Adrian came to volunteer with us in 2017, I remember interviewing him on Skype and immediately wanted him to be part of our team. I was right in hiring him he has become a great asset to our business, as well as being a valuable member of our family. I have never been called “mate” before and I found this funny, but I enjoy taking on the “Aunty Claire” role and being his substitute, sensible adult influence. He is funny, calm and sometimes annoying, just like all the boys in our business, he fits in really well!
I felt that there was a great need to post his story on our website, as it has amazed me how his journey has affected him so much, just as the journey has affected Richard and myself.
Please read his amazing story, it’s a long one, so make a brew and get comfortable, this story will give you another avenue to our “World” and hopefully inspire you to do something different. There is a life changing event behind his story, and this has taught me to a higher scale to never judge a book by its cover!
Good Luck on your next adventure Adrian!
Prior to becoming a dog sled tour guide I’d never seen snow, I’d never owned a dog, always been more of a cat man to be honest. It all started with a half hearted e-mail expression of interest while browsing a volunteer website called workaway.info . I’d been travelling Europe for 3 years, and saw this volunteering work as a new way to travel, experience a new culture, without the hassle of finding an apartment to live, a job, new friends, in a foreign city. I wanted to try something new out of my comfort zone. The turning point came after simultaneously going through a relationship break down, and the sudden death of one of my closest friends. These types of heartbreak and trauma can trigger any number of things, for me it was a devestating realisation that life is short, material possessions are meaningless, and if I was going to be around long enough, I want to have a story to tell, hopefully to inspire others to take the path less trodden, and just live life the way it was meant to be lived, however you choose to do it. With thousands of jobs listed on workaway throughout Europe I chose some that interested me the most and sent dozens of emails to various ads, dog sledding, ski resorts, anyone looking for manual labour work. I had 3 positive replies worth pursuing. Seasonal work in a hostel in central Stockholm, renovations on a beautiful airbnb in Stockholm archipelago, and dog sledding near Sweden’s biggest ski resort. The hostel interview was pleasant. Chatted to a nice guy who runs the place and we got along okay. but it seemed too strict to be a hostel. For example he was insistent I have insurance, which I didn’t, visa, which I didn’t, and was anti pot, which I’m not. Of course I bullshitted by agreeing to the terms but a couple of days later my application was rejected anyway. Next was the air bnb. Martin is the owner of the place, a lovely, well travelled interesting and polite Swedish man. He needed immediate plastering and painting renovation help, experience I had plenty of during my 2 years working as a painter in Denmark. I would travel to Stockholm to live with Martin for two weeks. After organising a date with Martin I had a Skype chat with Claire, the brains behind wild spirit sled dogs. Claire does all the behind the scenes organising, answering phones, making sure tourists are informed of tour procedures whilst juggling various other tasks like cleaning out stugas for airbnb, and working in the local pub and hotel. The wild Spirit dog sled business is located in a rural town of Sweden called ottsjö, 40 minutes drive to Sweden’s biggest ski resort in Åre. The Welsh family run business is home to 80 Alaskan and Siberian huskies where they run tours up on the mountain in the winter time. During the summer they run bushcraft courses, teaching basic techniques on how to survive in the wild. Richard and Claire had featured on a British documentary about their interesting way of life. The initial 5 years since moving from Wales, the enigmatic couple lived in a self sufficient cabin in the woods. No electricity, no running water, in one of the harshest climates on the planet. Thankfully these days since upgrading the kennel the Rees family operate out of modern day apartment, with all the trimmings. The position I’ve applied for is to help take care of the dogs and assist with tours. 5 hours a day, 5 days a week from mid November until May. In exchange for free food and accommodation. The interview is wonderful and despite my limited dog handling experience I’m chosen as one of two volunteers to join the team in Ottsjo for the winter season. I was about to be introduced to an incredibly addictive lifestyle. A character building experience like no other. Truly diving into the unknown from my humble upbringing working as an electrician on the southern most island of Australia, Tasmania, To the harsh freezing cold climate and vast snow covered mountains of northern Sweden. I felt incredibly lucky to be given the opportunity and couldn’t wait to be a part of it. It was my curious taste for adventure, a desire to push boundaries, to explore and grow, discover a new way to live, that initially led to this experience. Now I was determined to prove myself and restore the faith shown by Claire and Richard not just as a helping hand but as a capable worker to be trusted and relied upon, to work hard beyond expectation to get the most out of the experience in every way possible. I wasn’t content to settle for a 25 hour working week. In fact by taking the initiative I ended up working the exact same hours as Richard. 40-50 a week. Side by side from start to finish. Accelerating my knowledge and By January I led my first tour on my own. Now in my second season we are often running tours simultaneously during busy periods. A free day off is rare in this job, which I’ll use to go cross country skiing or have a sauna and a swim in the frozen lake. by the end of the day though, I miss the dogs and probably wander down to the kennel anyway to check how they’re going. This is some dog sledding info and the story of how I became a dog sled tour guide through workaway.info
Two weeks had past at Martin’s air bnb and it was time to say farewell and make my way further north to Ottsjo. Waking at 5am to a typical Stockholm downpour I hauled my trusty 20kg pack on my back, and ran for the bus to take me off rindö a small island off the northern suburb of vaxholm in the Stockholm archipelago. The 9 hour train ride from Stockholm to undersåker was spectacular. A comfortable warm ride, snow covered scenery, with lots and lots, and lots of trees. Sweden is a big country, most inhabitants live in the capital Stockholm, other big cities are Gothenburg and Malmo. Most of the rest of the country is empty and the further north you travel the more open it becomes. My face was glued to the window watching the winter wonderland pass me by. What I didn’t know at this point, was that the landscape I was so mesmerised by, was about to get a whole lot more mesmerising. Snow was barely covering local footpaths nearby but for me it was magical, for the presumably Swedish dominated train carriage, it was merely a typical November day like any other. previous to this experience the only snow id seen falling from the sky was the slushy melted chunks littering the streets of Copenhagen during a brief downpour the previous winter. During this time I’d be dancing the streets with pure joy! Within three days it was gone again. Previous to that experience the only other time I would see snow is on top of mount Wellington. Towering above the Tasmanian capital Hobart this mountain often collects snow consistently throughout the chilly winter months, when this happens the only road going up the mountain, accessible by car, gets closed making it virtually impossible to reach the summit and enjoy the powdery white stuff. So naturally, this misty covering im witnessing during my journey north is blowing me away with its beauty. Undersåker is my destination with a brief stop in Ange. During this 20 minute changeover the cold air is piercing my fragile Aussie body. It’s painful to have any skin exposed so I take shelter in a nearby ICA to warm up the body. Holy shit. It’s bloody freezing outside! Where I come from is the coldest place in Aus. You can ask any Aussie and they’ll tell you how miserably cold Tasmania is. But this temperature I’m feeling is not like anything experienced in Tassie. In Tas a simple fleecy beanie would do the trick and I’d still get away with wearing shorts it would be no worries. But this was different, this was brutal, like nothing before. The temperature? -2, An average November day in this part of the world. I’d need to acclimateise quickly. I grabbed my brand new thermal underwear, a product I considered not purchasing being unsure if I’d ever wear such a thing. For the next 6 months I never left the house without them on.
When I lived in Denmark I would often brag to family back in Aus of myself battling the Copenhagen winds riding my bicycle to work in winter, even going on the odd run in freezing temperatures. London too can be a tough climate in winter. These brief brushes with cold weather was virtually no preparation on what I was about to undertake with the sled dogs. Yeah I can ride a bike to work in 2 degrees, a difficult task with the CPH wind chill. But I’m freezing by the time i make the 25 minute journey, similarly while running I was moving faster with the thought of a hot shower that would follow. If I couldn’t stand and wait in -2 for a connecting train without freezing my balls off, what hope have I got when temperatures regularly hover at -20 during the season, and get to as low as -38, which they did 3 months later in February.
I arrive at my destination, undersåker, a barely recognisable desolate stop in the middle of nowhere. Here I’m greeted by Richard and his son Joe and driven to the kennel to meet the dogs. I remember the moment. It’s a memory I will cherish, knowing how far I’ve come since that day. At the time it was an anti climatic greeting. A simple g’day how ya going was all i felt was necessary at the initial introduction. Besides I was knackered and it was dark already. They were just dogs to me then. A year on The feeling couldn’t be more different today as I go about daily business at the kennel, feeding, cleaning the kennels, running tours with these animals each day I feel a stronger and stronger bond with each of these amazing creatures with everyday that passes. It’s a special feeling to be able to work with animals and these Huskies are a special case indeed. I’ve developed A deep connection and bond with each and every dog that in many ways goes beyond any human interaction. Its A body language communication and almost telepathic sensory between musher and husky. The dogs have an infectious enthusiasm, whenever things get hard or tiring I could look to them for motivation. I wasn’t getting paid and I’m pretty sure they weren’t either. They were getting fed, and a place to sleep, same as me, if was good enough for them it was for me. Dogs act on instinct, There’s no second thought it’s just action. It’s this brutal honesty that we as humans can learn from. To cut the bullshit and just be how we feel. At the time, my first introduction to the kennel, I had no idea what I was in for, absolutely clueless to be frank, but I was keen to learn. And learn is what I’d do!
No better teacher to have, for me at least, than Richard Rees. An eccentric leader from the old school, a no fuss method approach, intense and sporadic at times, a reminder to old fashioned football coach’s over the years that seem to get the best out of me by pushing me to the physical limit. With a temperament that differs to my methodic calm approach, Richard goes in all guns blazing, and often forgets to stop for lunch. As a team it works well. Richards intensity sparks me into gear and I’m there to calm him down. Rich has an incredible amount of dog sledding knowledge and his attention to detail as caretaker of the kennel is exceptional. Richard is a kit freak, so you better not touch his bushcraft knife! There’ll be no short cuts taken when Richards in charge. The Huskies at wild spirit are the number one concern for us, it’s the dogs health and safety that come first. after all, we are the guides, but the dogs are the stars of the show. Pulling 250kg sleds 16kms up steep hills and through deep snow is a monumental effort and the dogs do it everyday, with a smile on their face, often shouting at us to let go of the break, they just wanna run!
The dog sledding world is a never ending learning experience and I’m sure each and every musher has their own methods how to control these crazy pups and ensure smooth tours or races. My methods I would borrow and mould from the experience of Richard. I was at square one and despite my eagerness to get stuck in there was a long long road ahead and I was about to get thrown head first into the hectic lifestyle of a dog sled musher. Being the new dog handler Im quick to notice The dogs will test you. You are new to the dog sled world, they know that, and they’ll exploit it. Whenever a new person arrives at the kennel the dogs sense it and will begin a whole number of tricks such as stealing food from the main bowl while the newbie is caught off guard. It takes time to gain the trust of the pack, my first task, learn their names! This in fact was the easiest part of the job. Dogs are paired in kennels, sibling pairing is common so if you’ve got one name you can pick up the other pretty quick and after a while it becomes pretty natural to call each one as if he’s a good mate down the local pub! Next job is all about feeding the dogs properly and keeping the kennel clean, male meal portions are slightly more than females, young pups need less, big dogs need more, and some need special monitoring, and are susceptible to losing weight quicker and more frequently than other dogs, these ones we will need to be double fed, preferably a morning meal and evening, splitting portions throughout the day to encourage digestion. The monitored dogs, that have lost weight, will not run on tours and will need to rest and eat before being considered again on tours. Over exercise may cause weight loss and a drop in temperature are factors taken into account therefore underweight dogs may be coated to protect from the cold. If the dog is suffering following this procedure it will be taken home to recover inside the warm house, and inspected for viruses, tics, or infections. Because dogs can’t speak, It’s important to be aware of and act promptly whenever a dog is displaying signs of discomfort. The Alaskan huskies typically require more monitoring. Siberians are well known for covering long distances on very little food. They appear to maintain weight far easier perhaps due to the thickness in fur and often mild temperament. Alaskan huskies are a Siberian cross breed, bred for racing teams, they are typically more powerful and a little bit more crazy. Harder to work with but generally stronger overall. The food is special dog sled food supplied from arktis in Denmark or super dog. Coming in biscuit form it’s a high fat, high protein, energy feed, we use 20-30kg, depending on time of the season, per day on 80 dogs. The previous day to feeding we mix half a bucket of food with half a bucket of water, overnight the food soaks up the water and doubles in size, softening in the process. At the kennel, the dogs are fed, and we add an extra scoop of lukewarm water to individual bowls to further hydrate the meal. We believe the additional added water overnight and at feeding time is paramount for the healthy hydration of the dogs. Permanent water bowls are not possible in the winter months, the water freezes almost instantly. Dogs that are running on tour will be given an extra meal about 40 minutes before they run. This meal is a combination of the arktis sled dog biscuits, mixed dry without the soaking procedure of the daily food to enable a slow burning effect, plus we add half a block of high fat high protein meat that defrosts overnight, we then add warm water and mix it together to make a high energy soup to keep the dogs full and hydrated before the tour. During high season we are running two tours a day, in these times we will feed the dogs again between tours. They will receive extra soup or a treat such as meatballs made from the defrosted meat blocks, rolled into balls and left overnight to freeze. hydration and nutrition are incredibly important components of a successful dog sled team. If a dog is not eating before it runs it may eat the snow while on tour, which can cause the team to lose balance and in fact will dehydrate the dog further. It may tire quicker and be unable to maintain the pace set by the other dogs, and need to be removed from the sled, to run behind the team at its own pace. Methods to encourage a dog to eat it’s food before they run are feeding them in a more comfortable environment, such as in their individual kennel before they run, or simply by tipping the contents of the bowl in the floor, will often be enough to entice the dog to eat the scraps off the floor. In addition to feeding the dogs daily, it’s important to maintain a quality level of hygiene by picking up all the shit left littered around each kennel, the not so glamorous side of dog sledding. Shit picking can be a monotonous task but an enjoyable one too, because it means quality time spent in the kennel, socialising with the dogs and learning more about their behavioural techniques, it’s during the early shit picking days that I was able to learn and remember the names of all 80 dogs. Dogs that live together generally run together also, making life easier for the dog handlers when loading and unloading the trailer. introverted dogs that prefer to be alone are treated that way and we find a spare kennel to let them chill out in peace. These dogs will often run singly on the sled or be paired with a calm non confrontational dog. if we have an aggressive male on tour we often put him with a female or maybe a young puppy, so long as the pup is not affected by this dogs aggression. As a general rule, Traditionally male dogs will not fight with a female or with a young puppy. To avoid the puppy making process, Males and females must be kept in seperate kennels. A female will be in heat 2 times a year for approximately 2 weeks at a time however there is an optimal mating period of 2-3 days during which time the female will entice the males eager approaches. During this time we as dog handlers must be careful of not letting a female out of her kennel while there are males around. Males will literally camp outside the females kennel obsessed with her every move. They will fight for her attention and even climb over the kennel fence to get to her! A 2 metre vertical leap, achieved last season by an eager male at our kennel means we even need to build roofs over certain bouncy dogs homes. Generally it’s the extra male attention that gives our best indication when there is a female in heat.
Once we get comfortable with the dogs and all the kennel duties, it’s time to learn the fun stuff and go dog sledding! There’s not enough snow around yet so we’ll be training the dogs to tow the truck that we transport them in. Work begins around 8am and we start by loading 40 dogs into the truck, to drive them to a nearby road årsvalen, a long stretch of 8km isolated track ideal for getting some quality KMs into the dogs legs so they are fit and ready for when the tours start. To train the dogs we will take 10 out of the truck, connect them to a line in front of the truck, and have the dogs pull the truck, while we assist using a slight bit of accelerator. This method is repeated, until we have completed 4 track runs and all 40 dogs have had a run. It’s important to get as much training in before the season starts to avoid muscle injury and burnout. Ideally we try to get 700 km in each dog before the tours begin. Some dogs may need more and some are naturally super fit and need less training. Training is a great time to introduce young puppies to the team, it’s also a great time to try new lead dogs, wheel dogs, and dogs in different positions, to test who runs well with who. Unfortunately testing left right commands on lead dogs doesn’t work here Due to the track being dead straight, instead we use a purpose built fencing area at the back of the kennel, built in an X shape to weave left and right at intersections, rewarding positive reactions with treats. Training is also a perfect time for me to learn the basics and prepare me for what will be required once the tourists arrive. Using the truck as a training machine means any mistakes made during set up will potentially be less disastrous than when the lightweight single sleds are used. The sleds are able to be lifted with one hand, the sled combined with my petite 72kg frame provides little resistance and the dogs are able to consistently run at top speed. A truly remarkable feeling of pure athletic power.
The dogs come out of the truck and are clipped to a stake out, a long wire run between thick tree trunks on the side of the track. Suitable harnesses are chosen from 3 different sizes, once these are fitted it’s time to be fed a bowl of the energy soup. When the final safety checks are complete we connect the dogs to the sled using a toggle on the rear of the harness which connects to a loop in the 1m tug line which protrudes out from the main gang line. At the neck a short wire with a plastic clip connects onto the dog collar. Plastic clips are used for safety, and are designed to snap if the neck line hits an obstacle, such as a tree, in this scenario the clip is designed to break so the dog springs free from being strangled around the obstacle. while the dogs are being connected the noise is deafening. Knowing it’s finally time to run the dogs can’t contain their excitement, barking and pulling hard to try and release the restraints. The lead anchor, which is used to stretch the line out straight so the team doesn’t turn, is removed, and we start the truck, the dogs begin to run and pull with all their strength. Pure silence, happy dogs, and exhausted dog handlers. What an adrenaline rush. I was absolutely loving it. A sweaty exhausted mess, sitting In the truck, catching a breath before the next team was ready to have a run. After 4 runs I was completely knackered. if 10 dogs was adrenaline what’s it going to be like, when we have 21 people booked on tour, which we did this season, involving 69 dogs and 8 separate sleds..
Snow arrives two weeks later for my first introduction to proper dog sledding. Training with the sleds differs from the confident sturdy support of a 2 tonne truck. holding the dogs back now is a lightweight snow anchor, probably the most important piece of kit on tour. The anchor is attached to a rope about 2 metres in length, connected onto a carabiner, which is joined to an expander, another carabiner on the opposite end of the expander holds the main sled line passing under the front bow of the sled. Two ropes joined to the sled meet at the bow and join the anchor and quick release in the same expander. The quick release is to prevent lead dogs from turning, and is connected to the sled directly behind it, so at the beginning all sleds form virtually one long gang line until the quick release is disconnected immediately before take off. The anchor rope will be a suitable length for the musher to reach down, pull up, and place on the handlebars of the sled before takeoff. In ideal conditions the snow will be compacted, and hard, allowing the anchor to grip tightly and stop any sudden movements. Poor conditions, such as deep snow, or ice, give poor anchor points and will cause the sled to move if the dogs jerk on the main tug line. This can be one of the biggest issues when stopping for coffee breaks on tour as if the anchor doesn’t hold in poor quality snow, the sled will creep forward into the team in front, causing potential tangles in lines, fights or bitten and destroyed equipment. It’s during these times in particular that we are on high alert, watching for any potential catastrophes, while appearing to present a cool calm demeanor during general fika small talk. One of my very first training sessions the anchor popped. The snow was not sufficient enough for the anchor to sink in, it popped out of the ground and the whole team bolted forward into the team in front. It was absolute chaos attempting to restore order. Unclipping dogs at rapid pace while Joe puts his weight on the break to avoid anymore damage. Once the problem had been rectified, the anchor didn’t pop out of the ground, in fact, it’s never done so since I’ve been involved in tours. It’s one of many mistakes that need not be repeated. It’s events like this that help you realise how dramatically a casual ride through the forest can change. Small mistakes can be catastrophic. Attention to detail is paramount and it’s our job to ensure no corners are cut and the safety of the tourists, and most importantly our dogs is maintained in a professional manner.
Setting up for the first tour of the season is exciting and I can’t wait to see how the madness unfolds. Typically guests are given 8-10 dogs depending on weight and snow conditions, they drive one of our two seater tourist sleds while someone sits down. if they are unwilling to drive they can sit while a guide drives the sled. Lucky for me, one of the tourists was not willing to drive so I put my hand up to do the honours. The tour is magnificent, we start by climbing up the mountain toward Hall fjallet tourist station where we stop for a brief fika, then pick up speed as we head back down the mountain, across the plateau, weave through some Forrest and arrive back at the start point.
Tours start mid December and it’s one of the busiest times with tourists flocking to the local ski village, Åre for the beginning of the winter ski season. We are fully booked in this period and run tours everyday from mid December to the first week of January when the tourists disappear back to work and back to reality. Richard and myself are absolutely knackered and it takes us about a week to recover from the busy Christmas schedule. January is typically a quiet month then everything ramps up for sportlov, a Swedish winter holiday for kids spread out over 4 weeks with a different section of Sweden have one week off over the month. Then there’s Easter, which attracts a huge crowd to make the most of the last days of winter, and enjoy the wonderful weather the ‘5th season’ brings. The 5th season is the term given to the period between spring and summer, when there’s still snow around but it’s warm enough to go skiing in a t-shirt! You can even catch a nice tan from the beaming sun bouncing off the snow.
My first season at wild spirit was crazy. We had record breaking snow fall, reportedly the most seen for about 50 years. Richards wish for snow snow snow came true but even he wanted it to stop. The kennel was overflowing with the stuff. every single day we were out there with a shovel, clearing kennel doors, It got so heavy we had to shovel the snow off the roof of the kennels twice to avoid it collapsing under the weight. Being my first experience it felt natural for history to repeat on the second year however that couldn’t be further from the truth. From the non stop downpour and constant difficulties faced with heavy snow last year, season number 2 has been challenging on a whole other level. It hardly snowed at all in November and we were running the Christmas tours on ice. Bumping and sliding around the track makes it difficult for drivers to hold on while navigating the tight corners. There’s been a few casualties in the process, and broken sleds have been happening all too regularly. It’s been a challenge to figure out different routes, new starting locations, and what will be a suitable amount of dogs per team per tour. All these are last minute decisions based on weather conditions, decisions that may prove costly, if we overcompensate with the amount of dogs tourists may not be able to handle the power, and fall off. Similarly if we provide not enough dogs, they may struggle to pull the sled especially uphill. Prior to the snow arriving this year we cut a new route which has increased productivity dramatically. Leaving from the rear of the kennel and heading through the forest and onto the frozen lake saves time setting up for tours it’s much easier than loading and unloading the truck. It’s flat terrain meaning less dogs which equals less work for us. The season began in the worst way possible when we lost our main lead dog to illness. It was a tragic moment when we had to put her down. Taken from this world at her peak, Bella was the top dog at the kennel, the perfect sled dog in every sense of the word. Her ability when given directions was second to none, she was on it before you could even finish the command. Combined with smulan these two were as good as it gets in terms of lead dogs. It’s just not the same without Bella around and we all miss her terribly. When there’s a kennel of this size it’s a tragic inevitability that these times will happen. It is the most heartbreaking part of the job.
I feel much more comfortable leading tours now, from the fresh faced and clueless beginning I can now run tours on my own and if the bosses head back to Wales to attend to family life they know the kennel is in good hands. What started as a simple thoughtless email has developed into a true passion for sled dogs, and life out in the nature. Being out on the mountain with a team of dogs is the greatest feeling in the world. Maybe I will have my very own kennel one day. Thanks for reading.