Beaches, deserts, rainforests, and crocs: Australia is famous for many things—husky sledding isn’t one of them. Is there really enough snow Down Under for a bonafide dog-sledding experience?
A pack of dogs with wolf-like good looks and bull-like strength is pulling essential supplies through the Alaskan tundra. They’re heading for northern Canada, then Greenland. Their double-layered coats, leather-like feet, and muscular build make them perfect creatures for the task. The year is 1,000 AD (or thereabouts).
Their masters, their mushers, are the Thule people; the highly-skilled and adaptable ancestors of all modern-day Inuit. While the first domesticated dogs were used primarily for hunting (and some, for eating) the Thule are thought to have been the first to harness dogs and use them to pull sleds.
Their journey will take some 300 years. By the end of it, the dogs will have not only helped ensure the survival of the Thule people, but have cemented their reputation as strong, reliable, and capable working dogs for centuries to come. Their legacy is bound to the snow.
Fast forward 1,017 years (or thereabouts): I’m on Mount Baw Baw, Australia, some 7,900 miles from Alaska. A pack of dogs with wolf-like good looks and bull-like strength is pulling me (human-like looks, goldfish-like strength) across the mountainous, snow-covered bush.
“There are people who have absolutely no idea that you can go into the mountains and see snow in Australia.”
Josh Simister, Howling Huskys
Yes, Australia. The country famous for palm-flanked beaches, scorching, ochre-red deserts, undersized swimsuits, and Crocodile Dundee. Turns out there’s snow here, too. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Australia in the six years I’ve lived here, actually, it’s that it doesn’t care what stereotypes the rest of the world slaps on it: It’ll keep surprising you, time after time.
I’m a mere 75 miles from Melbourne, where I live, on this 5,000-foot-high mountain—which forms part of Australia’s Great Dividing Range—but I could be in Finland, Alaska or Greenland. And the snow is still falling, rapidly. “There are people around the world who have absolutely no idea that you can go into the mountains and see snow in Australia,” reckons Josh Simester, my 24-year-old Howling Huskys [sic] musher and guide. “There’d be even more who have no idea you can do husky sledding here.”
I was told before arriving today that, in the event of minimal snow, we may have to ditch the sled and resort to a buggy (with wheels.) This led me to the assumption that, far from actual husky sledding, I’d just be getting yanked through some muddy, grey slop aboard some old, dirty buggy. But you know what they say about assumptions.
The reality, as our huskies pull us through this adult-sized snow globe, is mesmerizing. I’m so close to Melbourne, but I feel half a world away.
It’s three days before the snow season is due to end and this is the biggest dump Baw Baw has had all year. It’s a genuine winter wonderland. Even the gum trees, covered in snow, look a bit miffed about it all.
Our sled team is made up of 10 dogs, all with their own job descriptions and responsibilities. At the front are the lead dogs. They’re the most intelligent, the ones who have to listen to commands and control the direction of the sled. Of these there will be usually two, sometimes one (if a dog is capable enough).
Then there are swing dogs, who help with taking corners and turning. Team dogs are there to offer pure grunt, while the wheel dogs take most of the weight and are usually the biggest. All dogs are paid equally in food and, most importantly, pats.
“HAW!” shouts Josh, ordering the dogs to turn left, up a steep, electric-white hummock. Our team today is made up of Alaskan and Siberian huskies, all of which have names, personalities, and quirks.
“Maya is one of my favorite dogs,” says Josh. “She’s a rescue dog who came from an abusive background, so she can be shy with new people. But once she gets her harness on, her tail starts wagging, her eyes light up, and she’s the happiest dog around. It’s so heart-warming to see that transformation.”
I like Storm. Storm is one of our lead dogs—she’s tiny and 11 years old. She looks like she knows me. She looks like she knows everything. “She’s one of the smartest dogs I’ve ever worked with,” confirms Josh. “I often run her as a solo lead—she’s incredibly intelligent.”
Out of Howling Huskys’ 56 huskies, 43 are rescues. While people often rush out to buy huskies because of their good looks, few are prepared for the amount of work required to keep them—they demand a lot of mental and physical stimulation to be happy—which leads to hundreds of huskies being put up for adoption every year.
“They’re designed to pull sleds—they need to release that energy somehow,” says Josh. Movies and TV shows such as Game of Thrones, in which mythical wolves are domesticated and used as protection for some of the lead characters, have also been blamed for glamorizing husky ownership (albeit unintentionally.)
We stop for a moment. The huskies might be able to take a leak on the move, but they’re yet to master the art of the drive-by dump. Josh still has to stop to pick it up, lest the trail become a turd gauntlet.
“If you fall over and break a leg [in Finland], you could die.You really need to plan ahead. I like that whole aspect of it—the adventure.”
Josh, an Englishman, and Julia, his Swiss partner with whom he works at Howling Huskys, have both been guides for five years. He took to husky sledding after deciding a regular 9-5 office job wasn’t for him. He fell in love with the dogs and doesn’t see himself ever leaving them behind. You could hardly blame him.
The couple spend the Australian summer guiding in Finland, where it gets to -49 degrees Fahrenheit, which adds a slightly more dangerous dimension to their work. The lowest it got on on Baw Baw in 2017 was 29 degrees Fahrenheit. “If you fall over and break a leg [in Finland], you could die,” says Josh. “You really need to plan ahead. I like that whole aspect of it—the adventure.”
Propelled by the dogs, Josh and I twist and turn through the mesmerizingly white Australian bush. We reach the top of a knoll. “This is the fun bit,” Josh barks from his spot on the back of the sled.
Visibility is low. It’s really snowing now and, before I know what’s happening, we’re tearing downhill through an open plain, as fast as these incredible hounds will go. It feels like we’re being pulled by horses.
“GEE!” shouts Josh, ordering the dogs to turn right, back towards the lodge. I realize that this isn’t the Australia that gets a lot of airtime in global popular culture—the beaches and the deserts and the rainforests will forever be the crowd-pleasers.
But here, among all these huskies and all this snow, I can’t help but feel like I’ve been let in on a little secret. I might not be in Finland, Alaska, Finland, or Greenland, but for a good while there, Australia, you could’ve fooled me. The best bit? It’s only going to take me a couple of hours to get back home to Melbourne—I’ll take that over a 24-hour international journey any day of the week.
Howling Huskys run dog sled tours of varying lengths on Australia’s Mount Baw Baw, Mount Hotham, and Dinner Plain during the snow season (roughly June to October.) During the Australian summer, Josh and Julia can be found at Hetta Huskies, in the colder climates of Lapland, Finland.