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Luosto, Finland - The landscape is pristinely white as far as the eye can see and gloriously silent too. This is the Lapland wilderness in winter. The swish of sled runners on snow is the only sound to be heard.
There is no more exhilarating way to explore the rugged landscape of northern Finland than from behind a dog-hauled sledge - provided the driver behind the handlebar knows how to keep the four-legged bundles of energy under control.
The trip is about to get under way and the huskies know it too.
The dogs are barking impatiently and tugging at their leashes attached to the sleds they will pull. The animals are keen to get started but need to be patient until the brakes are released and they can sprint ahead.
Over the next few hours the husky safari will trek through the snow, starting out from the little town of Luosto. Before the sledging begins, guide Mika Backman explains a few rules.
“You must never, not under any circumstances let go of the sledge with the huskies still attached.” The sledge could catch up with the dogs and injure them.
“And remember to use your brake!” To demonstrate this the guide stands on a the back of a dogsled and activates a large metal bar which rams a claw into the ice.
It may sound a little tricky yet in practice piloting a dogsled is fairly straightforward. Drivers soon get a feel for keeping the vehicle on track as it glides through the whiteness. The hiss of the runners becomes familiar and is the only sound in woodland where motor vehicles do not venture.
Tepa is the lead dog. The bitch is the smallest husky in the ropes yet the seven-year-old up front is crucial. She is clearly in charge, determining the direction and speed of the team.
Two faster dogs are harnessed behind here and in the third row are Taavi und Niilo, two particularly strong dogs who bear the strain of the sled load more than the others.
The sled teams soon approach a kote tent, a type common in Lapland.
“It's time for lunch”, says Mika and directs the sleds to a row of trees where the dogs are tied up. The kote looks like an outsized wigwam, except that it is covered in reindeer hide - hardly surprising in an region where the animals are said to outnumber human beings.
Mika rummages in his pocket and pulls out a couple of fat sausages.
“We'll grill those now so that we've got enough energy for the next stage.”
Husky expert Mika is a powerfully-built man with broad shoulders, close-cropped hair and hands whose tanned skin betrays years of tough outdoor work. He has a wife and two children waiting for him at home in the evening. In they daytime though his life revolves around huskies.
Mika points out the differences between the various breeds of dogs and which ones are suitable for long-haul trips like these.
“Generally speaking all huskies love to run. Some are really crazy about it as you have seen.” The dogs only slow down in the summer, or the warmer weather that passes for it in Lapland. “They feel most comfortable when the temperature dips to 15 degrees below or colder.”
Today is perfect for them - if not for human beings. That is why things get off to a sluggish start after the intermission.
The drivers are wearing fully body overalls on top of layers of thick winter garments. The outfit makes them look a little clumsy and awkward - not that appearances count for much out here. Keeping warm is the main thing.
The dogs suddenly spring into action, eager to get going. Their excited barking is infectious and the drivers take up position and release the brakes before the dogs bound off as if competing in a race.
The trip carries on through a deserted, often wooded landscape and past snow-covered conifers as high as multi-storey buildings. Their branches hang so low that the drivers often have to duck their heads.
Night is falling slowly and it's time for the sleds to head back to base. Tepa and her charges sense that home is near and after hours of charging through the snow they seem to redouble their efforts for the return run. - Sapa-dpa