on the Tundra in Finland
Encapsulated, cocooned, and cosseted, I am carried half-way round the world by Finnair to a land not only far from home but far removed from my day to day realities. I am fortunate to be flying Business Class where the flight attendants are elegant, attentive, and nurturing; and the meals gourmet. I am in a state of complete relaxation and innocence.
As we approach the capital of Helsinki, I look out the window at the great white expanse below which is tinted a rosy hue. I can’t tell if we are flying over land or sea. The snow beneath us is like none I've ever seen; more like a frozen rippled ocean with ridge-like waves extending as far as the eye can see. The thick, dense whiteness stretches to the horizon and a tangerine sky. A flight attendant quietly interrupts my reverie; “The clouds are very pretty at sunrise aren’t they?” This will not be the first time that Finland takes me by surprise.
As the snow goose flies, Finland is easy to find; you just head north and north-east from the Americas or due north from the Mediterranean. (You can pinpoint the country by going to WorldAtlas.com (Finland). The country is bordered by Russia on the east, Sweden on the west, a bit of Norway to the north and the lower two thirds is surrounded by water: the Gulf of Bothnia, the Baltic Sea, and the Gulf of Finland. Estonia is just across the Gulf of Finland on the south. The country is shaped like an irregular genie bottle and at the top is Lapland, the region traditionally inhabited by the Sami people.
We land at Helsinki Airport on a bright sunny morning in January; the air is fresh, crisp, and cold. It also has a purity not often experienced in urban centers in the Americas. Helsinki is a fairly small city of only 560,000 inhabitants. The entire country of just under 400,000 square kilometers and has only 5.2 million people; three million fewer than New York City. Helsinki has a pristine quality that we will experience throughout the trip in Finland.
I 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 candelabras lit with real candles cast a golden glow over the 19th century style lobby. Twice occupied by Russian forces in the 18th century – time periods Finns refer to as “the Greater Wrath” and “the Lesser Wrath” – and later an autonomous Grand Duchy under Russian Emperor Alexander I, Finland still reflects the grandeur of an imperial influence. But a strong nationalist movement known as fennomania would eventually lead Finland to full independence in 1917 shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
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. Again I feel well taken care of. 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 Lapland
At 64 degrees north, Helsinki is the farthest I have been in the Northern Hemisphere. However, we will go even farther. The “morning after” we prepare for an hour and a half flight to Kittila, Lapland above the Arctic Circle. In the clear morning air at the Helsinki airport I begin to wonder what I am doing here. I’m a Floridian! Will I freeze to death above the Arctic Circle? Images of some kind of Siberia-like wasteland give me second thoughts. We are headed to the frozen tundra where temperatures can plunge to -50 degrees Fahrenheit.
The flight is comfortable and uneventful and we arrive in Kittila in the far north of the country. Within about 50 kilometers is Norway, Russia, and Sweden. As we emerge into the true reality of Arctic air (this is not just the Weather Channel), I remind myself that I am well-prepared, wearing 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 is much too long and bunches up making me look like a miniature Michelin Man. I don’t walk; I waddle like the snow-suited kid brother in the movie “A Christmas Story.” (For some great views of Kittila, visit Kittila Journal: A Texan in Lapland.)
On the itinerary today is husky mushing in the northern forest. As we approach the dogs tethered to their individual dog houses, they begin to bark and howl, pleading to be released to take these strange southern visitors on a Lapland adventure. Untethered they begin jumping about, now hyper-excited and ready to run. I wonder how all this energy can be harnessed and directed. No need to worry. As each team of four dogs is harnessed to a sled, each falls into place, still raring to go, but now purposely so. 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. At least I’m not cold. It is exhilarating but a touch worrisome; the dogs are so exuberant it’s as if they’d run forever, or wherever. I wonder if my cell phone will work from the magnetic North Pole. I’m proud to say however that this little Floridian stayed the course, went with the flow – the dogs that is – and did not become separated from her team. We return to home base safe, sound, and breathless.
A sauna, a good book, and a comfort zone
At day’s end we again are cosseted and comforted, tucked into a beautiful three-story architecturally unique and stunning guest house made almost enirely of glass in Kemi on the Gulf of Bothnia at the mouth of the Kemijoki River. The city was once a trading post chartered by royal decree in 1869. Today it is a deep water port and has large sawmills, pulp and paper mills, a hydroelectric power station, and the only chromium mine in Europe. It is a popular cross-country skiing destination and also home to the largest ice hotel in the world. (More on that later.)
While the wind howls and a heavy snowfall blankets the area, I cozy up to the fire and read a book, but only after indulging in one of the most Finnish of traditions – the sauna. The sauna was invented in Finland and is very much an integrated part of the Finnish lifestyle. Every house, cottage and farm has its sauna. And enjoying the dry heat of a Finnish sauna is the perfect way to end a day of dog sledding. The sauna however is often preceded by another Finnish tradition, a polar dip in icy waters. Although I decline the latter experience, on one particularly cold night, four of the men in our group – for tourists it’s definitely a guy thing – run from the changing stalls wearing only towels, through the snow and down to the frozen lake. There a hut is built over a large hole cut in the ice of the frozen lake. Each descends a ladder until he is completely submerged in Arctic water, then swiftly climbs back out and races back to the sauna.
That night we all sleep like babies.
The Arctic Circle
In 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 Arctic
The 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. Strange thoughts begin to surface. Thoughts become music. 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. A feeling of panic begins to creep up my spine. Feeling now very much the solo traveler and powerless, I turn off the engine. I feel small, alone, and scared. There are no sounds, not even the whistle of the wind. The silent snow continues to fall. Inside my helmet I hear my breathing quicken. I wait. The snow subsides somewhat but I still have no point of reference; everything looks the same. I proceed cautiously not sure of my direction. I catch the glimmer of a red reflector ahead and race towards it. Relief floods my body as I re-join the pack, or what is left of it. Our rather nonchalant guide tells us to wait while he retrieves the others. It seems to take him longer than it should. My sense of time and my sense of direction have become blurred. Later I will also discover that my sense of peril was considerably exaggerated. I am very much a stranger in these parts. Our guide returns having rounded up the rest of our flock and we fall into formation once again. 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.
Years 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. According to my sleigh driver, reindeer are indeed elegant and fleet of foot, but he makes no bones about the fact that they are not the brightest mammal on the planet. With that in mind, I climb into my sleigh wonderinbgg what's going to happen next. 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 Castle
The next day we travel to Kemi for the Finlandia (Vodka) Ice Cup, the international drink-mixing contest for bartenders from around the world, to be held in the Snow Castle. Much more than a Snow Castle, Lumi Linna is a complete snow-ice town equipped 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.
The Snow Castle is rebuilt every winter since 1996, growing larger and more spectacular each year. It was designed and built by local architects and construction workers and is testimony to the skills of the Finnish people who live compatibly with this challenging environment.
Hundreds of people have gathered for the annual Finlandia Ice Cup, held in the banquet hall at a long table. We watch as bartenders from around the world mix signature cocktails in three categories: an apéritif, a long drink and an after-dinner drink, all using Finlandia Vodka – of course. Cameras flash as bartenders race to complete their beverages. In each category, the judges do a taste test of each drink and proclaim a winner. The left-over drinks are placed on a table for the guests. The ice walls resound with the sound of Kippis! – which is Finnish for “Cheers!”
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.
Finland and the province of Lapland introduced me to a way of life so different from my own. 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.
The Midnight Sun Cocktail
1 part Finlandia Lime
If You Go: