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Life on a husky farm in Finland

Life on a husky farm in Finland's cold northern wilderness is tough but rewarding

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Daniel Koh on 10 Sep 2017

The Straits Times

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On a polar night, I am travelling to a husky farm on the edge of Finland's northern wilderness, deep in the Arctic Circle.

 

I am there to stay at the farm and experience husky sledding and document the lifestyle. During my stay, I will also help with chores and look after the dogs and horses.

 

As I arrive, I hear huskies start to bark and howl. I notice in the distance a couple on a sled gliding over the snow and their pack of trotting huskies.

 

A firm handshake, followed by the woman asking me: "Hey, can you get some water for the huskies and hold them in place?"

 

"Yes, sure," I respond with a smile. It is straight to work and so that is my first interaction with dog whisperer Tinja Myllykangas, 33.

 

She and her partner Alex Schwarz, 39, own the husky farm where I am staying. Schwarz is also a professional musher, or a dog-sled driver.

 

Only a handful of huskies drink, the others prefer to munch on snow.

 

To the huskies, it seems the concept of "rest" does not exist. They howl in excitement to run again - they are happiest when working in the cold.

 

In a couple of minutes, they are off again into the alluring Arctic wilderness. As they disappear into the horizon, Erika Vakiparta, an intern at the farm, helps me settle into the wooden cabin which will be my home for the duration of my stay here.

 

It is late when Myllykangas and Schwarz are done with their chores.

 

Under the star-speckled sky, we sup on sausages skewered on branches over a campfire and we talk. In this and other conversations later, I learn about their lives, perspectives and Finnish traits.

 

Since the age of eight, Myllykangas has grown up on the edge of the Muotkatunturi wilderness with her family. In the spring of 2014, she met Schwarz at a dog-sledding race in Norway and the couple hit it off.

 

Their family includes 85 huskies of different breeds (Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Huskies, Greenland Dogs and Wolf Dogs) and six horses.

 

In the winter months, they make a living through the dog-sledding business that Myllykangas has been managing for 11 years.

 

Unlike other commercial sledding businesses in Central or Southern Lapland, they offer a more demanding and authentic safari experience.

 

They traverse the untouched wilderness of Northern Lapland, mushing through deep snow and sledding across frozen lakes.

 

During winter, the couple also take in lodgers, who can stay for a few days at a stretch in a cabin there.

 

In summer, they offer horseback riding adventures. They also take part in dog-sledding races, especially Schwarz, who races professionally.

 

As I am about to make my way back to my cabin that night, he brings my attention to the Northern Lights dancing in the starry sky.

 

I look up. Mother Nature's performance of green and yellow rays moving in perfect unison makes me feel akin to a speck in the galaxy.

 

Back at the cabin, Vakiparta mans the woodstove and I help chop a small heap of firewood that will last the night.

 

The bone-chilling cold is something I am not used to. I put on layer after layer of garments, including a down jacket, and tuck myself into my sleeping bag.

 

In the days ahead, every morning, I walk in solitude onto the frozen river to draw buckets of water to prepare meals for the huskies.

 

A deep silence, which I never knew existed, is interrupted only by my footsteps planted in the snow and the clanging of the metal buckets.

 

I remember Myllykangas mentioning: "By going to the river to scoop water, you feel connected with nature, you know it is real and you treasure every drop of it."

 

It feels like desolation in Lapland. With about two people for every square kilometre, the Finns seem to be in an enclosed realm.

 

From time to time, I pause, partly because of the frigid temperature, but also to enjoy the ethereal beauty and the glowing rays of polar night light above the horizon. In the background, I hear the intermittent howls of the dogs.

 

During my first week, the temperature hovers between minus 17 deg C to minus 23 deg C and, according to my hosts, it has been an unusually warm winter. In the same week, the temperature plummets to minus 37 deg C, where it remains for two days.

 

Dog sledding is a chosen lifestyle and it is not as dazzling as imagined.

 

It is indeed beautiful out in the wilderness, driving the sled with the dogs. But it is also no easy feat taking care of huskies and horses, especially in the Arctic cold, and not a lifestyle suitable for everyone.

 

There is great satisfaction being with the animals, however, and it is definitely for those who love the outdoors and animals.

 

Tasks that require dexterity turn out to be extra difficult. It takes some time for me to get used to working with mittens over gloves.

 

Completing the tasks is not an issue, but sometimes my intention of taking the initiative to help, or a simple action done in goodwill, turns out otherwise and I am reprimanded.

 

For instance, I am not supposed to prepare buckets of water in advance for the huskies' breakfast because this makes the dogs think breakfast is coming.

 

I learn in retrospect that chores have to be worked around the routine of the huskies, not the humans.

 

I start to learn how to approach this unique environment differently, but it is probably a little too late.

 

One evening, I am invited to dinner with the couple. As the conversation progresses, I sense that they want me to leave the farm.

 

In a nutshell, Schwarz mentions that Myllykangas has been feeling stressed by my presence.

 

My initial plan to live this unique lifestyle for three months has lasted only three weeks.

 

I am crestfallen, but this teaches me to live in a way that makes every moment count.

 

I still have a task the next morning, which is to follow the couple on a training sled ride in preparation for a race in Norway.

 

As they trail off, with a single pull of my rope, my sled is released from the holding point. With me are six huskies, a mix of adolescents and adults, pulling it.

 

The excitement and barking immediately transition into the soothing sounds of the huskies panting and trotting and the sled skating above the snow with an intermittent soft breeze.

 

In that moment, my mind is composed and at peace. Nevertheless, after a couple of hundred metres, I am required to deal with a completely different situation.

 

As I meander over the undulating ground of the Arctic forest, the sled glides and bumps beneath me.

 

In fear of losing control of the sled, I grip the handlebars tightly and actively transfer my weight across the sled in a bid to stay balanced. I feel every fibre of my being vibrating.

 

Out from the forest, the sled traverses numerous frozen lakes and barren lands covered in ice and snow and I am increasingly impressed by the beauty of the Arctic .

 

Slowly, the distance between me, Myllykangas and Schwarz begins to grow. In an attempt to keep up, time after time, I shout "menna" (go). To ease the load, I run with the huskies.

 

In the distance, I notice that Myllykangas and Schwarz have taken a slightly different route. I want to command the huskies to veer left but the Finnish word for the command is lost in my semi-panicked state. I shout "left" countless times, but I do not think the huskies understand me.

 

Eventually, I apply the brakes, the huskies turn around and, in that instant, I point to the desired direction. I somehow manage to get the lead dog, Inari, to turn left.

 

"Hyva (good)," I grin and shout. I am so delighted and proud of this small achievement.

 

Above me, the sky fills with brilliant hues of crimson, hints of the forthcoming night sky. Before I can register the darkness, silver stars appear like sequins in the sky.

 

Back at the farm, love and recognition is given to every dog.

 

One by one, the dogs are released from the lines and slowly trot back to their home to cuddle with their friends on a small haystack or in beautifully built kennels.

 

On my last morning, as I was saying my thank-yous and goodbyes, I recall Myllykangas saying that if she had wanted to interact with people, she would not be here. She likes nature and being on her own with the animals.

 

I respectfully leave the farm on good terms.

 

As I recount the experience of my three-week stay with them, I am grateful to be in a natural world beyond the flow of time.

 

I have rediscovered what it means to live in the moment and embrace freedom away from the values and lifestyle of a metropolis dweller, even if it is momentary.

 

• The writer is a freelance photographer specialising in landscape, architectural and interior photography.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.