Three seasons in Swedish Lapland have gone and passed. Every season has come with an abundance of mixed feelings. Already in summer I decided it would be my last trip to the Swedish north. One to end it, one to close the chapter, one to enjoy driving sleds in Kiruna one more time. It didn’t turn out as I expected: it didn’t turn out to be that season that provided good closure, an end on a positive note. Nevertheless, it was the best season I’ve had.
Many people dream of working in Lapland, especially when it comes to the dogs. I was once a dreamer too. I often heard from guests that I must be so happy with the job because it’s the best one in the world. And yes, it is. Except for the other side of it, the side that makes most people head south again after one single season.
When confronted with the duality of their dream job I often heard other seasonal workers reply: “Yes, yes… another day in paradise”. I know that there are many sides to this sentence: some honesty, with a hint of sarcasm and skepticism. This one line nails down what is hard to explain in more words. I always found it hard to speak openly about many issues while I was still there. So now that the journey has ended I feel that I should explain how I personally experienced my time up north.
Working as a musher has been an extremely rewarding and disillusioning experience at the same time. Let me explain the latter first. In Kiruna, I’ve encountered only a handful people that I could rely on. There is a culture of gossip, a lot of talking behind everyone’s back. There are very few real friends: you only exist as long as you are useful. In that way it was a fairly lonely time: I could count the people I trusted on one hand. I missed my good friends back home, though I barely had the possibility to speak to them. That aggravated the feeling of loneliness, and I often felt like a bad friend because when they needed me I couldn’t be there.
I always found the relationship with the people I worked for very unhealthy. Season after season I’ve been met with empty promises. Every employer I worked for promised a great deal before I got there, yet once the season had started many of these promises soon turned into empty words. Expectations are high, working rhythm is high, stress is high. When they needed something from us, it was always expected to be done. When we needed something back it was always too much.
During the first season I worked up to 40 hours of unpaid overtime a month. After trying to take this up I was labeled lazy and difficult. I walked 10 kilometers back and forth to work through temperatures that make your eyebrows freeze because no transport was provided. The second season I did get the overtime paid but worked up to 16 hours without any time to take a break and eat something. The working atmosphere was so poisonous that I broke down by the end of March and took most of the summer to get on my feet again. The final season I worked in an unrealistic and badly organized setting for someone who thought she owned 100% of my time all the time. Money was illegally withheld from my last salary.
As for the dogs, the spectrum for their standard of living is as wide as that of staff-well being and the legality of contracts. There are companies that never take their dogs to the vet. There are those people so arrogant to believe that only they can give the dog a good life, so they prefer to shoot the dog rather than give it away at retirement and grant it a second life. There are overcrowded kennels, kennels that are literally rotting away and falling apart. Kennels where the dogs don’t get breakfast before they have to work, where they don’t get a single day off and look tired by the end of December. How those kennels continue to exist in a country with supposedly as high standards for animal protection as Sweden I wonder about. I will not even start on those responsible for enforcing those standards, because this post will never end if I do.
Though that sounds bad, I don’t mean to imply that all commercial dogsledding is animal abuse. There are also those people who would do anything for their dogs. There are dogs that have great lives: getting the best of food, lots of training and attention all year round, living in beautiful kennels where everything is set up as it should be for both dogs and the people taking care of them. They get professional attention from a vet when they need it. They get plenty of rest during the season so they never lose their excitement to go out on tour. For these people, their dogs are their family and they come first. And yes, some of these people also run kennels that operate with tourists.
Luckily it isn’t all anger and frustration that came out of my time in the north. There is the rewarding side, the side that made me go back season after season. Standing on a sled pulled by a team of huskies is an unbelievable feeling. Working with that pack, training them and seeing them evolve makes it all the more rewarding. I forgot about the bad moments when I was standing on the sled. At that moment it’s all about you, the dogs, and the silent world around. When I look at my pictures or at the clips I have from the season I would still go back in a heartbeat.
I’ve had beautiful days out with great guests. I loved those rare days I was alone with the dogs without other people around. And it is for those days I went back time after time. I wanted to see more of that frozen world. I wanted to get to know more about the dogs and how to drive them. I wanted to meet more people living out of the ordinary. Because up north, no one will frown an eyebrow when you explain that you live in a cabin in the woods. A freedom exists there that is hard to find further south.
Life up north has taught me to not take what we have for granted. I know that I’ve said this during winter too, but we all have so many things to be grateful for. We enjoy such comfort and high standard of life, yet we don’t seem to realize how lucky we are. Taking a step back and sacrificing those comforts for another life has been humbling. I think, or better hope, that I will remember those cold days in forest cabins for a long time to come, because it will make me a happier person for times to come. We need so little to be satisfied yet we think we need so much.
Lapland has changed me in many ways over the years. I used to be afraid in the dark, insecure out in the wild. I was a herd animal, afraid of being alone. I am far more self-sufficient now than before I left. For the good or the bad I am much more of a lone wolf than I used to be. Yet again, I also have the feeling it brought me back to my personal roots. In the end, I believe that what I have seen and done has brought me back to the person I really am, rather than the person I was expected to be.
I will always be grateful that I’ve had the chance to go up there and do the things I got to do. Heck, I drove dogs up hills with incredible views, speeded over frozen rivers on a snow mobile, watched astonishing northern light displays. I learned to do so many practical things I had never done before: building, handling trailers, driving on ice and snow, making fire, working with an axe… I left as a city kid and came back the outdoor person I am now.
This chapter has ended and another one will begin. Reaching the impossible began with becoming a musher in the Arctic. It led me to walk the length of New Zealand. Now PJ, Marylene and I are aiming to traverse Nepal in the fall. I couldn’t have a better mindset than the one I know from Lapland to start training. Let the adventure begin.