Matti – The Musher in Sarek
Sarek, with its high mountains and deep, dramatic valleys, is often called Europe’s last wilderness. It is also one of Sweden’s oldest national parks. It is not particularly accessible during the summer but feels even more remote in the winter. Someone who knows this only too well is Matti Holmgren. In the past fifteen years, he has spent hundreds of winter days and nights in Sarek.
FANCY A REAL winter adventure? A dog sledding expedition in the Sarek National Park in the very north of Sweden could be just the thing. Every year, Matti Holmgren of Jokkmokkguiderna takes four guests on an exclusive dog sledding tour through Sarek’s snow-filled valleys and up over the glistening mountain tops. Sometimes the temperamental mountain weather shows its dark side, and the party has to fight its way through face-lashing blizzards and heavy snowfall, and more than half a meter of snow can fall overnight. Sarek’s changeable weather conditions and varied topography determines the choice of route, the length of the day’s tour, or whether it might be just as well to stay tucked up in the tent until the storm has passed.
"A clear blue sky and absolutely no wind. On days like that, we can easily do fifty kilometers or more”
The gateway to Sarek. Photo by Jokkmokkguiderna
“ON ONE OCCASION, we trudged three kilometers on snowshoes just to make tracks for the dogs. Then we trudged back along the tracks to fetch the dogs and the sleds... but by then the day was over. On another day, the winter landscape can be bathed in glorious sunshine. A clear blue sky and absolutely no wind. On days like that, we can easily do fifty kilometers or more,” says Matti Holmgren.“These are dynamic tours that must constantly be adapted to prevailing conditions. The Sarek expeditions are mainly about being alone in one of our largest national parks. It’s a fantastic experience to drive a dog sled through valleys and over the tops for several days without seeing a single human footprint, let alone catching a glimpse of another human being. After a couple of days, the perspective changes. The sudden discovery of a new snowmobile track gives a real kick, and progress is much easier.”
The dogs are taking a well-earned rest. Photo by Jokkmokkguiderna
THE JOKKMOKKGUIDERNA’S TOUR attracts many foreign visitors, but the majority of guests are Swedish. However, all guests share a common interest in the outdoors. Each group that sets off is an interesting mix. Young students, finally on their great adventure, rub shoulders with middle-aged photographers, nurses and older engineers. Many of the participants are women, and the oldest guest so far was nearly 65. “One of the spinoffs from the expedition is getting to know new people. In the wilderness of Sarek, we only have each other, and we all have to get on. After a week together, it’s a coherent group that returns to civilization, and the participants have often made long-lasting friendships.”
”IT’S ALSO A memorable experience when we do meet other people, for example, the park wardens, accommodation owners or Sami reindeer herders. Since I’m well known here as a guide, I can often encourage lively conversation with the locals, stimulating discussions and swapping of experiences,” says Matti Holmgren.
THE EXCLUSIVE WINTER adventure, the isolation and the complete dependence on weather and wind are the attraction, but part of the challenge is also to overcome the conditions. For Matti Holmgren, the safety aspect is crucial in every expedition. Important features of the activity include satellite telephone, high-quality equipment, constant checks on weather reports, advance dialogue with the mountain rescue service, and thorough medical training to deal with any emergency.
Expedition in Sarek. Photo by Jokkmokkguiderna
“UNEXPECTED EVENTS ALWAYS occur. A dog sled goes through the ice or overturns, someone cuts their finger while chopping vegetables or wet snow makes clothes damp and the participant freezes. These are minor incidents, but out in the wild they must be addressed and taken seriously. Often that’s enough, but accidents do happen. It’s important that I know what to do, especially when we’re deep in the Sarek National Park,” explains Matti Holmgren.
ANOTHER TASK TO be managed is dialogue with the Sami reindeer herders in the national park. Although most of us see Sarek as the final wilderness, the Sami have been using the valleys and mountain slopes in various ways for thousands of years. A dog sled in the wrong place at the wrong time can have serious consequences for reindeer herding.
“WE’RE IN CONSTANT contact with the reindeer herders. Before the season we have meetings with the relevant Sami village, but even more important is the close dialogue we have with the reindeer herders operating in the national park. We’re always discussing routes with them and check whether it’s suitable for us to use a certain valley. I have no Sami background, but I have studied Sami culture and also done a university course on reindeer biology. These have provided useful knowledge and skills that help me understand the everyday life of the reindeer herder. Personally, I feel that our dialogue has worked well in the past few years, and I hope that the mutual trust we have can be deepened even more,” says Matti Holmgren.
Not a day at the beach. Photo by Jokkmokkguiderna
SAREK IS A mythical area, and most of us imagine it as real wilderness. During the week in Sarek, the guests experience beautiful mountain tops, enchanting valleys, blinding white panoramas and pitch-black Arctic nights lit up by the flaming Northern lights. At the same time, the participants must focus on everyday activities and satisfy basic needs. Finding a good campsite, with fresh running water for the dogs, is an important issue each day.
“YOU DON’T NEED to be a real outdoor type to go on the tour. Naturally, I give participants advice about the right clothing, packing, and how to control the dog sled, but I prefer it if participants have at least tried driving a sled, camped in winter, or are used to being outdoors. It can become tiring very quickly if all these are new experiences at the start of the expedition. So you can be a relative novice but preferably not completely new to outdoor life. My colleagues in Nature’s Best offer a broad range of quality-assured shorter dog sledding tours that can be suitable to start with.”
“I ALSO WANT TO emphasize that Sarek is far from the only option in the north of Sweden when it comes to getting out in the wild. There are plenty of remote areas around Jokkmokk. The Pärlälv river area is wonderful, and a dog sled tour from Jokkmokk up to Saltoluoktas Mountain Station can be just as memorable,” concludes Matti Holmgren.
Check out Jokkmokkguiderna on youtube!