So, this is Christmas. Here in Lapland, there is, of course, no sign of Santa Claus — the big man is pulling his mammoth nightshift for the first and only time this year. Instead there are dogs, howling, barking, yelping in the dark.
I’m well inside the Arctic Circle, about 15 miles north of the Swedish town of Kiruna. It’s Christmas, but it’s also the final day of six that I’ve spent out on the trails with my team of four huskies. To me, it feels like we’ve been through a lot together; to the dogs, I suspect I’m still little more than the person who either facilitates or denies their chance to run.
We’ve spent this last week together, travelling between remote cabins along the banks of the Torne river, which has been frozen solid for several weeks and will stay that way until spring. Around then, Nature Travels will also stop taking the dogs out for these epic Arctic runs, when the infinite white of winter gives way to the rapid melting of spring.
For now, though, the dogs are in their element, which is to say -20C with several hours of running ahead of them. Christmas lunch for Tuomi, the strongest and perhaps most reliable of my four dogs, is the same thing he’d choose to eat on any other day of the year: reindeer droppings. Like the rest of the dogs, he’s fed a pungent stew of reformed meats before and after each run, but while out on the trail, he has a fascinating ability to munch on the go, not breaking stride to snatch up a fibrous snack.
It’s considerably harder for me to eat, but I keep a small pack of Haribo in my pocket as a tiny Christmas present to myself. The bigger challenge this festive morning is staying warm. As this is the end of our trip, though, I’ve learned a few tricks, the simplest of which is to get off the back and run every now and then to get my blood pumping. It works, too, dashing through the snow, with a four-dog zipped-up sleigh, warming as I go, panting all the way.
And then suddenly, it’s all over. We’re back at the kennels just outside Kiruna, the dogs returned to their pens by about 2pm. As the tour is over, I seem to have an unusual amount of time on my hands — back at basecamp I don’t have to fetch water, or feed the dogs as I did out in the wild. Instead I can start making a plan for something extraterrestrial.
In Lapland there are certain measures you can take to try and see the Northern Lights, but even then nothing is guaranteed. On the first two nights the sky was clear, but there was no solar activity; the next two nights it was completely overcast; on the fifth night the aurora appeared for 20 tantalising minutes before a new weather front rolled in and obscured it.
It feels serendipitous that everything falls into place on Christmas Day. By the time a grey smudge appears on the horizon, I’ve seen two shooting stars and already feel pretty well compensated for standing out in the -20C night air. Then the smudge rises like smoke, and stretches, and turns a spearmint green. And then the aurora is above and all around me, like a vast galactic river. In the distance a dog howls. Soon it’s joined by another, then another, and there’s this melding of sight and sound that I’ll never forget, and I wonder if I’ve ever had a Christmas more extraordinary than this one.