Hello 2017! I hope you have all had a fantastic Christmas and New Years with plenty of good food, friends, family and fun. For us, 2016 was a year of travel. We have seen amazing places and gathered a store of remarkable experiences. We’re looking forward to doing more travel in 2017, but before we do, I have one last trip to tell you about from 2016!
The days between Christmas and New Years often feel like a void. You think you’ll be productive but you end up doing a lot of nothing. That’s how it usually is for me – until now! Richard and I utilised the time off work for a five day journey to Finnish Lapland. The wilderness and magical arctic vistas rendered us speechless.
Lapland, in the north Finland, has been on my list for a while. It requires a little more planning than most of our other trips (not to mention finances!). There are less than 200,000 people there giving it the lowest population density in Finland or of anywhere we have been before. The package tour we booked included transfers, accommodation, meals and activities. Our room included a sauna in the bathroom that we indulged in everyday! It’s quite relaxing when someone else has figured everything out for you and all you have to do is enjoy the ride. Throughout the whole week we couldn’t resist the magic of snow. We played in it, tasted it, and on many occasions we lay down in it to stare at the sky.
Leading up to our trip, I saw several articles reporting record high temperatures at the ice cap with the area of ice this winter being the smallest on record. Staff at Harriniva, where we stayed, advised that this time last year it got as low as -40C. During our stay the lowest temperature we experienced was -14C. It’s sobering to be in a place where the impact of global warming so obvious year on year. Both Richard and I found London to be especially polluted and dirty after this trip. We’re more aware of all the plastic and paper involved in city life, like when we first arrived from New Zealand. Part of me wants to return to Finland right now (I could be a good tour guide right?), and the bigger part of me is feeling homesick for the Waitakere Ranges and Piha beach. In the days since we have returned, Richard and I have already begun plotting how we can return!
The original reindeer herders in Lapland are the Sami people. They have occupied land across Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway since prehistoric times. Their culture of nomadic tribes began settling around 300 years ago and formalising herding practices. To this day, the reindeer are free to roam during the summer months and rounded up in winter to be kept on the farms. Farmers can identify their herd through unique markings on the ears of their reindeer in the winter round-up.
Some reindeer are on the farm year round for tourist activities so we had a small herd to feed during our visit. We threw lumps of lichen over the fence and watched, delighted, as they nibbled at it with their floppy velvet lips.
There are actually more reindeer than people in Lapland (like sheep in NZ!). Strict controls on reindeer numbers are now in place in response to overgrazing problems. Today, a fence prevents the reindeer crossing into other countries which makes it easier to collect them all in winter, but also restricts the available grazing grounds.
We went for a ride in wooden two-person sleighs pulled by one reindeer each. It was the first of several beautiful journeys through the snow-covered forest. Fresh powder kicked up by the reindeer rendered our faces numb but didn’t diminish the fun at all. For lunch we walked a short distance to a circular hut where our guide started a roaring fire with a deft flick of his flint. The silence that exists in the forest is indescribable. I could feel myself relaxing as I soaked up the clean air and subdued air that follows snowfall.
Snowshoeing & Northern Lights
At 9pm on our second night, we set off on a snowshoeing adventure. As I understand it, snow shoes should spread weight over a wide surface area to make it easier to walk through snow. It certainly didn’t feel they helped though! With all the kerfuffle of shoes falling off, then having to be found and reattached, I think we might have done better without them. Regardless, it was incredible to walk through the forest in darkness at temperatures of -14C. The stars overhead were astounding and the silence deafening. We reached a shelter where a fire was started in the blink of an eye again and our guide set about making pancakes for us. Richard was once more the spotter of northern lights. He alerted us to their presence, sending the group schlepping over to the frozen river. Just above the horizon it appeared as a green hue, spreading across the sky. It wasn’t quite the bright fluttering arch we saw in Iceland, but it was beautiful all the same. Streaks of green reached up to mingle with the stars creating an undeniably beautiful palate. On our very last night there was a small schmere across the sky we could see from our balcony too.
Right beside the hotel is Harriniva’s husky farm, one of the biggest in the country with around 415 dogs. The cacophony of barking, growling and whining was deafening once we were inside. The dogs are incredibly energetic and eager to get going so whenever they have to stand around for more than a minute they start making a ridiculous amount of noise. Our group was split into pairs with each pair assigned a sled of six dogs. A brief video tutorial and instructional talk provided enough guidance for us to control our own teams. The moment we started on our safari there was complete silence and the dogs were happy to bound along through the snow. Whenever we using the brake our dogs kept looking back as if to say “hey man, why are we slowing down?”
We came upon the most incredible sunrise with pink and orange skies against the whitest snow. It was a scene to render us as silent as our dogs. Halfway through we swapped drivers and headed back under more incredible skies and through the magical forest. I don’t have the words to explain how peaceful and serene the ride was while also being a hoot and a half with the dogs.
Upon return, the dogs were sated and happy to be petted. We met a litter of puppies who would be working their first winter in a years time. And we learnt that despite it being so loud, most of the dogs weren’t even in! The majority of the dogs were out on multiple day husky safaris (*adds to bucket list*).
The first experience we had with snowmobiles was at night and it mostly went well. During the second half we were tossed from our snowmobile when it got stuck in deep snow, but it was so soft that it was like falling into a pile of pillows. The guide quickly righted our snowmobile and we were off again. I felt like I was in a spy movie when we drove through the forest and across open plains with our headlights for guidance.
Halfway through, we stopped at a shelter, similar to many dotted around Finland. This particular one was of a basic variety, offering a covered area for sleeping but no door or rooms. Beside it was a smaller hut with firewood and an axe. These huts are maintained by the Finnish government who also maintain tracks through the forest. A number of the huts are open and free for anyone to use. Our guide enthusiastically recommended returning to Finland to hike through the country and sleeping in these huts. In Finland, nature is intended for all so you could walk around these areas freely with the caveat that you stay at least 500m from homes to give residents their privacy. Finnish people who come by the huts may repair anything they see needing attention which so nice – they know that it is for everyone and that includes them too. The low level of theft in Finland means the axe in the wood hut will remain there for future users, and forgotten items will be placed inside the hut for travellers should they return to claim it. It sounds so fantastically cooperative. There is an inbuilt appreciation and respect for nature behind all this that I find incredibly admirable.
On our final day of activities, we went on a longer, more undulating snowmobile safari. We didn’t get stuck this time but there were more incidents with other members of our group. The previous night, a snow storm had swept in fresh soft snow that was often thigh deep. No one was hurt and I had a great time, although it was exhausting for Richard who was our driver (he also helped to dig our fellow travellers and their snowmobiles out of the snow with the guide). I simply couldn’t get enough of the amazing forest. The storm had blown some of the snow off the tallest trees, revealing their hardy dark green leaves that starkly contrasted with the pale sky.
For us, the trip was full of firsts. First time in Finland, in Lapland, in temperatures below -5C; first time doing all the activities (except seeing the northern lights!). I felt as though the world outside of Lapland was spinning on; I was simply in a peaceful bubble of beautiful snow-covered roofs and icing sugar dusted trees. Pictures and words will never do a place like this complete justice, and if you haven’t already, I would recommend putting Lapland on your list of places to go. It feels wild and untouched, the air is fresh and the water is clean. Go get yourself a mouthful of snow and sprinkling of magic!