Take some breathtaking scenery combined with the opportunity to work with a pack of gifted canine athletes, add a few flashes of aurora borealis and a wintry lodge or two and what do you have?
A dog sledding vacation; wilderness travel that’s part Arctic nostalgia and part Inuit homage, resulting in a rather unique way to see northern country.
Humans and sled dogs have lived and worked together in the northern reaches of the globe for millennia--archeological evidence puts the earliest date at over 4,000 years ago. It's been an enduring relationship; in fact it wasn't until 1963 that regular dogsled delivery of mail by the U.S. Postal Service in Alaska ended.
And sled dogs continue to be employed in a variety of ways, including indulging the desires of those seeking a trek through the snowy untamed wilderness. Covering more ground than by skis, and greener and more serene than snowmobiling, dog sledding tours run the range from family-friendly outings to challenging mountain expeditions.
Though be warned, the more-demanding tours are a physical endeavor. Sled dogs have been known to stop in protest with lazy mushers, it really is a team effort.
1. Greenland Explored, Greenland
Greenland Explored offers winter and spring dogsled tours in Greenland, including the opportunity for dog sledding with the real McCoys: Inuit hunters. This outfitter has a variety of tours led by local Inuits, some of which include sleeping in hunting huts on the sea ice. Most of them are tailored to maximize wildlife viewing.
But the specialty of Greenland Explored in the arrangement of bespoke dog sledding tours with Inuit hunters. These tours can be as simple as a day trip, or can be a journey of several days deep into the wilderness with hunting along the way to provide food for the dog team.
And for those disinclined to hop on the sled, they also offer the dog-free Aurora & Icebergs tour--an exploration of Greenland's West Coast which includes the icebergs of Ilulissat and the Northern Lights of Kangerlussuaq. (starting at around $4,000 for 10 days)
2. The Husky Mountain Expedition by Nature Travels, Sweden
The mountains of Swedish Lapland are considered an ideal place to take to the sled. One package, the Husky Mountain Expedition offered by Nature Travels is an eight-day dogsled tour exploring some of Sweden's most beautiful landscapes along the frozen river of Torneträsk, through the lakeside scenery of Abisko, and up into the mountains to the Kebnekaise, Sweden's highest peak.
Part of this route follows the King's Trail -- one of Sweden's best-known summer hiking trails. Evenings are spent in cabins along the way, save for the night spent in a "lavvu" (traditional tipi) or Ark.
Some of the stops are equipped with wood-fired saunas, which must be a welcome sight after an exhausting day of mushing. (In case the idea of driving the dogs sounds intimidating, participants are trained in how to handle the huskies, and mushing skills are said to generally develop quickly.) Although aspects of the route can be physically strenuous, this husky tour is accessible to anyone with a general good level of health and fitness. (starting at around $2,200 for a seven-day package)
3. Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, Ely, Minnesota
If you’re U.S.-based and Lapland and Greenland aren’t in your future, you can get your dog-powered vacation in the States. There are a number of outfitters in the northern regions.
Known for its stunning scenery, as well as being considered "Sled Dog Capitol of the U.S.," Ely is the location of Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge.
Right at the gateway to the Boundary Waters Wilderness, Wintergreen has been providing lodge-to-lodge dogsled vacations for nearly 30 years, and they are the only lodge operation in the nation devoted exclusively to dog sledding.
Cited by National Geographic as the best in the business, they specialize in working with beginners and their lodge-to-lodge trips are suitable even for those who are only minimally fit. They also offer camping trips for those with fair to good fitness. (Starting at $875 for three days)
4. Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures, Emigrant, Montana
Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures is a family business that offers a range of tours beginning at trailheads near Mammoth Hot Springs, Chico Hot Springs, or Bozeman, Montana--as well as special trips in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area.
With over 200 miles of trails to explore, a six-month season, and an annual snowfall of nearly 500 inches -- dogsledding is a natural here. Packages range from a one-hour excursion to two-day tours. (Starting at $75 for adults, $40 for kids for one hour)
5. Mahoosuc Guide Service: Grafton Notch, MaineBased in Grafton Notch, Mahoosuc offers a variety of tours from simple to comprehensive. They have day trips on Umbagog Lake and nearby trails; weekend trips which also include skiing and snowshoeing; and four to six day trips in the Maine northwoods which promise pristine remote wilderness areas.
One very cool thing this outfitter offers is special trips with Cree or Inuit guides, replete with "local" food (walleye, moose, beaver, bear or goose). Mahoosuc frequently works with Native villages in a way that has resulted in several Cree and Inuit families operating their own businesses. (Starting at $565 for two days)
Hardcore animal advocates rail against the granddaddy of dogsled races, the Iditarod, for the use of sled dogs for sport. Is a dog sledding tour any different? Aside from the fact that the distances aren’t anywhere nearly as extreme and the pace is much less hard-driven, most outfitters take the welfare of their dogs very seriously.
But do the dogs enjoy their work? According to Modern Dog Magazine, "Huskies are bred to pull, the same as retrievers are bred to retrieve and herding dogs to herd."
Says Jeninne Cathers, who has been racing, training, guiding with, and breeding sled dogs for some 20 years. "Most huskies have a very strong pulling instinct and a natural love of running, in the same way that most retrievers love to chase a ball or go swimming."
If that’s the case, then mush away.