Tell us a little about yourself and your kennel.
My husband, Pasi Ikonen, and I started Hetta Huskies about 10 years ago. Pasi’s company was already running heli-skiing events and organising mountain skills training courses, corporate PR events and adventure races at the time and we initially envisioned the huskies to simply be an extension of our product options. Little did we realise the extent to which they would completely capture our attention and time.
We are based c. 220km inside the arctic circle, in Finnish Lapland, on the edge of the boreal forests of Northern Europe. Just 20km north, the high tundra landscapes start, and the conditions can be quite challenging. Temperatures of -40C are not uncommon during winter although the average winter temperatures are more like -20C.
Pasi’s outdoor background was from his time in the border patrol (he was border patrol champion with his dog) and from captaining a successful adventure racing team called Team Nokia Adventure. My background was more in mountaineering and climbing and in tropical scientific expeditions. We first met on the Tibetan plateau in 2000 during the c. 1000km Trans-Himalayan Raid Gauloises. It was my first adventure race. We finished respectfully, but his team won. Both of us continued to race professionally (first against each other, and then with each other) for about more 5 years, and in the process got to journey through many amazing places around the globe. We also led a challenging paraplegic crossing of the Greenland icecap (without dogs) just before we made the move to living more permanently in Finland.
Although Pasi had childhood friends who worked in the sled-dog business, we hadn't actually had much to do with dogsledding until one winter when we hired a company to run safaris for one of our clients and they used our homestead as their operational base. We soon learned that it was something that we could both do and enjoy together. We also saw that there was a growing demand for dogs in the area and that since there was no permanent farm, the ‘visiting’ seasonal dogs weren't always living in great conditions. That didn’t sit well with me and it also didn’t look great from a customer perspective.
We decided to get 12 dogs for our first winter and to learn from them. Since most of them were relatively young, their lack of experience combined with ours led to some hilarious first runs. We opened our doors the following winter with just 44 adult dogs and it would probably have been relatively straightforward other than that that was the year that Pasi also had the chance to become the first Finn to ski unsupported to the South Pole. Hence, whilst he was being awarded the 'keys to the city' for his fun expedition, I was left juggling 20 pups across 3 different rooms of the house and finding out first-hand what went into running a commercial dog farm. (I was also running an international business across Northern Europe for GE at the time so for sure, I had the harder couple of months.)
Describe the dogs on your team. What about them do you enjoy the most?
Now we now have 205 sled-dogs. It probably sounds a lot but there are some farms here with 400 and some with even 600 dogs. Although nowadays ‘small’ is often considered to be synonymous with ‘ecological’ or ‘responsible’, it is interesting that it is some of the bigger farms in Finland that are some of the most proactive in terms of setting modern sled-dog welfare standards.
When living on the farm, the dogs benefit from thrice weekly medical checks focusing on heat cycles, feet, weight, lumps and bumps, nipples and balls, teeth, coat etc. They get fed once or twice a day (depending on the season) and we clean the whole area twice per day. We don’t manage to have each and every dog walking or free-running every day in summer, but they do get a lot of attention (hair brushing, dog check etc) and we try to train them multiple times per week. We keep about a third of our dogs on running circles (aka chains) and the rest, in cages. I know that chains are gathering a lot of attention in the popular press at present but we see positive arguments for both and think that some dogs do better on one vs the other. ‘Who’ lives where changes through the year so that all can benefit from some time learning to be agile by living on chains and so that, for instance, stone-eaters can go in floored cages in summer and then swap with dogs prone more to limping, for winter.
Honestly, I think what I enjoy most is cuddles or walks or runs with the dogs off leash. I know I should say something about the thrill of running and I do get great pleasure from running with the dogs and seeing how much they love it – or, indeed, seeing our clients having incredible experiences as a result - but I guess I am more about small moments with the dogs themselves.
What does your training regimen look like? How long are you on the trail with them?
We don't start training until quite late in the Autumn and we start with just 2km. The adult dogs progress upwards relatively quickly whilst the youngsters and the oldies take quite a while to even get to 10km since we want them to run little but often as they build familiarity or proprioception. The whole thing is pretty regimented since we track a lot of data linked to both winter and summer training and watch the progress of the dogs in all aspects of their lives. Our dogs rarely run more than 55km a day but the 55km days on the 5-day tours might be at -4OC on track-less tundra in a large snowstorm. In other words, just because they are commercial sleddogs as opposed to racing sleddogs, they don’t necessarily have it easy all the time. Many are super good dogs that would definitely make it onto racing teams and others are very much special needs but it is generally possible to find a role for all, when working with clients. The younger dogs and those oldies that are not fully retired run about 1000km in a season and the healthy mid-aged dogs, up to c.3000km. People sometimes ask about whether or not we use snowmobiles to support the tours (probably assuming that the dogs are just trained to follow them). The answer is yes, but they are generally sufficiently far away for the client to not really be aware of their presence and they are there to provide additional security at road-crossings and to reduce the loads the dogs would otherwise have to pull, on multiday safaris. That way, they have more chance to enjoy their runs, day on day.
Our excel macros ensure that we rotate the dogs through run-rest cycles but that is just a computer program...we also pay attention to the dogs and their attitude towards running since no matter how valuable a tool a computer can provide, individual knowledge of the dogs is more important in terms of scheduling additional rest for those that need a mental or physical break, in order to still be having fun, from time to time.
What do your dogs do in the off season?
By late Spring we have few customers so that is the fun time for us - when we head out and practice passing and racing and taking turns onto new trails. Summer is individual dog training time and we have a range of training options available including a home-made GEE-HAW maze cut into the forest for individual & paired dog training, an agility course, fences where we can train basic obedience etc. In other words, we have lots of options and we give different groups of dogs different training targets. We are also the rescue centre for the area, so shy rescue dogs might just get someone hanging out with them and reading a book whilst encouraging curiosity with treats, pups might enjoy the agility course and free-running areas and the serious sled-dogs love the GEE-HAW maze.
What has been your most memorable experience as a dog musher?
My most memorable experiences have probably been from the times when I have been out on the trail with my son in the late Spring. He started standing behind the sleds at 2.5 (with the speed controlled by the sled behind) and driving his own teams the following year. At 5 he raced his first 'international' race in Norway with 4 dogs (20km x 2 days). He had trained hard for it but when we arrived and the organiser went to shake his hand, he wasn't sure what a handshake was, and I remember the quizzical look I got about this tiny child who was coming to race with his four (pretty old) dogs, who couldn’t shake hands. It was super cute to watch him train for, and race again, (for a longer 60km) the following year (although we had apparently done too good a job of installing the ethos that it is the ‘taking part, and not the competition’, that counts). I am already looking forward to Spring training with him again next year. Turning his team around is still difficult for him and so, too, is standing over a dog to harness them, but he is pretty good at holding on, even on challenging spring trails.
What’s your advice to other mushers?
I think my advice would be that it is just important to have fun with the dogs – whatever that means to you and your dogs. For some, that might be racing. For others, that might be working towards the moment when a client says to you that you just gave them the most incredible experience of their lives. But I do think that whatever it is, we have a duty of care to the animals in our charge and to the people who help us to work with them. As an industry, it is also time for us to really determine how we want to be viewed as we move forward into the 21st Century. This is not only for the sake of the dogs but also for the sake of the industry as a whole. Some of the old-school - but still commonly accepted practices – need to go and a holistic dog-centred approach to dog-sledding (with a whole-life care commitment at its core) needs, I believe, to become the norm.