Did you know that you can partake in a dog sledding tour in Iceland? Does dog sledding operate the whole year through, and what are the prerequisites for the tour? What breeds are used for dog sledding in Iceland? Read on to find out all you need to know about dog sledding in Iceland.
Visitors (or prospective visitors, at least) idealise a handful of animals when they consider Icelandic wildlife. Their mind will most likely to jump to the horse, puffin, arctic fox or, in rare cases, the Icelandic sheepdog, a spitz breed that arrived to the island as early as the Vikings did, approximately 870 AD.
Yet, despite its long history in the country, not to mention its importance to Iceland's agricultural development, why has the Icelandic Sheepdog, this noble hound failed to receive the recollection it deserves in the public eye? It it purely because almost every country seems to have their own national sheepdog, or something else?
Perhaps because of their light orange and innocuous coat? Maybe it's their wide-scale domestication in the countryside (they are proud herders) as opposed to the urban minority? Perhaps it’s because they resemble a Welsh Corgi, a dog that, unsurprisingly, manages to satire itself by mere appearance?
Wikimedia. Creative Commons. Veronica Drink.
Some dog-oglers believe it to be something else entirely, a new creature, something that brings human beings a whole new sense of joy and snow-swept exhilaration. An outsider in the mix that has captured the hearts and minds of both Icelanders and visitors alike. Outsiders that more closely resemble their wolfish cousins than the native four-legged friend?
Are you there yet, boy? Did you get it? MUSH!
Dog-sledding is an ever-growing industry, one that balances an authentically unique Arctic experience with the stunning Icelandic landscapes. No doubt, with Iceland and the world’s current love affair set to continue, the sled dog has overshadowed the Icelandic sheepdog in a few ways; namely, they drag people around for the fun of it… and I do mean to emphasise the fun of both parties, hairy or human.
Photo Credit: Husky Dogsledding | Akureyri, North Iceland
Today, when we consider dog sledding, most of us will conjure to mind one of two things; a dashing, yet mildly frostbitten explorer, racing through the frozen wastes, or of a tour operator located somewhere like Norway, Greenland, Lapland or Canada.
At first thought, most do not consider Iceland as a dog sledding destination, and they would be right in thinking the country has no significant history with it. The landscapes and terrains of this wildly eclectic country do not generally lend themselves to sled travel, unless perhaps the white plains of say, Eyjafjallajökull glacier.
Even then, it is only amidst the highest glacial peaks where Iceland manages to keep snow all year round, with March through to October being, generally, green and pleasant. If early settlers in Iceland needed to travel from one part of the country to the other, it would generally be by foot, cart or horseback.
Let this not diminish the strength of man and dogs’ relationship elsewhere, however, with companionship and cooperation dating back to between 14,000 to 36,000 years ago. There is evidence, for instance, of dog harnesses being utilised long before the Europeans ever arrived in continental America.
Wikimedia. Creative Commons. Credit: Smithsonian Institution.
Before that even, research has suggested that dogs and humans crossed the Bering Strait into North America some 15,000 years ago. Mushing, in particular, the act of driving a dog-lead sled, dates back to approximately 2000 BC, either in Siberia or North America (both locations were known to use dogs for pulling loaded supplies).
It was later furthered into a major transportation method in the 1500s after French soldiers, known as coureurs-des-bois (“runners of the woods”) spent time learning the cultural habits of the recently colonised Iroquois people of, what is today, Quebec, Canada. This was later taken up and utilised by the invading British forces, with the French word ‘Marche!’ transforming to ‘Mush!’
Wikimedia. Creative Commons. Credit: St Mary's Museum.
Today, mushing can be split into a variety of different styles and categories; recreational, competitive, expeditionary, traditional; all have taken their place in our modern world, with the practice sometimes acting as a sport, other times as a tourist activity or in a role resembling the original logistical intention.
One interesting note is that whilst snowmobiles have widely replaced dog teams for utilitarian work, some workers still use the latter, citing their reliability in extreme weather conditions.
There are three dog breeds that are used for dog sledding in Iceland; Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Huskies and Greenlandic Dog. As each of their names suggests, none of these breeds is native to Iceland, nor are they a common sighting around the country. As for the breed’s temperament, huskies are social, intelligent and loyal, though prone to noisiness and excitement; upon visiting the kennels for the first time, expect some ecstatic barking!
Dog teams in Iceland can vary from between 4 - 10 dogs, though this is decided based on the experience and weight of the respective rider. It has only been since around 2006 that dog sledding as a phenomenon has even taken off in Iceland, and thus breeders and kennels tend to keep the size of their teams pretty small.
Wikimedia. Creative Commons. Credit: Pharaoh Hound.
First bred by the Chukchi people of eastern Siberia, Siberian Huskies were an essential asset for the hunter-gatherer culture, their strength, resilience and aptitude to cold climates making them the perfect partner. Alongside the Samoyed and the Alaskan Malamute, Siberian Huskies are among the descendants of the original sled dog.
The Chukchi chose to ever-develop the hunting instinct in their dogs, allowing them to roam freely during the summer months to prey on birds, squirrels and other small animals. Thus today, this hunting instinct can be still be seen in their enthusiasm for the outdoors and their need for almost constant companionship, be it with it humans or other dogs.
Siberian Huskies were an essential factor in the survival of ancient tribes, even aiding their masters into great swathes of uncharted land. In more recent times, the US Admiral Robert Peary used this breed whilst on an expedition to locate the North Pole.
Wikimedia. Creative Commons. Credit: Markus Trienke.
Alaskan Huskies can vary greatly in terms of appearance. Whilst smaller in stature than the Siberian Huskies, the length of their fur can be in close resemblance (though never as long) and the palette of their coat can range from speckled to jet black to sable.
Alaskan Huskies were in the Americas approximately 12,000 years ago, though only settled with people in Arctic regions around 5000 years ago. Like the Siberian Husky, this breed shares genetic links with Alaskan Malamutes and, due to admixture, grey wolves.
Alaskan Huskies are the unmatched champion of dog sledding racing, their slender frames, long legs and powerful muscles making them built for speed. To provide an example, many sprint races take place over three days, with 20 to 30 miles (32 to 48 km) covered each day; Alaskan Huskies are able to maintain an average of 19 miles per hour (31 km/h) during these runs.
This, naturally, makes them incredibly valuable to professional mushers. Highly rated racing dogs can value between 3000 to 10,000 USD if young, fit and ready for new runs.
Wikimedia. Creative Commons. Credit: Slaunger.
People often comment on the discrepancies between the names of Iceland and Greenland and their respective terrains; Greenland is much more glacial than Iceland, whilst the latter boasts far greater regions of lush fertility. Taking a quick look over one of Greenland’s greatest exports will support this; I talk, of course, of the Greenland Dog.
Greenland Dogs boasts a strong pack instinct, making them useful in a number of capacities as working dogs, but requiring a confident owner to instil loyalty and discipline. Once this ‘follow the leader’ relationship has been established, the breed makes for excellent pets, though their primary purpose, in Greenland at least, is still to be worked for hunting or dog sledding purposes.
Dog Sledding in Iceland is just about as exhilarating an experience one can get, rivalling the likes of scuba diving in Silfra Fissure, snowmobiling on Eyjafjallajökull glacier or paragliding over the sublime South Coast. Sledding can take place in a great variety of places, from tours on dry-land to the glittering slush of Iceland’s snowy plains.
When dog sledding in Iceland, you will not be in control of the sled per se, but instead acting as a passenger, switching with different members of your group throughout the tour. This provides everyone with a chance to experience what it is like to dog sled from the front. Actual control of the sled will be left to the musher.
A good rule of thumb for what to wear on your dog sledding tour is to dress as though you were going skiing, snowboarding or snowmobiling. Iceland’s weather is unpredictable, often harsh, but almost always surprising, meaning it is important to stay prepared and informed before heading out into the elements.
The areas’ you will likely be riding will resemble those same skiing areas (i.e; glacial plains, gentle mountain slopes, etc.) meaning all the same precautions against the cold. Attire should include thick under-layers, a woollen fleece/sweater, waterproof jacket and trousers, hiking boots to the ankle, sunglasses, gloves, scarves and hats.
The tour operator themselves will also provide further equipment, such as wind/waterproof overalls; these also have the excellent benefit of keeping dog hair from your clothes... (though, as dog lovers will know, this becomes less and less of a worry as the years go by.)
One of the greatest benefits of partaking in a dog sledding tour is the ability to slip the experience into your itinerary, regardless of which region you are in in the country (*Booking in advance is always recommended). As previously mentioned, Iceland's landscape as a whole is not suitable for transportive dog sledding, but each of its four quadrants contains ample space to let the dogs run wild.
This customisability makes riding the sled one of the perfect extra fixtures for an already rammed day. Dog sledding tours from the Icelandic capital, Reykjavík, may, for instance, combine the experience with the famed Golden Circle sightseeing tour, allowing you to get a taste of both culture and adrenaline, as well as see firsthand the mighty glacier Langjökull.
Tours in the north, however, will likely take place around the picturesque Lake Mývatn, allowing you to slip in time to see the region's associated attractions, including the 'Dark Fortress', Dimmuborgir and Europe's most powerful waterfall, Dettifoss. Another popular location for dog sledding is the lush countryside that surrounds Iceland's "Capital of the North", Akureyri.
If there happens to be no snow, operators will opt for a ‘Dry-Land Tour’. In short, the skis of the sledge are switched over to wheels, the reigns are changed for a steering wheel and a handbrake is inserted, meaning you can take to the tarmac in no time. Either this, or the entire sledge will be switched for a cart.
Dry-Land tours are an ideal way to the see the Icelandic countryside’s flatter grounds—its lupin-filled meadows, quaint farmsteads and moss-cloaked pastures—and is the perfect choice for those guests worried about getting cold feet.
In almost all circumstances, working dogs are friendly and experienced around people, often loving some affection in between rides. Operators will also likely encourage interaction between you and the dogs, as this creates the best precedent for future behaviour. To stress the dogs’ friendliness, the minimum age limit for most dog sledding tour passengers is six years old, meaning the animals are used to being around children.
With that being said, make sure to listen closely should your musher or tour guide say not to touch certain animals; given that these are working dogs living communally in kennels and are largely bred for the sport, it is the operator who has final say, and the most thorough understanding of the dog's condition.
Animals are unpredictable, regardless of their natural passive state, and may show signs of aggression if they feel trapped or that their young is threatened. Some operators actually offer the opportunity to visit these kennels and learn more about their breeding programs, with some even offering the kennel-visit aspect of the tour on its own.
Did you enjoy our article about Dog Sledding in Iceland? Did you get to experience a Dog Sledding tour during your time in Iceland and, if so, would you recommend the experience to others? Where did you go dog sledding in the country? Make sure to leave your thoughts and queries in the Facebook's comments box below.