Leslie Kuo heads to Ruppiner Land to sled with huskies and walk with wolves…
One chilly morning, my partner and I found ourselves driving through the tiny village of Frankendorf to a farmhouse marked Freizeit mit Huskies. Co-owner Elmar Furst, wearing a warm hat and a grin, welcomed us into a cozy common room in the barn. Above a long farmhouse table hung dozens of photos and souvenirs from past dogsled tours, including flags from Germany, Sweden and Lapland. Nearby shelves held a basket of fresh apples and paring knives, flanked by droll little huskies of felted wool.
Elmar, from Lower Saxony, has been mushing for over 20 years. After he met Sabine Kühn, they began offering sled tours on her grandparents’ farm in Frankendorf, around 90 minutes from Berlin by car. “We started part time in 2004 with kids’ events and day tours for adults,” Sabine explained. In 2007, the couple – then in their mid-thirties – quit their day jobs to develop a full-time business. Their program of husky hikes, kids’ camps, day tours and longer trips continues to grow. They’ve added a seasonal base camp in Lapland and their dogs have even been featured in a regional TV series.
We took seats at the long table and were soon joined by two more guests, a middle-aged couple from the Berlin area. They’d already tried the farm’s husky hikes, in which guests and dogs are harnessed in pairs. This was to be their first mushing lesson, in prepartion for one of Elmar and Sabine’s longer tours in Lapland.
Our half-day tour started with a briefing on Siberian huskies, over mugs of hot tea. Born and bred to work, they are friendly dogs who like nothing better than to run. “You won’t need to spur them on,” Elmar chuckled. Also, huskies can only do hard work in cool temperatures. In the summer, the farm does not offer sledding, only husky hikes. However, snow is optional. By using both sleds and wheeled training carts, the farm can offer mushing tours throughout fall, winter, and spring.
In the yard, we found four training carts, resembling Roman chariots, and practiced steering and braking. Then the staff harnessed the dogs as we each stood tall on our carts. The huskies pulled at their lines, filling the cold air with excited barking. I gripped the brakes harder, lest they drag me off prematurely. Then Elmar, directing traffic on a bicycle, waved me out into the field. I unclenched my hands and whoosh, we were rattling away.
Over the bumpy dirt path I flew, my heart pounding. I wondered if I would lose my balance. But after some tips from Elmar, who stopped us frequently with advice and encouragement, I got the hang of it. It helped to talk to my dogs as they hurtled ahead, the sled rumbling after them. The farm trains them in German, not mushing lingo like “Gee” and “Haw.” But, Elmar explained that words are less important than tone, and encouraged us to communicate.
So I talked to my three huskies as we traversed a fragrant pine wood, the four guests’ sled teams in single file, accompanied by farm staff on bicycles. Misty rows of pine trees, moss, ferns and bright yellow mushrooms whizzed by. At the edge of a field, we took a break, giving the dog teams big bowls of water, plus lots of patting and praise.
The rest of the one-hour ride flew by. Part of me wished we could keep going, but I also noticed my legs were growing fatigued. The dogs, too, were growing slower and calmer. Back at the farm, they stood quietly as we unharnessed them and showered them with cuddles and thanks.
We gathered around the big table again to discuss our experiences over coffee. Each guest had brought something to share: the others offered cake, while we had brought chewy pig ears for the dogs. We felt more like neighbors in for a visit rather than tourists from the big city. As we left the barn, we all lingered a bit, playing with the new puppies and chatting with the staff, before saying goodbye and returning to the main road.
Not far away is the Tierpark Kunsterspring, nestled in a nearby curve in the road. Home to various native and local animals, the park was developed organically in the 1960s, when students from the adjacent forestry school rescued an abandoned boar piglet. One animal followed another, and soon the city of Neuruppin had its own animal park in the woods.
At the entrance, a little ticket booth displays souvenir toys and handmade postcards, as well as the day’s feeding times. There are two feedings of the river otters, a mother and son duo who live in a real stream. While native to Brandenburg, otters are rarely spotted in the wild, so it was a treat to watch these two showing off for visitors. Nearby, in the petting zoo of domestic animals, we fed and rough-housed with the goats.
Then we headed deeper into the woods, passing the raccoons roosting high on their climbing structures. We peered down through the Plexiglas ceilings of small dark underground chambers with sleeping badgers curled up inside. We watch the lanky lynxes stalking around like runway models on their long legs, and wondered at how much the shy wildcats looked like housecats. We walked among the roaming deer, spotting a rare white one.
Then came the wolves. They had the run of a large area of woods, encircled by a simple fence. Coming face to face with a pack of wolves who are not in a cage, but running amongst the trees, felt uncanny. They acted so much like dogs, and looked quite a bit like huskies, and yet they were wild…and standing so close.
When we’d finally seen all the animals in the park, we checked the parking lot on our way out. Once in awhile, we were told, there are honeybees there, brought along by the local beekeeper, who has been tending bees since the 1930’s and is full of stories. If you are lucky enough to catch him, you can buy a glass of honey and take a taste of Ruppiner Land with you. Then we headed back to Berlin, amazed at how many animals we were able to meet in one day and still return home in time for dinner.
Trains leave Berlin hourly for Neuruppin; from there, you can bike or take the local bus to both locations. Or enquire about the husky farm’s paid shuttle. For the husky tours, bring warm gloves and a thin hat or headband that can be worn under a helmet (provided). For food, in front of the Tierpark, there are picnic tables, a snack bar, and a restaurant. Both the animal park and the farm’s hours change seasonally, so check their websites (in German). Reservations are required at the husky farm; enquiries in English may be made via email.