Snow messing about in Finnish Lapland

A winter trip to Finnish Lapland is both no-nonsense and enchanting.
The Northern Lights can be seen from Finland. Andy Keen
The Northern Lights can be seen from Finland. Andy Keen

It’s a full moon when I arrive in the Arctic Circle. I’ve barely disembarked the commuter plane onto the tarmac before the Arctic chill greets me. I look around the tiny, provincial airport for my pickup, wondering what I’ve got myself into. Am I prepared enough for this trip? Or will I freeze and regret it? I’ve endured some cold temperatures before, including skiing in Quebec and struggling to keep warm at night during fuel and electricity cuts in wartime Syria. But here, in Kittilä, Finland, it’s a different kind of cold.

After clearing customs, I find several Arctic tour operators congregated together in one corner, each carrying a sign with the names of their customers. One outfitter, Nature Lodge, starts accumulating particularly athletic-looking travellers, already outfitted with heavy-duty Arctic suits and shoes that make me feel like I’m underprepared. I try to remind myself that my tour operator, Exodus, said all gear would be provided on ­arrival.

Then, members of my group begin to arrive, appearing urban, excited and slightly tired. They resemble me, I think, more than the super-athletes stood next to us. Maybe I’m not in over my head after all.

Later that evening, after our group checks in to the three-bedroom cabin at the Harriniva Wilderness Hotel just outside of Kittilä, we gather around our designated table in the dinning hall at the main lodge, where we finally meet the man who will be our guide in the wilderness during our five-day Arctic safari.

“We’ll be going cabin to cabin, and we won’t have any electricity or internet all week,” says Marko Ekola, after we scoff a three-course meal with delicious grilled Arctic char fish.

I already knew that we’d be dog sledding all day, every day, sleeping in a different place each night. It’s this nomadic aspect that first attracted me to this holiday. In my haste of tying up loose ends at work and preparing for this trip, I must have overlooked other details, like the fact that our cabins in the woods have no running water, central heating, bed linen, phone or bathroom, only an outhouse and a sauna.

“Tomorrow, after breakfast, we’ll head over to get our equipment and our sleds. You’ll each meet your team of dogs,” Ekola announces. He explains that we need to pack a smaller bag than our city luggage with wheels – something light and small to fit on our individual sled. Only the essentials, he pleads, such as thermal underwear, extra pairs of socks and any medication we need.

I feel reasonably well-prepared for this part, as I pack a small “base camp” duffel bag with a waterproof exterior, and head to the equipment lodge.

Our Arctic shoes look like moon boots. I fit two pairs of socks on each foot, pull up my Arctic trousers by the braces, secure the newly issued balaclava on my head, pick out the right-sized fur hat, put on my Arctic jacket and gloves, and join my group.

The husky dogs howl, bark and shift in place. With centuries of experience at pulling sleds, trotting for hours on soft and hard snow as one of the few modes of transportation for Arctic people, huskies are literally born and bred to run.

In Finland, the indigenous Sami people also relied on reindeer and horses to pull their sleds, before the skimobile made its debut in the 1950s. Today, dog sledding is mainly a tourist attraction, and places like Harriniva breed the dogs for this purpose. Our guide is one of a handful of highly skilled trainers, each in charge of a pack of 100 dogs, picking out the best runners and matching them with the best personalities for breeding.

Before we take off on our sleds, we each meet our team of dogs and receive our first lesson in how to harness and attach our little helpers. I have a team of four huskies, as do each of the other two women in the group, coincidentally both named Helen. The four men in our group happen to be large, so they each have five or six dogs to pull their sled. Our guide has eight, as his sled is loaded with heavy provisions, like food and equipment.

“Big hole over the body, then little hole over the head, then pull each leg through this opening,” explains one of the kennel staff, as he demonstrates harnessing a dog.

But for now, the key piece of information we need to focus on is how to bring our sled to a complete stop.

Unlike riding horses, you cannot communicate with the dogs by pulling the reins or gently kicking them. Their default mode is to pull and run until the musher slows them down. So you stop them by putting all your weight on a metallic lever that digs into the snow to create friction.

The instant that you take your weight off the brake, your sled moves. And if you’re not careful, it jerks you backward just enough to throw you off your sled, which will take off without you.

On our first day, we traverse many open spaces, frozen lakes and swamps with several feet of snow on top of the ice, which, according to the locals, can support a truck driving over it. It certainly supports us, and the occasional skimobile safari we cross paths with.

The empty spaces between endless pine forests are the coldest. The breeze sneaks between my two hat layers and tickles my ears, so I take out my earmuffs and place them over my fleece hat and balaclava, which fit snugly under my Arctic suit chapeau. Some people have ski goggles, but I find that my sunglasses suffice.

After sledding for about 40 kilometres, breaking halfway for a hot lunch that Ekola seems to whip up out of nowhere after starting a fire in the snow – salmon fillet or reindeer sausage anyone? – we arrive at our first cabin. We quickly learn the routine: tie the dogs, unload the sleds, enjoy a quick tea break, then start the evening chores.

The dog food sits in frozen blocks inside a shed, and our job is to chop it up with an axe, then melt it with hot water before serving it to the dogs. Some of us are in charge of fetching water from a hole dug in the frozen lake; others chop wood and prepare a fire.

Then, shortly after dark but before dinner, we indulge in the sauna. It’s an excellent way to wash at the end of every day and a real treat. Helen and Helen are even hardy enough to roll in the snow after a good sweat in the sauna in temperatures that edge close to minus 25˚C. I stay inside the steam room and watch them through the ­window.

One night, our normally reserved and composed guide shouts excitedly the instant that he steps outside our cabin shortly after dinner, just as we’re preparing to go to bed. “There are lights. Lights,” he yells. We understand right away what he’s referring to. This is our chance to see the Northern Lights.

I hurriedly put on my Arctic boots without their inner lining, so they’re extra loose, and stupidly don’t bother to tie the laces. In the rush of the moment, worried I might miss a bucket-list sight, I hurry down the few steps from the cabin and... Bam! I fall flat on my side, my left ankle slightly twisted.

I scoop myself up and walk a few metres, limping and dragging my foot through the snow to get out of the trees blocking the view. I join the group and we gaze at the sky. There it is. An aurora. The sun has sent us a reminder of who we are in this ­universe.

Locals call the Northern Lights “fox fire”, a reference to the Arctic fox whose tail raises snow dust as it runs, which looks like fire in the moonlight. It’s beautiful, even as the chill inhibits us from contemplating the magic for too long.

It’s close to midnight as we make our way back to our cabin, my foot throbbing. The slightly lit sky casts a silhouette of trees around us. When I look closely between the pines, I make out dozens of eerily bright husky eyes that watch us in silence from afar, most of them already coiled in their shallow holes for the night. One of them begins to howl like a wolf, and the rest quickly join, in an eerie ­cacophony.

It’s something of a lullaby, one of the many memories that I try to hold on to as I drift off to sleep.

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Published: December 4, 2014 04:00 AM


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