In Svalbard, Norway, Huskies Are the Key to Winter Happiness

Ski and Snow
by Noelle Alejandra Salmi Nov 16, 2023

I stood on the back of a dogsled, becoming a musher for the day as I glided across the lonely, chalk-white landscape in near silence, the sled skimming over freshly fallen snow. The six dogs harnessed to the gangline in front of me sprinted with a mesmerizing fervor, surprisingly hushed in their exertion.

Two hours earlier, it had sounded much different. When they were first harnessed and tethered to the sleds, the dogs barked riotously. The sleds were anchored to the snow, and the dogs were jumping in place, tugging at the sled to announce their excitement. But the moment the sleds were free to move, the dogs quieted and began their focused, forward thrust over the ice.

I was on the third of four sleds, each with a passenger and a musher. We were zipping northeast through a valley in Spitsbergen, the main island of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago and home to the planet’s northernmost human settlement. The first sled held our guides, who carried lunches, dogs, and a rifle. The latter is a legal requirement for any group leaving Svalbard’s largest town of Longyearbyen, given the ever-present threat of polar bears.

svalbard dog sledding with huskies

Photo: Noelle Salmi

I looked to my left, where reindeer scratched at the icy ground with their hooves to uncover wispy, brown grasses on a mountain. It was mid-April, when temperatures are still below freezing and the terrain in every direction is snow covered. But the sun returns in April, staying above horizon for the following four months. It’s a desolate, untamed landscape, a mere 800 miles from the North Pole. And it’s best savored with the aid of energetic dogs.

“In Norway, we have this word that’s called ‘friluftsliv,’ which means ‘life in free air,’” said Audun Salte, who started Svalbard Husky in 2017 with his wife, Mia. “And to us, the non-motorized transportation is so important.”

The beauty of traveling this way comes from more than the absence of a motor, Salte thinks. It’s also the pleasure of having the dogs’ company in an otherwise lonely place.


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“The dogs provide this comfort of being friendly and present and being a support when you’re out there by yourself. And then you share in this bonding,” said Salte. “When you have a long way to go on a sled, it can be hard work, but with the dogs, you’re part of a team.”

Dog sledding was the main form of winter travel in the late 19th century, when Svalbard’s first coal mining settlements were established. Most attempts were unsuccessful until the early 20th century, when American businessman John Munroe Longyear established a mining company in the site that would later be named after him: Longyearbyen. After World War II, the archipelago was granted to Norway.

Today, Svalbard depends on tourism as its primary income source. It belongs to Norway, but unlike Norway, is not part of the European Economic Area. That means you need a passport to fly there from Oslo; fortunately, you don’t need a visa. Anyone can live on Svalbard, as long as they have a job and the housing that comes with it. Svalbard is also home to the University Centre, which draws researchers and short-term students from around the world, giving the town a small but vibrant population of young adventurers.

longyearbyen svalbard norway

Photo: Philip Holding/Shutterstock

Transplants to Svalbard from the US, Belgium, Sweden, and elsewhere all told me the same thing: they’d intended to visit Svalbard for a few months or a year, but ended up staying, lured by its raw, compelling wildness. For them, even the annual four-month period of darkness had become a welcome facet of life in the far north.

Longyearbyen is home to about 2,400 humans and nearly 1,200 dogs. (Cats are not allowed, given the potential threat to wildlife, including millions of migratory birds.) That’s one dog for every two residents. Many locals adopt dogs when they retire from being used as sled dogs at companies like Svalbard Husky.

One of those transplants is Frida Øverland, who has been in Svalbard for five years and has two dogs: retired sled dog Sever, who she shares with a friend, and three-year-old Frøya, who she adopted as a puppy.

“For a lot of people, having a dog is kind of an essential way to enjoy everything,” she told me during her two-hour walk with her huskies after work. She works for Hurtigruten, where she books Arctic tours for visitors to Svalbard.


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Øverland said her friends all have Alaskan huskies and bring them to their gatherings, indoors or out. She said the activities she and her friends love to do together, like summer hiking and mountain biking or winter sledding and skiing, are better with dogs.

It’s clear they love their dogs as much as you’d expect in a sparsely populated place. Øverland described her huskies as “my entire health, like, mentally, physically, everything. Especially now that it’s turning dark.”

When darkness lingers, Øverland said it can be easy to spend days off in bed watching Netflix. But because she has her huskies, she has to go outside during the day. Øverland joked that she’s gotten so used to going outside in the dead of winter that now, she needs it more than her dogs. “I turned into a human husky,” she said.

svalbard husky dog houses

Photo: Noelle Salmi

But before you can turn into a human husky, you need to get to know the huskies. Salte of Svalbard Husky said it’s critical that visitors participate in the whole process. When I’d arrived at the dog yard that morning, I’d donned a massive cold-weather suit over my clothes, as well as mittens, boots, and goggles, before going out to meet the dogs. Each one has a private wooden dog house, with their names posted near the door. I greeted Cheesy, Celery, Konjakk, Lotta, Mushroom, and Asti, among many others.

The dogs had been excited to meet me, jumping and resting their paws on my shoulders with such enthusiasm that I was glad for the protection of the thick arctic suit. One pooch even went belly-up on the snowy ground, begging for belly rubs.

happy dogs in svalbardm norway

Photo: Noelle Salmi

Meeting the dogs is key, said Salte, because they need to feel motivated. “They want to run, but they also need to feel that they do it for a purpose,” he said. “Otherwise, you get what is known as an ‘Alaskan flat tire,’ which means that the dogs sit down and refuse to run.”

Modern Alaskan huskies are a relatively new breed. They were bred in the early 1900s when Indigenous dogs used by local peoples in the upper reaches of North America got friendly with dogs brought over by European settlers, including Siberian huskies, greyhounds, and setters. Salte said wolves were even thought to have been mixed into the breed, although the only wolf characteristic that remains in Alaskan huskies is their appearance. Both wolves and the huskies have long noses and thick coats suited to frigid temperatures.

Given the mash-up of breeds, it’s not surprising that Alaskan huskies’ looks vary. Salte’s dog yard is home to ginger-colored Redneck, raven-hued Varg, and an unforgettable furball named Moose. Unlike most Alaskan huskies who have coarse fur, Moose’s coat was so long and soft that he had to wear protection on his paws when pulling the sled to prevent snow clumps from building up.

Moose, a fluffy Svalbard husky

Photo: Noelle Salmi

He ran as hard as any one of the other dogs, despite being the only one in cozy blue socks. But he took a different view on napping, choosing to stay awake with us when we arrived at our destination. It was a deep, curving ice cave formed by flowing water through the ice. And in the 30-minute trip to the cavern, the cloudy sky had yielded to a snowstorm, with flakes swirling in every direction while we anchored the sleds and fed the dogs.

While we used our headlamps to descend a ladder into the ice cave, the dogs curled into tight balls, tucked their snouts into their tails, and snoozed, becoming fluffy white mounds under the piling snow. Moose, however, did not lay down, perhaps wanting to keep snowballs from accumulating on his fur. He looked like the dignified leader of the pack. While he sat outside, we followed a narrow passage into a chamber large enough for us to eat lunch and savor hot drinks from insulated mugs.

huskies in svalbard norway sleeping in snow

Photo: Noelle Salmi

The position of each dog on the team changes daily. The rear dogs do the most physical work, but the dogs in front have the psychological task of leading the team. These changes ensure no one dog is burdened with the same tough job every time. The dogs at Svalbard Husky have a schedule, alternating short and long days, and taking every fourth day off in the high season. In summer, they pull wagons and run in the dog yard.

Salte said he wants visitors to respect the dogs that pull them. “When you run these dogs, try to learn something from them,” he said. “Because they’re even though they’re ‘just dogs,’ as people would say, they can teach you a lot.”


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One of the most gratifying sensations for Salte is when he changes the minds of people afraid of dogs. “That means that we have succeeded in getting a relationship between the guest and the dog. And that is the only thing that is important on these trips.”

In fact, the hardest part about the return trip, as the clouds parted and we skimmed over the ice towards the glint of the low-lying sun, was knowing we’d be leaving Moose, Cheesy, Celery, and Lotta.

Fortunately, there are plenty of huskies to spend time with in Svalbard. The next day, I popped into the Husky Cafe, ordered a tea, and then sat down – on the floor, to snuggle with another husky.

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