Leader of the pack: Meet Johan Müller
Hemsedal’s dog whisperer
The brush with danger that led to a lifelong passion
Johan is thousands of miles from home and hurtling down a dirt path in Spitsbergen, Svalbard, completely out of control of the dogs pulling his cart in hot pursuit of a reindeer.
The brakes on the cart were no good as the dogs, chasing the reindeer they spotted, were far too quick and powerful for the brakes to have any impact.
Now terrified as the river on the horizon gets closer and closer and the dogs show no signs of slowing down. This, believe it or not, is how Johan’s love for all things dogsledding began.
“My first-time dog sledding wasn't actually in a sleigh, it was in a dog cart. I was just giving it a go during the summer. They were huge dogs and I was fascinated by those two dogs. They sent me off with the dogs and I couldn’t really steer. The dogs jumped into the lake to drink some water and then they saw some reindeer. They just took off down the road after the reindeer, even with the brakes on they just kept going on,” he reminisces, looking back on the story fondly.
“The reindeer ran across the river, and after being dragged for a few hundred meters I felt the adrenaline and I thought lets do that again! Once you get into it, it gets addictive, it's all you think about,” He reminisces.
Following this experience, which for many would maybe put them off dog mushing, Johan was hooked.
Origins of a dog whisperer
Originally from a strawberry village in West Norway, before spending most of his childhood in Hemsedal, Johan didn’t actually have a dog growing up as his dad was allergic.
It wasn’t until he moved to Spitsbergen from Hemsedal that he became interested in dogs.
“I lived in Spitsbergen for three years and that’s when I got into dog sledding. That’s where I bought my first 12 or 13 dogs,” he says.
This was of course after his brush with the two cart dogs that helped spark his passion for sledding.
He bought his first team from the friend who introduced him to dog carting and Johan slowly started to build up his knowledge of dogs and sledding from his buddy by helping him with his teams and soaking up as much as he could about his new hobby.
“I actually had no interest in dog sledding, it was totally new to me, I got a little into it and bought my first dogs. I had no aspiration of starting the business, it just turned out that way.”
“The guy who helped get me into dogs said ‘I see where this is going’. There was no looking back after that,” After that point there was no going back for Johan.
Despite being in Spitsbergen when he began learning about dog-sledding there has always been a strong connection to Hemsedal throughout his journey with sledding.
The friend who introduced him to carting and sledding before serving as his mentor was from Hemsedal before ending up in Spitsbergen and later going to Canada.
In addition to this, the 13 dogs that would form his first sled team were all born in Hemsedal before finding themselves in Svalbard.
After three years in Spitsbergen, Johan would move back to the place where he grew up bringing the dogs that were born and bred in Hemsedal with him.
“I brought them back to Hemsedal, I had a small team for the first two-three years before I got my first puppies,” he says.
After moving back to Hemsedal Johan’s fascination with dog teams transformed into a passion bordering addiction.
“It’s a good thing to get into dog mushing because then you can afford drugs and alcohol. You end up thinking that it’s something you want to do with your whole time,” he explains.
Ever since 2003 he’s had at least 24 dogs. This seems slightly mad to even Johan, especially considering he didn’t have a dog before getting into sledding.
“When I look back on it, it’s a bit like a meme. I just sit back and think wow that escalated quickly,” he jokes.
One of the reason’s Johan loves dog-sledding is the pursuit of constant improvement and he has compared being a dog-sledder to being a football coach.
“Doing dogs is like being a football coach, you just want to make things better all the time. When you are looking at them running you are constantly thinking about how to make things better. It’s an ongoing thing the whole time,” he explains.
“It’s an ongoing effort to make things better, it's one of those things where you just want to keep getting better,” he adds.
It’s out on these runs that Johan really feels the bond with his beloved dogs.
“There are 47 different dogs, with different names and personalities,” He says stroking one of his almost 50 dogs, which he sees as a part of a really big family at his home.
“You have to trust the dogs,” Johan adds with the dog still sitting on his lap looking up at its master and the leader of the pack.
After starting out by helping a friend who worked in town hall with tourist trips Johan launched Hemsedal Huskies, turning his passion into a business.
He originally began taking tourists out with friends three or four days a week in their spare time.
The dog-sledding trips offer fantastic dog treks through Hemsedal. The trips are catered to people of all ages and abilities and guests can either take control of a sled or sit in one, depending on how adventurous they are feeling.
“It’s a team effort between the people and the dogs. Everyone gets surprised by their power,” Johan says of the adventure.
However, don’t let the strength of the dogs put you off. They all are super social and enjoy making new friends, we can attest to this having met all 47 of them during our time with Johan.
“They like people and are really cuddly,” Johan says.
Johan gets a lot of repeat business from aspiring dog-sledders who fall in love with the feeling of taking in Hemsedal, beautifully blanketed in knee high powder with icy frosted mountain tops wherever you look and endless forests of snow topped trees, on the back of a dog sled, feeling at one with nature and the dogs.
“It’s kind of the whole package. Being out in nature, feeling a connection with the dogs and enjoying the scenery,” Johan says when asked about what makes dog-sledding so great.
Despite sledding for a living and his spare time, the views in Hemsedal are something he never gets bored of, or even accustomed to.
“I never get bored of the scenery or doing any of the routes. Even the ones we do with tourists. I must have done them thousands of times and I never get tired of the views,” he says.
If you want to go dog sledding with Johan and Hemsedal Huskies the season runs between November and April.