Subzero temperatures and exhilarating rides across Finland’s panoramic frozen rivers and lakes, the thrill of a husky ride is to be experienced to be believed
The soft sound of paws tapping the ice, sled runners scraping up shards of snow in their wake, all punctuated by sessions of silence as you try to grasp the beauty of it all, of a frozen river and the banks draped in snow, framed against leafless trees and a dark, mysterious afternoon sky.
It’s December in Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland, deathly cold, possibly 12 degrees below zero. And I’m loving it, my first outing with the missus on a husky ride. But something tells me the huskies are enjoying the chills more than we both are.
“The dogs are still lethargic,” says Jussi Holck, owner of Shaman Huskies, the husky farm that we are visiting and that operates and manages husky sled runs on the frozen Ounasjoki river in magical Rovaniemi, the official home of Santa Claus. “They come into their element at around 40 degrees below zero, you should see them then.” If we could dare.
Much a part of Finland’s storied heritage and culture, the huskies are winter’s friend, quite akin to what the salukis of the desert mean to the Arab. “Huskies are meant for cold winter weather and snowy conditions,” says Jussi.
“We have snow here in Lapland from late November or early December right towards the end of April. After the long winter the dogs seem to enjoy the sun of the spring days and early summer as a vacation break. After they have had enough rest, we take them walking, hiking, swimming and free running in the forests, as they cannot do any hard exercise if the temperature is warmer than 10 degrees Celsius (husky owners in Dubai, take note).”
Profitable but tough
Husky farms such as Shaman Huskies are popular in Finland, a nation that taps its immense winter tourism potential through sustainable and viable options such as husky and reindeer rides. And while many of these farms are industrial in size and scale, with some owning between 200-250 huskies, Shaman Huskies is more boutique, set up by Holck as a passion project in his quest to be at one with nature and the elements, and his beloved huskies.
“We started the business in the summer of 2017. I had been working with huskies before and I fell in love with their personalities,” says Jussi. “I’ve seen different ways in which husky farms are run and none of them were for me. That’s why I got the idea of building my own place, do it my way, remaining deeply connected with nature and to forgot the unnecessary. I believe the dogs and nature are enough.” With 36 dogs, Holck does not wish to manage more than 40 in his pack just so that he and his team can dedicate enough time and build a lasting bond with each of them. “At the moment we can recognise all our dogs just by their voice, for example.”
Holck makes it sound easy, but running even a small husky farm is tough business. “It is a lot of work. We spend long days doing highly physical work outdoors no matter what the weather is or how tired you feel.” The dogs need to be taken care of every single day of the year and they need a human presence every day so vacations are out of the question. “Winter time is really busy work with the traveler season and usually in the summer we have lots of maintenance work at the farm, fixing and repairing fences and things.”
A typical winter’s day at the farm starts at around 5am. “I have to prepare everything before I go outside, packing up all the equipment, making hot juice for customers, filling the water tanks for dogs and preparing the meat soup for them. Then I start the work at the farm around 7am, depending on the day, giving the dogs their breakfast (meat soup), cleaning up the fences, shoveling fresh snow from the farm yard and road, putting up campfires, preparing the trails and the dogs for the sled team and making everything ready before the first customers arrive at the farm around 10am.”
A near endless train of tourists visit until 3pm, after which we return the dogs back to their pens and give them food.” Jussi and his team then step away to check on the trails once more and generally clean up the farm. “Around 5 or 6pm after all that I sit down with my team and eat.”
Thrills and spills
Part leisure, part adventure sport, husky rides and races are thrill rides, a perfect complement to Finland’s harsh wintry landscape. An excellent way to connect with nature, husky rides allow tourists to admire and respect the flora and fauna that frame Finland’s nature canvas.
Tourists for instance often ask Jussi during rides out into the lake if there could be a chance of wolf spotting. “Wolves are not so common in the area we are in but they have been spotted oft and on a few kilometres away.”
Not one to shy away from wolves, Jussi’s pack also includes Harmaa, a husky that is part wolf. “Harmaa is a low content wolf-husky-mix with 25 per cent wolf blood in him. He is originally from Alaska where he was part of the wolf modelling cast for the 2011 Hollywood movie, The Grey [starring Liam Neeson]. He came to Finland when he was about 3 years old and finally came to us from a friend when he was 6. He is a sled dog as any of our dogs and the alpha male of our pack.”
Talking of Hollywood, the danger associated with dog sleds travelling on thin ice has been dramatised in several films over the years, but Jussi is critical of this portrayal as he ensures, as do owners of other farms that enough precautions are taken when carrying tourists over the frozen river.
“Our trails go mostly on the river ice which we make sure in the beginning of the season is thick enough before we go in. Between 5-10cm of solid ice is enough to carry a person walking but the ice is usually 30-40cm thick before we even make the trails, which are therefore completely safe. We have never had any kind of accident on our safaris or at our farm.”
Besides, Jussi reckons the dogs are strong enough to pull their passengers out of harm’s way if called to do so. “Our sled safaris are driven by professional guides so that the customers are all sitting in the sled. We usually use 8-10 dogs, and 10 dogs can pull even 5 adults.” They are strong, these huskies, with a healthy appetite for adventure, and well, a healthy appetite as well.
Make it large
A typical husky diet in winter at Shaman Huskies includes raw meat mixed with beef with vital vitamins and minerals added to the mix. “The dogs consume up to 10,000 kcal a day when humans consume 2,000 kcal a day. The huskies need to eat a lot of healthy food (females around 500g a day and males around 800g) and they need a lot of fat and protein in their food. They are super athletes.”
Hydration for the huskies is also very important during the day, reason why they are fed a diet of soup in the morning, besides, the meat contains 60 per cent water. Ensuring the health and well-being of the dogs is critical in the extreme winter cold. “All of our dogs are vaccinated and given anthelmintic twice a year and we take them to the vet anytime they need it.”
Farm owners like Jussi hope to raise awareness about heritage breeds such as the husky to global audiences. Aware of the stature that salukis enjoy in the UAE and the wider Middle East, Jussi hopes more audiences from the region will visit Finland and appreciate and share their love for huskies as well.
“We have visitors from Middle Eastern nations but I am hoping the footfalls will increase in the coming years. There is a lot that the people of Finland and the UAE have in common including an endearing love for canines, I’m hoping this only grows in the years to come.”
For more information visit www.shamanhuskies.com