“Everyone visiting Longyearbyen and Svalbard should do it!”
That was the assurance given by Bob, a random local Longyearbyen guy that I met at the airport when I shared with him our plans to dog sled under the darkness of the Arctic in Svalbard. It seems that dog sledding is a “must do” thing for first time visitors and a great way to get a glimpse of Svalbard’s nature.
Due to its remote location, away from the rest of the world, Longyearbyen in Svalbard is simply too expensive to be a budget destination. That was one of the reasons that we had to limit our Svalbard #KeHujungDunia trip to only 4 short but expensive days in Longyearbyen. Not wanting to waste any time, we had our first winter activity scheduled just an hour after arriving in Longyearbyen. Click here to read my previous post on flying to Longyearbyen.
The airport bus basically carried most of the passengers from the flight straight to various hotels and accommodations in Longyearbyen. We checked-in to our hotel for the 3 nights, the luxurious Radisson Blu Polar Hotel Spitsbergen which is the northernmost full-service accommodation in the world. At the rate of RM1,000 +- per night, we were rather disappointed that our supposedly “apartment” unit is no longer available and instead we were given a normal junior suite room. Considering that there’s not many other options in this part of the world, we had to settle for whatever we got. Thankfully the room comes with a nice view of Longyearbyen.
The view anywhere in Svalbard is simply amazing. So amazing that you would see cameras being clicked almost every time you see visitors coming out from their hotels.
It was only 3:30pm but the sun has been below the horizons for a good couple of hours. Twilight provides adequate light that creates a nice view of Longyearbyen. As we waited for our transportation (there were confusion on which hotel lobby to wait at.) we enjoyed our first real view of this unique Arctic 78° North town.
The weather was quite warm with temperatures of around -9 degrees Celsius. Yes, that’s not a typo. Average temperature in February is around -20 degrees so -9 is considerably “warm” and a great weather to be outdoor.
Eventually a friendly guide from Svalbard Husky picked us up at the hotel and brought us to their centre for us to suit up with warm snow suits and boots. The guys were friendly and knowledgeable that all our questions about the huskies and sledding activities were answered with a smile.
Comfortably in our snow suits and boots, we were taken with a 4-wheel drive to their kennel in Adventdalen, a good 20-minute drive from Longyearbyen. At the kennel, we met up with the guide and the rest of the people joining us for the 4-hour dog sledding adventure.
The guide was quite detailed with the explanation on the activities for the day. As expected dog sledding is not about simply standing behind the sled and enjoying the ride, it is a total experience where a person needs to get involved in getting the dogs ready, harnessing them, setting up the sled, steering the ride and finally feeding the Alaskan Huskies.
Thanks to Tripadvisor, we were quite aware of the expectation of this adventure BUT being from this part of the world (Malaysia) where snow can never be seen, temperature never drops below +23 degrees, mitten is only used in kitchens and cats are more famous pets compared to dogs, it WAS A CHALLENGE!
Underneath the 4 layers of gloves and clothing (outer layer suit provided by Svalbard Husky), we were still nervous in preparing the dogs for the ride but the dogs were fun to handle once the guide showed us how to manage them in the most friendliest way.
It’s all about showing “who’s in charge!” and holding them in the right way. With my gloves and mittens on of course because it was too cold to take off our gloves and also because we are Muslims and don’t want to create any controversies back in Malaysia!
My first dog-selfie lah.
The sled. There were 5 sled on that evening. For each sled – one navigator, one passenger, 6 dogs.
All set and ready to go.
This is when things started to went wrong. First my Sony Action Camera froze and I wasn’t able to capture a single shot of our ride.
Then I underestimated the power of these 6 Alaskan Huskies. The moment I released my foot on the brakes, the sled took off and I fall off the sled at one of the icy part just outside the Kennel. Remembering the guide’s advice to never let go of the sled, I held on only to be dragged for a couple of feet before it came to a halt. Svalbard’s snow tasted nice! 😛
Promptly the guide helped to put everything back in order and within a minute we were back on track joining the rest of the team.
It was an AMAZING experience. Steering the huskies at quite a good speed. Slow enough to make me feel comfortable and safe but fast enough to enjoy the -9 degrees wind.
Since my action cam could not operate, I will be using (with permission) photos taken by Jonny from BackpackingMan.com (visit his site for some serious kick ass backpacking stories!) that went on the same Dog Sledding activity.
Tipping over is not fun. Another photo courtesy of Jonny.
“Whatever you do, don’t let go of the sled or you might be left alone in the middle of nowhere”.
That was rule #1 given by our guide and coming from someone who holds a rifle in case a Polar Bear appears, I don’t think he was kidding. This is as close as we could get in terms of experiencing Arctic wilderness for an average tourist like me. 🙂
Standing on the sled, it was quite easy navigating it once I was able to work on my balance. It went well for the first half of the trip. The mountains, the snow, the dogs made up a perfect scene. Despite having only headlights, we could see the amazing surrounding and it really gives a sense of being in a remote location. We could not see anyone else or anything else except white mountains and snow for as far as we could see.
Photo courtesy of Jonny.
We could only hear the sound of our sleds and the huskies and occasionally someone from our team saying words like “wow”, “magnificent”. Just us and nature. Definitely a ‘SubhanAllah’ moment that I will forever cherish.
At halfway point, we swapped roles and my wife took over the steering role while I became a passenger. Things went chaotic for a while as for whatever reasons the dogs would not want to stop despite her putting both feet and her whole body weight on top of the sled’s brakes.
At one point the lines got tangled badly with other sets of dogs causing us to be stranded for 15 minutes in the middle of nowehere with snow falling and temperature dropping even lower.
Our friendly guide got upset for having to untangle the ropes but instead of providing solutions like asking me to take over the control he went on unleashing his unhappiness to my wife. Not happy with the situation I decided to raise my voice and clearly stating that she got both feet on the brakes yet it did not stop, nothing much can be done. We even demonstrated how she did it and he agreed that’s the right way yet it kept happening. My guess is it is because my wife is too light, less than 50kg, or one of the dogs is just having a bad day. Apparently after some reassigning of the order of the dogs it went well till we reached back the kernel. A small incident that spoilt an otherwise an awesome adventure. I felt sorry for slowing everyone down but seeing a grown up man yelling at a lady. I don’t think I can swallow that easily.
Back at the kennel, we were all wet from the snow. I could barely feel my nose. My glasses were all fogged up. Yet, we were delighted with our first activity in Svalbard.
Another photo courtesy of Jonny.
Dog sledding in arctic – checked!
The fun continues with the participants having to feed the dogs. Another new thing for us and the dogs deserve a nice dinner after all the hard work.
You can see how windy and heavy the snow fall was in these photos.
It was a great way to start our Svalbard trip. Dog sledding has always been a form of transportation in Arctic particularly in a place like Svalbard where beyond Longyearbyen, there are hardly any proper roads and dogs and snowmobile are probably the most convenient option to move around. Glad that we had a glimpse of this experience.
I now agree with random Bob, dog sledding is a must if you’re visiting Longyearbyen for the first time. There are a lot of companies that provide this service and I recommend comparing them before booking. We think Svalbard Husky is a great small company. Nice guides, nice dogs and worth the money. A simple apology would be nice but I try to see it from a bigger view and not to be bothered by that one incident.