Are There Huskies in Heaven?

HETTA (ENONTEKIO), FINLAND: September 3-November 14, 2013

Steve: Living and working at the Hetta Huskies dog farm…both everything and nothing like we thought it would be. Upon applying over a year ago we had received a 110+ page Guide Manual that covered in detail what to expect during our stay. We knew the hours would be long, space would be limited, only food basics would be provided and the work would be demanding. But what the manual didn’t and couldn’t capture was the utter frustration, delight, moments of anger and of peace, numbingly cold fingers and toes, nighttime light displays, warm husky nuzzles and an indescribable sense of fulfillment. That said I will do my best to describe the past two and half months on a Finnish husky farm in the Arctic Circle in as few words as possible…which is easier said than done.

In our last post, Leah detailed some of the day to day tasks so I’ll try to not repeat what has already been written. I should also note that it was probably better that I didn’t write the first post or any other during our first month in Hetta. It would be safe to say that I was quite miserable after having had a rough first week of training and had not yet adjusted to the dynamics and personality quirks of all the fellow guides, Anna and Pasi and the Hetta Huskies’ small business corporatocracy in general. However we were starting to see signs of how we would fit into the system and the larger picture was becoming clearer and clearer. Ergo we steeled ourselves to stay the course and, as I sit typing and reflecting at the Helsinki airport, am eternally grateful for the good, the bad and the furry that made an indelible impression on our hearts forever.

First I should paint a picture of the landscapes that served as a daily backdrop to our workplace. Be it at Hetta or the smaller rural Darwin farm, everything was covered in a clean blanket of white snow from the end of September on. It will be how I remember Hetta even though the first part of our stay was filled with green and the burning colors of autumn. Bare birch trees were repurposed as boughs for snow to rest and in no time lakes started freezing over—luckily Leah and I were able to take one of Anna and Pasi’s canoes for a jaunt on beautiful Lake Ounasjarvi just in time. At night the white forest floors served to reflect the brilliant moonlight and of course the epic northern lights. Yup, we saw the aurora borealis…many times at that and I think I speak for both of us in saying it never got old. Our first sighting was during week two with our friends Emmanuelle and Mona but the most memorable came during late September when Leah and I were stationed alone at the Darwin farm. Around 10:30 p.m. we heard a lot of chatter from the dogs—you get to know the difference between the many dog howls and barks, some of which indicate a loose or tangled pup—and decided to make sure nothing was amiss. To our eternal amazement we stepped into a wonderland of brilliant dancing color dripping from the sky; as Leah says it was like “angels fingerpainting.” The dogs all had their heads cocked and howled and hollered at the movement in the sky. A moment like no other and one to which we compared the many other aurora borealis events that followed us during our stay.

Another defining aspect of the Hetta Huskies experience were the founders/owners/head honchos Anna McCormack and Pasi Ikonen. This married duo worked well together but had strikingly different personalities. While they have slightly large but well-founded egos (check out their bios here) we got to know them as people and not just the bosses. First there was Anna, the managing director and person most involved with the day-to-day operations and running of the volunteers. A very strong and at times intimidating personality, she brought a professionalism often unheard of in the small business arena and incorporated elements from her previous life working at major corporations (i.e. General Electric). Although a tough and demanding boss, Leah and I garnered respect from her due to our work ethic and the genuine effort we put into doing our jobs to the best of our ability; our age and the fact that we’ve held real jobs didn’t hurt that effort either. Even though she was the source of many a frustrating moment for ourselves and the other guides (but really, which boss isn’t?) in time we came to know the woman behind the spreadsheets. 

She genuinely cared about every guide and made a diligent effort to make the most of their time in Finnish Lapland, doing her best to reward them with experiences. When she heard we were having a bit of a rough time while at Darwin—I had just found out that my great-aunt Carmen whom all my family was close to had passed away—she had a bottle of wine sent out us (I don’t think the other guides know about that one!). Then while her parents were visiting from the UK we were asked to accompany them to the spa in the resort town of Levi; this was considered a “work day” but who wouldn’t enjoy lovely company and an afternoon at an indoor aquatic retreat? To top it off Anna brought us along while taking her parents to the airport at the Paris of the North—Tromso, Norway. This ended up being a lovely excursion, complete with the iconic Norwegian fjords, museum-hopping, an aerial tramway and even a chance to skinny dip in the Arctic Ocean underneath the northern lights (you read it right…check that one off the ol’ bucket list). In short we were able to get to know the caring and lovely human being who just happened to be our boss at Hetta Huskies. Upon leaving she mentioned that aside from just being guides we would have been the kind of people who she would have liked to have had as friends in a different life. I hope she knows that we consider her a friend in this one.

That brings us to the other Finnish half of the Hetta Huskies team, the deep-voiced Antarctic adventurer, Pasi. Almost the polar opposite to Anna (pun completely intended), he was a man of few words and did not have as much contact with the volunteers, however, we will walk away with many fond memories of this prototypical Finn. First let me put things into context; I suggest you watch this YouTube video which is an advertisement for Visit Finland. It’s in Finnish (with English subtitles) but it will give you an idea of what it sounds like to have Pasi respond to questions such as “how did you train for your trek to the South Pole?” with a curt yet to-the-point “I did not train.” And in all fairness he was not saying that in arrogance, he really was just an adventure-racing machine at the time so he really didn’t have to train per se. As quiet as he was, it was warming to see him around the dogs, tenderly calling them by name, murmuring in Finnish and showing that he had a relationship with each one. In the end I may remember Pasi most for the meal that he cooked at our leaving dinner; an avid elk hunter on the side, he served up a dish of just-killed (how else do you put it?) elk cutlets, grilled reindeer and bacon. Oh. My. God. Carnivore heaven. Add to that a few beers, some scotch and good company and it might be one of our most memorable meals ever.

Speaking of memorable meals, our daily subsistence consisted of lots of processed carbs (i.e. pasta, rice, rehydrated mashed potatoes, etc.) and while there was generally enough food—shortages weren’t unheard of since 12+ people rationing for a week doesn’t always work out—our caloric intake and metabolisms shot through the roof. Thankfully we had a round of food-filled care packages sent by Ma and Pa McFail that resulted in many a guide house dinner. Even still during the course of our trip Leah and I have both lost tons of weight and we didn’t expect that it was possible to lose much more…boy were we wrong. The guide manual notes that many people leave fitter than they’ve ever been before, and while that may not be true by all metrics, I am leaner than I ever thought possible. Since high school I’ve varied between 200-230 lbs. and during the trip I got myself down to about 180 lbs. At last weigh in at the Levi spa I came in at an almost scary 165 lbs., that even with unheard of chocolate consumption and two- to three-serving lunches and dinners. At the risk of forever losing my manhood I will now admit on the World Wide Interweb that I can actually fit into my wife’s old jeans. Stop laughing, dammit.

I know you’re asking yourselves ‘what is this crazy new diet routine, Steve?’ It’s called working your ass off twelve hours a day. In the last post Leah went through the typical daily rituals of watering, pooping and feeding 116 huskies, which in itself is quite an active endeavor. Add to this a plethora of other urgent and varied tasks and increasingly hostile weather and you have days that often end with sore bodies, cuts and/or bruises. Some of the more memorable jobs will be trenching through frozen earth on multiple occasions (shout outs to Lonan, Dave, George and Tom all of whom worked alongside me!) which was unfathomably frustrating but ultimately rewarding when done; hurriedly constructing new cages for sick dogs (injured pups will inevitably pile up during sled safaris) at the Darwin farm with new snow cropping up on your workspace every day; and working on the massive new kota on a day that dipped down to -22° C (that’s -8° F for my fellow compatriots). I did my best to keep at it that day since Tim the lead guide and resident construction guru doesn’t so much demand as deserve a hard and competent worker, but holy hell did I have to run off from time to time so as to warm up my numbing fingers and toes.

There were some other tasks that, while I might not have minded so much, were very trying for Leah. I think she’ll agree that I’m not calling out weaknesses but vulnerabilities that come with a not-fully-recovered emotional framework. On several occasions we had large game delivered to be used as meat for the dogs—the first time being elk off-cuts and the second a horse that had to be put down. While we’re both able to recognize the inherent value and respect for life that come in not wasting an animal, it’s something else to have to hack it up to pieces. I’ll start by saying I didn’t mind handling and slicing away at a recently killed animal; Leah on the other hand didn’t mind the elk so much but the horse, which was still warm, proved to hit a bit too close to home. Without going into detail I’ll just say the bloody horse all over the dog kitchen floor brought to mind the graphic images of Jayna’s crime scene. She kept a straight face and maintained her professionalism but tears came streaming out later in the day when I asked her how it went.

Another difficult job for Leah was the all-important quad training that started during the first week of our Hetta Huskies stint. Prior to the snowfall it is vitally important to get the dogs physically and mentally accustomed to running in line, obeying commands and pulling as part of a team. As one can imagine, getting up to 40+ dogs (and many more during client season) collected, harnessed and clipped into the sled lines is a noisy and stressful experience. Dogs are barking in frenzied anticipation, humans are yelling at each other—usually just to be heard but sometimes out of frustration—and tensions are rising all around. It is a spine-tingling experience that generally results in intense satisfaction when the teams are finally released and the running begins; however quite often the quad training also results in dog fights and Leah had to run interference one too many times. She was never seriously injured herself—maybe a cut or scrape but we all get them—but having seen some of the pups at their worst produced its own irreparable scars. To some degree we loved each and every one of those dogs and when Leah had to tend to the occasional bloody bite she felt that the responsibility lay solely at her feet. It didn’t, these things happen of course, but by the end of our stay at Hetta Leah turned into a ball of anxiety when she had to be part of a quad training team. 

Leah: Eh, that was part of it. I did hate breaking up fights, perhaps because I often seemed to be the closest to them and therefore the first responder until others could come running. One of the worst was toward the end at Valimaa when giant, jowly Roi and his beefy son, Ronnie (who had snapped his chain and escaped his running circle) ganged up on Borgi—who was still on his circle and couldn’t escape—over a bone. The feeling that you may see an animal literally torn apart in front of your eyes if you don’t act immediately remains indescribable; adrenaline takes over and you throw yourself into the fray without regard for personal safety, so great is the desire to prevent more harm from coming from the interaction. Needless to say, having to pull a Pyranese mastiff and his massive son away from a smaller husky was wretched and even more so when I saw Borgi’s injuries—puncture bite wounds to his head, muzzle and near his eyes, the largest of which looked like a gunshot wound right in the middle of his forehead and was so deep that you could see bone.

But fights aside, I didn’t mind getting the teams ready for quad training—that was fine. It was just that for everyone else the stress typically abated a bit once the dogs were running but for me it only heightened. I was concerned about not driving over the wheel dogs in the rear, not bottoming out the quad, trying to learn the trails, paying attention to the teams in front and back in case they needed help, keeping a steady pace, getting the commands right, anticipating fights in line, keeping an eye out for injuries, etc., etc. I could never just relax and watch the dogs do their thing because I was such a knot of anxiety. I did it without complaint since it was part of the job, but anytime someone was around who truly enjoyed going out with the dogs I’d happily pass over the reins, assisting only with the harnessing and other prep work before waving the teams off.

Speaking of mental and tough jobs, I also never thought a few months ago that I’d be assisting with a dog necropsy in below freezing temperatures, let alone skinning the animal afterward, but maybe I should back up. Our best friend at Hetta, Emmanuelle, aka “Manou”, is pre-vet and despite classwork and helping out other vets at her animal clinic job, she’s never had the chance to practice a neutering procedure on her own, let alone a solo dissection. When the wrenching decision was made to put down one of the chronically ill dogs, Ted, due to intense pain and no surgery options for his ruptured anal glands, Anna asked Manou if she’d like to practice a neutering procedure as well as a necropsy assisted by the local vet; somehow I found myself wandering into the outdoor garage, curious to see and unable to look away...and perhaps facing some of my demons?

I won’t go into details, but Ted’s body was treated with the utmost respect and Manou was thrilled to actually have a chance to learn valuable skills and anatomy that books and lectures just can’t teach. As for me, I somehow managed to turn off my heart and let the scientific side of my brain take over, viewing this as an incredible, albeit intense, learning opportunity. In retrospect I’m pretty certain I just dissociated and had an almost out of body experience, especially when it came to the skinning process. Although I originally would have been appalled at the idea before arriving at Hetta Huskies, they treat their RIP dogs with a reverence redolent of the Native Americans. While every dog’s final remains receive their own marked grave in a patch of forest (graves are dug in the summer before the ground freezes just in case they lose dogs over the winter), if the animal’s body can be used to teach or if its fur can be used as a living memorial to a life well lived (in the form of warm clothing), then so be it. I understand how that might not sit well with some of you; I would have been in that camp a few months ago and would still never think of doing the same with a personal pet. However, I now appreciate the value in it, especially in such a harsh environment where nothing is wasted on a farm that treats its animals better than any other husky farm around.

On a happier note, I enjoyed the highly pleasurable chance to put my dormant mentoring skills to use in the form of working with 15-year-old Marika, the granddaughter of a Hetta local. She lived in Rovaniemi, over 3 hours away, but had always wanted to see Hetta Huskies from the inside and had the perfect opportunity in the form of a national mandatory one-week internship for students her age. Anna referred to her as “the kiddie” and had to juggle who to partner her with since she couldn’t do any of the intense tasks; I happily volunteered and never regretted it. While a bit mousy and waifish, Marika proved to be a vivacious young teen with dreams of one day visiting Japan (she’s studying the language and has a fixation with all things Japanese), and walked around in a dreamlike state that she had managed to procure volunteer work at a place she had worshipped from afar ever since she was young.

Over her week at Hetta Huskies she enthralled me with the meanings behind dogs’ names (Keri Keri means “faster, faster” and is something usually shouted at the end of a race) and asked myriad questions to try and understand the farm workings, since her family, and indeed the entire village, remains guarded and unsure about what actually happens on the dog farm. Her dogged determination to try any task we threw at her was admirable and I realized just how much I had missed interaction with female teenagers (like those who had comprised my beloved HIV/sexual health advocacy group for four years back at the Girl Scouts). Also, since I wasn’t technically training her, I was able to relax and share info and stories instead of worrying about if I was covering every bullet point on the exhaustive training checklist.

She joined us on our last outing at the farm the night before we left and afterward she came into the kitchen to say goodbye since she knew we’d be leaving in the morning and she still had one more day on the farm. Imagine my surprise when she gave me a massive hug and then instantly dissolved into a fit of sobs. Not typical behavior from a Finn, especially as they’re known to be a stalwart, undemonstrative people. Normally fluent in English, she faltered to find the words to thank me for my time with her over the last week and instead kept bursting into fresh tears and giving me hug after hug. I was blown away that I had obviously made such an impression on her in such a little time, but as I gave her a final hug and felt myself tearing up as well, I caught a knowing glance from Steve. We’ve been been praying for guidance in terms of job vocations when we return home and it was difficult to feel that this wasn’t some sort of sign that maybe I do have a gift when it comes to youth and should keep my eyes and heart open to that possibility post-trip.

Another highlight was being able to celebrate my 32nd birthday in this arctic fairyscape, which proved particularly crazy when I realized that a year ago I was hoofing it up steep steps in the humid Peruvian jungle on the way to Macchu Picchu. My birthday in Hetta was a particularly crap day in terms of weather, from a rainy grey day that greeted us to a temperature that hovered just above freezing so that everything turned muddy and gross instead of being covered in a blanket of fresh snow. Not too bad all things considered, but this is a husky farm and dogs need to be fed and pooped no matter what, so everyone was vying for coveted jobs that would keep them inside away from the abysmally cold and dreary weather. However, my Hetta Huskies family was incredible and as a present they refused to let me do anything outside, shouldering that burden themselves. I spent the day playing with Eliel, checking out a local property for sale with Anna and her visiting parents, going to the thrift store with them, attending Eliel’s playgroup and was even treated to a reindeer burger at CafĂ© Silja. The work day capped off with cake and beers at the farmhouse (baked by Manou and Bridget the night before) and then once back at the guidehouse Steve and I cooked up a Mexican feast for all with supplies from Ma & Pa McFail’s care package goods. We decorated the dogs in my birthday streamers and hats, goofed around and generally had a lovely, low-key evening.

Soon thereafter Manou, Bridget, Steve and I were gifted the experience of being in Valimaa—just the four of us. Anna knew we were all close but hadn’t realized that we kept being sent to different places and therefore often wouldn’t see each other; she felt bad and made an effort to give us some time together, which we definitely appreciated. Upon our return to Hetta the four of us had a day off together and kicked off the day with a sinfully decadent breakfast (again, most of which was procured from the seemingly bottomless McFail parent box) before heading into town for a hike up to the jypera (open fire structure with stunning views of the lake and Hetta), a stroll through the exquisitely done Nature Center, reindeer burgers and a final stop at one of the silver shops in town, Koru Laakso, so I could buy a jewelry reminder of my time in Lapland in the form of a traditional pendant design. As it turns out, the owner, Tuomo, was also in the semifinals of Finland’s Got Talent for his traditional Lappish Yoik skills, a traditional singingstyle. The four of us begged him for an impromptu performance, which he obliged us with in full costume behind the counter as his hypnotic serenade soon had us covered in goosebumps and fully riveted by his voice.

A final birthday surprise also happened around the end of October when I was Skyping with my parents at the tail end of a nasty cold/bout of laryngitis and also having a tough time at work. Toward the end of our conversation they teasingly mentioned that Steve and I had received a mystery package with a New Zealand postmark; they asked if we wanted them to open it on camera or wait until we were at home, so of course we jumped at the chance of live present unwrapping across the miles. As it turns out, our beloved Joan, the matriarch of the Irish family living in Barry’s Bay where we had our final Kiwi Workaway, and who we still keep in contact with (and basically judge all other Workaways by) had sent the package unbeknownst to us. As we watched my parents unfurled a handmade card written to them, one to me and Steve and a set of stunning tea towels with a Kiwi bird and a fantail, the latter of which might rival my hummingbird obsession at this point. I instantly dissolved into tears (I do that a lot lately) and both Steve and I were, needless to say, incredibly touched and blown away by the thoughtfulness of the gesture. We’re constantly reminded that the most meaningful parts of this trip center around the people we’ve met along the way; we’re looking forward already to the point in time when we can visit one of our favorite families again in their paradise by the sea.

For me this job has been more difficult then my stint in the Peace Corps in every way; for my friends who were/are currently in the PC, you know just how much that statement means. I reached and surpassed my breaking point multiple times, questioned everything I thought I knew about my personal limits and had both the highest highs and lowest lows while here. However, would I do it again? In a heartbeat. The people I was privileged enough to meet, the dogs who ruled my life and the bosses who demanded the world but rewarded you tenfold when you gave them your all made every second justifiably worth it. And while this job was also the most intense and stressful I've ever had (if I screwed up at my former job I might have an irate parent screaming at me over the phone, while if I screwed up here I might have a dead dog), I know that I am 100% equipped to tackle anything, anywhere after this.

Steve: Take all these loaded elements, plus the hundred others we didn’t touch on, roll them into a neat little ball and put them aside. Let’s fast forward to our last day at Hetta and talk about the number one reason we came to this husky farm—the sled dogs. Through sheer fortune and some forward-thinking from Anna and Pasi we were able to take the dogs on their first sled run of the season. Just enough snow had fallen, Pasi had prepped the trails with his snowmobile and it was now time to leave the quads up at the farmhouse. It was a nippy -17°C and the sun was already making it’s 3:30 PM departure. We set up four teams with lead guide Lorin in the front, followed by myself, Leah and the ever-so-lucky Marika. I had Bino and Nomad in the lead position, Timur alone in team, and the big-time brotherly duo of Yesper and Yasper in wheel; Leah had an efficient all-ladies team led by Cherry and Diva, followed by Meggy, Mighty Mouse and Minnie. After all teams were prepped, Pasi—who would lead and oversee us via his snowmobile—brought us to an unprepped sleigh to give us quick instructions on how to drive the sled…or better yet how to brake and hold on for dear life. As he wrapped up his minute lesson—with dogs barking in frenetic anticipation—Leah asked the question that was on all of our minds: ‘what are these for?,’ referring to the handle-like devices with straps that were given to each of us.  In classic Pasi fashion he responded “to climb your way out of the ice” and walked off. Ice picks to climb out of the frozen lake if it gives way during our trek? Oh shit doesn’t quite capture the unspoken sentiment shared amongst the group.

Climbing aboard our respective sleds and standing firmly on the brakes, Pasi and Emmanuelle untied the ropes that secured us to the holding posts and unchained the lead dogs from the safety line that kept the team in place. Like a loaded gun with the safety off, we were ready to go; Lorin in the lead raised her hand to signal her readiness and we all did the same. Pasi started off on his snowmobile and the command was given—“LET’S GO!” Months of training and anticipation led up to this moment and the dogs could feel it too; nothing could really prepare us for the neck-snapping quickness with which the dogs took off from the starting line. I had to practically ride the brake pad so as not to overtake Lorin…this was heavily due in part to the fact that the ginormous brothers Yesper and Yasper were pulling from the wheel position right in front of the sled. A year-and-a-half ago I might have had a little more weight for the dogs to pull and to leverage on the brake, but now all I could do was hold on for dear life and rely on commands when necessary. Holding on was really all you can do as the dogs whisked us through the 2k loop that we had quad trained them on so often. The difference was palpable though as the sled skidded to and fro on icy sections and you really had to lean into turns so as not to tip over and wreck.

Before long we found ourselves entering uncharted territory as Pasi guided us onto a new 5k loop that took us over frozen marshes and bogs and eventually onto a frozen lake. Realization set in that we had the ice picks for this very reason, however the dogs kept chugging and with little time to think we were quickly back onto solid albeit slippery ground. I can honestly say that I caught air at least two times and probably thought I was going to tip over at least five but I still managed to relax a bit and I eventually started to gain some confidence in myself, the dogs and the sled. At the halfway point of this 5k journey Pasi had the teams stop to take a quick breather; some dogs ate snow, others might have rolled around or simply caught their breaths. Us guides on the other hand took stock of the indescribably picturesque landscape around us—a darkening sky with a fiery pink horizon, reflected from below by an open white expanse that was untouched save for the tracks made by the sleds and our canine cohorts. With a moment to think it dawned on us that this is what everything—the frustration, happiness, pooping, feeding, quad training, people dynamics, biting cold, sore bodies, elk and horse carcasses, etc., etc., etc.—this is what it all came down to. Teams of working dogs, happily and healthily in their environment, doing what they were bred to do. As we continued on and hit the gates of the farm my eyes welled up and tears, which froze instantly, ran down my cheeks. Adrenaline still coursing through my veins and my hands stiff from my grip, I now knew that I was part of something special.

After our aforementioned leaving dinner was over and everyone was getting ready for the ride back to the guide house, Leah and I took a moment to head down to the farm one last time. Somebody had forgotten the farm lights and the overhead floodlights left the main path illuminated. We made a quick stop at the souvenir shop to pick up a gift for our Helsinki CouchSurfer and hurriedly locked up and turned off the lights so as to get out of the frigid cold. As we started to walk down the causeway, with running circles to our left and to our right, we slowed our gait as the scene before us made us catch our breaths. A full moon enchanted the snow-covered ground, trees and kennels with a magical blue-white glow and for maybe the first time ever not a dog was in sight. Every kennel had a chain coming out of it as our beloved huskies huddled in their houses to guard against the frozen night. Then one by one howls began to emerge from all corners of the running circles in the crescendo we knew so well. The silence wasn’t broken so much as accompanied as Leah and I received our last and final salute from the dogs to whom we gave it all. Sobbing messes, we stepped through the gates knowing that we would see them all again one day either in this life or the next—for these dog-lovers, this is probably what heaven must be like. 





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