You can tell a lot about a place by the things it chooses to celebrate. Kiruna has its snow festival, Nordic Light film festival, ice fishing competition days, a winter market (a celebration of local knick-knacks, reindeer products, and snow scooters) and the annual Kiruna festival (a celebration of music and late night drinking). This week is another ritual marker in the local calendar – it’s Castration Day.
In case you have visions of vigilante groups hunting down local criminals, the poster shows a picture of a particularly compliant-looking Alsatian dog.
Kiruna is a very dog-centred place. I learnt that on my first visit to the supermarket where the bargain of the week was a special offer on pigs’ ears. All the dogs are well controlled, for which I am grateful. There are probably as many dogs as people in town, and they come in all shapes and sizes. We can testify to that, since many of them go past our living room window. As we are on a dead-end street there’s very little traffic, and we are the route to the edge of town where there are good places for dogs to exercise their humans with lots of space and good views.
Indeed, right by our house, in a small area of birch scrub and grass, is the social hub for dogs this side of town. Here they come to leave their calling cards (scents, fortunately – anything else is cleared up by their responsible owners) and catch up on news (more scents).
We have plenty of opportunity, then, to get to know our neighbours. I don’t think people look like their dogs, but people do seem to choose animals which reflect aspects of their own character, so by watching the dogs I feel I learn something more about them. This may not be true, but it’s a tempting theory. Sometimes dog and owner don’t seem to match, and then it is no surprise to learn the person is looking after a dog for someone else.
Some of them become famous. There’s a huge St Bernard that lumbers up and down the street, and it looks bored with life, as if it’s waiting to be useful in an alpine rescue. In the local paper there was a photo of it with its owner, and it turns out the dog had rescued him by waking him from a smoke-filled summer house on fire. That’s the kind of dog you want to have around.
Dogs in Kiruna are not only, or even mainly, just pets. The majority of them are at least used for hunting, or are used in a controlled way to manage reindeer herds. Some of them are adapted to pull sleds and are a useful adjunct to a long distance cross country skier. Very many of them are bred as sled dogs (some of these are the traditional-looking ‘husky’ dogs) and trained to work in teams of fourteen or more. They live in packs on the edges of town, which is good news, since a pack can make quite a noise.
Sled dog activities are popular and the people involved in these activities devote a good deal of their time and resources to training and looking after their dogs. Some of them operate tour companies to provide experiences with sled dogs for tourists. The dogs have to be trained all year round, so when there is no snow their owners get them to pull huge estate cars, with the brakes on.
Last week we had some visitors who came to Kiruna for the bi-annual sled dog symposium. They also came to purchase two puppies to add to their sled dog pack further south. We got to have a peak at them in the car before they left – they were such tiny bundles of peace it was hard to imagine them as they will be in a year, yelping and leaping, desperate to start running. We were heading down to Stockholm for a few days, so they, and we, got out of town long before the annual Castration Day.