Okay, I can tell you this much: it’s definitely not ‘mush!’. If you’re standing on the runners of a dog sled, trying to convince 10 Swedish-born Alaskan huskies to give it some paw power, please don’t say ‘mush!’ Judging by the pained expression on the face of my right-hand ‘wheeler’ I’ve just said something that in canine lingo is offensively lavatorial. Mind you, it’s not as lavatorial as what he’s just done.
“Framät,” whispers my instructor Ricky, formerly a mechanic from Stockholm. Somewhere along the line Ricky swapped wheels for worming pills and answered, in real Jack London style, the Call of the Wild. I’ve set aside my skis for a morning to join him on a dog sledding trip near the resort town of Are, Sweden.
“Say, ‘framät!’ “ he repeats.
“Framät!” I yell. The response is roughly similar to what happens when Lewis Hamilton floors it on pole. Somehow I manage not to tumble off the back. This would have been unfortunate for me, but much more so for the Turkish mum and her two pre-teen children who are my sled passengers. They’ve foolishly entrusted me with their lives. “Don’t worry,” I tell her, “I’ve been dog sledding before.” I fail to mention that last time in Lapland I turned the sledge over and smashed it.
The team surges forward at breakneck speed. I do try braking – pushing down on a bed of vicious spring-loaded spikes that dig into the snow. But the dogs are so fresh and strong it’s like speed-ploughing a field.
“Vänster (left)!” I shout at my lead dog, whose name I’ve already forgotten. He promptly leads everybody Höger. Yeah, that’s right, you got it.
I tell you, it’s not easy – you’ve got to know the team and, more importantly, they’ve got to know you. Ricky and Michael from Åre Sleddog Adventures know all 62 dogs by name. They know what each of them likes for breakfast – and they love every single one of them. The reward is that they get absolute devotion right back. There’s leaders who are wickedly smart – much smarter than you, or rather, me. Then there are swing dogs and point dogs and wheelers.
Wheelers are the rugby forwards of dog-sledding – they’re the biggest guys in the pack and take the strain just in front of the sled. Also, of course, there are the inevitable smart alecs. You get them in every profession and dog sledding is no exception… “Let me see now. If I get up close and say something really, really rude to that blonde bitch in front of me, she’s bound to muddle her traces and take a purler. Then we’ll all get a break and maybe they’ll kick that British blogger bloke off the runners and get us a real driver. Woof! Woof!”
In a two hour trip – tea break in a hut with an open fire included – the dogs run for 15km and we struggle to stay on the sledge as we bound along the frozen lake and through the surrounding woodland. It’s a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours in Åre: good though the skiing is here, you’d be mad not to give it ago.
By the time we get back to where we started every bone and muscle in my body aches. Ricky tells me that if the dogs don’t work out every day, they get depressed and refuse to eat.
I need to spend a little time thinking about that…