Arctic Christmas Day set to go to the dogs

Dog sledding in the snow may be poles apart from the traditionally laidback Kiwi way of celebrating Christmas but it’s exactly how Raglan’s Cameron Sandwell expects to be spending his time this Sunday.

The 28-year-old is currently living in northern Norway, where the temperatures plummet to below -25C, and about the time yuletide festivities in New Zealand are winding down he’ll be hard at work guiding husky-drawn sled tours across the Arctic Circle tundra in a Christmas card world of icicles and snow.

Not that he’ll miss out altogether on something akin to the Christmas he might normally spend with his family in Upper Wainui Rd.

Norwegians traditionally celebrate Christmas on the 24th, so Cameron and his Kiwi girlfriend, Stella Avery, will share lunch, dinner and presents then with the family who own the resort where they both now live and work.

Birk Husky is a small adventure company in the borderland between Norway, Finland and Russia. Cameron says the eerily stark Russian border is visible, but off limits, just 300 metres across a river.

The pair – who are on their OE – arrived there at the beginning of August after deciding to commit full-on to dog sled guiding. “This is our most permanent home in two-and-a-half years,” says the keen surfer and one-time marketing assistant.

“We originally applied to volunteer here for a month or two but there were no more volunteering positions available, so Trine – the owner – offered us guiding positions.

“This meant a commitment of nine months without surf,” he laughs. “It was a big decision for us.”

The couple previously worked as lifeguards at Surf Snowdonia in Wales, but then hit the road late last year in a small Postman Pat-like van with a bed in the back.

Their last surf was in Portugal back in July.

But Stella loves dogs, Cameron explains, and had wanted to do something like this for a long time. Now they work daily with a pack of 40 Alaskan huskies, including three puppies, which are bred specifically for speed and endurance as sled dogs.

They guide groups of up to eight people by running a sled in front of the tourists. Following behind will be, for instance, a one-person sled pulled by four huskies or a two-person sled pulled by six or perhaps a combination of different-sized sleds depending on the tour group.

“We are standing up steering,” Cameron says. “The dogs do most of the work.”

He says the snow-covered trails lined with birches – or birk trees as they’re called in Norway – are “beautiful” and there’s the choice of day, evening or overnight tours. The evening tours take in the northern lights (Aurora Borealis), and overnight tourists get to stay in wilderness huts to sleep under them.

Otherwise the couple lives in a small, basic hut near the owners’ own home. There are two other self-contained cabins on site, they say, and a restaurant in a Viking long house where they help prepare traditional food for guests.

Cameron reckons he’s taken his new “wilderness man” role to heart. Pictures of him on Facebook show a young man with long hair, a big beard and moustache with icicles clinging to it.

There are some downsides to their latest lifestyle.  “It is polar night here at the moment so we don’t see the sun,” he says. “

We have some light from 10-1 but have found [the lengthy dark] very hard to get used to.”

But the pair has no regrets over their extended stay at Birk Husky. They’ve seen the change in the Arctic from summer to winter, experienced the dog sled guiding business from start to finish – and are about to enjoy their first-ever white Christmas in a far-flung part of the northern hemisphere.

Edith Symes