My diary of the time I spent working on a husky farm in the Arctic Circle made the cover of the Telegraph Magazine shortly before Christmas.
My words were accompanied by some beautiful images taken by the up-and-coming Norwegian photographer Anki Grøthe who spent a week with us in Hetta, and was not at all phased by the sub zero temperatures or the boisterous dogs.
Full text of my article is available on the Telegraph website here, or after the fold. I’ll also post some more of the images later, if I can.
My winter on a husky farm in the Arctic Circle
In common with many of us, Cal Flyn would sit at her desk in an office and daydream about giving it all up for a life of adventure. Except she followed through. She kept a diary of the winter she spent on a husky farm in the Arctic Circle.
Published in the Telegraph Magazine, 21 December 2013
Just over a year ago, I left my job at a national newspaper to work on a husky farm, 130 miles within the Arctic Circle in the far north of Finland. I handed in my security pass, packed away my notepads and prepared for a winter in darkness and under snow. My reasons for leaving, I realised, as I tried to explain my decision to friends and colleagues, were unclear. But, at 26, I was restless. I was dreaming of Arctic landscapes, cold and bleak expanses, perhaps in reaction to the noise and intrusion of London. Crowded living, urban alienation; they make films about that, don’t they? So I found a farm near the village of Hetta, deep in Finnish Lapland, that agreed to take me on as a dog handler for a busy winter season.
Hetta Huskies is run by a British woman, Anna McCormack, and her Finnish husband, Pasi Ikonen, professional athletes who met on the start line of a 500-mile endurance race across the Tibetan plateau. After expeditions across Greenland (together) and to the South Pole (Pasi), they returned to Pasi’s native Finland and set up a sledding company. During the season, from December to February, there is plenty of business taking tourists out on safari (for anything from an hour to a five-day stretch). Quieter periods are for training – with the hope of working up a racing team. They started with six dogs, which rapidly expanded to more than 100. And they recently took over a second property – the ‘wilderness farm’ – a picturesque but basic outpost with untrustworthy electrics and no running water.
I could join the team for three months, they told me, if I knew what I was letting myself in for. ‘The hours are long, the conditions tough and the work very physical.’ I started packing straight away.
A team of dogs wait to lead out another sled. Photo: Anki Grøthe
November 6, London
In my suitcase: one down-filled jacket, one PrimaLoft insulating jacket, four fleeces (varying heaviness), three pairs waterproof salopettes, two pairs fleece trousers, numerous base layer tops and long johns, many pairs thick socks (£21 a pop), head lamp, liner gloves, over-mitts, under-helmet balaclava, two polar Buffs, climbing knife, three Christmas puddings, one bottle Russian vodka. In summary, I’ve spent most of the money I’ve saved, and I haven’t left London yet.
On my flight from Heathrow I find myself staring blankly at a page of more than 100 husky mug shots I printed out before I left; I am meant to have memorised their names by the time I get there, but I am distracted and panicky. I put the page down and look out of the window instead.
It is said that spring marches north at a rate of about 16 miles per day, a tidal wave of opening flowers and leaves. I think I see the corresponding point at which the rivers freeze, inching south for the winter just the same. There is ice on the inside of the plane, a glittering strip below every window.
Cal prepares to leave the farm with help from Hulda. Photo: Anki Grøthe
November 7, Helsinki and Hetta
The bus north is everything I was hoping for. We drive through mile after mile of dark forest – thin conifers, weighed down by snow – stopping every few miles to let reindeer lumber out of the way. I arrive at the farm after dark, and am barely through the door when I’m handed a pair of work boots and turned out into the cold. ‘Do you want to be thrown in the deep end?’ Anna asks. It’s a rhetorical question.
I follow the sound of barking, which grows to a wall of noise and fury by the time I reach the kennels. Three figures are running back and forth up the lines of huskies, pulling more from the cages and harnessing them to three sleds. The dogs are mewling, almost hysterical with excitement, straining against the ropes in their desperation to be off and running. I can barely hear to introduce myself, but the others are too harried to talk much anyway. I hover on the sidelines and rub the forehead of one of the quieter dogs.
Someone gestures at me impatiently – ‘Get in!’ – and I almost fall into the nearest sled. A command rings out, and with a jerk we are off into the dark, with only a head torch for light.
Left to right Cojak, Rosie and Cideri. Photo: Anki Grøthe
November 15, Hetta
It does not take long to be initiated into the ranks of the husky guides, but not before a demoralising quizzing on what I bring to the group. ‘Are you useful?’ Anna asks. I’m stumped. I don’t know. Am I? Further questioning reveals that no, I am not: I have never driven a snowmobile, haven’t done woodwork since school and can’t weld. ‘You do you have a driving licence?’ someone asks finally. I nod, relieved. ‘Thank God,’ he says, ‘You never know with people like you.’
There are more women than I expected – an equal split down the team of 12 – and five other Britons. The rest are a mix of nationalities: Czech, German, Canadian, Irish. They range in age from 18 to 39 and all seem very knowledgeable and direct. I feel young in comparison.
The basics of dog-sledding can be picked up very quickly: lean into the corners, put both feet on the brake to stop, and, whatever happens, don’t let go of the handlebar. But everything else seems to be very complicated. Simple tasks such as feeding and watering the dogs become very difficult in sub-zero conditions.
At -20C, a bowl of water will freeze solid while you watch, so we must make a ‘soup’ of meat in hot water to encourage the dogs to drink it quickly. Blocks of frozen meat must be hacked with knives – occasionally axes – into equal portions, which will freeze to the sides of the buckets we carry them around in. The locks on kennel doors freeze shut. The batteries in phones and radios and head torches fail in a couple of hours.
By the end of my first week my head is spinning with instructions and my muscles ache from dragging heavy sleds – and from being dragged around myself by overenthusiastic huskies. But I am triumphant.
‘I can chop with an axe, hammer a nail, and use a circular saw,’ I email friends. ‘In the snow.’
Huskies Keri and Eka lead the team pulling a sled of tourists from Britain. Photo: Anki Grøthe
December 2, Valimaa
They’ve been pleased with my progress, so I transfer to the wilderness farm, a 45-minute drive into the forest. Life here is rough and ready. There is no running water in the cabin, just an urn that can now be refilled from a recently installed tap in the dog-food kitchen across the yard. Supper comes out of a freezer ominously labelled ‘human and overspill’ (on closer inspection, it also contains a bag of animal-blood ice cubes, for the dogs) and is artlessly cooked on an undersized stove.
But by God, it’s beautiful: a huddle of log cabins overlooking a frozen lake. Reindeer skins that we sit on when riding the sledges are hanging up to dry in my cabin, three snowmobiles parked outside. I immediately fall in love with the place. At night the northern lights put on a fantastic show. There are four of us out here, and we stumble out of the cabin to watch great columns of light beat across the sky. Another of the British guides, Martyn, howls up at the sky like a dog. There is a moment’s silence, then the huskies all call out in answer – in every cage and running circle, every dog on the farm turns its head to the stars and calls.
I laugh out loud. Why not? And I howl with the dogs, a cacophony of sound from all around. We sing on and on, then one by one fall silent until there is nothing.
One of the farm workers with her favourite dog, Zeta, and Niiro. Photo: Anki Grøthe
December 17, Hetta
We are in the midst of a super-cold snap, with temperatures falling below -30C. I can’t go outside for more than a few moments without fully suiting up in cold-weather gear. The insides of my nostrils crackle with frost; any hair left uncovered picks up a grey sheen, as though I’ve aged 50 years in minutes. Occasionally my eyelashes freeze together. I learn that if any part of my body sticks to metal, I mustn’t panic and wrench away, or I risk ripping the skin clean off. One of the dogs, Monty, lost half of his tongue this way as a pup when he licked a metal post. It nearly killed him, and it took months of careful nursing and hand feeding in the house before he returned to work.
But while the temperatures drop, the tourist season is hotting up. Lapland’s economy depends almost entirely on a few short weeks before Christmas when visitors flood in from overseas. Suddenly it’s all go as we try to run as many safaris as possible, often working from 7am till past midnight.
We have to sprint as we make up the dog teams – usually eight-strong, with an obedient pair up front as leaders and two of the strongest dogs at the back in ‘wheel’ position: the brains and the brawn respectively.
In a rush this morning, I sped with my team out of the gates and took the first corner far too quickly. The sled flipped, dragging me through the snow on my stomach until the bar slipped out of my grip. By the time I’d jumped to my feet my dogs had overtaken the team in front and started a fight; I had had to throw myself between the two teams and wrestle them apart, growling and yelling. No harm done, but my nerves are jangling and my confidence has taken a knock.
December 21, Hetta
While freeing two dogs that have become tangled in the lines, I stupidly remove my gloves in -38C, and later find the colour has drained away from the tips of my fingers. They also have an unpleasant needling sensation. ‘Congratulations,’ Pasi says. ‘Your first frostbite.’ I’m thrilled and show them off to everyone.
Petteri and Hamppu wait to lead out a sled. Photo: Anki Grøthe
December 25, Hetta and Valimaa
This week has been hard. We seem to be working non-stop and I haven’t seen daylight in three weeks. This is the polar night. The sun will not rise above the horizon for a further 10 days. It is dark enough to use head torches for most of the day, but at noon the skies are incredible, streaked with magenta and crimson and orange.
To tell the truth, I’m running on empty. Every waking moment for weeks has been spent feeding or harnessing or sledding or shovelling snow or shovelling shit. When, on Christmas Eve, I’m sternly told off for not cleaning kennels properly, I’m so tired and it’s so unfair that I find myself in tears, sobbing into a bucket of frozen meat as I chop it into pieces.
‘Oh dear,’ Dot, another of the guides, says when she finds me. ‘Feeling fragile?’ I laugh. It is a bit ridiculous.
Christmas Day itself is just as dark and cold as all the other days but it feels like we’ve turned a corner: the hardest part is over. The tourists will soon return to wherever they came from, the daylight will return from wherever it went. After a Christmas feast, five of us return to the wilderness farm. I drive; others grab some sleep while they can. When we arrive, past midnight, it strikes me how lucky we are. The air is so still and the sky is so clear, the stars so incredibly bright.
January 15, Hetta
The sun is back! And there’s a mild spell – temperatures are bobbing up to -5C or higher. Very occasionally it strays above freezing point, and then we have to hurry to clear the snow from the roofs before it slides off like an avalanche and buries someone.
After the grind of December, January is a relief. We are still working early mornings and occasionally late nights for the last of the tourists, but we’re fit, efficient, experienced. Things that once took an hour now take 30 minutes, even without rushing. I know every single dog: its name, its personality, its position in a team. I can start a snowmobile with a single pull of the ripcord, a feat that once seemed to require superhuman strength.
‘You are toughening up,’ Anna says approvingly, as we charge back inside at the end of a 15-hour day. I don’t feel very tough but then I’m surviving and that has to be worth something.
Cal helps to keep Chocolate, one of the fine-haired dogs, warm. Photo: Anki Grøthe
January 30, Hetta
One of the most beloved – and oldest, at 13 – dogs on the farm, Fonina, has been enjoying an easy retirement since she was diagnosed with cancer last year. But this week she suddenly takes a turn for the worse. She’s glassy-eyed and confused; we are all so distressed to see her like this. When it seems clear that euthanasia would be kindest, Anna takes a long drive to the nearest vet. It is a miserable day but the news on her return is even grimmer. It wasn’t the cancer that killed Fonina but pyometra, a uterine infection that can affect older females after mating.
My stomach drops: it is my fault. She escaped not once, but twice, from her cage last week because I didn’t lock it properly, and was found in a clinch with Monty. We laughed it off at the time (Monty, you old dog) and, blindsided by the cancer, didn’t put two and two together until it was too late. ‘I don’t know what to say,’ I tell Anna. ‘I’m so sorry.’ She is grim-faced but calm. ‘Don’t blame yourself. None of us realised.’ She sighs. ‘At least we can be sure that we will always recognise it in the future, if it happens to another dog.’ It seems a very small consolation.
We find a grave to bury her in under the snow, pre-dug in the summer before the ground froze solid. You have to plan ahead in the Arctic.
The huskies live outside all year round. Photo: Anki Grøthe
February 11, Valimaa
It is my last day – my three months are up. I almost can’t believe it. I have created a whole new life for myself here. And when I think about leaving the dogs, I feel a pull inside. They are so easy to love. I can’t bear to leave darling Suka, who closes her eyes in ecstasy when you rub her rump, and curls up like a cat on the end of my bed. Or venerable old Roi, king of the huskies, the enormous Pyrenean mountain dog who catches escapees and keeps order. Xena, the spoilt cabin dog, who prods you with a paw to get your attention. And deaf, gentle Nanu who sits to a sign-language command.
I will miss how the snow settles in layers like a sedimentary rock, marking each snowfall. How dropped objects can disappear completely: keys, knives, pens, collars, all lost in the drifts until the great thaw in May.
I pack up my things and climb into the car and as we leave I realise just how much I’ve learnt this winter. How I’ve pushed myself, really pushed myself, both physically and mentally, for the first time in years. I have been humbled by my inabilities but also reminded that being bad at things is OK. You can get better. I feel refreshed: less fretful, more practical. I needed a change, and I got it.
Cal was working for Hetta Huskies (hettahuskies.com). Shorter husky guide internships over one or two weeks are available