The Arctic Circle, with Dogs

Volunteering at Hetta Huskies in Finnish Lapland
By Leah McFail, June 2015

It’s hard to believe that this time a year ago, I was fumbling in the pre-dawn darkness, pulling on multiple thermal layers to face the Arctic weather and more than 100 spirited, vocal sled dogs. I never knew what each day would hold–breaking up fearsome fights, marking trails, checking stock, giving medication or butchering fresh meat for evening meals. I’ve held demanding jobs in my life, including time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Central Africa, but tackling a three-month volunteer stint at Hetta Huskies high in Finnish Lapland pushed me to my limits. However, despite the daily mélange of euphoria, anxiety, pride and anger, I emerged victorious. And I brought home a Husky to prove it!

My time with Hetta Huskies was part of what turned out to be an almost two-year-long backpacking trip around the world with my husband, Steve Aguirre. Our bold decision to undertake a shared epic journey was precipitated by a year of loss. In 2011, my best friend was viciously murdered, and our beloved dog was hit and killed by a car. Every two months, it seemed, there was a new trauma. We finally realized that life really is too short; if we didn’t leave soon, we may not have the chance later.

Before we knew it, we had walked away from our jobs and said goodbye to friends, family and favorite San Diegan locales. We started in Guatemala and wove our way overland through Central and South America, flew to New Zealand, then up to Thailand, Dubai, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and the Ukraine before zigzagging through Eastern Europe, up to Finland and over to the Netherlands. We rounded out our trip by wending through the UK. In total, over the course of 20 months, we visited 27 countries and five continents. We also relied heavily on Workaway opportunities, in which hosts provide full room and board in exchange for daily volunteer work. As the Workaway site describes it, the swap was simple: “a few hours honest help per day in exchange for food and accommodation and an opportunity to learn about the local lifestyle and community, with friendly hosts in varying situations and surroundings.”

All 19 of our Workaway experiences were transformational in their own ways, but the one that had the most impact also happened to be the most grueling and beautiful. While still in San Diego, I clicked through possible Workaway experiences and happened upon a sled dog farm in remote Finnish Lapland. One of the pictures accompanying the lengthy list of volunteer expectations and requirements was a close up of a blue-eyed puffball of a Husky puppy, which I promptly emailed to Steve with the subject line “This is what you could be looking at instead of spreadsheets…” We’re both wild about dogs, and we knew that a stint with Hetta Huskies was definitely in the cards.

Thus, in September 2013, we found ourselves in the tiny reindeer herding village of Hetta, 130 miles above the Arctic Circle, after 17 hours of travel via train and bus. Hetta Huskies is owned by two former professional athletes and explorers, Finn Pasi Ikonen and Brit Anna McCormack. Our bosses expected a consistently high level of professionalism and perfection.

At 32, Steve and I were among the oldest in the group, which consisted of as many as 16 volunteers living dorm style, sleeping in bunk beds and sharing a toilet, shower, living area and kitchen. Cooking and cleaning duties were unofficially rotated, and every night, four to five dogs from the farm would spend the night with us for either medical or socialization purposes.

We were in charge of 116 howling, furry, excitable powerhouse work dogs (and 86 at Valimaa, a second farm) who needed daily care. Our work days were at least 12 hours with a half-hour lunch, and we worked between six and nine days in a row before we had a day off. Daily tasks included administering medication, prepping, delivering and cleaning up the dogs’ food, groundwork maintenance (refilling holes, raking running circles near the kennels, making sure there were no tree roots to tangle the chains), heat checks for the females, cage repair, taking sled teams on practice runs, giving tours to tourists, data entry and a litany of other tasks that seemed to spring up daily. Because this work is so serious, Hetta Huskies has systems and trainings that rival those in any corporate setting.

As mentioned, we also spent time at Valimaa, which Hetta Huskies had been contracted to oversee for another company. The setup there was a bit more primitive and remote, and the dogs themselves needed a little extra love and attention, since they were a bit wilder and more likely to be afraid of humans than the Hetta dogs.

At Valimaa on one memorable evening in February, I spotted a pulsating green aura and my heart jumped into my throat—it was the aurora borealis, the northern lights, live and in otherworldly greens! As Steve and I lay on the frozen ground, inhaling the frigid night air and looking up at the amazing sight, a sonorous canine chorus rose up and enveloped us in the moment. It was pure magic. For more than a half hour, we were transfixed by the celestial show.

The night before we left Hetta, Steve and I took out the first sleds of the season. We flew across the frozen tundra under a fiery sorbet sunset behind exuberant teams of canine dynamos—dogs who love nothing more than the feel of snow under their feet. That single moment made the aching bones, stress, lack of sleep and paltry food all worth it. In fact, our time in Hetta so defined our world trip that we decided to go for the ultimate keepsake in the form of a three-year-old female named Theta. Her Dalmatian-spotted ears and black mask had charmed me at first sight. When we learned she was available for adoption, we did the research and discovered that it would be neither expensive nor complicated to bring her home.

After departing Hetta Huskies and making our way through the UK for a few more months, we finished our adventures back in Helsinki, where we collected Theta and boarded the first of three planes that would take all three of us back to Colorado. Theta adapted quickly to her new situation, which included everything from a name change (after seeing her run and pounce in the snow, we re-christened her Naali, which means “Arctic fox” in Finnish) to playing with toys for the first time. And during a road trip to San Diego, she took her first dip in the Pacific Ocean—a big step for a dog who had never seen open water in her life.

Nowadays, our little family indulges in a group howl before work in honor of the pack mentality, and we delight in taking Naali to the dog park (where she gravitates toward other Huskies) and giving her lots of belly rubs after long runs on a skijoring line to simulate her sled-pulling days. Though Naali has decided that laughter and the television aren’t threats, the jury’s still out on parked cars and the sound of compressed air. She’s also learned that cute behavior leads to more cuddles and treats. As we work on our own re-acclimatization to post-trip life, she’s proven to be a welcome distraction.

We’ve never had a moment’s regret about our decision to throw caution to the wind and embark upon the most epic adventure we’ve shared to date. I’m also reminded of our adventures by the best trip memento we could have asked for: Naali, our very own living slice of Arctic Scandinavia. 

Leah McFail is a non-profit professional currently based near Denver. Travel feeds her soul and when she’s not camping or hiking, she can be found dreaming about her next international adventure.