I have never been a dog owner.
As a child, my mother forbade us from having a dog — too much work, too much shed fur all over the house. “When you have your own place, you can get a dog.” In hindsight, I can understand that the words that sounded so unreasonable then were actually a wise form of self-preservation, as my mother was the one with a broom or vacuum cleaner constantly in hand.
When I did get my own place, however, it was an apartment that was too small to humanely accommodate the type of dog I always wanted — a collie, a retriever, a lab. So, even today, I remain without my best friend.
Given that, while I was researching a summer trip to Finland and I learned of the opportunity to go hiking with huskies at the Arctic Circle, I practically had the same reaction as a dog who has just been told he’s going for a car ride. Through the outfitter Lapland Safaris, I booked the outing, already impatient for that day to come.
Once I arrived in the Finnish city of Rovaniemi — the largest city (geographically) in Europe (nearly 3,100 square miles), but with a population of only 61,000 — I spent my first day meeting the real Santa Claus (forget the North Pole; Saint Nick lives right here, as his workshop, post office, and tourist-trap shops will attest to); playing with a reindeer named Guillermo while discussing Lappish culture with a native Sami dressed in traditional, and very colorful, garb; and enjoying the midnight-sun phenomenon. Sleep came hard that night — the sky was still bright at 1:30 a.m., and I was excited for my husky adventure the next day.
Lapland Safaris picked me up the next morning for the short drive to Husky Park, currently the residence of 301 dogs, including 60 puppies. During the snowy winters of northern Finland, visitors to the park can become mushers in control of their own dogsled team. In the warmer weather, it’s a hike through the woods.
I met my guide, Santus, a university student who was one of only a handful of the park’s employees during this low season. He quickly introduced me to our canine companions — Waldo and Wagner, two six-month-old husky puppies. It was dog love at first sight, and I instantly envied Santus his job.
As soon as Santus had our pups on leashes and gave me control of Waldo, we were off. The seemingly innate need for huskies to pull was immediately evident. Waldo was soon yanking me along the trail with boundless energy and a surprising amount of strength for a puppy. Rain the night before had reawakened scents and odors for the dogs to follow gleefully. As they sped along, careering from one side of the trail to the other and tangling their leashes, they sniffed everything in sight. Whereas I was picking up only the scent of pine, they were clearly attuned to so many others that made them playfully frantic.
Once we were far enough from the road and deep in the woods, Santus unleashed them, and Waldo and Wagner bolted far ahead of us, dashing everywhere, sticking their snouts into every plant and rock and puddle of water around. They would always return to us, thrusting their paws up to our thighs and spinning around us, wondering what was taking us so long to hurry up and follow them and share their exuberance, before darting off again.
Nearly an hour later, on our way back, Santus stopped to pick some wild blueberries along the way. Waldo and Wagner failed to partake in our snack — they were distracted by the stream up ahead, which they promptly plunged into. Getting out of the water, however, proved much more difficult, as their puppy legs weren’t long enough to help them scale up the steep stream-side embankment they had just leaped off. Santus had to rescue them, and my jeans were soon spotted with muddy paw prints, lovingly planted there by my temporary pets.
Back at the park, Santus returned the inexhaustible Waldo and Wagner to their cage and led me to a large log cabin, where refreshments awaited us. Over spinach pie, berry cakes, and hot tea, served in traditional wooden plates and cups, Santus explained the composition of a dogsled team — the smartest dogs up front, the strongest in the rear, and the average ones in the middle. He also preempted any questions I may have had regarding the practice of keeping the dogs in cages (albeit rather roomy ones, with plenty of space to run) or on chains (very long ones): Without the precautions, they would have a population explosion as well as some fierce turf wars.
I was now ready to meet the other 299 dogs, so we headed back to the park’s main area. As soon as they saw, or, most likely, scented Santus, 301 dogs collectively lost their minds. Every one of them started to bark and howl, leaping up against their cages, straining at the chains, puppies falling all over themselves — like a canine insane asylum. They were all eager to get out and run and pull stuff. Surrounded by these wonderful creatures, I admired their beauty, both as a breed and as individuals. Waldo and Wagner were still keyed up, Sesse and Pete barked for attention, Seri hung back a bit, Wieno stood on his hind legs and leaned against the cage, hoping to be the next one to go for a hike. Some of them had black and white fur, some had brown and white; some had those utterly captivating piercing blue eyes, some had brown, a few had one of each. I met some of the “retirees,” older dogs who go out for lighter trips, and some of the other sprightly pups in this wonderful bedlam.
As I said goodbye to Santus, Waldo, and Wagner, and stepped into the van to return to my hotel — covered in a few puppy kisses and wearing now rather dirty jeans — I missed the dogs already. Clearly, I’m going to be needing a bigger apartment very soon.
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