn us if there was a polar bear lurking around, the probability of which was almost nil.
Leaving behind the highway, we were soon climbing up a hill, the ground was soft, mossy and almost sponge-like. We crossed several streams, many of them frozen and even spotted a few reindeer in the distance. A couple of hours into the hike we reached an old abandoned mine where we stopped for a wee picnic.
Parts of former colonies stand like ghosts of a bygone industrial era etched in the Arctic’s memory.
Svalbard was used as a base for whaling expeditions during the 17th and 18th centuries. By the early 20th century, its main industry was coal mining. Now only a handful of Norwegian and Russian mines operate on the island. You can find remnants of old mining settlements and camps all along the coast and Norwegian laws protect these remains because they value them as representations of cultural heritage. So whether it is a skeletal crane, a rusty pillar or a weather-beaten shed, they are left untouched. These parts of former colonies stand like ghosts of a bygone industrial era etched in the Arctic’s memory.
As we stopped for the picnic, we unhooked the harness from our waists and tied the dogs to one of the abandoned crane-like structures. We looked around in awe at the surrounding landscape – bare rocks, frozen fjords, stark mountains, snow and glaciers; scenes completely devoid of human habitation. They effused an other-worldly feeling hard to describe in words.
We had biscuits and some juice, and we gave Kara and Sally their treats for tolerating us, meek humans. Sally finished hers quickly; Kara, however, did something we had never witnessed before: she stealthily crept a few yards from us, dug a small hole, and buried her treat for the rainy day. Sally quickly un-dug the hole, botched Kara’s efforts, and chomped her treat down. Poor Kara! The incident reflected our own personalities: it was no wonder that Su had Kara, the ant, and Titu was with Sally, the grasshopper.
Energetic huskies, breathtaking polar landscapes – an experience like none other.
We started heading back soon after, falsely presuming that we were by now used to our dogs. Kara and Sally’s relentless energy caused a few more falls and several scrambles across the wintry landscape. A couple of hours later, we reached the dog yard and it was time for our four-legged companions to get back into their kennels. Our weary knees felt strangely light without the dogs lugging us on. We followed our guide into a cottage and were soon sitting around a roaring fire, roasting hot dogs and marshmallows and shovelling them down with refreshing Scandinavian beer.
It was definitely one of those fantastical, into the wild kind of experiences that you only dream of.
Detailed Guide to Svalbard – https://www.suandtitu.com/?p=1290/