Fun in Finland -- Playing on the Tundra
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HelsinkiI meet up with the rest of my group and we drive into the old part of Helsinki where we check into The Kamp, the only five star hotel in town. The hotel has a distinctive Finnish elegance and beauty; immense candelabra, lit with real candles, cast a golden glow over the 19th century style lobby.
Helsinki is not adverse to mixing its cultural metaphors. Close to the hotel is La Bodega, a Spanish restaurant that holds the famous Arctic Ice Bar. The bar is completely carved out of ice, but it is only the size of a small meat locker and holds a maximum of eight people; any more and the ice would start to melt from body heat.
Before entering the Ice Bar, a staff member throws a large white insulated cape over me to protect me from the freezing temperatures inside.
One at a time we are led into an antechamber, and then when that door is closed, another opens into the Ice Bar. I feel like some kind of glamorous spy being smuggled into the inner sanctum. The antechamber is made even more mysterious as it contains a pale blue fog, giving it an surrealistic glow. Once inside however, the bar is actually cozy, although a bit crowded.
With eight people already, it's standing room only. And as one patron leaves, another is given access. The bartender serves ice-cold drinks made with various flavors of Finlandia vodka. The drinks create a warmth that counterbalances the ice-cold room making temperature a non-issue.
Running with the dogs in LaplandAt 64 degrees north, Helsinki is the farthest I have been in the Northern Hemisphere. However, the "morning after" we prepare for an hour and a half flight to Kittila, Lapland above the Arctic Circle. We are headed to the frozen tundra where temperatures can plunge to -50 degrees Fahrenheit.
As we arrive in Kittila in the far north of the country we emerge into the true reality of Arctic air (this is not just the Weather Channel). I am well-prepared for the cold with a jumpsuit, long johns, jeans, two pairs of socks, boots, various scarves, a face mask, a warm and fuzzy hat, bib coveralls, and a heavy duty snow jacket. I certainly don't feel cold, but on the other hand I have difficulty just moving. My snowsuit bunches up making me look like a miniature Michelin Man.
On the itinerary today is husky sledding in the northern forest. As each team of four dogs is harnessed to a sled, each falls into place, raring to go. And they are beautiful! Some of them are half Siberian husky and half wolf. Others are pure Siberian Husky.
After a few minutes of instructions, I am assigned a sled, the post tie is loosened, and off we go, the dogs and I. It might look as though I am in charge of this expedition, but I can assure you that I am just hanging on buffeted by icy winds. The dogs, however, know exactly what they are doing as they speed down the path, through the forest, and around a curve. These dogs were born to run. Just hanging on is my main preoccupation. My muscles burn with the effort. But I'm proud to say however that this little Floridian stayed the course. We return to home base safe, sound, and breathless.
The Arctic Circle and the FeastIn the morning, I wake refreshed and invigorated, ready for another fun day on the tundra. A large, hazy yellow sun rises and hangs just above the horizon as we drive to the town of Levi on the Arctic Circle. Here we attend a Reindeer Feast at Hullun Poron Kammi. At this point in our trip, I have already eaten reindeer meat and decided it is quite tasty, and not too gamey. At the feast, reindeer is prepared over an open camp fire and included in every dish. Dinner is served buffet style and coordinated by an imposing bearded man in traditional Finnish costume. I fill up on reindeer stew, white fish soup, smoked reindeer roast, striped reindeer fry, reindeer sausage, pork ribs, salmon and three other richly stewed dishes. It must be the Arctic air. At this candle-lit feast, we sit at a communal long rough wooden table. Reindeer skins cover the walls.
At the next table, a party of rugged and bearded men burst into song Finnish folk songs. Clinking mugs of vodka, they sing with gusto creating a renewed energy in the room. Their happy spirits spread and soon we are all singing along (the melody anyway because the words are Finnish).
At some point in the proceedings, the man sitting next to me leans over and says in a matter of fact tone, "You're on fire." Thinking he is paying me some kind of compliment, I blush and reply demurely "Am I?" "Really, I'm serious; you're on fire," he repeats. My hood has caught fire from the candle burning behind me. Beating on my back and head with their bare hands, the two men sitting beside me put out the flames. Another innocent traveler abroad.
After the meal, we move into the Karaoke bar where we dance 80s style to American pop songs sung in Finnish. By midnight I head back to my bed where I sleep even more deeply than the night before.
Snowmobiling in the ArcticThe next morning is the coldest day so far. Again I am suited up Michelin style, this time also wearing a helmet from which only my eyes peek out. There is again a certain comfort in being enclosed in a personal cocoon, warm, dry, and almost indistinguishable from fellow travelers. Because this is a dry cold, 55F really doesn't feel so bad.
The gray morning sky threatens snow. Lined up in formation on our snowmobiles, we are like eight ungainly goslings waiting to follow Momma into the wilderness. I wait for the signal, rev the gas and take off with a jerk. We cut a path through the deep snow and I am surprised to feel in control of this big noisy metal machine, so I begin to relax and enjoy the ride. We float over the soft white snow. I'm in my own small world, my helmet and face shield protecting me from the elements but at the same time allow me to feel the landscape. I find myself humming, then singing aloud; old camp songs and long-forgotten Pat Boone tunes. Lapland can have the strangest effects on you.
Suddenly Momma's snowmobile speeds up, leaving long gaps between me and the one I was following. Oh oh! This is getting serious. I grip the handles and increase my speed: 50, 60, 70, 80 miles per hour and I still don't catch up. The snowmobile in front of me disappears in a cloud of snow; all I can see is a tiny blur, the machine's red reflector light. The winter sky is no longer gray; it has become white and totally blends with the snow on the ground. I look around in all directions. There is no sky and no earth; I realize I am in white-out conditions, suspended in a world of total whiteness. I proceed cautiously not sure of my direction. Finally, I catch the glimmer of a red reflector ahead and race towards it. Relief! Our rather nonchalant guide tells us to wait while he retrieves the others. The 45-minute ride back to home base is fast and furious, or so it seems to me now, but we arrive "home" with the group intact. For our guide, it was just another outing on the tundra.
Reindeer sleighingYears ago, reindeer played a major role in rural Lapland. Besides dog mushing, sleighs pulled by reindeer were the only mode of transportation in the winter. And so once again we go exploring, this time in the traditional mode Santa-style. My sleigh is a kind of flatbed with lots of bedding and reindeer pelts to snuggle down into. And this time I don't have to do the driving. It is a pleasant ride although I can't help thinking about all the reindeer meat I have consumed and who is pulling the sleigh. I think I prefer mushing.
Lumi Linna, the Snow CastleThe Snow Castle in Kemi is far more than a mere castle. Lumi Linna, the Snow Castle, is rebuilt every winter since 1996, growing larger and more spectacular each year. By now it has become a complete snow-ice town with a snow chapel, snow bar, a two-story snow hotel, snow restaurant, snow stage and snow banquet hall. Absolutely everything is constructed of either snow or ice. The tables and chairs in the restaurant, the beds and nightstands in the hotel, the chapel pews and altar. Like stained glass, beautiful ice art hangs on the walls adding just enough color to compliment the snow and ice. Moving throughout the white and glassy rooms is like navigating a house of mirrors.
I opt to sleep at the Snow Hotel, and am shown to my room on the second floor and given an Ajungilak sleeping bag, purported to be the best insulated sleeping bag made. I am told to sleep wearing all my clothes, which given how sleepy I am, is a welcome suggestion. I sit on the edge of fur-covered, ice-block bed and remove my boots. Unfortunately now I can't put my feet on the snow floor without them getting wet and ice-cold.
Sliding into my sleeping bag feet first becomes a major challenge but eventually I manage to arrange myself in such a way that I sleep profoundly.
The Finns are an extraordinarily hearty and welcoming people who live in harmony with their harsh but beautiful environment. Their playful hinterland embodies the human potential to not only survive but to flourish.
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Award winning journalist, Karen Hamlin is a native New Englander and former ravel editor for City & Suburban Magazine. She has been published in the Springfield Union, The Sun, Travel World International, Experience Travel, and Senior Travel. Among Karen's professional interests are mature travel, cruises, beaches and cultural/historical destinations. Karen is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and the International Food and Travel Writers Association.