I did overseas volunteering with 80 fluffy huskies for 10 weeks!
For many of us, deep frozen lakes and wooden cabins decorated with fresh snowflakes and rooftop icicles stretching to the ground are distant dreams, or images we’ll only ever see on TV. For me, it was a beautiful, everyday reality. I discovered this incredible sight while volunteering on a husky farm in Fell Lapland.
After deciding that a gap year was for me, I set my mind to what I was going to do with it. I’d always wanted to ride a husky sleigh – sso when a quick Google search pointed me towards working as a Hetta Huskies guide, I was overjoyed. Hetta Huskies is a husky farm in Northern Finland, 220 km inside the Arctic Circle, run by Pasi Ikonen and Anna McCormack. Every winter, Anna and Pasi accompany hundreds of tourists into the arctic wilderness by husky sleigh, keeping watch from snowmobiles nearby. With strict systems and procedures in place, they run their farm through the help of volunteers throughout the year. This is the team I joined.
The majority of my time at Hetta was spent on the Wilderness (or Darwin) Farm – a smaller farm in a stunning, rustic location. Nights were spent at the farm in wooden cabins which, although they had electricity, lacked running water. That meant one had to run to the dog kitchen for midnight drinks or calls of nature.
The stresses of modern life fell away once work in the Arctic kicked in, and I was surrounded by the daily howls and growls of eighty energetic huskies as well as swirling, tumbling snowflakes starting and stopping unpredictably. The legendary Northern Lights also made irregular appearances.
With the sun hiding below the horizon for a few more weeks after my arrival, twilight had to do for the daily client safaris, repair jobs and dog-related tasks. My head torch quickly became my most valuable possession when feeding the dogs at 7am in utter darkness became a frequent occurrence.
When the sun did decide to appear, it was a beautiful phenomenon. Before it rose I saw only a perfect pink line shooting up from the horizon and going on forever. My longest break of the day was spent staring, baffled, as I tried to figure out what was causing it. Not recognising the sun was a strange moment for me, and made me realise how different from my normal home life my work was.
Darwin Days started quickly. From the moment I rolled out of bed – knowing the temperature outside could easily be as low as -40°C – and wolfed down my first mug of hot tea, the dogs were my priority. Breakfast was a quick affair, with the huskies outside being just as hungry as me. Soon after my tea, armed with buckets of “soup” (meat mixed into warm water in an attempt to persuade the dogs to drink), a scoop, and my trusty head torch, I trekked into the morning darkness to wake the dogs. Most were as reluctant as me to face the cold.
Morning safaris were as thrilling as they were unpredictable. Clients would regularly tip into the soft snow either side of the track and require heroic rescues. “Indiana Jones moments” – swiftly grabbing a passing sleigh and leaping onto the break – were unfortunately few and far between, yet guides would often race in front of lost sleighs on snowmobiles in a bid to stop the dogs. Inevitably, the back dogs would stop slightly too late, causing a spectacular tangle of dog limbs and team lines – which had to be untangled quickly to get the team running again before they could get restless and begin to fight.
On more than one occasion, I ended up off the track in waist-deep snow, trying to guide the dogs away and shoo them to the other side of the path. At least once, an empty sleigh – I hadn’t seen the clients since the corner I dived past a minute ago – was pulled straight over me, and I watched in dismay as the dogs continued, running happily away without a driver.
I think someone shot past me on a snowmobile and saved the day. It’s hard to remember every rescue we made. Only once did a husky team without a driver stop on cue – though with the knowledge they were about to get their after-run feed, who wouldn’t?
Afternoons at the farm were quieter, but just as busy. With the huskies safely returned to their kennels, the tasks of checking the dogs, running circles and sleighs for injuries and damage filled our hours, sometimes with an early afternoon feed to prepare for an evening ride.
Days finished with computer work, noting who ran that day and how far, before calculating the teams for the next day. Regardless of the easy-going dogs who got along with everyone, when seven teams of seven dogs are needed and only 50 huskies are present, healthy and willing, the traffic light system telling me which runners deserve a break is nearly as stressful to navigate as the safaris themselves.
Baxter *gulp* *melt*
All too soon, my stay at the Hetta Huskies farm drew to a close. Even a week from my departure, I was discovering new sides to the dogs. Baxter – a small, white, fox-faced dog with a shrill bark – apparently loved attention and strokes, looking more than content if you just sat and rubbed his belly. Ciril (one of my winter-found favourites) was far more cuddly than I’d first thought.
Every day was filled with new problems and situations, and though volunteering in such harsh physical conditions was a challenge in itself – without the stress that impulsive animals contributed to my weeks away – my experience at the farm remains the most amazing, rewarding thing I have ever done.
Nothing will ever cheer you up like a wagging tail and a happy bark in the middle of a stressful day!