We work our budgets based on an estimate of €2.5 / dog / day – and this is just taking into consideration the basic veterinary and food costs for each dog since they live outside, eat more than house dogs in the process and also have more occasion to fight and get injuries than most pets. This estimate does not include any farm infrastructure, guide or sledding equipment costs etc.
It always amazes me when people compare snowmobiling safaris (which, ironically tend to be more expensive than husky safaris) and husky safaris and think that husky products are expensive. At the end of the season, snowmobiles are simply placed on pallets and turned off for a few months. Huskies, on the other hand, continue to need to be trained, fed, pooped, socialised and loved, year-round. Whilst a snowmobile is a one-off investment (with some maintenance costs along the way), one husky team costs pretty much the same amount to buy once you have considered the cost of the dogs, sleigh, lines, harnesses etc. Diesel costs for the snowmobiles are far lower than the year-round expenses associated with working with animals vs machines. And, anyway, safety conscious providers will still use snowmobiles as a safety component in their product too. In other words, if safaris were just to be based on cost, husky safaris should be priced far harder than their snowmobiling counterparts. Unfortunately, that is not the case since this is not understood by most clients or tour companies and current pricing strategies force many companies out of business. When that happens, it is again more serious than closing a business based around snowmobiles, since there are tens or hundreds of eager, friendly, hopeful and loving animals suddenly looking for a new home.
Please do not, therefore, simply base your decision on which operator to go with purely on price. Investigate the manner in which the dogs are cared for year-round. Look at the philosophy of the company and the quality of product that they pride themselves on and base your selection on criteria like those other than purely on cost.
So far, we have only raced three teams of dogs - all with extremely lucky guides driving. In our first year of operation, we wanted to concentrate on the dogs and optimising the products. In our second year, we had a new addition to our family in the form of Eliel, our son. In our third year, we took on the management of a second dog farm 60km from our own, on behalf of an English company, and almost 2/3 of the dogs on the farm needed to be trained from scratch so that left little time for anything new on our farm other than developing the route network for our longer multi-day safari products to come.
We would both like to race, one day, since most dog mushing racers say that the thing that they find most difficult is their own organisation, planning and survival as they navigate across 1000s of km of terrain in tough conditions. For us, that aspect would be second nature since we have been racing for years in races lasting up to 10 days across some of the most challenging terrains and in some of the most challenging conditions in the world. However, the proven systems for dealing with the dogs in a racing scenario would be new to us. Learning this new skill excites us as a concept. It is still to be seen whether or not it would also excite our dogs who are currently simply trained to love to run as opposed to race but seven years in, we now have some very good dogs so I don't think we can use the excuse that the dogs would necessarily be the ones holding us back much longer!.
One day, I am sure, the lure will prove too strong and we will go and see. And then, of course, once we have learned the basics we will need to return to put those learnings back into practise...and a pattern will be set. Let’s see what next year will bring.
The question should, rather, be what daily distance are the human mushers capable of covering? The dogs are trained to run long distances and 50km is relatively short for them by the end of the season (where-as it is a lot in the first few weeks of December, when the snow has only just settled). However, whilst a good team can easily cover 80 to 90 kms in a day, we generally do not ask our dogs to run much more than 40km a day since we want to make sure that they are continually keen to run, day after day. 40km suddenly seems like a really long way, also, after a sudden heavy snowfall!
The dogs run at different speeds, according to the distance to be covered. During a safari, we try hard to maintain a steady speed of about 10 to 14 mph (16 to 23 km/h). per hour, for the safety of the dogs as well as that of the clients. This is a pleasant speed at which to view the arctic landscape. Having said that, it is rare to leave the farm at a speed under 25km per hour, so be prepared for a rush of adrenaline from the moment of departure. On poor trail conditions, sled dogs can still usually average 6 or 7 mph (9.7 or 11 km/h). Sled dogs have been known to travel over 90 mi (145 km) in a 24 hour period while pulling 85 lb (39 kg) each.
The endurance races of the most famous sledge dogs take place in North America. Among them the Iditarod (Alaska) and the West Yukon (Canada) are the equivalent for the mushers of the World Cup for a footballer or the Raid Gauloises / Eco Challenge races that Anna and Pasi used to do as professional adventure races. These races last for between 8 and 10 days for the fastest teams and up to 30 days for the slowest teams. The distances covered are about 1600km, sometimes more. During the sprint races (short distances over 1 or 2 days) the dogs can attain speeds of around 50km per hour. The most famous Scandinavian dog races are the 500km Femundløpet Race and the 1000km Finnmarkslopet based a short distance from our base, in Alta, Norway.
Yes – at least, in theory – and particularly on our shorter safari routes since they run them regularly and it is, anyway, hard for the dogs to move away from the hard, compacted tracks, through the virgin snow at the sides. Clients are taught how to use directional commands on the longer safaris and we physically gesture to the dogs from the snowmobiles to help them to choose the correct path at turns on the shorter safaris (we do not teach clients how to command the dogs on these, for fear that they will get confused in the heat of the moment and in turn, confuse the dogs. We think that you have quite enough to think about, just getting to grips with driving the sleigh safely on your first time out!).
Obviously, since the huskies are animals, we cannot be 100% sure that they will always behave exactly as we would wish. Therefore, it is necessary to be ready for unexpected situations during the safaris (for example, when you order the leading dogs to turn left – ‘HAW’ – they may turn right – ‘GEE’ – or when the dogs suddenly stop running or, indeed, when they decide not to stop…). It is these unexpected moments that turn your safari into a real adventure and which leave you with memories that you will treasure forever.
It is great to see how excited the dogs become when they turn off their standard 6km and 12km safari routes and head onto one of the longer 20km, 40km or multi-day routes since they – and the guides - know that they are ‘going exploring’. These safaris are led by an expert guide who knows the route and who will command his dog team using verbal directions. The other teams of huskies will follow this lead sled, even if the lead sled is out of sight.
However, after heavy snowfalls, it can be almost impossible for the musher to find the tracks so he has to rely on the memory and smells of his dogs to pick the correct route. Days like that can be hard work but they are also really fun and feel very adventurous.
Those on the longer safaris are taught the commands and also how to deliver them, since it is important to be consistent with the commands and to expect obedience rather than to continually repeat them, since the dogs will soon stop listening to you. It is a very exhilarating experience when you realise that your dogs not only trust you, but are also listening and ready to obey.
All of the dogs that have lived with us for some time are used to humans. There are a few that have come to us recently who are still quite shy around new people and we will guide you on how best to approach the various dogs. Some of them crave attention and it does no harm to give it to them. Just be a little careful on your general approach. If you move too quickly you might scare them, so let them sniff you first.
Watch out in case the eager ones jump up onto you or jump around you in play. Their claws are sharp and they are very strong. Be particularly vigilant when approaching since you may become tangled, if they run in circles around you. Avoid, also, putting fingers through the wire netting of the cages since they might think that your fingers are a ‘dog treat’ and pups, in particular, might nip them accidentally.
None will ever deliberately bite a human unexpectedly, even if they can look a little scary when barking for attention. However, they can sometimes fight with each other and at those times clients are advised to steer clear and leave the intervention to the guides. It is also best to wait until after a safari before caressing the dogs since when they are waiting in the lines, they just want to run and playing with them can be distracting. They may also jump up, in excitement and hurt you without meaning to. After your safari we can introduce you to the dogs in your team and tell you a little about each of their characteristics. The only time a dog might nip you would be after you have been cuddling them and then turn to leave since they might gently tug at your backside to ask you to stay with them a little longer!
When visiting with children it is wise to warn them ahead of time that they are entering the ‘house of the dogs’. Please see that the children know how to behave around the dogs and that they don’t scare the dogs by poking or teasing them. The guides will be happy to show you the ideal dog to stroke if your child is a little nervous, so please feel free to ask, rather than allowing the children to approach the dogs on their own.
Beware, also, that the dogs like “to steal” and eat mittens and bonnets so avoid leaving them ‘just out of reach’ since somehow the dogs always manage to reach them. Some like to lick ears – beware of ear-rings - and some will jump to catch your hair or the tail of your hat if they are hanging down. It is wise to remove earings and to tie your hair back before playing with them.
This is particularly true, post safari when we will show you—if you are interested—how to unharness your team. For many people, giving the dogs that have run with them treats and taking them back to their personal kennels is a highlight of their farm experience.
Those coming for short safaris will be introduced to the dogs in their teams if they are interested and there is plenty of information on the farm about each of the dogs for those interested in learning more. When you are driving, we ask that you pay attention to the dogs to make sure that none are tangling, fighting etc and you will quickly notice differences in their characters. However, to be honest, you are probably going to be primarily concerned with not falling off!
Once your safari has finished, you will be given the chance to thank your dogs for their efforts by rewarding them with dog treats that can be purchased at the farm itself.
Those coming on longer safaris will have more chance to become comfortable driving. You will start to look around you more and to enjoy the primeval sensation of driving through a pristine wilderness in an ancient mode of transport accompanied solely by the sound of the runners on the snow. You will definitely get to know your dogs well if you are taking part in a multi-day safari, but do not get too attached to any particular dog immediately as there may be some swapping of dogs between teams in the first two days, to make sure that all the teams are moving along at an even pace.
By your third day of harnessing, feeding and bedding down your own team (if you wish), you will definitely have developed a strong bond with them. They will recognise you and your voice and will look to you for praise. You will know which ones always pull with all their might, which have the tendency to slacken off if you are not quick to reprimand etc. And you will no doubt be being offered many cuddles at every stop. In some cabins on some routes, it may even be possible to have one or two of the dogs snuggling up with you in your cabin and if so, that is when you will really come to appreciate how gentle and affectionate huskies are.
The guides are very helpful and are pleased to pass on their years of dog-sledding experience, in an informal way, all week long.
Our old dogs and those which develop issues which mean that they can't run client safaris (but may or may not still enjoy running recreationally) are pretty lucky. They are given a promise when they join us that they can live out their lives with us no matter what - but some do even better than that and are lucky enough to find retirement homes with soft warm sofas and beds on which to lie.
Stories about our luckyrehomed huskiesare often told on our 'Hetta Huskies Rehomed' facebook page and you can, of course, look at our page about simply sponsoring one of the oldies still with us, or indeed, think about adopting one yourself...