Basecamp Oulanka, Finland

The Golden Rule

There is one rule everyone should follow when travelling. Don’t go anywhere full of expectation for that picture perfect moment, especially where nature is concerned. Don’t go on safari expecting to see a kill or even the aftermath of one. Don’t do the Inca trail expecting stunning views of Machu Picchu. Don’t go to Iceland expecting to see the Northern Lights. In all these instances you may be lucky enough to experience the outcomes but, if you make them your sole focus you will likely end up disappointed. Of course, in some cases you can throw money at the problem. This week I have heard about Japanese tourists chartering aircraft in Finland so that they can fly above the cloud to enjoy views of the Northern Lights. For me, that is fake. Call me old fashioned but I would much rather be snowshoeing at night and then the sky overhead lights up. I’d be just as happy to walk out of the bar on the way back to my log cabin and witness the same thing. Then again I have always admitted to being a lazy traveller! Stumbling across the Northern Lights sounds far easier than chasing them on a tourist bus. Every now and then I pick a country to travel to and people ask the question, ‘why?’. In this instance I was informed that Finland would be cold and dark and so pointless to go to. I beg to differ. I rarely experience cold weather these days, especially at the Baltic level and, I have never experienced long nights in a forest surrounded by trees struggling under the weight of snow on top of them. My life would be so much simpler if I didn’t want to experience new things. Obviously the lure of the Northern Lights forever lingers when deciding on a trip North over the winter months yet it was the activities on offer, as well as the location that was the main draw to Finland.

This time last year I departed London Heathrow for Iceland. Heathrow was cold and frosty. On arrival to Iceland it was warmish, wet and, completely devoid of snow and ice. I love snow and ice and so I was thoroughly disappointed, far more so than not getting to see the Northern Lights. As I said there are ways to avoid disappointment, besides not building expectation, and in this case I decided to head to a different part of the world famed for being full of snow, Finland. More precisely, Oluanka Basecamp which sits only thirty kilometres or so south of the Arctic Circle. The trip on offer was also full of outdoor activities which was definitely the main draw. This time I departed Gatwick it was cold, wet, snowy and bloody miserable. As I left the plane at Kuusamo airport in Northern Finland I was greeted by heaps of snow glistening in the lights that lit up the night and a crisp dry air that sat around -20oC. It felt warmer than when I left London a few hours before. Immediately I was excited, a feeling that continued to grow as the bus hurtled down dark, snow covered roads heading deeper into the surrounding forests, the snow thickening, the trees forever slouching.

At 8am the following morning the full beauty of our surroundings were revealed. Yes, that’s right, 8am. It was light and it continued to be light until around 4pm. It is a strange experience for sure as the sun struggles to get above the horizon before falling again after only a few hours yet, the light remains. It’s not like home where the sun sets and it soon becomes dark. The light appears long before the sun rises and, the light remains long after the sun sets up here. Even when the sun sets, the Fin’s have an amazing invention to hand, artificial light. This means activities can continue should one wish and, many activities take on a wonderfully different dimension when out in the snow at night. Our first order of business was to get geared up for being out and about in -20oC. The temperatures got as low as -28oC and as high as +2oC and so layers were the name of the game. Three layers for the legs and a further three to five layers for the upper body depending on how hot one likes it. I was also given the warmest pair of gloves I have ever had the pleasure of wearing. They were red. I don’t know if that is a necessary fact. I wore these red gloves and then had a thick pair of mittens over the top of them. It is such a good combination that on the rare few occasions my fingers have actually got cold, usually when trying to take a few photos, once my fingers have gone back into the gloves they warm up within minutes. It’s a revelation. Layered up to the eyeballs we grabbed some snow shoes and headed out onto a frozen lake. Apparently the best way to to get a feel for wearing snowshoes is to have a game of ultimate frisbee in over a foot of snow. This turned out to be both exceptionally knackering and great fun. In fact, just snow shoeing is exceptionally knackering. It appears that it doesn’t really matter how big your flippers are. If you are as heavy as me, in fresh snow you will still sink to an unacceptable depth. Although thinking about it, I was following our Finish guide on one occasion and she appeared to glide over the snow without making much of a dent and so I’m starting to think I may be lacking some sort of technique.

I mentioned that the activities were the main draw to Finland and the following day was to provide one of the highlights of not only this trip but, of my life to date. Dog sledging or, as one of the members of the group kept mistakenly calling it, dog slaying. After a short bus trip, six of us were kicked out onto a snowy single track road in the middle of nowhere with a white transit van with a trailer on the back parked up. To the side of the road, in the trees were rows of dogs and sledges, surrounded by yellow poker dot snow. We were the first guests of the day and the huskies were loud and to be honest, stinking. Our friendly guide appeared with a big bushy beard covered in frozen ice and proceeded to tell us that we would be driving our own sledge which was a bit of a surprise as I thought we would be just relaxing inside the sledge, watching the world go buy. After all, driving huskies must take some skill. From my own personal experience, I would suggest it doesn’t matter how much husky driving experience you have, the huskies will do as they like. They have no off switch. Unless you tie them to a tree or have the brake firmly pressed down on the sledge they will run. The rope is the best option! The driver stands on the back of the sledge and to stop, you have to step on a steel bar which digs into the snow. One foot will slow you down, your entire body weight and both feet are usually required to bring a pack of five huskies to a standstill. Even then it is difficult to keep the sledge from moving. On several occasions I had to slow the huskies down to stop them from overtaking the sledge in front. Every time I did this, the lead dog would look back at me wondering why the hell I wanted to slow down. Whenever we stopped they would have a roll around in the snow and then would be jumping up and down raring to go again. On one occasion I was trying to put my glove on after taking a photo and I fell off the sledge. Luckily I managed to hold on as the huskies continued to drag me through the snow before I finally managed to get to my knees which slowed them down enough for me to get back to my feet. Even then they didn’t come to a complete stop. It was an incredible two hours, comparable to drifting through the Okavango delta in Botswana. Sublimely peaceful and beautiful, every turn presented some of the most stunning scenery. Yes, this scenery was dominated by snow, stunted trees and a huge blue sky but the shades of colour constantly changed in the low lying sun. I don’t thing the photos are too bad but they still don’t tell the full story.

There were two optional activities available after the huskies. One was ice climbing, the other was drum making. Obviously there was only one real option available to me, ice climbing. The last time I did this was on a glacier and I loved every minute of it and so I was excited to get on the ice wall this time. However, it was an artificial wall of ice and it was frozen solid making it rather difficult to get the axe and crampons into the ice. As it appears to be with everything in the cold and snow it was bloody hard work but worth it. Ice climbing under floodlights on a cold January evening in Finland isn’t something I do regularly.

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