Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 26 October 2014

Lapland: You think it's cold outside, then try here!

He may have come home covered in cuts and bruises, but for Mal Rogers, a trip into deepest Lapland was one he'll never forget

The Northern lights were among the stunning sights seen by Mal Rogers
Mal Rogers' partner Deri Robins
Mal Rogers in Lapland

I don't know about you, but sometimes if I trip on a crack in the pavement I act like it's no big thing. I just break into a jog and don't stop until I'm in a new city with a new life.

So when I was forced to crawl on my knees to my cabin in the depths of a Finnish winter – just because I'd slipped on the ice and couldn't get a grip with my ordinary shoes – you can guess how I felt. It was the first time I'd crawled on hands and knees to a hotel room while stone cold sober.

The drama unfolded after I'd taken a wrong turn at the Harriniva Resort in deepest Lapland, and slid on my bottom on an icy pathway.

Standing upright at this point was impossible because of the ice. The only way to proceed was on my knees. The distance was only a few metres or so – but in temperatures of minus 35 degrees everything takes longer, or is more difficult, or saps your energy. We knew it was going to be cold – we were inside the Arctic Circle after all – but when the captain of our Finnair flight from Helsinki to Kittila announced that it was minus 29 Celsius currently at our destination, with temperatures still dropping, a silence descended on the plane. "So it might reach minus 40 overnight," he mused.

In the event our captain was crying wolf (Grey variety, presumably, common enough in these parts). The temperature fell a few degrees short. But it was cold enough for the local paper the Kittila Lehti to make mention: 'Pokassa mitattiin -37.9 astetta' screamed the headlines, and although I can't speak Finnish, the photograph of the frozen public sauna told me all I needed to know.

This was the kind of parky weather that tears the breath from your lungs; even though you're wearing thermal gear you feel the icy cold clutching at limbs. And yet, it's invigorating at the same time – once you manage to get off your knees.

Our destination, the Harriniva Resort, offers all winter activities from dog-sledding to cross-country skiing.

Snowmobiling is one of the main sports. The evening jaunts are popular because of the Aurora Borealis, the crazy light show of northern parts. But, as you might imagine, travelling by snow mobile in the dark has its own set of challenges. You can sense this when the guide mentions that it's very chilly out. You can take it as read that if a Finn says it's cold outside, you should wrap up very well indeed.

Our guide was right. the handlebars are heated, you operate the accelerator with your (gloved) thumb. It gets cold. In fact there's probably a medical name for the consequent numbness – Skidoo Thumb, perhaps.

By contrast, husky dog-sledding is a relatively tranquil experience – or should be, in theory.

At night, as you lie tucked up in your cabin by the river, the baying of the huskies in the distance would have you believe that they're touching the lowest depths of sadness possible in this frozen wilderness. They sound as desolate as any wolf keening for its lost cubs. But it's all an act. These dogs are great fun. You can visit them: they're friendly, nosy, noisy, playful. But they live to be out in the forest, pulling a sledge.

Our six Alaskan huskies were already harnessed up, and impatient to get going. Markos our guide patted the two dogs closest to the sleigh, Nukia and Nova ("The ones with the most cop-on").

We began gliding out of the stockade, past the other 400 dogs or so housed in kennels. All were anxious to be given their time slot and orders for the day – and wanted to make that clear through, barking, howling and yelping.

I was standing at the back of the sleigh, acting as brakeman, with the dogs doing most of the steering.

By this time we were almost out of the compound, the huskies loping past lamp-posts with huge mounds of frozen urine (canine, I assume). Now we were speeding along snowy trails, across frozen marshes, and through great pine and birch forests. The gentle hissing of the sledge runners on frozen snow was the only sound punctuating this silent, white wilderness.

The huskies had settled into an easy canter – when I was too heavy on the brake, Nukia, he of the cop-on, would throw a disapproving glance over his shoulder.

Just up the trail we stopped. Markos wanted to know if all was well. It certainly was. The glistening beauty of the trees, the sparkling snow, a sky streaked with pastel colours.

I gave Markos the thumbs up. Suddenly, the huskies jerked forward; equally suddenly I fell face down into the snow. I attempted to grab the brake pedal to stop the huskies taking off. I was dragged along before being forced to let go. My face, chest and knees were now getting well acquainted with Finnish ice. My partner, however, was in worse straits. She was now shooting driverless down the woodland path towards the tundra, towed by six happy, unencumbered dogs. She effortlessly changed from Finnish sledging to a form of sledging normally only employed by the Australian cricket team.

But our ever-helpful guide Markos was in quick pursuit, apprehended the dogs, and soon calmed everyone down – dogs, driver, passenger. But that's the Finns for you; laid-back, unfailingly can-do types. Nothing, including a stampeding dog sled, was very much of a problem. Our guide's name may have been Markos, but to us he was Finn MacCool from that point onwards.

We were soon on our way again, although no thumbs-up this time, sledding deeper into the Pallas-Yllastunturi National Park. This comprises 1,000 square kilometres of primeval forest, lakeland and frozen marsh – in other words, perfect conditions for a six dog open sleigh.

The husky team tore across the muskeg, or marshland, through birch and willow scrubland – and barely gave a glance at enormous, intriguing footprints in the powdery snow.

The alpha predator in Lapland, the brown bear, is the main mammalian attraction.

Managing to combine aggressive glamour and cuddliness together in one elegant package, Ursus arctos is common enough, although in large concentration only further north. Thankfully. We'd had enough adventure for one day. The tracks in the snow, Markos told us, were more likely to be elk. We were comfortable with that.

Of course you don't need to do any of the intrepid stuff. People come to Finland specifically for the saunas – wisps of smoke wafting from amongst the trees means someone is firing up the stove, usually with birch and juniper.

But you might just want to content yourself with a walk along the frozen riverside – through wintry scenes that might have made Breughel contemplate a move to Finland.

There are scary tales of Arctic explorers coming home from their travels with their toes in a jar as a souvenir.

You're unlikely to have to bring your own preserved toes back from Harriniva as a keepsake – indeed should you want to buy a memento, the Harriniva Hotel shop is well stocked with everything from reindeer skin cushions to jaunty Finnish flags.

As it happens, I didn't buy any souvenirs. However I took home startling memories of our adventures, a few bumps and bruises, and the odd scratch on the face. I'd definitely give Lapland the thumbs-up – but after I got off the back of the dogsled.

Mal Rogers travelled with The White Circle (01670 785 044, www.thewhitecircle.com). The Harriniva Winter Adventure costs from £1,745 per person (two sharing) and includes flights, transfers, six nights' full-board accommodation, warm clothing, guides and all activities

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