Barking glad

Bridget Harrison takes the reins on a family dog-sledding adventure in northeastern Norway

 

My sister is kneeling in the snow with tears cascading down her cheeks. Nuzzling in the crook of her arm is the tawny black head of Neos. He’s looking up at her with quizzical honey-coloured eyes, wagging his tail.

“You’re my new friend, aren’t you boy,” she whispers. He gives her face a fat lick.

“I think Neos knows you are sad,” says Alexi, my son.

“I’m not sad,” sobs my sister. “I couldn’t be happier.”

It’s our first morning at Trasti & Trine, a two-acre homestead in Finnmark, northeastern Norway, and we have been in the dog yard since we got here an hour ago. It’s minus 5C, the snow is thick on the ground and the pale February sun is only just peeping above the horizon, but we’ve barely noticed the cold.

We have 60 Alaskan huskies to get to know. Each is tethered to a wooden kennel bearing its name. Some lie in the snow, some are curled up inside their huts, just their snouts poking out. Others stand majestically on their kennel roofs. We work our way through them with head scratches, pats and paw shakes. Crocs, Bacon, Peso, Isma, Neos. We all find a favourite. I hope my sister is finding something more.

‘Our torches flash in the silvery darkness and the stars above us are as bright
as LEDs’

Six months previously her beloved dog, Willow, died of cancer. The day the vet came to put Willow down I made a promise that, although my heartbroken sister was going to take a while to be ready for a new pet, we would go on a holiday that would be all about dogs.

SB_20170827_00942
The tree-lined pathway leading to the Traits & Trine homestead

I’d been husky sledding before, but only for a couple of hours, and (as it often is) the trip was just one event in a list of snow-based activities. I had found it a rather impersonal experience with the dogs. When we got to the sled they were already harnessed up and ready to run.

But Trasti & Trine, just outside the small coastal town of Alta, in a remote area of flat-topped mountains and snowy forests, offers something unique: a chance to stay on a homestead where you really get to know an entire pack of huskies — pet them, feed them, harness them. It’s run by Trine Lyrek, a warm-spirited and passionate musher who has competed in the Iditarod, the legendary 1,000-mile Alaskan husky race.

As well as offering a range of sledding adventures, her yard is an active racing kennel. All the huskies here are elite athletes, but Trine has purposely bred them to be comfortable with strangers, starting when her puppies are born in the summer and visitors book to go hiking with them.

SB_20170827_01237
Guests enjoy the winter sun

The dogs are such a welcoming bunch, it’s hard to tear ourselves away from them — until someone mentions hot reindeer stew. It is waiting for us in the warmth of a rustic farmhouse. This is the domain of Trine’s husband, Johnny Trasti. He was a chef for the Norwegian prime minister (he has also cooked for President Putin) and now runs a Michelin-star-worthy restaurant, smokery and bakery on the homestead.

All his cooking is based on local, organic ingredients: wild salmon, Arctic char and pike from the nearby Alta River; reindeer and elk from the mountains; lingonberries and cloudberries foraged from secret marshlands; king crab, scallops and cod from the nearby Barents Sea. People travel from all over Norway to enjoy his tasting menus based on the seasons and take his cooking classes. We soon warm up, dunking homemade bread flavoured with birch sap into a rich, smoky broth. This is followed by a delectable cloudberry mouse.

SB_20170827_01026
Owners Trasti & Trine share a joke

By now the Arctic darkness has descended and it’s time for our first sledding trip. Back in the yard and bundled up in heavy-duty snow gear, we are given the names of the huskies that we are to harness. They yelp and dance about in excitement, desperate to be chosen. My boys, aged seven and ten, are just as excited when they learn that they are getting their own sled, pulled by Crocs and Slipper, their very own dog team.

My sister lovingly leads four dogs to her sled while my husband and I grapple four excited mutts to ours. Trine’s sled will lead with her team. Then it’s head torches on and we whoosh off in a line out of the homestead.

Down snowy forest trails we speed, towards the white expanse of the frozen river. Our torches flash in the silvery darkness and the stars above us are as bright as LEDs. Out here in the wilderness the night is silent. As the dogs charge along, all we can hear is the scraping of our sled runners and the whoops of the boys ahead when they career round a corner or fly over a bump.

It’s now minus 10c so Trine keeps our adventure to less than two hours, and just as our toes are going painfully numb we’re back at the homestead, sipping hot blackcurrant juice by a blazing outdoor fire. We finish the day tucking into a meal of cod tongue and scallops, followed by reindeer steaks and lingonberry tart.

‘Out of nowhere, the northern lights stretch out above the homestead’

Guests sleep in rooms above the restaurant, or, as we did, you can stay in the cosy three-bedroom cabin, which has its own little sitting room with a log-burner. It’s a simple place, with pine-clad walls and large windows. Best of all, exclaims my sister, is that her room under the eaves overlooks the dog yard. She drifts off to sleep happily listening to the huskies starting up a communal good-night howl before they are crossly shushed by Trine. Next morning I find her and Alexi in their pyjamas at her window, watching the dogs being given hunks of frozen fish for breakfast.

T&T-Kitchen-12
Johnny Trasti’s inventive fish dish

Our breakfast is a perfectly curated buffet of local fare: slices of home-smoked wild salmon, salted lamb, reindeer tongue, foraged berries, wild mushrooms and scrambled eggs, along with homemade breads, jams, butter and kefir water.

We have a day-long sledding trip booked and Trine suggests that we do a wide circuit down the frozen river — along forest and mountain trails — that will keep us near the homestead, in case the boys get cold or bored. She need not have worried: they are so thrilled at driving their own sled, they would be game for the Iditarod.

At lunchtime we set up camp in a clearing, high on a wooded mountain path, where the last rays of the sun bathe us in golden light. We lay down reindeer skins on the snow and the boys help Trine to make a fire. She gives them each a sheath knife to whittle skewers for grilling hot dogs. We drink reindeer soup and make toast from Trasti’s bread in the flames. My sister disappears for a while. We find her up on the path, hanging out with the dogs. Neos’s head is in her lap again. Bacon is nuzzling her ear.

SD_20150910_2250725
The Northern Lights over Trasti & Trine homestead

On our way back we have a minor mishap. My sister slips off her sled just as we are heading down a bank on to the frozen river. She’s not hurt, just mortified, because before Trine can stop them the huskies pelt off down the trail, pulling the unmanned sled. Trine reassures us that the dogs know their way home and takes my sister in her sled. Then, a short while later up ahead on the trail we spot our errant huskies rolling about in the snow, waiting for us. They pant happily as we approach, as though they’ve just played a hilarious practical joke.

That night, as we finish our last delicious supper, still laughing about the cheeky huskies, I doubt anything could have made this trip better. Then, just as we are tramping through the snow back to our cabin, the sky turns ablaze with green. Out of nowhere, the curling, iridescent fingers of the Northern Lights stretch out above the homestead. We stop and stare at the heavens in wonder. In the dog yard the pack begins a communal howl. My sister and I are both crying now.

Inspired to go? Click here for the latest offers

Credit: The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing