Volunteering – Discovering My Wild Spirit

Prior to becoming a dog sled tour guide I’d never seen snow. I’d never owned a dog. In fact, I’d grown up as a cat lover in a small suburb of Tasmania, about 15,000km’s away from the dog sledding kennel in northern Sweden. My new career and passion began with a half-hearted e-mail expression of interest while browsing a volunteer website called workaway.info. I’d been travelling Europe for 3 years, and saw this volunteering work as a new way to travel and experience a new culture, without the hassle of finding an apartment to live, employment, and new friends in a foreign city. I wanted to try something new, out of my comfort zone. The turning point came after simultaneously going through a relationship break down, and the sudden death of one of my closest friends. These types of heartbreak and trauma can trigger any number of things, for me it was a radical realisation that life is short. I want to have a story to tell, hopefully to inspire others to take the path less trodden, and just live life the way it was meant to be lived, however you choose to do it. With thousands of jobs listed on workaway, I chose some that interested me the most and sent dozens of emails to various ads throughout Sweden. Claire, the brains behind wild spirit sled dogs contacted me for a skype interview. 

I felt an immediate connection with Claire and despite my limited dog handling experience I was chosen as one of two volunteers to join the team in Ottsjo for the winter season. I was about to be introduced to an incredibly addictive lifestyle. A character building experience like no other. Truly diving into the unknown from my humble upbringing working as an electrician on the southern most island of Australia, Tasmania, To the harsh freezing cold climate and vast snow covered mountains of northern Sweden. I felt incredibly lucky to be given the opportunity and couldn’t wait to be a part of it. It was my curious taste for adventure, a desire to push boundaries, to explore and grow, discover a new way to live, that initially led to this experience. Now I was determined to prove myself and restore the faith shown by Claire and Richard not just as a helping hand but as a capable worker to be trusted and relied upon, to work hard beyond expectation to get the most out of the experience in every way possible. I wasn’t content to settle for the standard voluntary 25 hour working week, I pushed myself constantly, accelerating my knowledge and by January I led my first solo tour. In my second season we often run tours simultaneously during busy periods. Days off are rare in this occupation, which I’ll use to go cross country skiing, or have a sauna and a swim in the frozen lake or simply wander down to the kennel to catch up with the dogs. 

The wild Spirit dog sled business is located in a rural town of Sweden called ottsjö, 40 minutes drive to Sweden’s biggest ski resort, Åre. The Welsh family run business is home to 80 Alaskan and Siberian huskies. Richard and Claire, the business owners, had featured on a British documentary about their intriguing way of life. The audacious couple moved to Sweden and lived five years in a self sufficient cabin in the woods. No electricity, no running water, in one of the harshest climates on the planet. Thankfully these days since upgrading the kennel the Rees family operate out of modern day apartment, with all the trimmings. 

From Stockholm to Undersåker is a 9hour train ride. Sweden is a big country and varies in climate and scenery from the flatter, warmer, and windier south to the mountainous, artic cold in the north. Most inhabitants live in the capital Stockholm, other big cities are Gothenburg and Malmo. My face was glued to the window watching the winter wonderland pass me by. I had no idea at this point that the landscape I was so mesmerised by was about to get a whole lot more mesmerising. Snow was barely covering local footpaths, for the presumably Swedish dominated train carriage, it was merely a typical November day like any other, my fellow commuters were more interested in their Instagram feed than the carriage window. 

The only snow id seen falling from the sky was the slushy melted chunks littering the streets of Copenhagen during a brief downpour the previous winter. Within three days it was gone again. Previous to that experience the only other time I would see snow is on top of mount Wellington. Towering above the Tasmanian capital, Hobart, this mountain often collects snow consistently throughout the chilly winter months, when this happens the only road going up the mountain, accessible by car, gets closed making it virtually impossible to reach the summit and enjoy the powdery white stuff. So naturally, this misty covering im witnessing during my journey north is blowing me away with its beauty. Undersåker is my destination with a brief stop in Ange. During this 20 minute changeover the cold air is piercing my fragile Aussie skin. It’s painful to have any skin exposed so I take shelter in a nearby ICA supermarket to warm up the body. Holy shit. It’s bloody freezing outside! Where I come from is the coldest place in Aus. You can ask any Aussie and they’ll tell you how miserably cold Tasmania is. But this temperature I’m feeling is not like anything I’ve experienced in Tassie. In Tas a simple fleecy beanie would do the trick and I’d still get away with wearing shorts it would be no worries. But this was different, this was brutal, like nothing before. The temperature? -2, An average November day in this part of the world. I’d need to acclimatise quickly. I grabbed my brand new thermal underwear, a product I considered not purchasing, being undecided if I’d need it. For the next 6 months I never left the house without them on.

When I lived in Denmark I would often brag to family back in Aus of myself battling the Copenhagen winds riding my bicycle to work in winter, even going on the odd run in freezing temperatures. London too can be a tough climate in winter. These brief brushes with cold weather was virtually no preparation on what I was about to undertake with the sled dogs. Yeah I can ride a bike to work in 2 degrees, a difficult task with the CPH wind chill, But I’m freezing by the time i finish the 25 minute journey, similarly, my winter runs were aided by the thought of a hot shower that would follow. If I couldn’t stand and wait in -2 for a connecting train without freezing my balls off, what hope have I got when temperatures regularly sit at -20, for weeks on end, and get to as low as -38, which they did 3 months later in February. 

I arrive at my destination, undersåker, a barely recognisable desolate stop in the middle of nowhere. Here I’m greeted by Richard and his son Joe and driven to the kennel to meet the dogs. I remember the moment. It’s a memory I will cherish, knowing how far I’ve come since that day. At the time it was an anti-climactic greeting. A simple pat on the head and walk around the enclosure was all i felt was necessary at the initial introduction with the huskies. Besides I was knackered and it was dark already. They were just dogs to me then. A year on The feeling couldn’t be more different as I go about daily business at the kennel, feeding, cleaning the kennels, running tours with these amazing animals. Each day I feel a stronger and stronger bond to the dogs with every day that passes. It’s a special feeling to be able to work with animals and these Huskies are a special case indeed. I’ve developed A deep connection with each and every dog that in many ways goes beyond any human interaction. Its a body language communication and almost telepathic sensory between musher and husky. The dogs have an infectious enthusiasm, whenever things get hard or tiring, if things got tough, I would look to them for motivation. I wasn’t getting paid and I’m pretty sure they weren’t either. They were getting fed, and a place to sleep, same as me, if it was good enough for them, it sure as hell was fine for me. Dogs act on instinct, There’s no second thought it’s just action. It’s this brutal honesty that we as humans can learn from. To cut the bullshit and just be how we feel. At the time, my first introduction to the kennel, I had no idea what I was in for, absolutely clueless to be frank, but I was keen to learn. And learn is what I’d do!

No better teacher to have, for me at least, than Richard Rees. An eccentric leader from the old school with a no fuss method approach, intense and sporadic at times, a reminder to old fashioned football coach’s over the years that seem to get the best out of me by pushing me to the physical limit. With a temperament that differs to my methodical calm approach, Richard goes in all guns blazing, and often forgets to stop for lunch. As a duo it works well. Richards intensity sparks me into gear and I’m there to calm him down. Rich has an incredible amount of dog sledding knowledge and his attention to detail as caretaker of the kennel is exceptional. Richard is a kit freak, so you better not touch his bushcraft knife! There’ll be no short cuts taken when Richards in charge. The Huskies at wild spirit are the number one concern for us, it’s the dogs health and safety that come first and foremost. We are the guides, but the dogs are the stars of the show. Pulling 250kg sleds 16kms up steep hills and through deep snow is a monumental effort and the dogs do it everyday, with a smile on their face, often shouting at us to let go of the break, they just love to run!

The dog sledding world is a never ending learning experience and I’m sure each and every musher has their own methods how to control these crazy pups and ensure smooth tours or races. My methods I would borrow and mould from the experience of Richard. I was at square one and despite my eagerness to get stuck in there was a long, long road ahead and I was about to get thrown head first into the hectic lifestyle of a dog sled musher. Being the new dog handler Im quick to notice The dogs will test you. You are new to the dog sled world, they know that, and they’ll exploit it. Whenever a new person arrives at the kennel the dogs sense it and will begin a whole number of tricks such as stealing food from the main bowl while the newbie is caught off guard. It takes time to gain the trust of the pack, my first task, learn their names! This was the easiest part of the job. Dogs are paired in kennels, sibling pairing is common so if you’ve got one name you can pick up the other pretty quick and after a while it becomes pretty natural to call each one as if he’s a good mate down at the local pub! Next job is all about feeding the dogs properly and keeping the kennel clean, generally speaking, male meal portions are slightly more than females, young pups need less, big dogs need more, and some need special monitoring, and are susceptible to losing weight quicker and more frequently than other dogs, these ones we will need to be double fed, preferably a morning meal and evening, splitting portions throughout the day to encourage digestion. The monitored dogs, that have lost weight, will not run on tours and will need to rest and eat before being considered again on tours. Over exertion and a drop in temperature may cause weight loss. These main factors are taken into account before each day therefore underweight dogs may be coated to protect from the cold. If the dog is suffering following this procedure it will be taken home to recover inside the warm house, and inspected for viruses, tics, or infections. Because dogs can’t speak, It’s important to be aware of and act promptly whenever a dog is displaying signs of discomfort. The Alaskan and Siberian breeds generally have different characteristics. Alaskan huskies are full of energy and typically require more monitoring. Siberians are well known for covering long distances on very little food. They appear to maintain weight far easier perhaps due to the thickness in fur and often mild temperament. Alaskan huskies are a Siberian cross breed, bred for racing teams, they are typically more powerful and a little bit more crazy. Harder to work with but generally stronger overall.

The food is special dog sled food supplied from Arktis, Denmark, or ‘Super dog’, a high fat, high protein, energy feed. We use 20-30kg per day for 80 dogs, depending on time of the season. The day before feeding we mix half a bucket of food with half a bucket of water, overnight the food soaks up the water and doubles in size, softening in the process. At the kennel, the dogs are fed, and we add an extra scoop of lukewarm water to the individual bowls, further hydrating the meal. We believe the additional added water overnight and at feeding time is paramount for the healthy hydration of the dogs. Permanent water bowls are not possible in the winter months, the water freezes almost instantly. Dogs that are running on tour will be given an extra meal about 40 minutes before they run. This meal is a combination of the Arktis sled dog biscuits, mixed dry without the soaking procedure of the daily food to enable a slow burning effect, plus we add half a block of high fat, high protein meat that defrosts overnight, we then add warm water and mix it together to make a high energy soup to keep the dogs full and hydrated before the tour. During high season we are running two tours a day, in these times we will feed the dogs again between tours. They will receive extra soup or a treat such as meatballs made from the defrosted meat blocks, rolled into balls and left overnight to freeze. hydration and nutrition are incredibly important components of a successful dog sled team. If a dog is not eating before it runs it may eat the snow while on tour, which can cause the team to become out of balance and in fact will dehydrate the dog further. It may tire quicker and be unable to maintain the pace set by the other dogs, and need to be removed from the sled, to run behind the team at its own pace. Methods to encourage a dog to eat its food before they run are feeding them in a more comfortable environment, such as in their individual kennel before they run, or simply by tipping the contents of the bowl in the floor, this will often be enough to entice the dog to eat the scraps off the floor.

In addition to feeding the dogs daily, it’s important to maintain a quality level of hygiene by picking up all the shit left littered around each kennel, the not so glamourous side of dog sledding. Shit picking can be a monotonous task but an enjoyable one too, because it means quality time spent in the kennel, socialising with the dogs and learning more about their behavioural techniques, it’s during the early shit picking days that I was able to learn and remember the names of all 80 dogs. Dogs that live together generally run together also, making life easier for the dog handlers when loading and unloading the trailer. introverted dogs that prefer to be alone are treated that way and we find a spare kennel to let them chill out in peace. These dogs will often run single, on the sled or be paired with a calm, non-confrontational dog. If we have an aggressive male on tour we often put him with a female or maybe a young puppy, so long as the pup is not affected by this dogs aggression. As a general rule, male dogs will not fight with a female or with a young puppy. To avoid the puppy making process, Males and females must be kept in separate kennels. A female will be in heat 2 times a year for approximately 2 weeks at a time however there is an optimal mating period of 2-3 days during which time the female will sometimes entice the male’s eager approaches. During this time, we as dog handlers must be careful of not letting a female out of her kennel while there are males around. Males will literally camp outside the females kennel obsessed with her every move. They will fight for her attention and even climb over the kennel fence to get to her! A 2 metre vertical leap, achieved once by an eager male at our kennel, roofs need to be built over certain bouncy dog’s homes. Generally, it’s the extra male attention that gives our best indication when there is a female in heat. 

Once we get comfortable with the dogs and all the kennel duties, it’s time to learn the fun stuff and go dog sledding! There’s not enough snow around in Novemeber, so we’ll be training the dogs to tow the truck that we transport them in. Work begins around 8am and we start by loading 40 dogs into the truck, to drive them to a nearby road, årsvalen, a long stretch of 8km isolated track ideal for getting some quality KMs into the dog’s legs so they are fit and ready for when the tours start. To train the dogs we will take 10 out of the truck, connect them to a line in front of the truck, and have the dogs pull the truck, while we assist using a slight bit of accelerator. This method is repeated, until we have completed 4 track runs and all 40 dogs have had a run. It’s important to get as much training in before the season starts to avoid muscle injury and burnout. Ideally we try to get 700km in each dog before the tours begin. Some dogs may need more and some are naturally super fit and need less training. Training is a great time to introduce young puppies to the team, it’s also a great time to try new lead dogs, wheel dogs, and dogs in different positions, to test who runs well with who. Unfortunately testing left right commands on lead dogs doesn’t work here Due to the track being dead straight, instead we use a purpose built fencing area at the back of the kennel, built in an X shape to weave left and right at intersections, rewarding positive reactions with treats. Training is also a perfect time for me to learn the basics and prepare me for what will be required once the tourists arrive. Using the truck as a training machine means any mistakes made during set up will potentially be less disastrous than when the lightweight single sleds are used. The sleds are able to be lifted with one hand, combined with my petite 72kg frame provides little resistance and the dogs are able to consistently run at top speed. A truly remarkable feeling of pure athletic power. 

The dogs come out of the truck and are clipped to a stake out, a long wire run between thick tree trunks on the side of the track. Suitable harnesses are chosen from 3 different sizes, once these are fitted its time to be fed a bowl of the energy soup. When the final safety checks are complete we connect the dogs to the sled using a toggle on the rear of the harness which connects to a loop in the 1m tug line which protrudes out from the main gang line. At the neck a short metal wire with a plastic clip connects onto the dog collar. Plastic clips are used for safety, and are designed to snap if the neck line hits an obstacle, such as a tree, in this scenario the clip is designed to break so the dog springs free from being strangled around the obstacle. while the dogs are being connected the noise is deafening. Knowing it’s finally time to run the dogs can’t contain their excitement, barking and pulling hard to try and release the restraints. The lead anchor, which is used to stretch the line out straight so the team doesn’t turn, is removed, and we start the truck, the dogs begin to run and pull with all their strength. Pure silence, happy dogs, and exhausted dog handlers. What an adrenaline rush. I was absolutely loving it. A sweaty exhausted mess, sitting In the truck, catching a breath before the next team was ready to have a run. After 4 runs I was completely knackered. if 10 dogs was adrenaline and downright exhausting, what’s it going to be like, when we have 21 people booked on tour, which we did season two, involving 69 dogs and 8 separate sleds.

Snow arrives two weeks later for my first introduction to proper dog sledding. Training with the sleds differs from the confident sturdy support of a 2 tonne truck. Holding the dogs back now is a lightweight snow anchor, probably the most important piece of kit on tour. The anchor is attached to a rope about 2 metres in length, connected onto a carabineer, which is joined to an expander, another carabineer on the opposite end of the expander holds the main sled line passing under the front bow of the sled. Two ropes joined to the sled meet at the bow and join the anchor and quick release in the same expander. The quick release is to prevent lead dogs from turning, and is connected to the sled directly behind it, so at the beginning all sleds form virtually one long gang line until the quick release is disconnected immediately before take-off. The anchor rope will be a suitable length for the musher to reach down, pull up, and place on the handlebars of the sled before take-off. In ideal conditions the snow will be compacted, and hard, allowing the anchor to grip tightly and stop any sudden movements. Poor conditions, such as deep snow, or ice, give poor anchor points and will cause the sled to move if the dogs jerk on the main tug line. This can be one of the biggest issues when stopping for coffee breaks on tour as if the anchor doesn’t hold in poor quality snow, the sled will creep forward into the team in front, causing potential tangles in lines, fights or bitten and destroyed equipment. It’s during these times in particular that we are on high alert, watching for any potential catastrophes, while simultaneously appearing to present a cool calm demeanour during general fika small talk with the guests. One of my very first training sessions the anchor popped. The snow was not sufficient enough for the anchor to sink in, it popped out of the ground and the whole team bolted forward into the team in front. It was absolute chaos attempting to restore order. Unclipping dogs at rapid pace while Richard puts his weight on the break to avoid any more damage. Once the problem had been rectified, the anchor didn’t pop out of the ground, in fact, it’s never done so since I’ve been involved in tours. It’s one of many mistakes that need not be repeated. It’s events like this that help you realise how dramatically a casual ride through the forest can change. Small mistakes can be catastrophic. Attention to detail is paramount and it’s our job to ensure no corners are cut and the safety of the tourists, and most importantly our dogs is maintained in a professional manner. 

Setting up for the first tour of the season is exciting and I can’t wait to see how the madness unfolds. Typically, two guests are given 8-10 dogs depending on weight and snow conditions, they drive one of our two seater tourist sleds while someone sits down. if they are unwilling to drive they can sit while a guide drives the sled. Lucky for me, one of the tourists was not willing to drive so I put my hand up to do the honours. The tour is magnificent, we start by climbing up the mountain toward Hall fjallet tourist station where we stop for a brief fika, then pick up speed as we head back down the mountain, across the plateau, weave through some Forrest and arrive back at the start point.

Tours start mid-December and it’s one of the busiest times with tourists flocking to the local ski village, Åre for the beginning of the winter ski season. We are fully booked in this period and run tours every day from mid-December to the first week of January when the tourists disappear back to work and back to reality. Richard and myself are absolutely knackered and it takes us about a week to recover from the busy Christmas schedule. January is typically a quiet month then everything ramps up for ‘Sportlov’, a Swedish winter holiday for kids spread out over 4 weeks with a different section of Sweden have one week off over the month. Then there’s Easter, which attracts a huge crowd to make the most of the last days of winter, and enjoy the wonderful weather the ‘5th season’ brings. The 5th season is the term given to the period between spring and summer, when there’s still snow around but it’s warm enough to go skiing in a t-shirt! You can even catch a nice tan from the beaming sun bouncing off the snow. 

My first season at wild spirit was crazy. We had record breaking snow fall, reportedly the most seen for about 50 years. Richards wish for snow, snow, snow, came true but even he wanted it to stop. The kennel was overflowing with the stuff. Every single day we were out there with a shovel, clearing kennel doors, and had to climb up on the roof of the kennels twice to avoid it collapsing under the weight. Being my first experience it felt natural for history to repeat on the second year however that couldn’t be further from the truth. From the non stop downpour and constant difficulties faced with heavy snow on the first season, season number 2 was challenging on a whole other level. It hardly snowed at all in November and we were running the Christmas tours on ice. Bumping and sliding around the track makes it difficult for drivers to hold on while navigating the tight corners. There were a few casualties in the process but no injuries, and broken sleds happened all too regularly. It’s been a challenge to figure out different routes, new starting locations, and what will be a suitable amount of dogs per team per tour. All these are last minute decisions based on weather conditions, decisions that may prove costly, if we overcompensate with the amount of dogs, tourists may not be able to handle the power, and fall off the back. Similarly, if we provide not enough dogs, they may struggle to pull the sled especially going uphill. Prior to the snow arriving this year we cut a new route which has increased productivity dramatically. Leaving from the rear of the kennel and heading through the forest and onto the frozen lake saves time setting up for tours it’s much easier than loading and unloading the truck. It’s flat terrain meaning less dogs which equals less work for us. The season began in the worst way possible when we lost our main lead dog to illness. It was a tragic moment when we had to put her down. Taken from this world at her peak, Bella was the top dog at the kennel, the perfect sled dog in every sense of the word. Her ability and nous when given directions was second to none, she was on it before you could even finish the command. Combined with smulan these two were as good as it gets in terms of lead dogs. It’s just not the same without Bella around and we all miss her terribly. When there’s a kennel of this size it’s a tragic inevitability that these things happen. It is the most heart-breaking part of the job. 

I feel much more comfortable leading tours now, from the fresh faced and clueless beginning I can now run tours on my own and if the bosses head back to Wales to attend to family life they know the kennel is in good hands. What started as a simple thoughtless email has developed into a true passion for sled dogs, and life out in the nature. Being out on the mountain with a team of dogs is the greatest feeling in the world. Maybe I will have my very own kennel one day.

Bella RIP

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