Going to the dogs – in style!
Husky adventures in the Arctic
The world's northernmost husky dog sled race, which now attracts enthusiastic competitors from around the globe, including the UK, is held every March in the ice free port and town of Alta high above the Arctic Circle.
So it was exciting to learn that the MV Marco Polo would be calling there in time for the spectacular start of the gruelling 1000 kilometre race while on one of her special Norwegian coastal cruises out of Tilbury.
From small beginnings 26 years ago when local dog sledders decided it would be great fun to stage a race right across the far north of Norway to Kirkenes on the Russian border and back, The Finnmarkslopet, as it is known, has grown into a world famous event.
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And joining the large, colourful and well wrapped opening ceremony crowd in the small, snow covered, town centre on that glorious Saturday morning under ice blue skies, it was easy to be carried away by the infectious excitement of it all.
Just along from the square, soon to be crowned by the spectacular spire of a new Northern Lights Cathedral, competitors for the curtain raiser shorter 500 kilometre race and their support teams were mustering their huskies and preparing for the off.
Then with a swish they were away, one after the other, with many a clenched fist punching the air as if in exulted answer to the blast of cheering, pop music and loud speaker din, ringing in their ears.
Anybody from anywhere in the world can enter the shorter race, be it mad keen enthusiasts from Mediterranean countries training their dogs on sand to those more fortunate who have easier access to snow.
Once a "Musher" and his, or in many cases, her, 14-dog sled team, have completed the 500 kilometre round trip, then there is nothing to stop them competing in one of the world's most gruelling 1000 kilometre cross country endurance tests.
Here, high on the list of adversities besides arctic ice, blizzards and ferocious freezing winds, are sleep deprivation and the need to keep mentally and physically alert at all times.
This year there were 119 teams taking part in Finnmarkslopet and those on the 1,000 kilometre challenge are only forced to take one eight hour and one 16-hour compulsory stop with the result that many try to make it all the way across to Kirkenes in one ride.
The lead teams would not be seeing Alta again from that Saturday until the following Thursday yet their progress through the check points at 100 kilometre intervals would be watched avidly via Norwegian television and the web by sledding enthusiasts across the globe.
Sunday morning we were again blessed with clear blue skies so my partner Jenny and I were collected from the Marco Polo by our guide Hedge and driven through glistening white snows a short distance out of town to a husky centre.
Here close to the ice covered Alta River and on the Finnmareksvidda mountain plain, just a few of the 1,400 huskies in this year's event were trained for Europe's longest dog race.
We were welcomed by dog handler Mia and then taken on a sled ride through the surrounding sunlit pine forest by Kati, a 33-year-old Berliner now living her dream of working with the huskies in this winter wonderland.
As we swished through the snow, our team making easy work of the load, she explained much more about Finnmarkslopet and all the training needed to get the huskies ready for the race.
At every checkpoint along the way the animals are inspected by a vet and are only allowed to continue if they are fit and whenever the Mushers decide to take a break, they must make sure all their huskies are fed, watered and comfortable before they themselves can snatch a rest.
Older puppies are allowed to run alongside the sled teams and begin their formal training at around six months but it can be up to two years before the qualities of a potential lead dog can emerge, Kati explained.
While a more powerful pair of huskies may be positioned at the back of the team, a lead dog might only become the front runner when his Musher decided it was tactically best, she said.
And what of life for a 12 year-old retired Finnmarkslopen husky, we asked?
They make wonderful, well- trained family pets and are in demand all over Norway, came the spontaneous reply.
For more about Marco Polo Cruises contact Cruise and Maritime Voyages.
Tel 0844 414 6185 or visit www.cruiseandmaritime.com.
Independent travellers wishing to visit Alta and Finnmark can visit www. Northadventure.no.
Bersides short husky rides, the Holman Dog Centre in Alta, can also arrange hut-to- hut husky safaris.
For more information visit www.holmenhundesenter.no.