So, what do you get your wife for her birthday that will surprise her, excite her and bowl her over? This was the question posed to me earlier this year. It is an annual conundrum, which seems to get more demanding each year. Last year’s present – a horse riding lesson on a Clydesdale horse – was going to be difficult to top (riding a Clydesdale had been a bucket list item for Pamela since childhood, and I managed to find an obliging riding school near Inverurie which did this). So the pressure was on!
As I should have guessed, the answer was going to be on my doorstep, in the beautiful and resourceful Aberdeenshire. During my research of the local area for an American friend’s upcoming trip to Aberdeen, I came across the experience provided by Husky Haven. As this company’s name alludes to, the experience was going to involve husky dogs – this was going to be a perfect present!
April had brought its mix of unpredictable weather, and the evening of our experience was going to be no different. Ominously, heavy showers battered our car as we pulled up to Husky Haven, but we should not have worried, since as soon as we left the car and made our way up to the kennels, an iridescent double rainbow appeared, and seemed to bid a good omen before our husky appointment.
Husky Haven is a small kennel of pure breed Siberian Huskies based just north of Stonehaven. They offer a full hands on sled dog tour, getting a chance to drive your very own dog team on a trail around Aberdeenshire. I was sold as soon as I read about this experience on Husky Haven’s website, but we were to be treated to so much more than advertised during our evening’s booking.
The driving force of Husky Haven is the experienced husky musher Wattie McDonald, ably assisted by his wife Jane and fellow husky owner Barry. He offered us and another couple, whom had also booked this husky encounter, a very warm welcome that was barely audible over the barking and howling of the excited canines. After an induction in Husky Haven’s cabin, we came back out into the kennel courtyard to find that our dog teams had been let out of their homes and tethered up, ready to be greeted by us prior to being hitched to our sleds.
We were introduced to our huskies and had a chance to pet and familiarize ourselves with the friendly and excited dogs. Initially, I was surprised at how small they were, fully expecting to meet with tall, muscular hounds. However, as Wattie explained, these were Siberian huskies and were smaller than their longer legged Alaskan husky cousins. This was no detriment to their ability as sled dogs, as these leaner, durable dogs are actually better for endurance racing in the snowy Arctic wilds.
Now, I must admit that I was a bit perturbed to find out that one of my team of four dogs was called Krazy. Why, I asked, was she called Krazy? Well, as Wattie admitted, she is a bit crazy! Allaying my fears, however, was the knowledge that Wattie had been sizing us all up since arriving, picking the dogs for our team depending on what he saw as our strengths and weaknesses. You will be glad to know that he does in fact have a good measure of character, as I had, what turned out to be, a fantastic team.
After learning how to harness our dogs and hitch them up to our 3 wheeled cart, called a rig, we were taught the four commands that we were going to have to use – Haw (left), Gee (right), Whoa (slow down) and Get On (go faster, although there was never any fear that this command was going to be needed!). I was now ready to mush Krazy, and her three team mates Kroozer, Indy and Kashmir.
With Wattie and Barry leading the way on their quad bike, the four sled teams broke out of the compound and chased up the country track. These huskies live for their chance to sprint out into the wilds, and you have to be constantly reigning them in by using the brakes. It was an exhilarating experience and after what seemed to be much longer, but was probably only quarter of an hour, we stopped at a prearranged spot and tethered up the teams, giving our new found friends a chance to drink.
After a chance to catch our collective breaths, we soon knew that it was time to head back, because the minutes of silence was now replaced by lively barking and playfulness from the pack. The race back home was just as thrilling and I could see by the look on Pamela’s face that this birthday experience had been a hit, and that she was enamored by her team, comprising Kasper, Keisha, Katmai and Karli.
Back at the kennels, and with the huskies safely watered and in their homes, we then had the chance to see and learn about their special feeding habits, as Wattie took us into the food preparation area. All the food has been specially selected to ensure that the dogs have the right balance of proteins, fats and oils essential for breeding endurance and stamina. The frozen fish heads, however, were a little off putting!
We then headed back into the cabin and received two audio visual presentations on Wattie’s Alaskan and Iditarod experiences. We both found this so interesting, and were in awe to find out about the racing that he had competed in. Wattie’s claim to fame is that he completed the Iditarod race in 2010 and 2011.
I was unfamiliar with what this was, but the presentation detailed this 1049 mile Alaskan sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome, a race which takes between 8 and 15 days, on a trail through a harsh landscape of tundra and spruce forests, over hills and mountain passes, as well as frozen rivers. The race is a very important and popular sporting event in Alaska, and the top mushers and their teams of dogs are local celebrities. This was very evident in the TV news reports that made up part of the presentations.
Learning about this race and the harsh realities faced by Wattie, and the understanding of what these huskies have been bred for, really made the whole experience complete. But there was much more to this experience, for in between the two presentations, it was time to go back into the yard for some PUPPY TIME! This was most unexpected, and so welcomed. Husky Haven currently has three puppies, and they came bounding out to meet us, willingly letting themselves to be held and cuddled. Unfortunately, these balls of fur were too big to be successfully hidden inside our jackets, but the thought certainly passed through our minds!
Our experience was thoroughly exhilarating and uplifting, and we came away having learned so much about huskies and sled racing. Pamela loved her original and unexpected birthday present, and I was equally happy to have found this treasure behind our backyard.
Please join us for our next BESPOKE travel blog post when our travel blog revisits Poland and we cover some of our favorite Polish bars.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels!