What do you do when there are no northern lights, there’s not enough snow for dog-sledding and the indigenous people have already left? Have canine cuddles and coffee of course! Well, if you’re in northern Norway anyway.
Since the sun set at about 3pm this far north it was pitch black by the time we arrived at the Tromso Wilderness Centre, and for a moment it felt like we had stepped into a cave of glittering crystals until our brains flipped over and we realised we were in fact stood outside a small log cabin lined with candles and fairy lights.
Of course, the main attraction was meeting the husky dogs, but since they were just as excitable frolicking in the dirt as jumping up at unsuspecting guests, we had to don boiler suits and heavy duty boots to act as buffers. In that moment I realised how a horse must feel with a new set of iron shoes, and putting on the boiler suit was like zipping myself up in a giant rucksack. However, as we stepped into the honey-yellow lights of the kennel area, this proved to be essential survival gear.
Straining on the ends of their chains, the Alaskan and Siberian huskies lunged and whined for cuddles and attention like teenage drama queens and many a muddy paw met face, at least in my case. Snow was lacking but slimy ice and frost was plentiful, meaning a slip, fall and spontaneous pooch pile up was just a footstep away.
While being similarly molested, our Lithuanian guide explained how Siberian huskies are the type that leap to mind when you mention sled dogs and that they all have similar markings, whereas the Alaskan type can be more varied as they were allowed to be less fussy with picking partners. In any case, the dogs were allowed to mingle when in heat, and generally the females were kept at the front of the kennels and sleds and the males at the back – in our guide’s words, so that the males had more motivation to go forwards.
The result of said arrangement was a pen of puppies. I was the first one brave enough to venture inside, but for all their exuberance the young dogs darted back from me when I tried to pet them, although their tails were wagging avidly.
The next part of our visit was a small outdoor cinema presentation about husky endurance races in Alaska, but I don’t remember much of it because whenever any of the on-screen dogs barked or howled, the entire pack at the Wilderness Centre howled back even more insistently. This see-saw happened roughly every two minutes, and I still find it amusing even now.
After making a fuss of the huskies our guide took us into a lavvo: a tent of the Sami people. The Sami are the indigenous people of Norway and reindeer form a solid part of their culture and livelihood. Since there were no reindeer here at the moment there were no Sami either, but we felt their shadow as soon as we stepped inside.
The lavvo had wooden struts and its walls and seats were lined with reindeer hide. There was a roaring fire in the middle and an outlet flap for the heat and smoke above our heads. The fire felt as powerful as the blast from the balloon ride, but it was much quieter and more considerate, letting us enjoy its heady glow while sipping a coffee as dark, rich and warm as the deer skin walls.
As a final treat, we popped into a neighbouring lavvo decked with Christmas decorations and wreaths. Sat on a throne of wood and fur was a young man dressed as Santa, who by the confused look on his face had been expecting a large party of excited children rather than four sleepy adults. For a moment it felt almost as awkward as when the guide said they fed the dogs whale meat, but fortunately the other couple with us found Father Christmas more of a novelty and didn’t mind posing for photos while seated next to him.
Our visit over, we could unzip our boiler suits and shake off our boots in the main cabin before heading back to the cruise ship. Sadly I wasn’t able to adopt any dogs, but I did give a new home to a traditional wooden Sami cup like the one in the photo.
Just the bare bones experience here reminded me of the simpler pleasures in life – staying warm in winter, good coffee and playful animals – so if I were to go back again with the requisite snow, lights and indigenous population, it would be even better.