What’s on your bucket list?

Sometimes we just need an excuse to tick something off our bucket list, and a big wedding anniversary was what prompted us to do something special – and for us that meant Husky Sledding!  A quick call to Travel Councellor Sue Fleet soon put the wheels in motion to planning the perfect trip to Norway and I’m so pleased we got Sue on board as we certainly wouldn’t have ended up having the experience we had through our own google search.

Things got off to a bit of a sticky start as our departure day coincided with Storm Ciara, and she decided to join us for quite a while! Our flight out of Manchester to Oslo was cancelled and we ended up initially flying to Stockholm whilst our luggage went to Copenhagen! Oh well, Sweden, Denmark and eventually Norway made this a truly Scandinavian holiday!

Arriving at last …

After four flights we finally arrived at our destination, ‘Trasti & Trine’ Lodge near Alta in Finnmark, the far north of Norway. The location was perfect, next to the huge Alta river, famous for Salmon fishing, and in the middle of woods with crystal clear skies above. ‘Trasti & Trine’ is named after its owners, Johnny Trasti and his partner Trine Lyrek.  Johnny is a top notch chef and was crowned Norwegian Chef of the year in 2009.  Trine is a renowned dogsledder who has often taken part in the Finnmark race, Europe’s longest sledge dog race. Together they have created this unique concept of dog activities in the heart of a pine forest coupled with excellent fine dining upon your return.

After our extended journey to get there we were ready for our beds when we arrived late at night. Our accommodation was in the Stengelsedgarden lodge which is ½ mile from the restaurant and dog yard, reached by a picturesque drive or walk down a snow covered lane. The lodge itself is fairly newly built with clean modern bedrooms, large bathrooms and covered verandas outside. It has an attractive dining area where breakfast is served and which opens onto a very relaxing lounge area with a wonderful open fireplace.

On our first morning we were greeted in the breakfast room by the extremely friendly Elaine, a British lady from Manchester, who has worked every winter at Trasti & Trine’s for the past six years. She ended up there because of her love of huskies and dog sledding.

Skidoo’ing!

After filling ourselves up with one of Elaine’s fantastic breakfasts we headed off for our first activity – a skidoo ride through the forests and across frozen lakes and rivers. Peter and I shared a skidoo, taking it in turns to drive. Norway was having unusual amounts of snow fall at the time, and the snow was soft and plentiful, which was just as well once I was driving as I managed to flip the thing, catapulting us both off the skidoo. Fortunately nothing was damaged or hurt, on either us or the skidoo, but it did take a while to get it out of the huge banking of snow that I’d crashed it into!

Upon our return to the lodge it was time for hot showers and a little time to relax in the lounge, swapping stories with our fellow travellers. There was a broad array of guests, a family of 5 from America, an Australian couple and a French couple, along with two American ladies who were absolutely fabulous! One was 69 and the other 81 and they were both up for anything and everything! They did skidoo’ing, husky sledding, Northern Lights chasing – the lot!  Age is no barrier for this type of holiday. After a couple of glasses of our duty free wine (tip: take advantage of your duty free allowance when visiting Norway as alcohol is very expensive) we headed up the snowy lane to the restaurant. The sky was clear and the colours varied from being bright blue one minute, to orange and then pink.

                   

Dinner was an absolute treat. Moose and Reindeer being options to try. The restaurant was buzzing as it’s clearly popular with non-residents too, so reservations are essential to guarantee a table.  An excellent wine menu accompanies the menus (corkage isn’t an option in the restaurant).  After perhaps one too many wines we skipped back to the lodge, all giddy and excited about what lay ahead.

The Main Event ….

The next day we leapt out of bed ready for the main event. Breakfast was extra special today as there was a moose ideally chewing on the trees outside the breakfast room.  Those things are HUGE close up!  After filling our tummies yet again, we donned our giant snow suits and snow boots provided by the lodge and headed up to the dog yard.

Trine has in the region of 70 dogs.  They are primarily racing dogs and the tourist rides are a good way to assist with their training, the young ones especially have an advantage if they learn the art of resting when they can before they start their training to be sled racers.  We were encouraged to walk around the yard and integrate with the dogs. They each had their own wooden kennel with their name on it.  They all had a long chain which rotated on a pole so they had plenty of space to move about.  The yard was unbelievable spotless with no dog mess anywhere to be seen. Right from the off you could see the dogs had different personalities.  What stood out for me from the beginning was how incredibly affectionate they all were, rubbing themselves up against you and demanding belly rubs and cuddles.

We were then introduced to Marie who was to be our tour leader. She took us to a sled and explained how they worked. We would each have our own sled with a team of four dogs.  There were four of us on the tour, ourselves and a German couple.  Marie would be on the lead sled with another handler.   They showed us how to stand on the sled and how to operate the breaks. There is a rubber mat which is on chains and bounces along the ground between your feet. When you need to slow the dogs down you put a foot on the mat and apply some pressure, the more pressure the more the dogs slow down. Putting both feet on the mat brings the dog to a stop. In front of the mat there is a pedal break which is the emergency break if you need to stop sharply. Then there is the big red metal anchor that hangs on your sled. This is for when you need to get off your sled, if you don’t have this anchor firmly in the snow and you step off your sled you can wave goodbye to your team because they’ll be off! Marie then showed us how to harness a dog and attach them to the ropes in front of your sled.

              

Instructions completed we were each then given a card with four dogs names on, showing which position they were to be on our sled.  Under each name was a letter indicating what size harness they needed.  My team was Buljo, Brulee, Henning and Twitter.  Peter had Bingis, Face, Lobb and Elgar.  On the card Bingis had an asterix rather than a harness size. Upon asking Marie why she explained it was because Bingis is the naughty boy in the yard and has to be harnessed up and tethered to the sled last, otherwise he bites through the rope in a nano second and he’s off! He loves running so much he has no patience whatsoever for any waiting around.

    

And we’re off!

Harnessing the dogs was an absolute joy. They were so excited when they realised they’d been chosen to go on the tour, they clearly love what they do.  Once all dogs were tethered and we were stood on our sleds we were ready for the off.  The dogs were all going nuts and the excitement was palpable. We were warned that we would need to use our breaks quite a lot to start with as the dogs are so wired they go hell for leather at the beginning. I started to feel a mixture of excitement and nervousness and then ….. WE WERE OFF!

Marie was right, we did need to break constantly for probably the first 20 minutes or so until the dogs settled down and got their rhythm, and then all you heard was the gentle panting of the dogs as we glided through the snow covered tracks between the trees. Next we were running alongside the side of a frozen river with the low sun shining in our eyes, unbelievably beautiful.  Then we were going over a huge open field of snow and then heading for a road crossing. As I said earlier, Norway was experiencing exceptional amounts of snow and because of this the height of the drop onto the road was probably much higher than normal. Before we had time to react our dogs were bounding off the 5ft drop onto the ice covered road and then flying up the 5ft banking on the other side, dragging us and the sleds behind! It was all I could do to hang on to the bar as unbelievably the sled followed the dogs without hiccup and, in my head, against the odds! It’s safe to say, each of us four novice mushers let out a yelp when that happened.

       

A couple of hours into the trip Marie gave us the option of continuing along a route which went along the valley bottoms, or to take a route which had some uphill work but rewarded us with spectacular views at the top.  We all opted for the latter and we headed off towards the hill.  Whilst the dogs are unbelievably strong, they can’t pull the sled uphill with you on it.  You therefore need to get off the sled on the inclines and run behind it. This sounds a lot easier than it is. Running up hill in a giant snow suit in deep snow is hard enough, but as I was no longer on the sled the dogs could pull the weight of it up the hill faster than I could run. I therefore had to simultaneously run up the hill whilst pulling back on the sled handle bar to stop the dogs running off with the sled – excellent fitness training, I was exhausted!

Sure enough we were rewarded with glorious views at the summit, and then we were gently mushing across the tops heading to find a good spot to stop for lunch.  Still enjoying the low sunshine we stopped on a remote plateau with a few trees which would be useful to help secure the dogs. As we got them tied up they were all playing together and rolling in the snow, kicking their legs in the air. Next we massaged each of our dogs to say thank you for getting us there. Brulee was pushing all my other dogs out of the way demanding to be massaged next, he was so funny. It was then time to feed the dogs with their portion of meat each, whilst Marie dug a giant 5ft hole in the snow where she lit a fire. Reindeer skins were then put around the edge of the hole and we all got ourselves settled whist Marie cooked lunch on the fire, steaming soup and toasted bread was served followed by warm chocolate brownies and steaming cups of coffee.  All this was enjoyed as Marie relayed stories about each of the dogs, Bingis’ naughty behaviour, Henning having an eye for the boys, Lobb the older lady who charms and is adored by everybody.

  

The journey back was eventful!

Lunch and story time over, we untied the dogs, lifted anchors and set off again.  I was now starting to feel quite comfortable on the sled and began experimenting with different techniques at applying the break.  Then suddenly I heard a shout from behind.  Looking round I saw that the German lady behind me had fallen and was hanging on to her sled handle whilst being dragged along face down.  Her dogs were slowing down but not stopping.  Eventually her arms gave up and she had to let go of the sled and the dogs were now heading towards me minus their musher.  I brought my dogs to a stop and threw my metal anchor into the snow, stamping on it to ‘lock’ it into the snow.  I could now get off my sled, ready to leap onto the loose team heading towards me.  Just as they got to me the dogs went to one side of me and the sled slid to the other side. Crikey, what’s going to happen here? Am I going to get squashed between the two sleds? And with that, my team of dogs – all revved up with the arrival of the stray team, leapt forward.  My anchor failed (obviously I hadn’t done it right) and off my team went with my sled minus me! I jumped onto the German ladies’ sled and managed to stop her team but I’d lost my team in the process.  In all the commotion and noise Marie, who was some way ahead, looked round to see my team heading towards her on their own, me on someone else’s sled and the German lady heading towards me on foot. She must have wondered what on earth had been going on!! Fortunately no humans or dogs were hurt and it all added to the excitement and drama of the day.

After a short stop to regroup and to hand out headlamps, we commenced our journey home.  The last few kilometres we retraced our steps, and yes – that road drop again! As much fun and as exhilarating as the first time.  The light was going now and darkness descended as we mushed the final stretch home through the forest by torch light – absolutely magical!

Upon arrival at the yard we detached each of our dogs, removed their harnesses and returned them to their kennels.  I final rub down, cuddles and kisses for each of the dogs brought the perfect experience to an end.  Approximately 35km in total, 6 people, 22 dogs and 5 sleds.

        

The Ice Hotel

After a quick return to the lodge for a shower and change, we were then heading off for dinner at the nearby Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, the northernmost ice hotel in the world. Johnny gave us a lift there and then kindly showed us around the hotel, including the three ice sculptures that he had made – this man is super talented!  We then dined in their wonderful circular wooden restaurant adjacent to the igloo where bear was on the menu.  Neither of us could stop talking about the day we’d just had, and we relived the experience in minute detail.

           

After dinner it was an early night as we were shattered.  The following morning we bid the lodge farewell, promising that one day we will return.

And Finally Tromso …

Our final two days were spent in Tromso, a 50 minute flight away.  We took a much slower pace here, taking a cable car ride up a mountain, an evening boat trip looking for the Northern Lights, but sadly without joy (never mind, an excuse to go back) and a visit to the locally famous restaurant Emma’s.

        

And then before we knew it, our Bucket List holiday was over and it was time to go home.  This trip was everything we’d hoped for and more. Our experience at Trasti and Trine felt totally authentic and not commercialised at all.  With hindsight is there anything we’d have done differently? Yes, I’d have taken a GoPro and have it attached to me on the husky sledding. I did take some video footage on my phone but only when we were going on straight safe sections at slow pace when I dared get my phone out without fear of dropping it. I’d love to have had the road crossing on film or the ‘incident’! Secondly, I’d have taken some smart phone friendly gloves so I could take pictures without taking my gloves off.  When we were there it was unusually warm for the time of year, but I did still want to have gloves on most of the time. Thirdly, remember a corkscrew for your duty free when in the guest lounge and finally, book through a Travel Counsellor. We’ve used Sue a few times and it pays dividends when things don’t go quite to plan whilst you’re away. Due to the cancelled and rearranged flight situation our luggage didn’t make it to the lodge when we did. Sue did all the work to track it down and get it back to us, enabling us to carry on with our holiday without having any hassle. We can’t recommend Sue highly enough.

Where we stayed and husky sledding ……   https://trastiogtrine.no/en/home/

The Ice Hotel and skidoos  ……………….       https://sorrisniva.no/about-sorrisniva

Who we booked through ……………………      https://www.travelcounsellors.co.uk/sue.fleet