Steve and Leah McFail spent a lot of time at Hetta Huskies, tending after 116 husky work dogs, such as these two with Steve.
PART III of III
By Leah McFail
In September 2013, we found ourselves in the tiny reindeer-herding village of Hetta, 130 miles above the Arctic Circle, after 17 hours of travel via train and bus. Hetta Huskies itself is owned by married former professional adventure athletes and explorers, Finnish Pasi Ikonen and British Anna McCormack, and our bosses expected a consistently high level of professionalism and perfection.
At 32, we were some of the oldest volunteers; up to 16 volunteers lived dorm style, with everyone in bunk beds, sharing a toilet, shower, living area and kitchen. Cooking and cleaning duties were unofficially rotated and every night there were between four to five dogs from the farm who would spend the night with us for either medical or socialization purposes.
Speaking of huskies, we were in charge of 116 howling, furry, excitable powerhouse work dogs (and 86 at a second farm) that needed daily care. Our work days lasted at least 12 hours with a half hour lunch, working anywhere from 6 to 9 days in a row before we had a day off. Daily tasks included administering medication, prepping, delivering and cleaning up the dogs’ food, groundwork maintenance (refilling holes dug by the dogs, raking running circles near the kennels, making sure there were no tree roots to tangle the chains), heat checks for the females, cage repair, taking sled teams on practice runs, giving tours to tourists, data entry and a litany of other tasks that would spring up daily.
Besides our short lunch, we were constantly in motion and never got enough food or sleep, and this was before it got more arduous in the midst of the winter tourist season. If we had attempted this at the beginning of our trip when we were fresh from our desk jobs, I shudder to think of the implications on our bodies and brains. It was also incredibly stressful knowing that everything we did affected the daily health and safety of more than 100 animals, which is why there are systems and trainings in place at Hetta Huskies that rival those in any corporate setting. The learning curve was incredibly steep and both of us knew that if we made an egregious error, it could result in the death of a dog or even a human.
The couple’s time in Hetta defined their world trip, so they decided to go for the ultimate souvenir in the form of a 3- year-old female named Theta, who Leah had fallen in love with at first sight. When their around the world adventure was complete, Steve and Leah flew her home to Colorado.
We also spent time at a second farm, Valimaa, which Hetta Huskies had been contracted to oversee for another company. The set-up there was a bit more primitive and remote and the dogs themselves needed a little extra love and attention, since they are a bit wilder and scared of humans than the Hetta dogs. It was here on one memorable evening, Friday the 13th in fact, that I was walking back from my evening foray to the compost toilet when I spotted a pulsating green aura and my heart jumped into my throat…. aurora borealis, aka the Northern Lights, live and in otherworldly greens. I shouted to Steve and once outside we inhaled the frigid night air, our eyes teary as a sonorous canine chorus rose up and enveloped us in the moment. It was pure magic. The show lasted for about half an hour as we lay now on the frozen ground, transfixed by the celestial show as we used the sky as our open-air planetarium.
Steve and I even took out the first sleds of the season on the night before we left Hetta. Flying across the frozen tundra under a fiery sorbet sunset behind exuberant teams of canine dynamos who love nothing more than the feel of snow under their feet, we realized that the aching bones, stress, lack of sleep and paltry food was all worth it for that single moment.
In fact, our time in Hetta so defined our world trip that we decided to go for the ultimate souvenir in the form of a 3-year-old female named Theta, who was on the adoption list and sported Dalmatian-spotted ears and a black mask of fur around her eyes. I had fallen in love at first sight of her and when we learned she could be adopted, we did the research and discovered that it would be neither expensive nor complicated to bring her home.
Thus, after departing Hetta Huskies and making our way through the UK for a few more months, we finished our adventures back in Helsinki, where we collected Theta and boarded the first of three planes that would bring us all back to Colorado.
She adapted quickly, including everything from a name change (after seeing her run and pounce in the snow, we re-christened her “Naali,” which means “Arctic Fox” in Finnish), to playing with toys for the first time and even swimming in the Pacific Ocean on our road trip to San Diego after never having seen water. Our little family indulges in a morning group howl before work in honor of the pack mentality and we delight in taking her to the dog park (where she gravitates toward other huskies) and giving her lots of belly rubs after a long run on a skijoring line to simulate her sled-pulling days. After Naali deduced that laughter and the television weren’t threats, parked cars and the sound of compressed air remain her only phobias. She also learned all too quickly that cute behavior leads to more cuddles and treats.
With our dog as a welcome distraction, our own re-acclimatization tends to include peaks and valleys as we continue tackling how to go about processing such a monumental life adventure. Everything from traffic-choked highways to fully-stocked grocery stores proved daunting and overwhelming after 20 months of living simply, often in very rural areas. While we were ready to return home when we did, we still yearn for the freedom that a backpack and no timeline brings. And while Steve has been at his new job for a few months and I’m still trying to ascertain my own next steps in the professional realm, we both know that travel will feature prevalently in our future when the timing is right.
So this is what a leap of faith and stepping into the darkness of the unknown looked like for us! There’s not a day that goes by when we regret our decision to throw caution to the wind and embark upon the most epic adventure we’ve shared to date. I also have complete faith that things will work out how they need to from here and I am constantly reminded of how blessed Steve and I are to have each other, our unfaltering families and friends and the best trip memento we could have asked for in Naali, our very own living slice of Finnish Lapland.
Thanks for reading and feel free to peruse our blog at www.timethatisgiven.com for more detailed renderings of our time on the road or www.hettahuskies.com to learn about dog sledding or volunteering with Hetta Huskies in Finland. I hope you feel inspired in even a small way to dream, explore and discover; it doesn’t need to be a globe-trotting trip for you to learn things about your world and yourself you never dreamed possible.
This is the final article in the three-part series of Greenwood Village native Leah McFail’s around the world backpacking adventure with her husband Steve.
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