Europe's longest sled dog race takes place in the wild open wilderness of Northern Norway. Here's what you need to know about Finnmarksløpet.
Alta is somewhere I've been several times and never really fallen in love with. It's a functional town with plenty of facilities for locals. For tourists, unless you book onto pricey trips there's not a great deal to see or do in the town itself, or so I thought.
The rock art centre is one fascinating exception. But if you visit Alta in the winter, it's not worth the trip. Much of what is interesting is covered in snow.
Having been to the northern lights cathedral a few times before, I didn't think there would be anything else for me to see. So, I was planning to stay on the MS Bolette, which docked a few kilometres away from downtown Alta.
However, I overheard a conversation about a sled dog race. A quick internet search later and I realised this was a unique opportunity to see Finnmarksløpet in person. So, into Alta it was!
With the exception of 2021, Finnmarksløpet is a long-distance sled dog race that has been held anually since 1981.
Although it would be more accurate to say it's a sled dog festival as there are three races of varying length that take place over a week in mid-March. I watched a couple of participants finish the 600km race, which believe it or not isn't the longest race!
The 600km race is known as the limited race, which restricts the number of dogs to eight. This race mostly takes place on the Finnmarksvidda plateau, to the south and east of Alta.
The longest race is an astonishing 1,200km, which takes participants several days to complete. At the time I watched two participants finish the 600km, the participants in the longer race were way over near Kirkenes at the Norway-Russia border. Since 2014, a junior class 205km race with up to six dogs also takes place.
Grand tour of Finnmark
A monitor stationed near the finish line gave the crowd insight into where the participants were along the route. But for me, it demonstrated the vast scale of the route.
The two main routes begin in Alta. Participants then head south to Kautokeino, before turning east to Karasjok, home of the Sami parliament. Then it's north to Levajok. From here, the 600km route turns back to Karasjok before turning west back to Alta, but the 1,200km route continues east to Kirkenes before turning back.
The race takes place in legs between several checkpoints, at which both human and dog participants can take a much-needed rest. There are minimum rest periods enforced at certain checkpoints. As the longest race takes several days, participants are offered basic accommodation.
The finish line in Alta
Because of the event's long distance, it's difficult to know for sure exactly when participants will finish. For the 600km, the winner was anticipated to arrive at some point between 6am and 10am, with the rest coming in through the course of the day.
Read more: Dog Sledding in Norway
I took a local bus from the port to central Alta. It turned out the winner, Harald Tunheim, had crossed the line at about 6am in a total time of 2 days, 15 hours, and 33 minutes.
By the time I arrived at around 9.45am, it was just in time to see the fourth place finisher cross the line. I waited another 45 minutes or so to see the fifth place finisher, Live Skattum, cross the line in a total time of 2 days, 20 hours, 29 minutes.
What was lovely to see was her first reaction when jumping off the sled. She went straight to each and every dog to give them a cuddle and check they were okay. Bearing in mind this was her first race and she finished so high up the rankings, I thought this was great.
I wasn't the only person to think so either, as another passenger from the ship said he had tears in his eyes watching how well the dogs were treated.
While vets examined the dogs, Live received a plaque commemorating her first finish in Finnmarksløpet and then did a few interviews.
There were a lot of local schoolchildren out for the finish of the race despite the temperature of around -13c. This is northern Norway, after all! Between the finishers, the children were playing in the nearby ice sculpture park, part of a winter festival.
Borealis Winter Festival
Finnmarksløpet takes place alongside the Borealis Winter Festival.
This festival is designed to embrace the cold winter and get the people of Alta together, outside. One of the main elements of the festival is the outdoor ice sculpture park.
“Every year, volunteers, artists, school students and teachers meet to create magnificent art in the center of Alta” states the festival website.
The month-long event features a sculpture-lined trail for skiing or walking around Alta but the ice sculptures downtown are the easiest highlight for visitors to enjoy. Young children enjoyed the ice slide in particular!
While wandering around the sculptures, a local pointed out the ‘winter halo’ around the sun. I later found out this was caused by millions of hexagonal ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere refracting the light. It was a beautiful addition to the morning.
I also saw what I’m sure were the ice sculptures I saw young school or college age people working on outside the church on my last visit back in January.
I’m still not the biggest fan of Alta, but I saw a different side of the city on this visit. I often tell people about how Norwegians embrace the winter, and there was no better example of this than Finnmarksløpet and Borealis.