Dog Sledding: Tromso Villmarkssenter

Back in January 2018, my friends and I travelled the length of Norway where we ended our trip visiting Villmarkssenter in Tromso. Here we experienced one of our best travel moments since starting travelling. As a big dog lover, getting the chance to dog sled in the Arctic circle and spend hours with the dogs was amazing!

However, since writing about my experiences in my Norway Part 2 post, I have had some comments and emails from readers who were worried that dog sledding is cruel to the dogs. Some other readers also commented that it was no different than elephant riding. This was when I decided to look more into Villmarkssenter to show people there was a huge difference between dog sledding and elephant riding.

Firstly, my friends and I have all volunteered to work with elephants that are now in sanctuaries, where we cleaned and fed them. Having the chance to spend our money helping elephants, instead of spending it riding and abusing elephants meant a great deal to us.

Secondly, we try as much as we can to always research into the companies we use so we don’t contribute to animal abuse.

Therefore, I decided to contact Tromso Villmarkssenter for an interview on how they treat their dogs and how their centre puts the dog’s welfare at the forefront at anything they do.

Interview:

  1. If it wasn’t for Tromso Villmarkssenter then what would happen to these dogs? And Could you explain where the dogs come from and why they come to Tromso Villmarkssenter?

Our kennel is not really meant to house rescue dogs. We are partly a racing kennel, around 40 of our dogs are in the “A-team”, the racing team – the rest is mainly running in the guest tours. We are therefore actively breeding dogs for racing, most of them live from the start until the end of their lives at our center! Since Tove bought her first Huskies in 1984, we have slowly built up our kennel by breeding and buying from other mushers.

But of course, we have also taken in dogs from people who couldn’t take care of them anymore, mostly from Norway and Finland.

Tromso

  1. Does dog sleding involve any violence to the animals?

We are mushers and dog sled racers, our Alaskan Huskies are at the same time our closest coworkers, our most important resource and biggest capital investment. Our whole company depends on their health, happiness and willingness to work with us. Our whole life revolves around them!

Any kind of abuse against dogs before or during a race means immediate disqualification and suspension from any race in the world. But it goes deeper than that because every musher depends on the willingness of their dogs to run long distances and pull our sled through harsh weather and icy temperatures. And my dogs only give everything to me, because they know I will give everything for them. We have to be like family, to support each other in good times and bad times.

  1. What kind of care does the Tromso Villmarkssenter provide for the dogs?

That our lives revolve around the dogs is not a joke. Every day of the year we keep track of their condition, from appetite to digestion, feed them (during winter 2 meals a day + 2-3 high-energy snacks like fat or salmon, depending on how they run), clean the yard, train them and administer medical care.

Our kennel is divided into 5 pools, each housing between 40-50 dogs, overseen by 6-10 mushers and a pool leader. Mushers know “their” dogs really well, strengths as well as weaknesses and how they get along with their neighbours. They know who is not friendly towards other males/females and who must be housed apart from whom to avoid fights. Alaskan huskies are very intelligent dogs with strong personalities – and sometimes they clash. In this case, every musher insight will drop what they are doing and rush in to break up the fight. Then all dogs are checked thoroughly and if they are hurt, receive all necessary medical care. Our staff can clean and dress wounds and our veterinarian is on call at all hours of the night!

Twice a day before feeding, we check the weight of each dog to ensure they get an appropriate amount of food. And during feeding, we make sure each only eats their own portion! The mushers also know the age of all Huskies and make sure young and elderly dogs only run as much as is good for them. The responsibilities of a pool leader include filing a weekly HMS report to Mattilsynet (health and animal welfare agency of the Norwegian state) to document how much each dog is working.

And whenever we interact with the dogs, we watch the way they move, so we no not miss any early signs of injuries to muscles or joints. Our huskies are by all standards top athletes and, just as humans, can get hurt if they push themselves too much. Since our dogs stay with us into old age and often all their life, we have many dogs with different health issues. Some need daily eye or heart medication, skin or paw treatment and our mushers provide this care as well.

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As part of the care for the adult dogs, another daily task is the education of the puppies born in our kennel. The first weeks they stay separated with their mothers and later with their siblings in the puppy enclosure. Aside from giving them all necessary medical care (vaccinating, de-worming etc), we also spend a lot of time socializing them. Regular interactions with our mushers as well as guests give them tons of positive experience with humans. They love visitors because when humans visit there is either food, cuddles or play time. And for the rest of their lives, these dogs will be comfortable with being surrounded by strangers and children, an absolute necessity for a kennel accessible to the public!

It is also important to stimulate their brain from an early age on through playful training and interactions with both humans and huskies. Intelligence, responsiveness and the will to work as part of a team are basic requirements for becoming a good sled dog!

All of this is only a small part of our tasks, not even including the work that goes into the actual sledding. I hope I have given you a quick insight into the in-depth care our dogs receive in every aspect of their lives.

  1. Can people volunteer at the Villmarkssenter?

To provide all the care for the dogs as well as take good care of all our guests, our staff needs to be very well trained.  All of them go through a 2-week training program before they start working independently. This is why we generally stopped having volunteers, but we often open internships for local schools and work with students.

That being said, during summer everybody is welcome to swing by and cuddle the dogs. Every day, from June until autumn, the kennel and the Husky Café is open to the public, no entrance fee or need to book a tour.

  1. What kind of interaction can people have with the dogs if they choose to book through Tromso Villmarkssenter?

Guest can have as much contact with dogs as they want! If you’d like to sit down and have your face licked, you are welcome to do that. Many huskies are jumpy and energetic, but our calmer dogs really appreciate a good long belly rub. You can also visit our hospitalized dogs and give them an extra portion of love – all of them are friendly and really looking forward to meeting you.

  1. Through the money people spend on dog sledding, how does this go to help the dogs?

A lot of our income goes to dog food (salmon, cow, pork, lamb and chicken – only the best for our top athletes!) and a working equipment for dogs. We are also constantly maintaining and improving the facilities for the dogs. Last year we spend around 1.5 million NOK on renovations in the dog yard alone, in addition to maintaining and renewing the hospital, indoor and outdoor cages and the puppy yard. And of course, we use the income to pay for their medical care, examinations, operations and medications.

I hope after this interview this has given you a deeper insight into the level of care the dogs all get, as well as the preparation and thought that goes into that care.

If you have any more questions for me, feel free to email me from my contact page or comment down below!

If you would like to contact Villmarkssenter for any more questions or want to book any tours with them their website is below:

https://villmarkssenter.no/about-us/

Norway: In a Week Part II

After leaving Bergen relatively early in the day, we began our 7-hour journey to Geirangerfjord. Again, 7 hours might seem a long time but with the Norwegian scenery, car journeys are hardly a chore. Usually, on our trips, we don’t like sticking to a set routine, but because we still wanted to see Lofoten Island and Tromso in the next four days we had to. Our warning for anyone who wants to do a similar journey is that the roads in the winter can be very dangerous. Although gritters and snow ploughs are constantly trying to clear the roads, it only takes one snowstorm and you’re back doing 40kmph for the next 4 hours again. If you are wanting to go in the winter so you have a chance of seeing the northern lights, make sure you give yourself plenty of time as the north is spectacular. We found that the north was much better than the south and we wish we had spent more time here. Stavanger was a bit of an exception, but Bergen and Oslo didn’t really offer much that interested us. Of course, this could be different for you so make sure you do your research before visiting.

By the time we got to the Geirangerfjord, it was late at night and as you can imagine we were more than ready for bed. Again, Airbnb found us a really nice place. If you’re considering using Airbnb, you can save £25 for just sending a signup email and getting them to sign up. Therefore, if you’re travelling in a group then this is a fantastic way to save money and believe us when we say you’ll need all the money saving tricks you can find in Norway! The next morning, we started the day at 7ish, as we knew we had to take a 1.5hour ferry that goes right through the fjord. Unfortunately, due to severe bad weather, the ferry crossing was closed for the winter which really scuppered our plans. So, if you’re wanting to do this ferry crossing then it’s only open in the summer months, so maybe that is something to think about before choosing what season you want to visit Norway in. This meant that we had to head back the way we just came from for about 45 minutes to take another ferry crossing. You might wonder why we didn’t just take the one next to us in the first place, but the crossing that went through the fjord looked amazing compared to the one we eventually took.

After taking the ferry crossing, we then drove to the Ornesvingen viewpoint. Another warning here and as you will see by the picture below, the roads are beyond awful to drive on. Several times we skidded at ridiculously slow speeds. If you do make it to the viewpoint, then the views are out of this world and worth the risk. Overlooking the fjord, it gives you an amazing view of the lake and the surrounding mountains. The sun was just above the mountains which made the view all the better. From here, we visited another viewpoint, Flydalsjuvet which gives another spectacular view of the fjord. However, you are just viewing the same thing so if you are short of time then it may be worth just visiting the Ornesvingen viewpoint.

We decided that as we had around a 21-hour journey up to Lofoten Island that we should set off as soon as possible. This journey was brutal, as trying to sleep in a relatively small car was difficult. Our idea was one driver and one passenger stays awake for a shift and then when they got tired they swapped over with the people who had been sleeping. The only problem with this plan is sometimes the people in the back couldn’t sleep, which obviously makes it difficult and dangerous when the people in the front want to swap. Therefore, if you are deciding to do a similar trip give yourself more time than just 8 days. Obviously, we would have liked to have given ourselves more time, but we had to come back for the start of our university semester. Nevertheless, we powered on through and about 19 hours later we made it to our ferry crossing in the early hours of the morning. Unfortunately, we missed the ONLY ferry that day by 15 minutes! As you can imagine after driving for that long it was soul destroying as Lofoten Island was one of the places we really wanted to go and see.

After missing this ferry crossing it left us with two options, drive another 6 hours straight to Tromso or drive two more hours to another ferry crossing point to Lofoten Island. Even though by this point we were absolutely knackered, and would not have much time exploring the island, we decided to take another ferry crossing. The ferry took around 45 minutes and again as we mentioned in our previous Norway article, was incredibly expensive. However, when we got to the other side, we were so pleased that we had decided to go and check out Lofoten. Although there is so much to see in Lofoten and you could easily spend 3 or 4 days here and see puffins, whales, the northern lights etc, we decided that as we had limited time we would check out a place called Trollfjord. Trollfjord is a huge fjord with miles and miles of stunning lakes and mountain ranges. As it was winter time, there were only around 4 or 5 hours of daylight, so the skylight is amazing! The different colours bounce off the snowy mountains and lakes and it makes for an unreal experience. We spent around 3 hours just driving around the fjord as every time we wanted to leave, we would drive a little before stopping just to gawk at the view.

 

 

At this point, we had been up for around 36 hours (with intermittent sleep) and still had another 4 before reaching our final destination, Tromso. Luckily, and quite surprisingly, the roads got a little better from Lofoten to Tromso, so this meant that we didn’t lose too much time having to slow down. We again used Airbnb and got a really luxurious place with a little hut that had a log fire where we ended up lighting and having a barbeque and some beers in the middle of winter! This was one of the reasons why we wanted to get this place as we wanted something unique and different to add to our experience. The place is called “By the sea” as it’s literally (you guessed it) by the sea and you can see the northern lights from here if the conditions are right. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see the northern lights from our place, so we drove around 20 minutes to different points around the city to see if we could see them. However, as we had been awake over 48 hours, we called it a night just after 11pm because there were no signs of the northern lights and we were struggling to keep awake. Another tip for those who want to see the northern lights is to download apps called Aurora and Northern Lights Shutter as these apps allow you to track and take a picture from your phone! They worked so well for us while we were in Iceland, but unfortunately, we didn’t see the northern lights during our time in Norway. Tromso is apparently one of the best places to see them so one day we will go back and try and see them again!

 

 

When we were planning on where we should go for a little trip, and we found cheap flights to Norway, we didn’t really know that much about the place. Hearing reviews from friends and looking online there was quite a lot of reviews for Tromso, but mainly on the northern lights. However, we absolutely loved our stay in Tromso even though it wasn’t in the place 24hours. This might sound silly, but Tromso had a great atmosphere about it and it was really pretty.

Waking up ridiculously early again, we set off to what might be one of the best activities we have ever done; husky sledding! As we are all dog lovers, the prospect of meeting all the dogs and giving them some love was immensely exciting. When we got to the dog sledding place it was around -15°C and the breeze on your face is killer so wrap up warm! The sledding place gives you some wool-lined overalls and thick boots, but still wear lots of layers or you’re going to freeze.

After meeting all the dogs in our team, we set off and over the next 45 minutes had one of the best times of our lives. As we didn’t see any whales whilst whale watching in Iceland, we really wanted to whale watching again. However, the prospect of dog sledding was too good to turn down and it seriously lived up to all our expectations. The dogs are incredibly well looked after and have great nutrition, so there isn’t any worry of animal abuse! The place we booked with was the Tromso Villmarkssenter and it cost around £180 each – which we know is ridiculously expensive, but because the animals are so well looked after the cost is a lot. The guide there said the dogs go through 2 tons of food every week, so no wonder it costs that much! However, although very costly and with us being students we are on a tight budget, it was worth every penny! You get some lunch (reindeer stew for us, but there was a vegetarian option) at the end of your sledding trip as well as transport to and from Villmarkssenter. We ended our Norway tour by viewing the Arctic Cathedral, which is pretty cool but not something you should prioritise. Before we left Tromso, we just drove there from the city which is about 5 minutes away took some pictures and left.

The journey back from Tromso to Oslo was roughly around 24 hours. Our route back took us through Sweden and Finland and was not easy. Our total journey meant that we had been driving over 5,500km in just 8 days so you imagine just how tired we were by the end of it. However, we made it back to Oslo and had such an incredible time in Norway that we would recommend it to everyone!

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Nevertheless, there are some things that you need to consider that you may not have thought about. Check the driving laws before coming to Norway. Although we did, we saw so much misinformation that we had no idea what was happening. We had just about every colour in the rainbow flash at us from different speed cameras and couldn’t find any consistent information about what they meant.  It was really confusing and quite a stressful experience. Toll roads are something to think about. We spent around £140 between us on toll roads, which between 4 of us is under £40 each, if you’re going by yourself or with just another person then this can become expensive. Also, the alcohol limit for driving is an eighth of what it is in the UK, so don’t even consider having a drink with your meal if you’re driving afterwards. One final thing to bear in mind is that the ferries are just ridiculously expensive. Our route meant that we took over 15 ferries and on average of around £40 per ferry, regardless of their length. Some may be 10 minutes, and some could be 45 minutes, but the prices seemed quite random. Just make sure that you have enough money before setting off to Norway. It is such an expensive country, but if done right then the price is worth the incredible experience.

View the rest of our Norway pictures here.