The icy nip of the Arctic is no obstacle to getting outside and enjoying the wonders of Oulanka National Park.
On the shores of Juuma Lake, there’s the crackle of fire and ice. It’s a mid-winter midnight and our campfire flickers in the otherwise frigid air. Just metres away, the skin of ice across the lake groans with the slight movement of water beneath, while the faint green flicker of the Northern Lights dance across the sky.
It’s reminiscent of a scene from a storybook, but it’s all real in Finland’s Oulanka National Park which straddles the Arctic Circle beside the Russian border. I’m here to experience life during an Arctic winter through dog sledding, ice climbing, snow shoeing, cross-country skiing and fat biking. Night will rule over day, there will be night-time blizzards broken by one evening of Northern Lights, and there will be days that are sunny but as cool and crisp as the snow beneath our feet.
Two weeks before my arrival in this region – home to just one resident per square kilometre – it had been -33 degrees. Now it’s -6, conditions locals consider unseasonably balmy. “Yesterday was the first day this winter I heard birdsong,” my guide Henri Soupanki says.
“SPRING IS COMING.”
Despite that optimism, the week ahead comes with warnings. We’re told to shower only at night, since to do so in the morning is to wash away natural oils that will leave our faces susceptible to frostnip. We’re also advised to look at the faces of others around us for any white spots that might indicate the first signs of it.
“Let your beard grow, it’ll keep your face warm,” Henri says.
WALKING ON WATER
In the mornings the sun rises lethargically at around 10am, where on the first day it finds us already strapped into snowshoes atop the hard, icy crust of Juuma Lake. At first it’s a disconcerting feeling, but soon we’re striding through the national park’s conifer forest, beneath branches weighed down with snow. Making our own trails we eventually reach the banks of the Kitkajoki River, where frozen eddies are found next to flowing rapids. By now the day is almost half over – the sun has been up for two hours after all, and it will set by 2pm. Each day it climbs only high enough into the sky to cast a dull, tobacco-coloured light, softening the landscape into a sepia image before it’s gone.
Though each day will bring a different activity, the snowshoes will remain our vehicle of choice for the week. Around the menu of snow activities, there remains ample time to explore independently. One afternoon I snowshoe across the lake to Juuma village, its homes all but emptied by winter, and circle across ridges and streams to the shores of the adjacent Jyravan Lake, startling an Arctic hare as I go.
Another evening a blizzard storms in across the lake, presenting a chance to feel the Arctic winter’s full bite. Slipping into my snowshoes again, I set out across the lake with Londoner Alice, our faces peppered by sleet and delightfully numb in the sub-zero wind. All lights and civilisation fade into the blur of the white-out, our snowshoes clattering over the ice like clapping sticks. It’s uncomfortable and wonderful at once.
DON’T LET GO
Each day is defined by a new snow or ice experience. Perhaps the most memorable of the days is spent on a dog sled. This day we drive 45 minutes from our lodge, heading to the very edge of the national park, where the snow is thick, fresh and unsullied by anything but a few animal tracks.
We meet our dogs at a clearing beside a little-used road. The door of our van slides open and a husky leaps in, as if entrusted with the job of greeting us. Each sled will be pulled by a team of six dogs, with our guide for the day, Lauri, at the head of our train. Big, burly and bearded, Lauri is quickly branded with the nickname of Viking.
“Don’t take your hands off the sled,” he instructs, before his own sled glides away, his hands holding onto nothing except the pipe he’s lighting as the sled hurtles through the pine forest.
I ride at the rear of the group, with the scent of Lauri’s pipe smoke drifting down the line. We head up the road and then off it, climbing gently up a hill into a fantasy landscape overlooking the crisp white sheet of a frozen lake. The deep snow is brushed smooth, and the trees are so cloaked in snow they look powder coated. The smallest of the pines are visible only as mounds of snow. It’s the most stunning winter landscape I’ve ever seen. At one point I’m so by distracted by the beauty that my dog team runs up the back of the sled in front of me.
If I’m a danger on a dog sled, I should be less so on the familiar feel of a bike, except that little is familiar to me about riding a fat bike through snow and ice. Two days after dog sledding, we’ve travelled to Ruka, one of Finland’s premier ski resorts, about 25km from Oulanka National Park, to spend a few hours fat biking its trails.
From the centre of the village we set out south on a ride that will, without planning, see us circumnavigate the mountain that’s draped with Ruka’s downhill ski slopes. It begins as a bike path, albeit one now slicked with ice and snow, the 10cm wide bike tyres grinding and gripping like the wheels of a tractor. At times we try to venture off the path only to discover the obvious – that cycling through hub-high snow, even on a bike with tyres inflated like hot-air balloons, is laborious and nigh-on impossible.
At -10 degrees, cycling hurts. The ache of winter is in my lungs, and soon my fingers feel as brittle as hanging icicles. Directly over the mountain from Ruka, at the base of the resort’s eastern slopes, we stop at a godsend of a cafe at the foot of the chairlifts. I order a coffee, not so much to drink it as to simply sit with my fingers wrapped around it.
Revived, we continue around the mountain, but very quickly come to the end of the road and path, with only cross-country ski trails continuing ahead. It’s getting late in the day – about 2pm in a Finnish winter - and the trails are all but empty, so we ride on, rising over the shoulder of the mountain on hard-packed, perfectly groomed trails before hurtling back downhill into Ruka. At one point we cross a downhill ski run in what must be an incongruous sight – two bikes grinding slowly across a fast-paced ski slope.
As each evening falls, we retire to our lodge: the well-named Basecamp Oulanka, situated on the shores of Juuma Lake, just 12km from the Russian border and hired out exclusively through winter to travel groups from Exodus Travels. Dinners of elk and local fish thaw our limbs, as does the compulsory Finnish sauna, which we’re encouraged to finish by rolling our bare bodies in the snow. Cross-country skis, snowshoes and toboggans are available at our leisure. The most striking feature of the lodge is a 10m high ice-climbing wall that stands just outside the reception door. At the top of the wall, a pipe is drilled with holes. Water seeps through the pipe, freezing into a simulacrum of a waterfall. It is unquestionably one of the more unusual hotel water features in the world.
The sun is disappearing as I clip into the rope, a pair of ice axes in hand and crampons buckled to my feet. Soon there’s more light coming from the globe at the top of the wall than there is coming from the sky, and it’s not yet 3pm.
I step up to the wall and punch a hole in the ice with my axe and then the front points of my crampons, effectively stapling myself to the wall. Repeat, climb, repeat... slowly I ascend the wall, with shards of chipped ice showering over me. Soon, with my feet and axes shot like arrows into the wall, I’m looking down onto the roof of the lodge and a swirl of activity below me. Toboggans shoot down the frozen driveway, a group heads out into the evening on snowshoes, and another couple of people are clipping into skis. It’s a true winter playground on the Arctic Circle.
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