The Finnmarksløpet sled dog race takes place every year the week of March. That’s when around 150 sled dog teams will be competing, with about half going the full 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) and the rest 500 kilometres (311 miles). The race starts in Alta, crosses Finnmark to Kirkenes and ends back in Alta. It is Europe’s longest, and the world’s northernmost, sled dog race.
There are no stages in the Finnmarksløpet race – it goes without stopping from start to finish. While there are of course obligatory rest breaks, they take place when the teams reach designated checkpoints. So there’s always someone who’s driving. The winner takes around five days and 10 hours to complete the race in good weather conditions, while the last teams cross the finishing line after seven days.
Best time of the winter
The second week in March is a good week for being outdoors in Finnmark; the weather is stable and temperatures are starting to rise once more. The coldest temperature on record during the race is minus 44 degrees Celsius, but day-time temperatures are usually a few, comfortable minus degrees. Night temperatures can of course go lower. Snowstorms may also occur, but are fairly rare so late in the winter. The Finnmark terrain is as though made for sled dog racing, with gentle slopes, flat plateaus and forest-clad valleys, which allows the dogs to get up plenty of speed.
The Alaska husky is a dog with very special characteristics; there is no other dog in the world capable of transporting people quickly over long distances. A 25kg (55lb) husky needs up to 10,000 calories a day, while a man needs around 2,500. The 500km race is run with teams of eight dogs each, while the 1,000km race uses teams of 14 dogs.
No-one runs a marathon without wanting to. The same is true of Alaska huskies. They are mentally driven to pull; the reins that bind them to the harness are always tight and tense. If the reins are slack, the musher knows that something’s wrong. Then the dog gets to sit on the sled under a blanket until the next checkpoint.
A total of 11 veterinarians carry out health checks on the dogs throughout the race, and retire any which should not run any further. If too few dogs are left, the team has to withdraw. There is rarely disagreement between the veterinarians and the mushers, for the mushers keep a close eye on how their four-legged friends are faring.
The members of the 140 teams are made up of as many as 17 nationalities, with Catalonia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Italy and Scotland all represented. However, the vast majority come from the Nordic countries. Many mushers have chosen dog-sledding as a lifestyle, and are dedicated to feeding, training and providing the dogs with loads of love and attention. Only the very best drivers manage to win sponsors, so this is a sport truly driven by passion.
It’s not only at the start and finish line in Alta that people come to see the race. Along the entire route, the local population come out to cheer on the teams to victory, with what seems like half of Finnmark out there following the action. Sled-dog racing is more spectator-friendly than, for example, the Tour de France, where the entire peloton flashes by in a matter of minutes. In the Finnmarksløpet the field is spread over several hours, and the whole event has a more human pace.
One big party
Concurrently with Finnmarksløpet, Scene Finnmark organises concerts showcasing local talent, focusing particularly on young and promising artists. The music ranges from Sami joik to rap. Colourful winter markets selling Sami food specialities and traditional duoddji -handicrafts – not forgetting bowls of piping hot, tasty bidos (reindeer meat stew) – enhance the mood further. The celebrations grow bigger and livelier year by year.
Finnmarksløpet has through the years become a media event. In 2011, the Norwegian state broadcasting corporation, NRK, televised three and a half hours in total from the race, and each of the seven broadcasts attracted an average audience of 425,000 viewers (which is a lot in Norway!). In 2011, Finnmarksløpet’s website had over 57 million hits.
Finnmark holiday and Finnmarksløpet
The second week of March is a wonderful time to experience winter in Finnmark. Just before the spring equinox, Northern Lights activity is at its height, the weather is fine and stable, and day-time temperatures surprisingly mild. This allows you to be outside for longer, whether you’re a spectator at the race, taking part in some cultural event or visiting a winter market, or just pursuing your own activities. You can even drive your own dog sled; there are plenty of places offering both short and longer trips. Snowmobile trips are also popular, and in East Finnmark you can also go fishing for king crab.