It was the end of the first year of my Physics degree. Exams were over, the summer was fast approaching and despite completing what felt like hundreds of applications for placements and internships I found myself with nothing particularly exciting on the cards. I’d either had rejections or was simply still awaiting responses and so, unwilling to face a muggy Birmingham “summer” serving other people cocktails from the wrong side of the bar, I decided a little outside-the-box thinking was needed.
A friend had once mentioned a website, www.workaway.info, where one can register to work for a negotiable period almost anywhere in the world, unpaid, in exchange for food and board. The offers are as diverse as olive picking in Greece, vineyard tending in Italy, mountaineering assistance in Bolivia… Long story short, that is how I ended up working on a husky farm in Finnish Lapland for three months, over 300km inside the Arctic circle, just outside a small town called Ivalo.
Presented with my own cabin in which I was to reside 50m away from the main guesthouse and surrounded by what may as well have been infinite forest, the seclusion was fairly complete. Understanding that I was essentially free labour, the owners didn’t expect particularly long hours from me. The average working day started at 9 and finished around 3, with an hour taken for lunch sometime between, after which point I was free to use the guesthouse facilities including Internet and sauna, borrow a bike to cycle the half hour ride into town or simply wander into the wilderness to explore.
My main and most important job was looking after the almost 150 Alaskan huskies. Despite being so far north, the summer can get pretty hot (as much as 35C during my stay), and so the dogs, bred for racing or tour guiding, can’t be made to work. Feeding, watering and cleaning that many dogs, not to mention petting and cuddling my favourites and playing with the better behaved puppies, generally took me to lunch, after which I would help the owner build a whole new farm-load of kennels.
The feeding could get pretty messy, and was certainly not for the faint hearted. It involved throwing huge slabs of the sort of processed meat I can only imagine the cheapest of fast food outlets use for their burger patties into a great mixing vat with a few buckets of dry food and plenty of water to mix. On a particularly hot day the smell could get pretty ripe in the mixing room. The building project was fairly varied and progressed from sawing and painting the wood for the dog boxes to laying the foundation for the outer cages and attaching the fencing and doors before finally moving in the dogs. All in all the work was neither particularly hard nor unpleasant. Doing physical work outdoors all day meant I’d rarely been in better shape and if I ever got a little bored of the work there was always a choice of puppy cages to sit in for a few minutes and get adorably mauled into a better mood.
My ample free time was generally spent enjoying the phenomenal nature of Lapland. I would go for runs through the forest, looking out for reindeer who would be in no hurry to get out of my way – the first I came across blocking my path admittedly scared the [bleep] out of me, standing around 9ft tall including antlers this bull seemed to be waiting around a darkened corner for me! I took hikes of up to three days through natural reserves, cooking on open fires and camping in small wilderness huts, went swimming in the river or sunbathed on the beach.
In the summer months the sun never sets, which takes some getting used to – the ‘Midnight Sun’ can be quite disorientating. Once it does set however, the skies in Lapland are amongst the clearest on the planet and as such the visible stars number the tens of thousands, rendering the expanse of the milky way visible to the naked eye. With the darkness also comes the possibility of spotting the aurora (Northern Lights). I was lucky enough to enjoy a quite astonishing 45 minute display of dancing green lights directly overhead during my last week, completing the most memorable summer of my life.
It may seem like I spent three months playing with huskies and dossing around in the wilderness. I totally did. But whilst I may not have obtained a relevant internship in the field of physics, my time spent in Finland was not wasted. Being solely responsible for the wellbeing of 150 Alaskan huskies demonstrates trustworthiness and responsibility (none died on my watch!). Immersing myself in a foreign culture and willingness to apply myself to such a range of tasks shows flexibility and determination. Working well alongside people of different nationalities, not all of whom spoke a whole lot of English, proves I have people skills, cultural awareness and team working skills and the whole trip shows creativity. These are all traits that employers look for when hiring and can be demonstrated in many different ways other than obvious relevant experience, which is why it appears on my CV and is referenced in job applications and cover letters.