The northern lights; does it get any better? Yes, it’s better when they’re visible! You could only actually see the above view via clever clogs use of your camera settings. When that was taken I was standing next to the photographer (thanks Bob for the photo above) but I saw bugger all.
Seeing the northern lights would have been the icing on the cake of our holiday. We didn’t see them, but it was a fantastic cake, anyway.
We went to Finnish Lapland, above the Arctic Circle, in December. We flew from Manchester to Helsinki to Ivalo. It was interesting to fly over Finland, as it was a pretty desolate looking place in winter. We were picked up and driven to Lake Menesjärvi. On arrival at the hotel, our driver took a moment to point out various locations in the grounds, fair enough. In just those few seconds, my body heat dissipated into the freezing air as my testicles shot upwards and took refuge from the cold next to my kidneys.
Once indoors we got ‘the talk’ as our avuncular guide explained, with a pitying smile that ‘yes, he was sure we all thought we had bought ‘appropriate clothing’ but unless it was wool, we had wasted our time’. Alas, my Thinsulate thong was to be redundant. The hotel supplied clothing that was a cross between an Apollo space suit and 18th century deep sea diving gear. It left you walking like a clumsy Chewbacca, but it kept you warm. The boots they gave me had a two-inch-thick rubber soles, I donned two pairs of woollen socks with them. I also wore my normal winter coat, plus fleece, and Crag-Hopper fell trousers underneath the snow suit. From removing pyjamas to dressing to go outside took around 15 minutes; but you needed the insulation.
By December Lake Menesjärvi has been frozen for months, and Hotel Korpikartano sat hidden in woods filled with the snow and silence of the arctic winter. For four hours a ‘day’ you got a pleasant kind of twilight, not as dark as night, but the sun never rose above the horizon. The hotel was, well, frankly, more of an upmarket youth hostel, but that was OK, as we didn’t want cossetted luxury on this trip. It had once been a school. The conversion was a kind of ‘jaded IKEA’ but it was fine. In the dining room, we sat on benches at long tables which encouraged people to socialise. The food was traditional; nutritional and wholesome… the kind of food you want to damn with faint praise. To be fair, I wanted to go native on the grub, and it didn’t disappoint. The soups were warming, and I tried a few things I’d not had before, like cloudberries and black rye bread.
It was an activity holiday with trips to see stuff and our five days were pretty full on with snow-based fun! For example, (I don’t know which James Bond film planted the desire) I’ve always wanted to try cross country skiing. It’s like normal skiing but with very narrow skis. We did it for about an hour on the frozen lake. I was crap at it, but I swear I had five enjoyable minutes and lived the dream.
They let you loose on a snowmobile and that was a blast. I was a natural, having played Mario Karts’ ‘Sherbet Land’ circuit many times. It was a fun on the lake but going into Swarovski Forest at night was joyous. The trees sparkled like they had been hung with diamonds. We zipped along on a bouncy, glittering carpet. Ye gods, it was magical. Finland re-ignited my childhood love of the snow.
One trip I did have doubts about was the dog sledding. Though I’m not scared of dogs, I don’t like the brutes and I was indifferent to the days’ prospects. When we got to the Husky farm we were greeted by the snarls and barks of eighty or so of them, many of whom were clearly wolves. We were met by a striking young blonde woman who was to be our chaperone.
‘Good afternoon,’ Agnetha said with a smile, ‘I will tell you more about the farm when the men have regained consciousness.’ After a few minutes, we trembling, love-struck males got up and brushed the snow off, ready for the day’s adventure.
The dogs howled balefully, and like all dog owners, Agnetha assured us they were ‘just being friendly’. One of them stood up and gave a friend of ours a hug. On its hind legs it was seven feet tall. It bared rows of sharp teeth, panted, and slavered down her back, anticipating its lunch.
By the side of a frozen river, we helped Agnetha harness the monsters. ‘He’s just excited,’ she lied, as I wrestled with a particularly unruly hound that seemed to hate me. I made a mental note to kick this one in the bollocks when no one was looking. Finally, we were ready. My wife sat wrapped in fur in the sled behind a team of huskies, while I perched nervously on the rear.
Then, the second we set off; silence. What a transformation! All you could hear was the whoosh of the skids on the snow, and the pattering of the paws of the happiest dogs on earth. They were loving it and so was I. We whizzed around for about forty minutes, stopping occasionally so the one in the sled take a turn steering. The dogs charged along the track, flicking their heads to the side for a lick of snow, popping out the odd sneaky turd. When we got back, we removed the harnesses; I was hugging and kissing them like they were my children.
Shortly afterwards we met the champion husky team based at the farm. Their ‘musher’ (driver) was Agnetha’s boyfriend, and he showed us several packs of his hounds. I think he is something of a celebrity in dog sledding circles, but those are not big circles. Agnetha lived with him and another athletic-looking young woman at the farm. She explained that they had no electricity, and they ‘had to entertain themselves’ in the long, dark nights. I have no comment to add.
Strangely, one of the best trips, again contrary to my expectation, was a visit to a reindeer herd. The farmer, Petri, took us out into the wilderness to see his animals and make us a cup of coffee on an open fire. No big deal, we just went out into the middle of nowhere, fed some reindeer, took some photos, had a brew and a chat. So what? But he was such a down-to-earth person, a totally bullshit free zone. He described a life very different from mine but, somehow, I related to him. God knows how. Most of the time he toiled alone, in a vast forested wilderness. As he put it,
‘It’s hard work, especially in winter, but hey,’ he said with a wave of his hand, snow clad fir trees swept the mountains to a distant, unseen horizon, ‘look at my office.’
He had lived all of his life here with his herd, rarely going to the big towns. He had been to Helsinki, but found it overwhelming. The local Sami tribal centre, Inari, was too much hustle and bustle for him (it’s a medium sized village). We went to his home and met his family, lovely people. Incidentally, the tv chef Gordon Ramsey filmed an episode with Petri and cooked a traditional dish for him and his family.
Sometimes I look out of the window at work and think of Petri in the forest with his reindeer. I don’t know why, but I’m glad there’s people out there living his kind of life. Good luck to him.
On the last night it was New Year’s Eve. We sat around an open fire and washed down roast salmon with decent wine. We melted bits of tin on spoons, then dropped the molten metal into cold water. Tradition dictates that the resulting random shape should then be used to tell your fortune for the coming year. At twelve o’clock, we walked down to the lake and watched a firework display. Not a bad way to end the trip.
Should you go?
This is a difficult one. I don’t think it would be everyone’s cup of tea. You won’t be freezing cold, but let’s say that in winter the place can be a tad nippy. Most of the time it’s dark, but there’s quite a lot to do. It’s not a cheap place to visit, but it costs a lot more before Christmas, when parents take the kiddies to Lapland to meet Santa. We liked it and we’ve decided we would do a ‘snow holiday’ again sometime. I reckon that if the ‘winter wonderland’ cliché is strong in you, then you’ll have a grand time. Five days would be enough in December though.
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