Amalie is a young Norwegian girl. She is twenty years old, has long straight hair and bright green-grey eyes. She loves animals, she likes to run and to swim and she smiles when she receives messages from a boy she likes. One day she’d like to travel the world.
“I’d like to see more of South America.” She says. “I want to travel around, meet the local people, eat local foods, learn about their culture. Talking to people, that’s what I like to do when I travel.”
It should go without saying that Amalie is a girl after my own heart, maybe yours too, but there is more to this sweet Norwegian girl than good looks and wanderlust.
It feels very peculiar to be talking about South America when she and I sit opposite one another in a wooden cabin in the Dividalin National Park in Northern Norway, over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It’s early evening but being December the sun didn’t rise today, nor did it rise again until mid-January. Instead the middle chunk of the day from around ten o’clock in the morning to two o’clock in the afternoon is lit up a little with a soft grey light; it feels like a long twilight dusk.
I ask her if being Norwegian – she’s from the coastal town of Bodø – helps her in her job.
“Possibly. I suppose I’m used to the winters and the weather, so that helps.”
“But do you think anybody could be a husky dog-handler?”
“Yes, of course, if they really, really want to. And they’re determined to do it…”
Therein lies the key to Amalie’s success as a dog handler. She’s a very determined young woman and a dog handler is no easy job. I saw this during those five days with Amalie and her employees Stian and Nieske, a young couple in their late-twenties who are dog-mushers. Mushers are the people who race the husky dogs, while handlers are effectively their “support” during the races, the most famous of which in Norway is the Finnmark 500 or 1000, a 500 or 1000 kilometre trek across the most northern stretch of Norway. It is a gruelling race that stretches over a number of days and dog-handlers are essential to the smooth-running and well-being of both the dogs and the dog-musher who will often only sleep for a few hours each day. And it’s not as simple as it may sound; dog-handlers are not permitted to touch the dogs at the check points, to ensure they are not interfered with.
“That must be so frustrating,” I said, thinking about how much she enjoyed playing, feeding, caring and checking up on the dogs.
“Yes, but it’s the rules.” She said firmly.
That is just one reality of being a husky dog-handler, a job that Amalie has signed up for for a year. Here are many more, as I found out by doing myself.
You wake at 7 o’clock every day and get changed into your “technical” gear, which are warm weather proof overalls that go over a layer (or two!) of thermals. You pull on heavy but warm boots and you place a head torch on top of your hat and you switch it on. With gloves on, you head outside into temperatures that don’t often rise above freezing in winter and you set about your morning duties which could be fetching water from a hole cracked in a nearby stream, feeding the dogs a pink sludgey soup of raw meat or treating their paws with a special cream. Husky dog paws are well protected and are built to run in the snow, but they’re not immune to injuries caused by sharp shreds of ice or other things in the soil. Another job you could find yourself doing at 7.30 in the morning is scooping up dog poo.
“I’ve realised I like being pushed out of my comfort zone,” Amalie said to me when I confided in her that I was struggling to grasp that I wouldn’t shower or flush a proper toilet in five days. “I think that’s just the kind of person I am. And I think it’s what makes me a better person,”
Morning chores completed it’s time to get dressed and have your own breakfast. While there’s a bathroom with a sink, there’s no shower at the cabin during wintertime (the pipes freeze over!) and the toilet is a drophole in the snow – albeit cosily enclosed within an outhouse – so there’s little time for putting on make up. After breakfast you’re back in outdoor clothes as you’ve got to get the sledges and equipment ready for the dogs’ training. Stian, Nieske and Amalie are in charge of 26 dogs, all of whom are itching to get out there and run and pull; that’s what husky dogs are born to do. And these particular husky dogs are trained to do this very, very fast. The dogs will think nothing of pulling for over 60 or 70 kilometres in a training run – and in races they will cover considerably more distance each day.
“It’s an amazing experience, standing behind the sledge and watching the dogs pull. And the scenery is so beautiful,” said Amalie as she checked I got the dogs’ harnesses on correctly and all the ropes and clips were in the right places.
“I’m really nervous!” I blurted out to her. “Is that normal?”
“Yes, completely normal.” She placed her hand on my arm. “And it’s completely normal to fall too. I still fall all the time…”
Falling? I hadn’t even thought about that but Amalie’s smile told me not to panic.
“Enjoy it!” She called after me once the dogs were off. “Take it all in…”
As it happened – on that short practice run – I didn’t fall over and I did try to take as much of it in as I could. The snow covered landscape, the tireless enthusiasm of the dogs, the feeling of flying weightlessly across the snow. Now I could see why somebody would want to do this job!
The next day I was on my own, me and five dogs whose personalities were beginning to shine. I resisted the urge to call their names – the often televised image of a dog-musher shouting at their dogs non-stop is very inaccurate and a very inefficient way to race dogs – but I wasted no time congratulating each of them with a hug when our three hour journey into the heart of the national park was over. (You can read more about the dogs’ personalities and that journey here.)
Of course, after the run there is still more work to do. You have to stretch and massage my dogs and check them over for any sign of injury or stiffness. You then have to take off their harnesses, detach them from the line and put them back in the trailer one at a time.
By the time we were back at the cabin, it was dark again and I felt utterly tired. I was glad to be offered a cup of tea and something to eat because I had more duties to do later. It’s not uncommon for Amalie to work more than twelve hours a day. It’s clear what Amalie is gaining in this job – a good work ethic, a deeper understanding of dogs and dog-mushing, an abundance of personal development and hands-on experience – but I could tell it was a job that not many could do and perhaps even fewer would want to.
“Is there anything you miss?” I asked Amalie as I sipped my tea.
Amalie had to think about this for a long time. “I miss sleeping in!”
You don’t miss having regular access to a shower (they go maybe once or twice a week to a neighbours for showers)? Or going out with your friends or on a date? I wanted to ask. I was already dreaming about my bath tub and planning on forcing my boyfriend to take me out to dinner.
“But really, I don’t miss anything. I know how lucky I am to be doing this. There aren’t many dog-mushers out there and I never imagined I’d learn as much as I have from Stian and Nieske.” I didn’t doubt her. I’d been watching Stian and Nieske’s approach to raising and training their husky dogs in action and was amazed at how much of it was about being calm, warm but very firm. That was when I asked Amalie what she wanted to do next, if she wanted to be a dog handler or something else.
“Maybe, but I’d really like to go to university, to study medicine. And I’d also really like to take some time out and travel…” And that’s when our conversation took us to South America and beyond. Which is exactly where Amalie’s out-of-her comfort zone experience as a dog-handler will take her, if that’s what she chooses.
I just hope she takes her own advice to “Enjoy! And take it all in!”.
And if this story has piqued your interest – or you just love husky dogs and what to know more about these fascinating creatures – you can experience the life of a dog-handler and dog-musher too with Magnetic North Travel’s dog-mushing tour which run through the winter months. Although challenging and physically tough at times, this is a travel experience like no other and gives you an unique insight into the lifestyle and the charms of life with husky dogs. You’ll also learn about the joy of “friluftsliv” or “fresh air life” which focuses on the pleasure of being outside. (You can watch a great video about this which features an interview with dog-musher Stian.)
In short, I made many different journeys last year to various places across the world, but my five days with Amalie, Stian and Nieske had the biggest impact on me by a long, long way – almost as long as a husky dog can run!
So, would you like to be a dog-handler?Tweet