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To the dogs: mushing a husky-powered sled through the frigid arctic has rewards worth howling about.

In January 2005, ignoring the tropical migratory patterns of most winter travelers, I boarded a Finnair plane ("Santa's official airline") bound for Helsinki. Final destination? The tiny town of Kittila, a winter sports wonderland in Finland's icy Lapland province, where reindeer outnumber humans five to one.

Feasting on an unusual yet hearty in-flight lunch of moose casserole and herb-marinated wild boar, I pondered the item at the top of my to-do list: Mush a team of huskies through the frozen forest above the Arctic Circle. It'll be just like Alaska's famed Iditarod race, I imagined. After sledding through the finish line, loyal canines will lap at my windburned face as spectators shower me with champagne.

Arriving in Kittila, an additional one-hour flight from Helsinki, was like landing on another planet. Planes were being hosed down with a curious liquid resembling Orange Crush soda. "It's anti-freeze," chirped Kim, one of my guides. Not comforting. The surrounding pine trees were sheathed in sparkling Dr. Zhivago--art-department-approved frost. Magical? Yes. Capable of supporting human life? Not in my estimation.

Thankfully, our tour group's five-bedroom lodge, complete with two saunas, a freezer stocked with Finlandia vodka, and a telescope for analyzing the aurora borealis (the northern lights), was the lap of Lapland luxury, highly suited for weathering the sparsely sunny days ahead. Suddenly the thought of going outside to drive a team of wild dogs through the piercing air (20 below 0 Fahrenheit) had completely lost all its glamour. My Iditarod fantasy gave way to the icy image of Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining.

Nevertheless, as the reluctant sun crept over the horizon around 9 A.M., we suited up in our specially provided all-in-one insulated jumpsuits (an epic 10-minute undertaking in itself) and left our cocoon for the 20-minute ride to the husky farm. The snowy landscape was still and silent. Then, penetrating the windows of the shuttle bus, the sound of 100 barking, howling dogs grew from a faint rumble into a frantic roar. We were running late, and the dogs, crossbreeds of wild wolf and domesticated husky, were ready to ride.

The dogs' trainer, John, an English lad barely in his 20s, assured us that sled dogs prefer weather like this. "The snow pads their feet," he said, "and the cold keeps them from getting too hot in their thick fur coats." Each team of four dogs (16 are used in the Iditarod) was tied to a tree, the only anchor strong enough to hold them back.

"Don't worry about steering," said John. "They know where they're going. Each team will follow in a single-file line along the path." He showed us how to balance on the sled's two thin wooden runners, using the right foot to slow down or stop with a metal lever that digs into the snow. "Now go choose a sled," he instructed.

I looked for the team with the strongest-looking lead dog (the dog that most resembled Buck from Jack London's The Call of the Wild, of course). A pair of steel-gray eyes flashed in my direction. "I'll take this one," I shouted over the incessant barking. I had found my Buck.

John untied the knot. Without any coaxing, my quartet of huskies dashed toward the first sled team. "Mush," I ordered, somewhat self-consciously: "Mush!" Hurtling through the monochromatic pine trees and rolling meadows, I and "my dogs" were instantly united against the harsh elements. The only exposed bits of flesh were the tips of my cheekbones. As the jaunty two-mile trek wore on, it was easy to imagine these four creatures as an extension of my own body. Until I lost my balance, crashing sideways into the powder.

This caused a major traffic jam, and getting my team back up to speed was not easy Had I eaten one too many bites of moose casserole? Had the dogs simply lost respect? Surely they couldn't be tired. The team behind me was nipping at my heels. Pushing with my right leg as if I were on a skateboard, I tried to pick up the pace.

"C'mon, Buck!" I yelled. "Mush ... mush ... mu-u-u-sh!"

My team never regained top speed, but their leisurely stride afforded me time to pan around at the spectacular surroundings. Having skimmed the horizon for only a few hours, the sun had already set, casting the hills in an alien blue tint. Time stood still, and then it ran out. The ride was over.

Inside a log cabin built in the indigenous Sami tradition, our group sat around a warm fire laughing and trading stories like dogsledding pros. At least eight fluffy white husky puppies yapped at our feet and licked our faces. There was no champagne, but hot cocoa flowed freely. It was easy to sense the deep bond between John and the dogs. "I want to race," he said, holding a small dog aloft like a newborn. "That's why I'm here ... putting in my time with the dogs." John lives, eats, and sleeps with these dogs--and I had no doubt that they'd gladly pull him through 1,100 miles of Alaskan wilderness toward the Iditarod finish line.

Two weeks later, back in Los Angeles, I locked eyes with a gray-and-white husky at my neighborhood dog park. It was like spotting a polar bear in Hawaii. He seemed so out of place. Husky-envy quickly set in: He'd be so much better off with me. I bet I could teach him how to surf.

Plan Your Adventure

Finnair (800-950-5000) offers direct flights from New York City to Helsinki. Getting to Kittila requires an additional one-hour flight from Helsinki. Levi Village (011-358-16-639-3300), a rapidly expanding winter sports development located nine miles from the Kittila airport, offers restaurants, shops, a variety of accommodations, and an assortment of winter activities. With an outpost in Levi Village, Lapland Safaris (011-358-16-654-222) offers a three- or four-hour snowmobile and dogsledding combo trip for $153 through April 30.

But you don't have to venture above the Arctic Circle to mush like a pro. From Colorado to Canada, here's a selection of North American companies offering dogsledding tours:

Jackson Hole, Wyo. Continental Divide Dogsled Adventures (800-531-6874) offers all-inclusive half-day tours for $145, full-day combination snowmobile and dogsled tours for $295, and custom overnight adventures (one night, $540; two nights, $1,450) through early April.

Aspen-Snowmass Village, Colo. Krabloonik (970-923-4342) offers a two-hour ride with an experienced "mushed" for $225, three-course lunch included. Each sled can seat two adults and one child. Through April.

Eden Mills, Vt. Eden Mtn. Dogsledding (802-635-9070) offers a number of variations on the dogsled theme. Beyond regular solo tours for $300, it offers "skijoring" (dog-propelled cross country skiing) for $250. When the snow melts you can go "dog carting" (in a dog-pulled cart on wheels) for $45. Through April.

Fairbanks, Aladca Chena Hot Springs (800-478-4681) offers 15-minute rides with a veteran Iditarod musher for $50. You can learn how to mush your own team of dogs for $280. Inspired by the creations at the resort's Stoli Ice Bar? You can take an ices-culpting class for $1,800. Through April.

Whistler, Canada The Whistler-Blackcomb Ski Resort (866-218-9690) offers a four-hour tour through the Soo Valley Wildlife Preserve for $470 for a sled that seats two adults. Through April 15.

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Article Details
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Title Annotation:SWEAT
Author:Frei, Darren
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:4EUFI
Date:Jan 17, 2006
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